HOW CAN YOU NOT like Mildred Pierce?
Whether it’s Kate Winslet or Joan Crawford or James M. Cain’s original, Mildred models an appealing blend of economic ambition, motherhood, and romance betrayed. With a new version of Mildred Pierce airing recently on HBO, reassessments are in order, not least because Cain himself was so attuned to economic hard times like our own.
David Madden championed Cain long before it was fashionable. I have in hand my 1968 copy of his Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties, which is dedicated “To James M. Cain, twenty-minute egg of the hard-boiled writers.” This collection of criticism is still important, and in Madden’s introduction he boldly set up Cain as a perspective on the hard-boiled world of Hemingway, Chandler, Hammett, Bellow, and McCoy. That viewpoint made the constellation of literature taught on campus look quite different, even in 1968. Although the multi-talented Madden was principally a fiction writer (his fourth novel, The Suicide’s Wife, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize) and director of the creative writing program at LSU, in his free moments he continued to champion Cain. He wrote James M. Cain (1970) and Cain’s Craft (1985), and organized the first ever James M. Cain Conference, held at the unlikely venue of Baylor University amid the arcana of the Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning Collection. I was there, and believe me, listening to Madden begin his paper by evoking an imaginary theater marquee and intoning “JAMES … M … CAIN” was, for some years, my definition of academic cognitive dissonance.
Cain is mainstream now, but no less shocking. Students come to him chiefly in creative writing courses, where instructors cast his gems before students as models of clean prose: “‘They threw me off the hay truck about noon’ — see if you can combine setting, character, and conflict like that.” But not so many aspiring creative writers read all of The Postman Always Rings Twice, much less the rest of Cain’s oeuvre. It is now legit to teach Cain in American literature courses, if you ignore arched feminist eyebrows, but students are often genuinely shocked. How can he imply such nasty things about love, lawyers, the state, and human nature?
Roy Hoopes’ monumental Cain: The Biography of James M. Cain (1982) helped to answer those questions. It seems that Cain was living libidinally in the 1920s and finding his style between the wit of Dorothy Parker and the sarcasm of H. L. Mencken, while reporting from West Virginia coal fields and New Jersey docks. In March of this year Hilton Als returned to the biographic in the New Yorker, linking Cain’s more positive representation of women in Mildred Pierce to his “befriending” Kate Cummings (Cain often befriended women other than his current wife). But no writer transcends his period simply by befriending the right people. I myself placed Cain in a socioeconomic context in The American Roman Noir (1995). What he has to say on that score still resonates. It is now clear that Cain was among the most adept economic fabulists of his epoch, a talent he honed at the Baltimore American beginning in 1917. In The Embezzler (1940), he even named the archetypal crime of the Depression, a judgment later confirmed by John Kenneth Galbraith.
Those two trends — the biographic and the social — seemed to dominate Cain scholarship for a long while. Now comes David Madden to remind us that the nexus of these views is craft. The first chapter of his book takes up Cain’s career as a novelist, his contacts and professional liaisons, his health and his sources. The second chapter, apparently written by Mecholsky, posits Cain’s core mythology as deriving from the Pandora and Oedipal myth complexes. Cain’s narratives are segregated into two “archetypal plots” and five “pure elements” (sex, religion, food, money, violence), an approach curiously devoid of modern critical influences, save brief nods to the gender work of Megan Abbott, Greg Foster, and Leonard Cassuto.
Chapter three, “The American Character in Shadow,” is the least satisfying part of this book. I find the proposition that “Cain’s most fully realized characters … are representative and effective simplifications of many traits, positive and negative, in the American character” (78) to be both schoolmarmish and preposterous. Frank Chambers? Walter Huff? The only way to substantiate this would involve “authorial intent,” and whoever authored this chapter fortunately veers away into a concluding discussion of “inside dope” and self-dramatization.
Chapter four is a welcome reprise of Madden’s classic essay on “Cain and the Pure Novel.” Only a very good working novelist could write this, and it will be counted among Madden’s lasting legacies. Here is a writer looking at how another writer delivers “pure experience.” By situating Cain within a constellation of literary word-carvers like James Joyce and Georges Simenon, who coined the term “pure novel,” Madden helps us appreciate the author’s almost invisible technical mastery. He was far more than a minimalist, in any of the senses that term commands today. His sparseness was unlike that of Hemingway, who stripped words clean of associations: In Cain, the associations are still present, and even heightened, but only the desired ones are summoned by the characters and plot.
The final chapters are new material: “Cain at the Movies” and “Impact of Cain and the Tough Guys.” The “movie” chapter is provocatively keyed to the Coen brothers, but actually busies itself with a scholarly review of what’s known about films from Cain’s work. Since he was strictly a flop as a scriptwriter, there isn’t much about Cain’s contributions. Nor is there much about the locations that fascinated Cain, such as Goebel’s Lion Farm and the gas station/hamburger stands in the hills. Too bad, because Cain had a lot to do with anointing these Southern California icons. On the other hand, films such as Slightly Scarlet (Allan Dawn, 1956) and Interlude (Douglas Sirk, 1958) have received little attention, and after reading this book’s account of their subversive sexuality and innovative techniques (these were among the first Technicolor “noir” films), you may want to track them down.
Precious little, though, is said about Mildred Pierce — perhaps because Cain had so little to do with it. Madden/Mecholsky want to make it consistent with the body of Cain’s work, so they find the addition of murder (there’s none in the novel) to be okay. But the novel is actually not noir; it’s about “grass widows” and male emasculation, the Depression and economic entrepreneurship. It’s the B side of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Hollywood may have thought that economic strife ended in murder, but Cain knew that it ended just as often with you and your ex-, Bert, “getting stinko” and reminiscing about the old days. The “movies” chapter concludes with an overview of “neo-noir,” including Bob Rafelson’s Postman, Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat, and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. The impact of Cain on such films is both obvious and frustratingly difficult to articulate.
The last chapter, which sums up the authors’ arguments, is surprisingly dependent on the antique authority of Alfred Kazin, Carl van Doren, William Aydelotte, who aren’t much cited today and don’t explain much about Cain’s enduring appeal. A sidestep into film criticism offers more clarity, as we learn about Cain’s cachet among French and Italian filmmakers and his translation into foreign languages. These caveats aside, the reader of James M. Cain who craves a broad but general overview of the man and the work will be served well by this book. It delivers biography, some of the core criticism, and interesting snapshots of the films, as well as an informed appreciation of the writer’s craft and broader impact.