Crime novelist Ariel S. Winter explores James M. Cain’s Baltimore
Published: September 26, 2012
When people think of James M. Cain, they think of southern California. In his classic crime novels—The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), Double Indemnity (1936), and Mildred Pierce (1941)—he gives the definitive picture of Depression-era Los Angeles and its environs. But James M. Cain was a Marylander, living here for over 60 years (compared to his 13 in Hollywood). Born in 1892 in Annapolis, where his father was a professor of mathematics and English literature at St. John’s College, Cain grew up in the state capital and on the Eastern Shore. He graduated with a B.A. from Washington College in Chestertown at 17 and moved to Baltimore for the first time, where he lived off and on for the next 14 years.
Cain’s time in Baltimore must have made a strong impression on him. He set the first quarter of his longest and most ambitious novel, The Moth (1948), here. The Moth tells the story of Jack Dillon from his birth in 1910 until shortly after World War II. The book opens the year after Cain moved to Baltimore, set a few blocks from his apartment on Linden Terrace. “The first thing I remember was a big luna moth. I saw it in Druid Hill Park, which is up the street from our house, in Baltimore, on Mt. Royal Terrace.” As a boy, Jack is “the wonder child of Baltimore, the sweet singer of Mt. Royal Terrace, the minstrel boy of Maryland,” a soprano who sings at churches, funerals, and even on vaudeville stages. He manages to earn several thousand dollars before his voice changes, ending his career. But before long, Jack has another unbelievable career, as a football player for Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.
The familiar place names don’t stop with Druid Hill and Poly. Jack’s life is suffused with Baltimore geography: Charles Street, North Avenue, Walbrook, Roland Park. His accompanist takes lessons at Peabody. His vocal teacher lives on Eutaw. It is easy to envision Jack moving about the city. But at the same time, this is Baltimore between 1910 and 1932. Poly is at Calvert and North Avenue when Jack plays football there. His father takes him to buy clothes at an Army-Navy store near Richmond Market, now part of Maryland General Hospital. And he later buys clothes at the Hub, a store owned by the Hecht Brothers, long gone, as is Hecht’s. The Moth describes the city as Cain knew it, the city underlying the city we know, and he brings it to life for the modern reader not as a history lesson but simply as a place where people lived.
And Cain knew something about reporting things as they are. Starting in 1918, he worked as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun. He gained national recognition for his reporting on the labor battles of miners in West Virginia. He befriended H. L. Mencken and was a regular contributor to The American Mercury. By 1923, however, distraught at turning 30, caught in an unhappy marriage, and failing at his first attempt at a novel, Cain was ready to leave Baltimore. He moved back to Annapolis, where he taught for a year at St. John’s before entering a sanatorium in Sabillasville, Md., for tuberculosis treatment. It was there that he decided to move to New York City and leave Baltimore behind for good.
Like Cain, Jack also leaves Baltimore. His singing money is lost in the stock market crash of 1929. He graduates from the University of Maryland without any prospects, his football career killed by an injured knee. Then, when he is accused of molesting Helen Legg, a 12-year-old girl whom he thinks of as a little sister, he flees the city. The rest of the book is a harrowing description of the hobo life and Jack’s eventual rise in the southern California oil business.
The Moth was Cain’s attempt at a sweeping, broader canvas, a realistic, socially conscious novel. The crime within is a failed gas station hold-up. As David Madden wrote in his study on Cain, “The Moth was an effort to let the Great Depression happen to one man. This simple intention might have produced one of Cain’s finest novels; but, strangely, certain apparently autobiographical elements entered into his conception and delayed the novel’s thrust into the Depression material.” But for a Baltimore reader, it is the autobiographical element that proves the most interesting, a chance to see old Baltimore through the eyes of one of our best writers.
And neither man, actual or fictional, left Maryland for good. When Jack is forced out of the oil business due to a lovers’ quarrel, he serves in World War II and then comes home to Baltimore to reconcile with his father, who had broken with him over the molestation accusations. In an uncharacteristically happy ending for Cain, Jack is also reunited with the now 25-year-old (and, thus, legal) Helen Legg.
James M. Cain came back to Maryland too. Immediately after completing The Moth in 1948, he settled in Hyattsville, Md., in order to be close to the Library of Congress (he was researching the Civil War for a novel) and his mother, who lived in Roland Park. He never left again. James M. Cain died in Hyattsville in 1977, at the age of 85. But through The Moth, we can still see Baltimore as it was—or at least as he saw it.
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