The Novel and the American Left: Critical Essays on Depression-Era Fiction

The Novel and the American Left: Critical Essays on Depression-Era Fiction

by Janet Galligani Casey

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The first collection of critical essays to focus specifically on the fiction produced by American novelists of the Depression era, The Novel and the American Left contributes substantially to the newly emerging emphasis on twentieth-century American literary radicalism. Recent studies have recovered this body of work and redefined in historical and

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The first collection of critical essays to focus specifically on the fiction produced by American novelists of the Depression era, The Novel and the American Left contributes substantially to the newly emerging emphasis on twentieth-century American literary radicalism. Recent studies have recovered this body of work and redefined in historical and theoretical terms its vibrant contribution to American letters. Casey consolidates and expands this field of study by providing a more specific consideration of individual novels and novelists, many of which are reaching new contemporary audiences through reprints.

The Novel and the American Left focuses exclusively on left-leaning fiction of the Depression era, lending visibility and increased critical validity to these works and showing the various ways in which they contributed not only to theorizations of the Left but also to debates about the content and form of American fiction. In theoretical terms, the collection as a whole contributes to the larger reconceptualization of American modernity currently under way. More pragmatically, individual essays suggest specific authors, texts, and approaches to teachers and scholars seeking to broaden and/or complicate more traditional “American modernism” syllabi and research agendas.

The selected essays take up, among others, such “hard-core"” leftist writers as Mike Gold and Myra Page, who were associated with the Communist Party; the popular novels of James M. Cain and Kenneth Fearing, whose works were made into successful films; and critically acclaimed but nonetheless “lost” novelists such as Josephine Johnson, whose Now in November (Pulitzer Prize, 1936) anticipates and complicates the more popular agrarian mythos of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

This volume will be of interest not only to literary specialists but also to historians, social scientists, and those interested in American cultural studies.

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Editorial Reviews

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“Lionel Trilling once characterized the 1930s as ‘the indispensable decade’ for American intellectuals in the twentieth century; Janet Galligani Casey's distinctive and sweeping collection confirms that the 1930s were indispensable to the advance of the novel as well. With an eye to contemporary cultural theory, as well as gender and genre, race and ethnicity, and landscape and objectivity, her contributors cogently tackle an ample assortment of issues from knotty conceptual problems to the meticulous dissection of particular texts.”—Alan Wald, professor of English and American culture, University of Michigan, and author of Exiles from a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth-Century Left

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The Novel and the American Left Critical Essays on Depression-Era Fiction
University of Iowa Press Copyright © 2004 University of Iowa Press
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ISBN: 978-0-87745-880-7

Chapter One Taking Tips and Losing Class

Challenging the Service Economy in James M. Cain's Mildred Pierce


When James M. Cain's novel Mildred Pierce appeared in the fall of 1941, the reviewers seemed unprepared for this domestic drama from the man who had written The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), Double Indemnity (1936), and Serenade (1937). In addition to the familiar complaints about Cain's amoral characters-"Southern California abominations" who wallow in "the deep, slow pull of the ancient ooze where worms and serpents crawled" according to Robert Van Gelder in the New York Times Book Review-contemporary reviews somewhat inconsistently faulted Cain for deviating from the fast-paced, violent world of his trademark "hardboiled" fiction (7). After trying to fit Mildred Pierce into the formula by claiming that Cain had "wrapped his iron fist in a silk stocking to knock together the sexy, highly sensational, and sometimes outright sentimental odyssey of a grass widow," or woman whose husband has deserted her, the reviewer for the Nation asked, "Who's been softening up Mr. Cain?" (409). What the reviewers expected was something more like the "fusillade of five shots in deliberate tempo" that marked the dramatic opening sequence from the successful 1945 film adaptation of the work (MacDougall et al. 71). The adaptation establishes a classic film noir ambience that promises-and delivers-all the elements of that genre: suspense, murder, and a "woman who uses men for her own ends, whose desires, ambitions and machinations match-or surpass-those of the male" (Fine 28).

Such a treatment, however, roundly belies the origins of the film in Cain's novel, which contains no flashbacks, no mystery-and no murder. As Linda Williams, Pam Cook, Janet Walker, and other feminist film critics have demonstrated, the film's "noir male discourse of a dangerous, nocturnal underworld" was in successive rewrites superimposed over the original screenplay written by Catherine Turney, some of which remains in the "day-time woman's filmic discourse of Mildred's own story." In other words, the film obscures its waitress-heroine's success narrative by substituting noir style for working-class substance. Further, it displaces Cain's true subject, which he described as "one woman's struggle against a great social injustice- ... the mother's necessity to support her children even though husband and community give her not the slightest assistance" (Hoopes 349). Questioning the gratuitous insertion of a murder into this plot, Cain asked, "Why not tell that story, which at least has its own quality, rather than a murder story not very different from every 'B' picture that has been made for the last forty years?" (Hoopes 350). Cain's protest went unheeded, and the eclipse of the "woman's story" by an overpowering "noir male discourse" in the film has led to a similar critical eclipse of the novel's explorations of gender and class. Written near the end of the Depression, Mildred Pierce probes middle-class anxiety about the already destabilized boundaries between worker and aristocrat, undercutting Mildred's Horatio Alger-like rise through a consistent devaluation of traditional markers of class and culture.

Like Cain's more familiar hardboiled novels, the book uses the conventions of popular fiction to explore issues of power, sexuality, and class, particularly of working-class characters' struggle for autonomy. As Edmund Wilson noted in his seminal essay on the hardboiled school, "The Boys in the Back Room," "the hero of the typical Cain novel is a good-looking down-and-outer, who leads the life of a vagrant and a rogue," but the position of antihero is not in itself proof against being assimilated into the dominant culture (E. Wilson 665). For Cain's characters, the quest for self-definition results less from a shift in class than a shift in self-perception: in key scenes in several of his novels, down-but-not-really-out characters confront, recognize, and thereafter reject what Cain calls a "varlet" mentality, which they implicitly define as the willingness to work for wages and tips instead of holding out for the big payoff from their carefully planned if improbable schemes. Like her male counterparts in Cain's earlier novels The Postman Always Rings Twice and Serenade, Mildred is inscribed in a cultural framework that defines both identity and sexuality in terms of class; like them, she struggles to retain her autonomy in a service-oriented, consumption-driven culture. In Mildred Pierce, Cain uses the figure of the waitress and the restaurant to examine both the marketplace's reproduction and exploitation of the domestic sphere and also the ways in which home and marketplace are constituted by the opposing ethics of service and production that govern the exchange of food and sex. Paradoxically, the despised natural talents of cooking, service to others, and natural sexuality that define her as "waitress" and earn her the label of "varlet" become her means of resisting several forms of class-based cultural dominance: the failed middle-class dreams of her first husband, Bert; the decaying Pasadena aristocracy of her second husband, Monty; and the social license of artistic superiority practiced by her monstrous daughter Veda.

In effect, Mildred's story is a three-act drama structured simultaneously by her successive occupations as "grass widow," waitress, and entrepreneur, and by the sexualized relationships that inform each of these periods of her life. Possessed of a face that would "pass in a crowd" (Cain 20), "an A-1 shape" including voluptuous legs (47), and "a gift [for cooking such] as few ever have" (87), Mildred is Cain's Everywoman, albeit an Everywoman raised above the rest by a squint that, when she is provoked, "hint[s] at something more than complete vacuity inside" (20). Her first career is established in a scene that frames the book's principal issues of production and sexuality. In a prosaically described but idealized domestic picture, her husband Bert braces his avocado trees and waters his lawn outside the Pierces' Glendale home while Mildred frosts a cake indoors. The picture is perfect, from the "utile jewel" (5) of the green and white bathroom where Bert showers after his labors to the living room with its mass-produced "Spanish-style" furnishings, here as in Double Indemnity Cain's favorite metaphor for banal and imitative American culture. The image of a domestic idyll breaks down, however, when the reality behind it is revealed. As Bert and Mildred quarrel over his failure to find work and his relationship with the "grass widow" Mrs. Biederhof, it becomes evident that yard work is the only work that the unemployed Bert can get, whereas the lavishly described "beautiful" cake that testifies to Mildred's considerable gifts as a cook functions not as an icon of family togetherness but as a marketable commodity. The scene ends with his departure, ironically making Mildred herself the "grass widow" with two children to support. This section also introduces Mildred's daughters Veda and Ray, who comprise the first of Mildred's triangulated relationships with paired characters in the book. Veda and Ray represent contrasting aspects of Mildred herself, and her neglect of the warmhearted, impulsively affectionate Ray, "the picture of Mildred" (16), in favor of affected, ambitious Veda foreshadows Mildred's later single-minded quest for "the restaurant, which to her was a sort of Holy Grail" (152). At this point still a "grass widow," Mildred possesses as assets only voluptuous legs and a gift for cooking, parts of herself that she views dispassionately when taking stock of her situation after Bert leaves. Throughout the novel, Mildred tries to maintain a sense of self that controls these components of serving up sex and food while still using them to produce something of worth-a home, a restaurant, or a relationship. Her struggle results from her attempts to integrate these assets with her sense of self even as her culture tries to reduce her to simply performing these service functions.

Mildred's first attempt to preserve her status occurs when she risks this small capital-sex and a home-cooked chicken dinner-in a desperate gamble to land unattached family friend Wally Burgan as a new husband. His response causes Mildred to fear that she has entered a different sort of service economy, as she describes the encounter to her neighbor Lucy Gessler:



"I'm on the town."

"Well-you don't mean he actually left the money on the bureau,

do you?"

"All but." (37)

In Lucy Gessler's pragmatic moral code, grass widows are "fast" unless they adopt the protective coloration of a traditional wife, donning aprons and returning "right back to the kitchen, where all women belong" (30). But the apron provides no protection; indeed, Wally seduces Mildred when he enters her room to "pull those apron strings ... as a gag" (35). Like Bert, Wally violates the supposed security of apron strings and kitchen by abandoning his responsibilities, leaving Mildred vulnerable once again since she has been denied the only profession she understands and is willing to accept, being "at home," as the census records put it. Wearing an apron in the home in service to her family is acceptable, but wearing it as an apron-for-hire as a housekeeper or waitress is, as the novel makes clear, metaphorically indistinguishable from selling one's body into prostitution. Significantly, when Lucy and Mildred fear that Mildred is now "on the town," Lucy identifies the key signifier of prostitution as leaving the money on the bureau, the traditional spot for leaving a prostitute's fee, another kind of tip for services rendered. Later, the prosaic Lucy reinforces the connection when she misunderstands Mildred's reticence about taking a job as a waitress, believing that she has taken a job in a bordello:

"What kind of job?"

"Oh-just a job."

"I'm sorry ... but if it's that kind of a job, I hope you picked a five-dollar house. You're too young for the two-dollar trade, and personally I wouldn't like sailors."

"I'm a waitress. In a hash house."

"It rhymes up the same way."

"Just about." (60)

By casually equating the two professions ("hash house"/ "gash house"), Lucy confirms the significance of the social line that Mildred has crossed and also her fears about the loss of status she has suffered.

Mildred's transition from a production-based to a service economy thus introduces one of Cain's most problematic concepts: the psychological Rubicon between production and service, autonomy and dependence, that results from wearing a uniform and taking tips. Significantly, as Christopher Wilson notes in White Collar Fictions, the use of "service" to denote "the section of the economy that supplies needs of the consumer but produces no tangible goods" dates only from 1936, a fact that lends weight and timeliness to Cain's use of the concept if not the term itself (C. P. Wilson 274 n. 4). In Tipping, an American Social History of Gratuities, Kerry Segrave demonstrates that tipping had long been a contested issue in American culture. Some protests came from unions, which favored equitable wages and railed against the practice because it allowed employers to pay less than a living wage. A more universal dissatisfaction arose from a deep conviction that tipping was undemocratic and hence un-American. Its very origins were foreign, and the "plague of tipping," as William Dean Howells reported in a 1913 "Editor's Easy Chair" column for Harper's Magazine, spread like a disease from continental hotels and steamships where honest Americans encountered an incurable "national observance of the Open Hand" (313). As a speaker for the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving put it in that same year, " We are growing to tolerate a kind of petty grafting that is not right, that is un-American.... It is this giving of gratuities that is unlike us; it is a custom copied from a foreign country where conditions are different from ours" (Qtd. in Segrave 30). In addition to contaminating Americans with corrupt practices from Europe, tipping reinforced class distinctions and as such was profoundly undemocratic. As one account from 1916 protested, "The tip goes always from a superior to an inferior; never from servant to master. It is not a recognition of service, for the inferior never tips the superior for the service rendered. That would be an insult" (Qtd. in Segrave 31). Racism was a significant component of this superior-to-inferior transaction, with the Pullman company encouraging tipping of its porters, all of whom were black, as a means of overcoming resistance to "insulting" white workers with tips; as the St. Louis Republic put it, "It was the Pullman company which fastened the tipping habit on the American People and they used the Negro as the instrument to do it with" (Qtd. in Segrave 18).

Yet anti-tipping associations like the Anti-Tipping Society of America, founded in 1904, polemics such as William Scott's The Itching Palm (1916) and the Commercial Bribery and Tipping Review, experimental "no tipping" hotels like the Grace Dodge Hotel in Washington, D. C., and even anti-tipping laws enacted by several states failed to stop the practice. By 1935, a study by Rae Needleman in the Monthly Labor Review estimated that there were "800,000 employees in tipped occupations," including 333,000 restaurant employees (Needleman 1314). An important step in the changing of public attitudes toward tipping occurred in 1937 when the Bureau of Internal Revenue and the National Recovery Act addressed the debate over whether tips should be considered wages in establishing a minimum wage. But in 1931 when Cain's Mildred applied for her first job as a waitress, tipping was still a legal battleground for the IRS, for the unemployment insurance commissions of most states, for employers, and for the public, and its social implications reflected the uncertainties of its economic status.

Cain first introduces the issue of tipping in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) when Cora balks at having her lover Frank Chambers "wear a smock, with Service Auto Parks printed on the back."5 She explains to him why she married Nick Papadakis:

"I got off the Chief with fifteen guys taking my picture, and two weeks later I was in the hash house."

"And then?" ...

"Then two years of guys pinching your leg and leaving nickel tips and asking how about a little party tonight. I went on some of them parties, Frank." (11-12)

In Cain's novels, leg-pinching and sexual exploitation come with the territory for a waitress. Earlier, Frank socks Cora in the leg "so hard it nearly knocked her over" (10), an attack that, as Joyce Carol Oates points out, is "without provocation ... a kind of act of love in itself" (120). Yet by this gesture Frank distinguishes himself from her other patrons and lovers, for his blow mimics and intensifies the customers' pinches and leg-groping, exposing the violence and sexual exploitation inherent in Cora's position. Similarly, John Howard Sharp, the washed-up opera singer of Serenade (1937), steals food and signs on as bouncer for a brothel without compunction, but he worries before a singing job:

I had never taken a tip, and I wondered how I was going to feel about it.... They borrowed a tray from a waiter and passed it around and when it came back it was full of silver. He handed it to me, and I thanked him, and dumped it in my pocket. I had taken a tip, but I didn't feel anything.

For Cain's characters, taking a tip functions metonymically for the model of the service economy that they will do anything to avoid-in the case of Frank Chambers and Cora Papadakis, even commit murder. In addition to the denial of individuality that attends the wearing of uniforms and smocks, accepting tips transforms the individual into a depersonalized commodity, a "varlet" whose identity is merely the sum of easily sheared-away and interchangeable service functions. As used by characters in Mildred Pierce, Cain's incongruous archaism "varlet" allows Monty and Veda to ally themselves with Cain's satirically depicted Pasadena ancien régime, but it also functions more generally as Cain's ironic shorthand for the pretensions of those who employ the term. Those who take tips become "varlets" because of their double servitude, an acknowledgment of "dependence on the customer as well as the boss"(C. P. Wilson 60). Susan Porter Benson's observation about the additional social burden on saleswomen is instructive here: "the addition of the client to the usual worker-employer dyad was always implicit in service work, but [now] the client was directly and emphatically present on the selling floor"-and, one might add, in the restaurant booth as well (125).


Excerpted from The Novel and the American Left Copyright © 2004 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Janet Galligani Casey is an independent scholar who has most recently taught at Skidmore College. A recent recipient of an NEH fellowship, she is the author of Dos Passos and the Ideology of the Feminine, winner of the 1998 Modern Language Association’s Prize for Independent Scholars.

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