James M. Cain Biography


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...

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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.


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.


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...

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