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August 20, 2004

"Mildred Pierce"

Dear Vanessa --

James M. Cain

What with spending my summer vacation weeks far from computers, I've been doing more fiction-reading than I've done in a while. And what a good time I've been having: ten novels in a couple of months, and not a stinker among them. Novels -- who knew?

The novel I'm currently shaking my head in wonder over is James M. Cain's Mildred Pierce (buyable here). Have you ever read Cain? Centuries ago, I enjoyed Cain's two most famous novels -- the crime novels "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and "Double Indemnity." But I hadn't looked at his work since.

In terms of its actions, "Mildred Pierce" -- which was made into a famous Joan Crawford movie by Michael Curtiz, buyable here and Netflixable here -- is epic women's fiction. There isn't a murder or a blackmail scheme to be found in the book; although Vintage publishes the book in its Vintage Crime series, it isn't a crime novel. Instead, it's about Mildred's ups and downs as she makes her way through life's cycles of work and love. It's as much this kind of thing as any Sidney Sheldon novel or supermarket romance.

What makes the novel remarkable is that it's shrewdly realistic, it's hardboiled, and it's caustically funny. I suppose someone intent on dismissing "Mildred" might call it a mere potboiler, or a melodrama, or a page-turner, and it's certainly all of those things. But it's also juicy, wickedly smart, and insightful -- and it moves like a choo-choo train. I had such a rip-roaringly good time reading it that I found myself put in mind of such other non-crime/non-modernist 20th century narrative wonders as "Babbit," "What Makes Sammy Run?" (which I blogged a bit about here), and Somerset Maugham’s "Cakes and Ale" -- superb novels whose superbness resides in good stories and effective storytelling, not in abstruse linguistic gamesmanship. By no stretch of the imagination could "Mildred Pierce" be said to be "about consciousness," or "about language"; it's straightforwardly about Mildred and her world.

It also reminded me of the cruel and fascinating work of John O'Hara -- but then I shook my head No. Even in "Natica Jackson" and "Butterfield 8" (sexy and mean novels that I love), O'Hara never worked up anything like this degree of straight narrative oomph.

In terms of its appeal, "Mildred" is a twofer. On the one hand, it's an acute and shrewd psychological profile. Mildred is an L.A. mom in her late 20s. When the Depression destroys the family savings, her husband folds up shop, psychologically-speaking; Mildred kicks him out and starts making her own way. What soon becomes clear is what a bossy dynamo she is. And how self-deceiving, too; she's hyper-attached to imagining that she's accomplishing what she's accomplishing for the benefit of her older daughter, who isn't by any means the perfect kid Mildred imagines her to be.

Viewed charitably (something Cain isn't prone to do, thank heavens), Mildred's got to do what she's got to do; she's tough because times are tough and because life is tough. Viewed more acerbically, more Cain-ishly, she's an indomitable, steel-hulled battleship of ambition and will. She's unstoppably pushy; if she had some imagination, she'd be a classic stage mom. Instead, she's emotionally a blockhead, intellectually literal-minded, and imaginatively inert -- none of which stops her from becoming a successful businesswoman. She's a workhorse, and is nothing if not practical.

Cain's smart and needling about Mildred. Like so many of these women, she's never entirely happy with a man. She wants someone who will admire her and be supportive, yet who she can look up to too. Yet she's also a castrator, so she falls for the same kind of weak-willed charmer almost every time. Cain wisely gave Mildred a hearty sexual appetite; she'd be pretty dull otherwise.

He was also wise to make her favored daughter a snobbish bitch who looks down on everything Mildred does to raise the family up. The girl laughs at her mother's hard work and lack of class, collecting barbs and insults for those moments when she really needs to wound her mother. Mildred reacts in horror and outrage to her daughter's betrayals and outrages ... and then comes back for more. Her ability to delude herself about her child as well as her own motives is awe-inspiring. Mildred may be a domineering tyrant, but she's also an emotional masochist, if in a way that suits her own purposes; she uses her hurt and her feelings of humiliation to goad herself on to ever higher levels of achievement.

On the other hand, the book is also a vivid social satire. Mildred -- what with her ambition, and her sensitivity to social slights -- is more comfortable around strivers than she is among people who have made it. The finer things and the fancier life she aspires to are what she wants for her children, and not what she wants to involve herself in. A good home cook, she starts out by opening a small restaurant in her hometown of Glendale; once it's a success, she opens additional branches around L.A. Within a few years she's beginning to rub shoulders with a moneyed Pasadena set. Meanwhile, the bitchy older daughter shows signs of musical talent -- or does she?

Cain's portrayal of the Pasadena social world -- full of leisured rubes who think they're the essence of real class -- is priceless. These snapshots of Depression-era Los Angeles and its various snobberies -- Glendale vs. Pasadena; both of them vs. Beverly Hills, etc -- are hilarious and trenchant, as is the glimpse we get of an era when women were beginning to enter the workforce and make their own money.

I was so entertained by the novel that I pressed The Wife to read it. If anything, she enjoyed it more than I did, although The Wife (an L.A. girl who knows Glendale and Pasadena) was more struck by the book's social-satire side; I (the son of a woman who had more than a passing resemblance to Mildred) was more fascinated by the book's psychological portrait of Mildred. But we were both wowed by what a steamy and fast read the book is, and by how funny and insightful it is too.

Part of what's striking about the book is that its viewpoint is so clearly that of a heterosexual guy. Cain has the kind of insight into Mildred that you don't often see a het male writer having into a monster-woman; normally, the only people able to be this canny and cruel about monster-women are other women and gay men. (When it comes to women characters, het male writers aren't often clear-eyed; instead, they tend to work from fantasy and projection.) Which makes for an unusual and fascinating reading experience; Mildred and her daughter are both terrifyingly alive -- but, presented as Cain presents them, they aren't the familiar camp gorgons.

Cain is rambunctious, open-eyed, and steely in the face of Mildred's self- centeredness. You laugh as he sticks needle after needle into her, but there's nothing reductive about the book. She's a fully brought-to-life character, and the book manages to be both full-bodied and cold-blooded, a rare combo. Being by James M. Cain, the novel also has its tabloid and lurid sides. I mean this as a compliment; one of the major pleasures of reading "Mildred Pierce" is spending time in the company of such a dirty-minded novelist.

A personal note: speaking as the son of a Mildred-esque woman (though one who lived at perhaps at 20% of Mildred's intensity), I was dazzled by Cain's insights. One that struck me: "There was nothing about Mildred that wasn't female," he writes -- this despite her drive, her insensitivity, and her iron will. My own mom had some many "male" characteristics ... Yet no matter which lens I looked at her through, she was also clearly a heterosexual woman of feelings and moods. I don't know of a better portrait of this type -- the gal who's both mannish and all woman -- than "Mildred Pierce."

Back to the nonpersonal: the novel has the kind of narrative drive and accessibility that you don't often find outside of genre writing. It's hilariously bloody-minded about how women are always up to shit, emotionally speaking, and about the way many of them are unyielding about getting where they think they need to be. (The book is equally as funny about the way certain men, once they get a look at how driven and how tough these broads are, will step aside, give up, and crack open that bottle of booze.) "Let's face it: the really driven women will outlast us guys and will always manage to wear us down anyway" -- that seems to be one of Cain's points here. Is it an entirely fair view of the sexes? Maybe, maybe not. But it certainly isn't an invalid starting point for a work of art or entertainment. And, in any case, as the Wife put it: "That's certainly what working for a woman boss can be like."

As a monster-woman character, Mildred's the equal (for my money) of such classic examples as Mama Rose in "Gypsy" and the Anjelica Huston character in "The Grifters." Come to think of it, the Anjelica Huston mom in "The Grifters" also reminded me of my mom. And the Cusack character in that film reminded me of myself. Hmm ...

Plus, "Mildred Pierce" is simply a gas to read: 300 pages that flew by, the twists, turns, and developments all making me gasp and laugh and want to turn the pages even faster. It's full of suspense and surprises, all of them designed to show this woman off from ever more angles and in ever-greater depth.

What finally amazed me most about the book was what a high-class literary performance it is. This puzzled me. The sophistication apparent in "Mildred" was at odds with my memories of "Postman" and "Double Indemnity." I read those two books back in college at the urging of FvBlowhard, a hardboiled crime-novel buff himself. At the time, while I loved both books, they struck me as wonderfully overheated fantasies, the work of a semi-primitive along the lines of Mickey Spillane.

Curious about Cain (and about my own memories), I picked up "Double Indemnity" to give it a re-read. Had my teenage judgment been so very far off? Short answer: yup. Reading (and enjoying) "Double Indemnity" with older eyes, I found it to be anything but the ravings of a gifted and lucky barbarian. The characters, the situation, the crime, the voices -- all of them are wickedly precise and effective creations.

In fact, I've learned since that Cain was a brainy and hardworking guy. He certainly had his two-fisted and Irish sides. But he also grew up in an opera-loving, professional, Baltimore family and worked successfully as a journalist. His mentors and sponsors included H.L. Mencken and Walter Lippman, and he even put in a little time as an editor at The New Yorker before going to Hollywood to be a screenwriter. He lived a long life, married an opera singer, published 18 books, and died in 1977. Albert Camus said he based "L'Etranger" on Cain. Edmund Wilson was a fan, and for many years Cain was considered the most respectable of the hardboiled writers by the literary set.

What a smart guy Cain was, and what a talent. Once again, my younger self turns out to have been a dolt and a snob. Well, we all have to start somewhere, I guess. Here's a good, if perhaps overwrought, appreciation of Cain by William Preston Robertson for the Guardian.

Hey, which fictional characters -- on the page, on the screen, on the stage, wherever -- have reminded you of people close to you? Or of you?

Best, Michael

posted by Michael at August 20, 2004


Great essay.

One other comment is how much research Cain put into the book. The set-piece where Mildred open a restaurant is a tremendous piece of fictionalized journalism. We've all eaten in a thousand restaurants, but have you ever thought in detail about how you start a restaurant? (Answer: with great difficulty.) You will after you read "Mildred Pierce."

Posted by: Steve Sailer on August 20, 2004 03:01 PM

Another fan of the book! Amazing novel, no? And that's a great point, tks. The Wife and I kept marveling over how much of the book is devoted to baking pies and keeping a restaurant going, yet how compulsively readable all that is.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 20, 2004 03:02 PM

"Hey, which fictional characters -- on the page, on the screen, on the stage, wherever -- have reminded you of people close to you? Or of you?"

Now that's an interesting question. I searched my memory for a character that would show my deep understanding of important literature; my broad reading; in short, my general superiority to hoi polloi. I failed.

As I thought more about it, I started to realize that the more realistic the portrayal of the character, the less likely I was to compare the character explicitly, either to other fictional characters or to real people. The best characters seemed to be independent -- things unto themselves.

Broadly drawn characters, or caricatured characters, remind me of people all the time. My wife and I still discuss the correspondance between the characters of Winnie the Pooh and our friends. (Her ex is definitely an Eeyore, another acquaintance is deeply in touch with her Owl nature, etc.)

Not the sort of thing I suspect you were looking for, but there you go.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on August 20, 2004 06:11 PM

But but but .. Reassure me at least that you aren't dissing "Winnie-the-Pooh"!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 20, 2004 06:20 PM

Well, Scott McCloud said in "Understanding Comics" that the reason so many people respond to such inhuman-looking creations (Cartoons) is because the very vaugeness and broad aspects of the character alow the reader to more easily step into thier shoes. The cartoon is an Everyman that anyone can indentify with, closer to an idea that an actuality. (hense the popularity of the Tin-Tin look, highly detailed background and simplistic characters. "one set of lines to see, the other to be.")

The more complex and personable and realistic the character, the more they become a separate entity.

And as a side note, Willow from Buffy: the Vampire Slayer. THe whole thing, nervous tics, love of research, well-balanced, and desire to flay people alive.

Posted by: JL on August 21, 2004 02:34 PM

Willow - The lesbianism seemed tacked on to be trendy, to me. And Tara was just such a bad character, I really hated her.

"The set-piece where Mildred open a restaurant is a tremendous piece of fictionalized journalism. We've all eaten in a thousand restaurants, but have you ever thought in detail about how you start a restaurant?"

What I'm more curious about is how you, as a writer, go about figuring out how other people go about starting a restaurant. Ask people? What if you don't have access to the type of person you'd need to ask? A book-learned youngster like myself has trouble with this sort of thing.

Any case, sounds like a book or two to check out.

Posted by: . on August 22, 2004 03:41 AM

I had an aunt who was probably the most competitive person I've ever known.
And yet one day, having been rebuffed by someone for that very trait, she asked me in unfeigned wonder whether that was true: "Do you think I'm competitive?"

She was highly competent and as I have said, competitive, and yet was full of doubts about her capacities and felt more put upon than putting upon.

Fascinating: that total lack of self-awareness in an otherwise intelligent woman.

And, oh yes, she had great legs.

Posted by: ricpic on August 22, 2004 12:13 PM

Dear .:

Talking more about High School, pre-evil powers and Tara Willow. The college-lesbian thang seemed tacked on, would have far perfered if they did it llike Six Feet UNder is currently doing Claire's college-aged sexual experimentation..which is to say more open, confused, and complicated then "I'm a lesbian now!"

And Tara was such a washed out dishrag. Smothering nuturer....

And now back to our real discussion.


Posted by: JL on August 22, 2004 01:04 PM

Haven't seen 6 Feet Under as I lack cable, I'm willing to believe anything more developed than "I'm your friend, our lives are in danger, we kiss, we're lovers for life" is better though.

Thinking back on it, that last episode was probably one of the worst hours of television I've ever seen. Writing Willow to have enough power to totally change the dynamics of the Slayer line and thus the show itself? Come now, that's just bad writing. Lets not get into how she's so powerful when she's just a precocious twenty year old who picked up magic as a hobby in HS/College and yet somehow is more powerful than the greatest magicians in history.
Oh right, "Grrl Power!" and such. 'Cuz when a red-headed girl studies magic for three or four years that's about as good as 50 or so for a guy.

Overall though I agree with you. I loved the character's development through the series, but definitely strongest during the High School era. Tara, and especially that other girl during the last season, were simply not good enough supporting characters. Ms. Hannigan herself, of course, can do no wrong.

Posted by: . on August 22, 2004 11:46 PM


Glad to see you finally wised up about Cain.

What do you suppose draws writers to the "hard-boiled" style, or vision? Any ideas about what links the major practitioners? I mean, do you see many personal similarities between Cain, Hammett, Chandler, etc., etc.?

Religion, maybe?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 23, 2004 02:02 PM

I find it silly that the arbiters of taste have limited such good reads to 'genre' fiction, as if for some unexplained reason it fails to reach the level of 'literature'. Yet the supposedly 'great new novels' I have come across because of the NYT or similar recommendations have been repeatedly disappointing.

My best guess is that anything that is fun to read and has a good story is junk, and pretentious prose poems without a coherent narrative or memorable characters is a "literary" work.

Phooey. But thanks for the book. Now I'll read it.

Posted by: Pogo on August 23, 2004 05:45 PM

"." -- As far as I know, most writers who want some realism or some journalistic interest in their work just go out and do some in-person research. As someone who's done a little reporting, I can testify that an amazing number of people are very sweet and generous about showing you around and telling you about their lives and jobs, bless 'em. Tom Wolfe wrote a good essay years back, a manifesto really, where he argued that American literary writing had become bloodless and that what it needed was for writers to go out and get their hands dirtier in the real world. Then he wrote his own novels ... and readers enjoyed the reporting in them a whole lot. I wouldn't be surprised if Cain just went to some restaurants and talked to people for "Mildred Pierce" -- he'd been a reporter.

FvB -- I wish I had some Big Idea about what distinguishes the hardboiled crowd. It's a great tradition, though, and if anyone wanted to argue that it's a valid alternative to the official American-lit canon, I'd be thrilled to get on board. Did you ever happen to look at "Mildred," or at the other lesser-known Cains? I've heard that "Serenade" and one or two others are pretty good too.

Pogo -- I think you're onto something. I plugged away at reading new "literary" writing for years, and found a decent amount of good stuff among it. Some really fabulous books -- but not the books that the lit establishment was proudest of. (I blogged about my own favorites here.) And I was completely amazed by what a lousy batting average literary writing had, and by how really worthless the bad ones were. Mysteries, hardboiled, and crime, though? (The genres I get the biggest kick out of.) The batting average is pretty high, the craft level is good, respect for the audience is always present ... A much more pleasing world. I think your description of lit writing, however malicious, is really good. The fiction-writing fields that have kept storytelling (and juicy hooks and characterizations, and interesting settings, etc -- all the traditional virtues we read fiction for) have been the genre writers, and film and TV writers. I found it quite amazing how snobbish lit writers could be about storytelling, and how little they knew about it. Most of them couldn't dream up an interesting story to save their lives -- yet they look down on the whole storytelling world. Reminds me of the way so many "high" gallery-type artists are contemptuous of mere illustration -- yet can't draw nearly as well as commercial illustrators. We're meant to believe that what the lit people are up to, and the gallery artists are up to, is intrinsically superior to "mere" storytelling, or "mere" image-making, I'm afraid.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 23, 2004 11:59 PM


Some similarities from some brief web-browsing: Hammett, Cain and Chandler were born in a fairly tightly-grouped pattern--Chandler in 1888, Cain in 1892, Hammett in 1894. All three served in WWI. (Possibly the real source of the 'hard-boiled' detective story.) All three kicked around a lot getting started in life. Cain's parents were rather upper-class Catholics, his father a college president. Chandler was born in Chicago to a lapsed Quaker alcoholic father; when his parent's marriage broke up he 'returned' with his mother to live in an Anglo Quaker 'colony' in Ireland, where everyone looked down on the Irish Catholics. I can't find out too much about Hammett's parents or religion. Anybody out there know anything about this?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 25, 2004 10:08 AM

FvB: "I can't find out too much about Hammett's parents or religion. Anybody out there know anything about this?"


"Dashiell Hammett was born in 1894, the son of a Southern Maryland farmer-politician.

"He might still be there had his father not been run out of the county more or less on a rail. A popular but impecunious Democrat, he was persuaded to run for Congress as a Republican in return for Republican financial support. He lost; and eventually was forced to move to Philadelphia and then Baltimore, where Dashiell grew up in the family home at 212 North Stricker Street."

From: Richard T. Hammett, "Mystery Writer Was Enigmatic Throughout Life," Baltimore News-American, 19 August 1973.


"Hammett's mother, Annie Bond Dashiell, was trained as a nurse, but was at home most of the time looking after her three children."



"[His mother] felt closer to Samuel than to her other children, and he received her warmest attention. In one thing they stood opposed. Baptized a Roman Catholic, Hammett disliked religion and seldom attended mass. Many years later, Lillian Hellman called him a 'bitter ex-Catholic.'"

From: Hammett: a life at the edge, by William F. Nolan (New York: Congdon & Weed, c1983), page 4.


Dave Lull

Posted by: Dave Lull on August 25, 2004 04:05 PM

Thanks a lot, Mr. Lull...

So what we have here are three guys who--roughly speaking--came of age in the 1908-1914 era, served in WWI (that great acid-bath of anti-idealism), two of whom were lapsed Catholics and one of whom was a lapsed Quaker.

Although I apologize for seeming reductionist, I would describe hard-boiled fiction in the most general terms as focusing on the tension between contemporary society of the 20s and the 30s (presented as violent, amoral, nihilistic--i.e., the triumph of big-city capitalism) and the residual substratum of traditional morality. I guess I could see how each of these men would find that tension to be of interest based on the general circumstances of their lives.

Does anybody have any thoughts about whether or not contemporary hard-boiled writers--if that isn't a contradiction in terms--deal with this tension, or whatever the 21st century equivalent of it is?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 26, 2004 09:49 AM

"Dashiell Hammett was born in 1894, the son of a Southern Maryland farmer-politician.

[His father] was persuaded to run for Congress as a Republican in return for Republican financial support... He lost; and... was forced to move to Philadelphia and then Baltimore."

It's a good story, but seems to be devoid of fact. No one named Hammett ever ran for Congress from Maryland. In 1894-1904, Republicans dominated Maryland, winning at least three of the six House seats each election, and twice sweeping the state. They didn't need to recruit Democrat turncoats. Furthermore, the Hammetts lived in St. Mary's County (between the Potomac and Chesapeake); that was in the 5th District, which was safe Republican (held by one Sydney Mudd from 1896 to 1910).

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on August 27, 2004 10:53 PM

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