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Mignon (novel)

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Wikipedia article

'Mignon' is a historical novel by James M. Cain published by the Dial Press in 1962.

Along with Cain's Past All Dishonor (1946), 'Mignon' is one of his two historical novels set during the American Civil War.Madden, 1970 p. 64

Cain's virtues as a master of the first-person narrative form is adulterated in 'Mignon', when his protagonist's confessional recounting of events takes on the forced rhetoric of some of Cain's disappointing third-person novels.Madden, 1970 p. 133Skenazy, 1989 p. 86: Skenazy cites Loves 'Lovely Counterfeit' (1942) and 'Sinful Woman' (1947) as examples of less successful third-person efforts.

Regarding his novel 'Mignon', the product of over ten years of research and revision, Cain lamented it was the most ill-starred venture I ever embarked on.Madden, 1970 p. 58, And p. 64: 'Mignon' a second-rate demonstration of wish-come-true and love-rack concepts.

Plot Summary

'Mignon' is set during the Confederacie's Red River campaign of 1864 during the American Civil War. A war veteran and engineer, William Bill Cresap is discharged from the Union army with a leg wound. He travels to Texas to plan construction for a canal linking the Red River to the Gulf Coast. At first sight he falls madly in love with the beautiful widow Mignon Fournet, daughter of a New Orleans cotton speculator, Adolph Landry. Cresap becomes embroiled in the war-time black market operations that abound, descending into a labyrinth of shifting alliances, betrayals, murders and double-crosses with Landry and his unscrupulous and dangerous partner Frank Burke. When Landry, a man of mixed national loyalties, is jailed as a traitor, Cresap attempts to free him on Mignon's behalf. Burke tempts all the parties with a risky scheme to seize a rich trove of hoo-dooed cotton.

The story culminate in the death of all the main characters, except Cresap, who survives to tell the tale and to bitterly regret the loss of my love, my life, my beautiful little Mignon.Skenazy, 1989 p. 118: Plot sketch here.And p. 120: Quote re: 'Mignon'.Madden, 1970 p. 64: Brief sketch of novel. Also p. 85

Publication Background

'Mignon' was the only literary product to emerge from his decade-long effort to write a trilogy using the American Civil War as a backdrop.Skenazy, 1989 p. 16 And p. 118: From 1948 to 1962, interrupted briefly by the writing of Galatea (1953), Cain worked on what he once imagined as a Civil War trilogy, but which emerged as 'Mignon'.Madden, 1970 p. 58: Into this novel, Cain put ten years of research on the cotton [industry in the South]; but the elements would not cohere. Critic Paul Skenazy reports that Mignon sapped his energy, deflected him from other projects, and produced a situation of enormous frustration and artistic stagnationSkenazy, 1989 p. 118

In early 1953, Cain began research for a Civil War trilogy, traveling to historic sites in Texas and Mexico related to the Red River campaign of 1863. For three years, Cain struggled with developing the novel, using the most commercially successful of his novels, Past All Dishonor (1946), as a template. Though suffering from ill health due to high cholesterol, he completed a manuscript for Mignon in early 1957.Hoopes, 1982 p. 463-464 And p. 472: On high cholesterol treatment.

His publisher, Knopf, was dissatisfied with the work, complained that 'Mignon' was altogether too complicated, and yet perhaps not involved enough. Rather than let his New York agents Harold Ober Associates sell the story as a magazine serial, Cain proceeded to rewrite the work.Hoopes, 1982 p. 464

By 1960, Magnon had become Cain's "albatross", but when he resubmitted the revised work, Knopf again turned it down. Cain was loath to give up the novel after his years of exhaustive historical research on the project. His agent Ivan von Auw succeeded in interesting Dial publishers in 'Mignon', who provided Cain a $1000 advance.Hoopes, 1982 p. 473-475

In the spring of 1962, Dell released 'Mignon' in a hardback edition.Hoopes, 1982 p. 475: 'Mignon' was finally published in the spring of 1962,

Critical Assessment

Cain, hoping he had penned a literary work possessing tremendous commercial potential, discovered that 'Mignon' fell far short of his expectations. Though the work ultimately sold 15.000 hard-copy editions and was acquired by paperback publisher Dell press, Cain's 12 years of research, revisions and rejections emerged as a literary failure. Hoopes, 1982 p. 486: The disappointing sales of 'Mignon'... His agent Jerry Wald informed Cain that the novel was unsuitable for film adaptation. Agent Harold Norling Swansons efforts to interest Hollywood also failed. According to biographer Roy Hoopes Mignon was perhaps the low point of Cains life.Hoopes, 1982 p. 475 Literary critic Paul Skenazy points out Cain's difficulty assembling a coherent narrative:

Skenazy adds that Cains [historical] knowledge is impressive but intrusive..Skenazy, 1989 p. 120: Novelist David Madden likewise points to 'Mignon's faulty use of literary devices:

In Luther Nichols interview with Cain in 1962, the author vowed I shall never, as long as I live, try a period novel again. It is like a sentence in a penitentiary...you refuse to leave your cell until the time is up. Cain later added, All that reading and labor, and a kind of mouse is born.Madden, 1970 p. 52-53: Nichols interview cited in footnotes, New York Times Book Review, May 13, 1962


The risks and rewards inherent to loyaltiesto family, to business associates, to cause and countryemerge as thematic parallels in 'Mignon'.Skenazy, 1989 p. 118: The novel is a story of loyalty - person to person, partner to business partner, person to country and cause[form] thematic parallels...And p. 113: A womans loyalties divide between her lover and father in 'Mignon'.

Fate is symbolized by the black market hoo-doo cotton, in which Southern preternatural powers clash with Northern army martial law.Skenazy, 1989 p. 119: A hoodoo or hex that is associated with Red River Cotton functions as a metaphor for fate in the novelassociated with the problems of the Northern power structure in relation to Southern beliefs... David Madden observes that Superstition and supernatural are at the center of 'Mignon'; the great quantity of cotton for which most of the characters cheat, betray, connive, kill and suffer is constantly described as being hoo-dooedMadden, 1970 p. 85:

Cain introduces the paradox of sacred love and homicide, in which that latter becomes an expression of the former, both on a personal and national level. Paul Skenazy writes: Cains point is that only through violence can one nation gain control over the feelings of another. The national or political destinies follow a course exactly parallel to love....Mignon Fournets [sexual] desire is inflamed by violence...Bill Cresaps willingness to kill for love becomes a sign of the depth of his feeling.Skenazy, 1989 p. 119-120



*Hoopes, Roy. 1982. 'Cain.' Holt, Reinhart and Winston. New York.

*Madden, David. 1970. 'James M. Cain'. Twayne Publishers, Inc. Library Catalog Card Number: 78-120011.

*Skenazy, Paul. 1989. James M. Cain. Continuum Publishing Company. New York.

Category:1962 novels

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