Reviewed by Ed Lengel
American literature has made small-town New England into a symbol of all that is narrow, intolerant, and hypocritical in the national psyche. Nathaniel Hawthorne gave impetus to the trend in The Scarlet Letter (1850), a work that retains power today for its insights into social conformity and oppression. Shirley Jackson, writing in multiple short stories and novels in the mid-twentieth century, sardonically exposed the vanities and petty cruelties of New England’s elite from her perspective as an Ivy League academic’s spouse. Even horror novelist H.P Lovecraft, a native of Providence, Rhode Island, placed some of his darkest tales in the region, transforming the puritanical WASP persona from Mayflower-descended ascendancy to inbred degeneracy. Other writers registered their contempt for what they saw as stultifying arrogance in a society that set itself apart from and above outsiders, while at its core amounting to less than all of them.
Grace Metalious’s bestselling novel Peyton Place, published in 1956 and followed by 1959’s Return to Peyton Place should be set in this context. She was a New Hampshire housewife of humble origins who died of complications from alcoholism in 1964 when she was only thirty-nine years old, was a contemporary of Jackson’s. But while Jackson observed the social set she despised from within, Metalious regarded it from below, and as a decided outsider. Her depiction of the escapades and travails of New England society combines Jackson’s savage wit—admittedly without the latter’s literary skill—or–Lovecraft’s penchant for exposing the gruesome inner realities of human nature.
Situated in the World War II era, Peyton Place pursues multiple threads in chronicling the lives of women–rich and poor–alongside their men who loved–or abused them. Appearing in parallel are two pseudo-families: Constance and her married lover Allison MacKenzie, with their daughter also named Allison; and Nellie and Lucas Cross, with Nellie’s daughter and Lucas’s stepdaughter Selena. Meeting as teenagers, Allison, and Selena attempt–but ultimately fail at–crossing the social barriers of their time to form a friendship; the MacKenzie’s are wealthy, and the Cross’s (like Metalious’s family) live in poverty.
Although they cannot flaunt social conventions without paying a penalty, Allison and Selena live in the same human world that makes a mockery of artificial social divisions and constructs. What ultimately unifies them is: they are women, who are thus subverted and victimized whatever their origins, who struggle to express themselves as sexual beings in a period predating the so-called Sexual Revolution. Allison is illegitimate; Selena is sexually abused, impregnated by her stepfather, and in need of an illegal abortion. Murder follows. Unspeakable scandals such as these make up the core of Peyton Place—the fictional name of a community combining the characteristics of several New England districts. No wonder the book’s title has become a byword for small-town intrigue and petty drama.
An instant and enduring bestseller, Peyton Place arguably achieved success because of the American public’s growing desire to escape from the artificial conformity of the 1950s. Denounced by critics as a “lousy writer,” Metalious quipped that most Americans must have “lousy taste”—and she may have been right, then and now. Her work has little to recommend it from a literary point of view, but as a cultural phenomenon, it stands alongside Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber as one of the outstanding works of fiction of the twentieth century.
Hollywood wasn’t slow to capitalize on the popularity of either book, with equally predictable results. The Peyton Place books were made into mediocre feature films, and afterwards transmogrified into television soap operas. In the process, the novel ultimately came to represent the very thing it decried: a tabloid world of gossipy, hateful people who gawk at others’ troubles as a way of forgetting their own. Metalious no doubt would have regarded this outcome with a knowing smirk—and happily raked in the money.
Ed Lengel is an author, a speaker, and a storyteller.