Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 688
James Mallahan Cain, son of James William and Rose Mallahan Cain, was born in Annapolis, Maryland, on July 1, 1892. He was the eldest of five children, including his three sisters—Rosalie, Virginia, and Genevieve—and his brother, Edward. His youthful aspirations, neither of which he completely surrendered during his entire life,...
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- Critical Essays
James Mallahan Cain, son of James William and Rose Mallahan Cain, was born in Annapolis, Maryland, on July 1, 1892. He was the eldest of five children, including his three sisters—Rosalie, Virginia, and Genevieve—and his brother, Edward. His youthful aspirations, neither of which he completely surrendered during his entire life, were music and playwriting. He abandoned his plans to sing professionally but retained a critical appreciation of music that is evident in works such as Serenade (1937), Career in C Major (originally “Two Can Sing,” 1938), and Mildred Pierce (1941). His exceptionally good ear for dialogue failed to ensure his success as a playwright. Between 1926 and 1955, his five attempts to write for the stage all resulted in failure of one kind or another; yet the effective dialogue and swiftly paced plots that did not function for him in drama became the core of his best-selling and most critically praised fiction.
In 1910, Cain graduated from Washington College (in Chesterton, Maryland), of which his father was president and to which, after unsuccessful forays into the world of professional singing, he returned as a teacher of English and mathematics from 1914 through 1917.
During the following decade, Cain worked as a newspaperman for The Baltimore Sun. After military service in France, where he worked on the newspaper of his World War I infantry company, he returned to The Baltimore Sun as a columnist and feature writer. He published articles in The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, and, as a protégé of H. L. Mencken, American Mercury. Mencken recommended him to Walter Lippmann, who subsequently installed him as an editorialist for the New York World.
Cain’s marriage to Mary Rebekah Clough in 1920 came to an end in 1927, at which time he married Elina Sjostad Tyszecka, who was to be his wife during the golden years of his career, 1927-1942. His first short story, “Pastorale,” appeared in 1928. He published his first book in 1930, a collection of satirical dialogues titled Our Government. In 1931 he served briefly as managing editor of The New Yorker magazine and then moved to Hollywood. It was while he was earning his living as a scriptwriter that he produced the novels which, along with his first short story, guaranteed his inclusion in the canon of American literature. He achieved national fame in 1934 with his first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice. This was followed by Double Indemnity (1936), Serenade (1937), Mildred Pierce (1941), and Love’s Lovely Counterfeit (1942). His second marriage ended in divorce in 1942.
Cain remained in Hollywood for five more years, during the last three of which he was married to Aileen Pringle, a former actress. The marriage, troubled in large part by Cain’s drinking problem, ended in divorce in 1947. This was the year in which the last of his best novels, The Butterfly, was published. It was also the year of his marriage to Florence Macbeth, the last of his four wives—with none of whom he had any children of his own.
As a writer, Cain had begun to aim at higher creativity, to which end he intensified not so much the profundities of style and thought as the niceties of research. Past All Dishonor (1946) was a heavily researched novel set in California amid the silver boom of the 1860’s. Following his determination to devote himself to serious literary enterprise, he moved with Florence to Hyattsville, Maryland, in 1948. The best of his post-Hollywood fiction, Galatea (1953) and Rainbow’s End (1975), merely echo his achievements of the 1930’s and 1940’s.
The major effort of his later period was Mignon (1962), his first published novel in the ten years that followed Galatea. Like Past All Dishonor, it is set in the 1860’s, and it entailed painstaking research. The setting is the Red River Expedition to western Louisiana in the last year of the Civil War. Unlike Past All Dishonor, which, at the peak of Cain’s fame, enjoyed mixed but generally enthusiastic reviews and a successful market, Mignon was a disappointment in both areas. Florence died in 1966; Cain himself, writing constantly to the last, died in Hyattsville on October 27, 1977, at the age of eighty-five. Cloud Nine, a novel published posthumously in 1984, adds nothing to his reputation.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 151
Cain was an observer of the American character and a commentator on its dark vagaries. The height of his career coincided with the arrival of film noir, of which the film versions of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Double Indemnity (1944), and Mildred Pierce (1945) are examples. What Ruth Prigozy, in her article on the film version of Double Indemnity, says about film noir is equally descriptive of the direction of Cain’s fiction:The murder-detective story crime film was popular in the war years, for it enabled filmmakers to depict . . . the violent, nightmarish quality of the era, without explicitly criticizing America. In film noir, the optimism of the previous decade was rejected, perhaps unconsciously, in favor of an overtly skeptical view of human nature and society.
With his antiheroic characters and his theme of successfully but self-destructively pursuing the material side of personal gratification, Cain exposes the treacherous shoals of American aspirations.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 172
James Mallahan Cain was the oldest of five children of Rose Mallahan, a singer, and James William Cain, a professor at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. His grandparents were Irish immigrants who settled in New Haven, Connecticut, where his father attended Yale University. Cain was eleven when his father became the president of Washington College. Cain enrolled there at the age of fifteen, was graduated in 1910, received a master’s degree in 1917, and taught math and English for a year after giving up his ambition to become an opera singer. He was a reporter for several newspapers and taught journalism at St. John’s; then for seventeen years he wrote scripts in Hollywood. His fourth marriage, to opera singer Florence Macbeth Whitwell in 1947, was a happy one, which encouraged him to write about music in four of his novels. The literary figure who exerted the single greatest influence on his career was H. L. Mencken, with whom he corresponded and who published his work in his periodical, the American Mercury.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 555
James Mallahan Cain was the eldest of two sons and three daughters born to James William Cain and Rose Mallahan Cain. His father was a professor of English and a college administrator who became the president of Washington College. His mother was a trained opera coloratura who gave up her professional ambitions to raise a family. Later in life Cain repeatedly expressed a sense of resentment and rivalry regarding his handsome and accomplished father. He revered his mother and imbibed from her an abiding love of the opera. After graduating from Washington College in 1910, Cain attempted to realize his dreams of a career in the opera by studying to be a singer. Unfortunately his voice could not match his aspiration, and he quit after a year of frustration. Between 1910 and 1914, Cain worked at a succession of jobs as he searched for a direction in life. He decided to become a writer, though he always regarded writing as a second choice because of his failure to express himself in music. He moved home and began writing short stories and sketches, none of which he could sell. Cain supported himself by teaching mathematics and English at Washington College and earned a master’s degree in drama.
Restless, Cain moved to Baltimore in 1917 and found work as a newspaper reporter. He volunteered for service in World War I and edited the Seventy-ninth Division newspaper. Upon demobilization, Cain returned to Baltimore and journalism. He embarked on a course that made him a successful man of letters in the 1920’s. He began publishing essays and stories in journals such as The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, and the Saturday Evening Post. He became friends with editor H. L. Mencken and contributed a series of satiric dialogues to Mencken’s The American Mercury, published in Our Government in 1930. After a brief stint teaching at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Cain moved to New York City in 1924. He joined the editorial staff of the New York World. There he wrote witty commentaries on life during the Jazz Age. When the World failed in 1931, Cain moved to The New Yorker as managing editor. He stayed at The New Yorker only nine months. Like many other writers, Cain traveled to Hollywood, taking advantage of a lucrative offer to write screenplays.
Cain never became a great success at screenwriting, and by 1933 he was out of a job. Financially pressed, he wrote his first novel that spring and summer. The Postman Always Rings Twice appeared in 1934 and was a literary sensation and popular triumph. The success of the novel revived Cain’s Hollywood career, and he made California the setting of his most powerful works. During the 1930’s, Cain produced a string of rough-edged novels that evoked some of the darkest shadows of life in Depression-era America. With the 1940’s, however, Cain’s inspiration seemed to fade, though he published for another thirty years. In 1946-1947, he attempted to establish an organization called the American Authors’ Authority, which would have protected the economic rights of writers, but the effort failed. Cain proved a poor husband to three wives, but in 1947 he married for the fourth time, successfully, to Florence Macbeth, an opera singer like his mother. In 1948, Cain returned home to Maryland, moving to Hyattsville. He lived there quietly, continuing to write until his death in 1977.