I’m not sure when I first read Peyton Place, but it was early on, surely in my late teens. Written in 1956, it was still a rich, salacious find even in the late 70s. I’m a big soap opera fan from way back, so discovering a murder/sex soap opera in print–one that was competently written at that–was, for me, akin to discovering a deep mine filled with dark chocolate and cheese.
The book was a scandal when it was released, and was on the NYT bestseller list even before it came out. And for good reason. Coming in from the edge of the 1950s realism movement, it was something new that went totally against the grain of the advertising media’s white bread image of the 1950s (the book itself takes place in the 1930s and WWII). Peyton Place rips the wholesome facade off of a small New England town–also indicting small towns everywhere–exposing hypocrisy and shame and secrets. Constance McKenzie is a respected, middle-class widow who owns a dress shop in Peyton Place, and has a bright, attractive teenage daughter named Allison. Except Constance isn’t actually a widow, and Allison’s father, unbeknownst to Allison and everyone else, was a married man with whom her mother had an affair. Allison’s best friend is Selena Cross, who works in Constance’s dress shop, but is from the wrong side of town. Also a secret from Allison (and nearly everyone else) is that Selena was given an abortion by the local doctor because she became pregnant by her drunken stepfather. (Her mother, Nellie, hanged herself from shame.) Later, Selena kills her stepfather in self-defense and buries him in the sheep pen. (This is one of my favorite murders in fiction, though Metalious took it from an actual event.) Allison is desperate to become a writer and move to New York. Constance is a prude, afraid of her own sexuality and of people learning her secrets. Then she’s aggressively seduced (raped?) by the new school principal, and kind of snaps out of it. (No, rape should not be a seduction strategy, but Metalious was obviously going for shock value.) There’s plenty more: a boyfriend with mommy issues who might be homosexual, vile snobbery, and open prejudice. Misogyny and fat-shaming. But somehow it all…works.
All this salaciousness is standard fare in fiction now. The difference is that social mores have relaxed, and shame is no longer in fashion. (I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot of time kicking shame to the curb.) But Peyton Place is more than just a cultural artifact. Writers write best when the conflict is natural and widely-recognizeable. For Metalious, hypocrisy was a freaking gold mine. It was rife in those times, when everyone knew the truth of what was happening but dared not speak of it. Now, everything is exposed. Taboos are…taboo. If people don’t speak out in favor of even things they might actually disagree with or disapprove of, they’re often seen as complicit and wrong. Fascinating how the world has changed. Metalious had shock value going for her. Now, writers have to dig deeper. We have to explore the psychological effects of a world without boundaries, instead of the rightness or wrongness of the consequences. The ante is permanently upped. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Still, Peyton Place is a hell of a read. I highly recommend.
Read more here about Peyton Place and Grace Metalious. Fascinating stuff.
May 3rd Words
Journal: 0 words
Long fiction: 0 words
Short fiction: 250 words
Non-fiction: 0 words
Blogging: 607 words
Exercise: 50 minutes treadmill