Journalist-Novelist Redux

A couple of days ago I wondered out loud if newsrooms were the chief training ground for fiction writers in the first half of the 20th century, in the way MFA programs appear to be now. As if on cue, the Washington Post‘s obituary blog, Post Mortem, has a piece on the late Roy Hoopes, who wrote a well-received biography of crime author and journalist James M. Cain in 1982. The post is largely a reminder that Cain, who died in 1977, grew up in the D.C. area and spent the final years of his life in the Maryland burbs; in between, he took reporting jobs in Baltimore and New York before turning to screenwriting and fiction. He worked for H.L. Mencken at the Baltimore Sun and was briefly the New Yorker‘s managing editor—so briefly that he doesn’t merit a mention in Brendan Gill‘s Here at the New Yorker. “I was the managing editor but all you did was check the budget,” he told the Post in a 1969 interview. I was the 27th Jesus. Ogden Nash had been the 16th. After Thurber. Intramurally, [editor Harold] Ross was an impossible guy to work with. But I liked Ross after 6.”

That John Carmody 1969 profile (PDF), linked to in the blog post, is well worth reading in its entirety—it puts the grizzled newsman on full display, and places his work in its appropriate context: “Jim Cain is one of those rare, faintly sung people who drew, oh, maybe, a crowsfoot on the image that this country held of itself during the 1930’s and all through the 1940’s,” he writes. “As a novelist, he showed us what money could do and a certain kind of mindless love could do and what greed could do and he wasn’t … too social about it (which was significant) in the 1930’s.” It’s pretty well known that it helped to be a Pinkerton if you were going to be a crime novelist in the 30s. Did it help to be a reporter too?

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