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...
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