Raising Cain at the Pratt

Franklin Mason

September 21, 1992|By Franklin Mason

THEY threw me off the hay truck about noon."

That's how "The Postman Always Rings Twice" opens.

This year is the centennial of the birth of its author, James M. Cain, and a Cain exhibit on the second floor of the Central Pratt is well worth visiting.

Directly on the floor above, over Cain's head, so to speak, is Henry Mencken's special room. It's good they are so close. Both had their days in Baltimore, wrote here, knew one another here.

Cain did not come to writing early, nor did he come to it easily. His first love was music, but when that didn't work out he turned to teaching, then to free-lance writing, then to newspaper work (a stint on the American and one on The Sun). But he wasn't happy, wanted something more, and Mencken's connections helped. Cain went to New York and the World, a respected

newspaper with one of the last great newspaper intellectuals, Walter Lippmann.

Cain said he'd scarcely ever read an editorial. He had little faith in editorials and less faith in himself. So they started him writing editorials. On his first try, he put motherhood and man-eating whales together. (Everyone was for one and against the other, he said.) He was ready to walk out, but they wouldn't let him. He was different; he was what they wanted, and so he stayed at the World for years.

Mencken published Cain's first story, "Pastorale," in the American Mercury. And he published Cain's satirical articles on government which later went into Cain's first book, "Our Government." And more.

Things went well until the World folded, after which Cain worked on the New Yorker under its great editor, Harold Ross, but for only nine months. Cain liked neither the magazine nor its editor.

So he called his agent and soon was on his way to Hollywood, where he tried his hand at script writing and wrote "Postman." He failed at the former but succeeded grandly in the latter.

"They threw me off the hay truck about noon."

It went like wildfire. It was that rare double winner -- both a popular and critical success.

Cain's subsequent novels didn't reach the peak of "Postman," but they did well. Movie scripts were derived from the author's fiction, and during his 17 years in Hollywood, Cain was more prolific than any other writer.

He returned home and spent the rest of his days in Hyattsville, dying in 1977.

Along the second floor of Pratt you can see many aspects of his lifetime of work, the many books in many editions. His work has been translated into 16 languages.

And there are numerous photographs of Cain, his old Underwood and a copy of the first manuscript page of "Postman," headed "Bar-B-Que," its original title. Beside it is a copy of a letter from Cain telling how the "Postman" title came about.

So go along and see it all; it runs through October. Maybe Cain will go along with you. You and he can wander upstairs and visit Mencken.

Franklin Mason is a retired copy editor of The Evening Sun.

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