If I'm a lousy writer, then a hell of
a lot of people have got lousy taste.
Perhaps the most crucial failing of postwar
obsession with family togetherness was the ease with which it
concealed destructive family dynamics from the outside world.
As Benita Eisler observes, children in particular were “pressed
into service early as happy smiling fronts, emissaries of family
normalcy, cheerful proof that ‘nothing was really wrong’ at
the Joneses” (170). Moreover, in a culture that touted “a
man’s home is his castle,” letting the mask of conformity
slip offered little hope of outside intervention. Notes historian
Jessica Weiss, “A focus on family to the exclusion of all
else isolated couples, leaving spouses few outside resources
when conflict erupted.” A battered wife, for instance,
found that neighbors and teachers were all too willing to overlook
her scars and bruises in order to preserve “the fiction
of togetherness,” leaving the woman “stranded trying
to make a ‘happy’ home and raise children in between
the rage and beatings that she could neither prevent nor stop” (137).
This sweeping cultural denial of familial dysfunction was most
pronounced when it came to incest and sexual abuse – so
much that we will never know how widespread such cases were in
the 1950s. What we do know, as historian Stephanie Coontz points
out, is that female victims who reported abuse to therapists “were
frequently told they were ‘fantasizing’ their unconscious
oedipal desires.” When these reports were believed, they
were increasingly attributed to “female ‘sex delinquency.’ By
1960, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, experts
described incest as a ‘one-in-a-million occurrence.’” Only
after the widely hailed “Golden Age” of family life
had long passed could victims of sexual abuse and incest reveal
narratives that would tarnish that image (Coontz 35).
Thus, only in retrospect can we grasp the extent to which the
nuclear family structure, rather than sheltering 1950s children
from the dangers of the outside world, offered a safe territory
for those who sought to violate them. “Few would have guessed,” for
instance, “that radiant Marilyn Van Derbur, crowned Miss
America in 1958, had been sexually violated by her wealthy, respectable
father from the time she was five until she was eighteen, when
she moved away to college” (Coontz 34). It is difficult
to overestimate the symbolic impact of this striking if anecdotal
piece of evidence that the embodiment of 1950s femininity could
be the silent victim of a so-called “one-in-a-million occurrence.”
Given this cultural context, it is quite telling that arguably
the most influential “potboiler” of the postwar era – Grace
Metalious’s Peyton Place (1956) – dared
tread upon territory pervasively regarded as taboo. September
the 50th anniversary of the novel’s publication, notes
Leanard Cassuto in a recent appreciation, yet the book’s
reputation remains as “one of the most notorious novels
of its time,” not to mention a “best seller of precedent-setting
proportions” (B11). Peyton Place spent seventy-six
weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, including
twenty-nine weeks at number one (Justice 218). It was the third
work of fiction of 1956 and the second most popular of 1957 (Hackett
and Burke 169-171). In 1958, Peyton Place upset Gone
with the Wind’s twenty-year record as the nation’s
all-time bestseller, holding that position for almost a decade
xxvii). Nearly twenty years after its publication, Peyton
Place still ranked as the fourth bestselling piece of paperback fiction
of all time (Hackett and Burke 33).
With its knockout sales, Peyton Place “the book” soon
became Peyton Place “the brand.” Like many 1950s
bestsellers, the novel spawned a hit film just one year after
its publication. This was followed by a sequel to the novel (1959),
a sequel to the film (1961), a long running television series
(1964-1969), a string of spin-off novels written by a lesser
known author (1967-1970), and several subsequent efforts, one
as recently as 1985, to bring the brand back to television. Most
memorably, the novel’s title became an enduring fixture
in the American vernacular, denoting the hotbed of immorality
underlying the seemingly quaint façade of a small town.
Over forty years after the novel’s publication, the 1998
impeachment hearings on President Bill Clinton’s affair
with White House intern Monica Lewinsky began with Republican
Congressman Lindsey Graham imploring, “Is this Watergate
or Peyton Place?” (qtd. in Toth 375). Notably, the legacy
of her first book far exceeded the life of Grace Metalious, who
at age 39 died of cirrhosis of the liver shortly before the TV
series hit the airwaves in 1964.
Much of the novel’s legacy can be traced to its author’s
eagerness to buck the literary and moral sensibilities of 1950s
American culture, evidenced by her difficulty in securing a publisher.
Deemed “too racy” by most houses, notes Emily Toth,
the manuscript might never have made it into print had it not
fallen into the hands of Kitty Messner, president of one of only
two female-run publishing firms (86-87, 100-102). The challenge
that Peyton Place presented to prospective publishers was echoed
by subsequent censorship efforts. Many libraries refused to purchase
the book, while several towns prohibited its sale. The state
of Rhode Island and the author’s country of birth, Canada,
also banned the novel. Not surprisingly, these reactions proved
most effective in boosting sales (Toth 131-132). Evidently, many
readers craved narratives that rebuked the domestic mandate of
the Cold War era.
Though reviews of the novel were mixed, even the most generous
critics felt obliged to register shock. The New York Times
Book Review likened the author to Sinclair Lewis but recommended that
Metalious “turn her emancipated talents to less lurid purposes” if
she hoped to publish again (4). Time squirmed at the explicit
love scenes yet found that when “Metalious is not all flustered
by sex, she captures a real sense of the tempo, texture and tensions
in the social anatomy of a small town” (100). Not surprisingly,
The Catholic World dismissed the book as “sheer, unmitigated
pornography” and “one of the cheapest, most blatant
attempts in years to present the most noxiously commonplace in
ideas and behavior in the loose and ill-worn guise of realistic
art” (152). Both “packaged and received” as “lowbrow” fiction,
as Ruth Pirsig Wood has shown, Peyton Place has come to exemplify
the postwar “potboiler” that captivated a massive
audience even as it offended the artistic sensibilities of literary
critics (3). Cloaked in the lurid yet deceptively lightweight
accoutrement of pulp fiction, the novel’s assault against
the sanctified vision of the postwar nuclear family is rendered
all the more potent in light of the vast number of readers it
was able to reach.
While Peyton Place was groundbreaking in its exploration of taboo
subjects like incest and sexual abuse, 1950s American culture
was not unconcerned with sex crimes. Indeed, as historian Estelle
Freedman observes, the years 1949 to 1955 witnessed the second
of two “major sex crime panics” in the twentieth
century, galvanized by the era’s “concerted efforts
to reestablish traditional family life” in the wake of
World War II (92, 96-97). Importantly, Ardis Cameron notes, these
fears were directed at the “sex pervert” who lurked
outside the family and “preyed upon the innocent. . . .
[M]ost experts argued that incest was a one-in-a-million occurrence,
a view reinforced by television sitcoms, such as Father Knows
Best, and the rhetoric of cold war politicians” (xi). Eschewing
such complacent assumptions, Metalious found in the dominant
cultural narrative of family togetherness the potential for something
far more toxic than anything that would have made its way onto
Father Knows Best.
Though Peyton Place is set in the years preceding and during
World War II, the reaction it evoked in postwar audiences indicates
how closely it tapped into prevailing anxieties. In an era in
which images of “the happy, middle-class, nuclear family” were “a
key signifier of national identity,” argues Jane Hendler,
Peyton Place “pierced these images with its depiction of
family and marriage as a minefield rather than a road with some
occasional ruts and bumps” (191-192). Within this minefield,
sexuality becomes conflated with family togetherness in a disturbing
and often destructive dynamic. Allison MacKenzie, whose mother’s
prudishness belies her silent shame in having borne Allison out
of wedlock, responds to her mother’s overprotection by
nursing an unnatural affection for her deceased father. Norman
Page is also the product of an overprotective mother, though
it is she who fosters an abnormally intimate attachment to her
son. Yet it is Selena Cross, her own mother too ineffectual to
provide any protection, who must endure sexual assault at the
hands of the only father she has ever known. For Allison, Norman,
and Selena, the home is no shield from the dangers of the outside
world, but a tightly sealed trap they must escape if they hope
to survive into adulthood.
The suffocating nature of Allison’s home life is a product
of the “respectable fiction” that her mother Constance
and late grandmother Elizabeth have fashioned about her illegitimate
birth. For both mother and grandmother, the constant paranoia
generated by the need to maintain this fiction is as unbearable
as the dreaded stigma:
From the day Allison was born, Elizabeth Standish lived with
fear. She was afraid that she had not played her part well enough,
that sooner or later someone would find out about the birth certificate
that had been tampered with, or that some sharp-eyed individual
would spot the fact that her granddaughter Allison was a year
older than Constance said she was. But most of all, she was afraid
for herself. In her worst nightmares she heard the voices of
“There goes Elizabeth Standish. Her daughter got into trouble
with some feller down to New York.”
“It’s all in the way you bring up a child, what they do
when they’re grown.”
“Constance had a little girl.”
“That whore Constance and her dirty little bastard.” (16)
Importantly, public exposure is Elizabeth’s highest fear,
the imagined voices signifying how citizens of Peyton Place have
internalized the morally unambiguous narrative Constance has
flouted. Such internalization is integral to the self-regulating
function by which the private sphere of the home attunes itself
to prevailing cultural expectations. When the safety net of self-regulation
fails, the humiliation associated with public disclosure compels
people like Elizabeth and Constance to fashion a “respectable
fiction” that keeps the dominant narrative intact. That
the stigma would be attached not just to the “whore” and
her “little bastard” but also to the woman who raised
the “whore” attests to the peculiar tapestry of sexuality
and familialism lurking beneath the conformist façade
of Peyton Place.
In this case, Constance becomes obsessively preoccupied with
suppressing her own sexuality and monitoring that of her daughter.
Nervous that an adolescent kissing game at Allison’s birthday
party might go too far, Constance feels “the finger of
fear which is always ready to prod at the minds of women who
have made what they considered to be ‘A Mistake,’” dreading
first that Allison will “get hurt,” then that she
will “get in trouble,” and finally the biggest pitfall,
that “SHE’LL GET HERSELF TALKED ABOUT!” Like
her mother, Constance is primarily concerned that any moral slip-ups
by her daughter would reflect poorly upon the parent: “After
all I’ve done for her, she acts like a little tramp right
under my nose, letting some pimply-faced boy paw her”(50).
As it turns out, Constance’s paranoid vigilance has infantilized
Allison, whose interest in the opposite sex stretches no further
than to the father she never knew. Early on, Allison wonders
guiltily “what her life might have been like if it had
been her mother who had died and her father who had lived.” While
it is natural for a child to fantasize about an absent parent,
Allison’s fixation borders on the unhealthy. While the
very word “father” sounds foreign to Allison, imagining
her father as a prince – her prince – lulls her into
a peaceful reverie:
My prince, she said to herself, and immediately the image in
her mind seemed to take on life, to breathe, and to smile kindly
Allison fell asleep. (19-20)
“While Allison may hide the regressive and incestuous aspect of this transformation
from herself,” observes Madonne M. Miner, “it is not hidden from
a reader; Allison’s sleep here resembles, too closely, the drugged sleep
of a princess heroine, caught in the arms of a fantasy man” (69).
This “fantasy man” becomes the yardstick by which Allison measures
all others, and she finds it “inconceivable that a woman who had been married
to him could ever think seriously of doing anything other than mourn his loss
for the rest of her life” (212). Ironically, the parental sexual paranoia
that helps foster Allison’s paternal obsession begets the remedy as well.
Again harboring unfounded suspicions that Allison is venturing towards “trouble,” Constance
fumes after discovering that her daughter has been on a picnic with Norman Page: “‘And
after the way I’ve sweated and slaved to bring you up decently, you go
off into the woods and act just like a goddamned MacKenzie. The bastard daughter
of the biggest bastard of all!’” (237). Deflating her daughter’s
fantasies, Constance unknowingly forces Allison out of the regressive pattern
that has defined her adolescence and, eventually, out of the home that made these
fantasies so appealing.
The unnatural intimacy that Allison nurses for her dead father is mirrored by
the disquieting dependence that defines Norman Page’s relationship with
his widowed mother. Acutely possessive, Evelyn Page flares with jealousy whenever
her son’s attentions are directed at anyone else. Spotting the twelve-year
old walking home from school with Allison, Evelyn acts like a jilted lover, bringing
her quintessential “mama’s boy” to his knees while exacting
a profession of singular devotion:
“I hate everybody in the whole world except you.”
“Do you love Mother, Norman?”
Norman’s sobs were dry and painful now, and he hiccuped wretchedly.
“Oh, yes, Mother, I love only you. I love you better than God, even. Say
not going to leave me.”
For a long time Mrs. Page stroked her son’s bowed head which rested now
on her knees.
“I’ll never leave you, Norman,” she said at last. “Never.” (71-72)
The Page household vividly illustrates the suffocating potential of family togetherness,
the home becoming a site for isolating insiders and repelling outsiders. Thwarting
off external influences, Evelyn is an even more infantilizing parent than Constance.
While both are preoccupied with maneuvering their children away from the opposite
sex, Constance hopes to steer Allison towards a thoroughly conventional future
that includes “‘college, then a good job for a while, then marriage
to a successful man’” (182). In contrast, Evelyn is intent on grooming
her son as a surrogate husband, rendering an even more unsettling hue on the
interplay between sexuality and familialism that runs throughout the text. Unlike
the secret at the heart of the MacKenzie household, Evelyn’s quasi-incestuous
hold over Norman is common knowledge in Peyton Place. One of the town patriarchs,
the kindly Doctor Matthew Swain, harbors an unlikely hope that Norman will free
himself of his mother’s grasp: “I don’t think he’s strong
enough to fight her. . . . She expects too much from him – love, admiration,
eventual financial support, unquestioning loyalty, even sex.” As the doctor
clarifies, “sex” in this case refers to Evelyn’s habit of giving
her son so many enemas that he once suffered “the worst case of dehydration
I ever saw. . . Sex, with a capital S-E-X” (136-137).
These sexualized invasions of the son’s body by the mother – from
which he “always got a bittersweet sort of pleasure” (62) – become
more masochistic as Norman gets older. After her son confesses to kissing Allison,
Evelyn “whipped him and made him promise never to see Allison again.” While
Norman acquiesces to his mother’s reassertion of dominance over his body – for “he
had not minded being whipped, but he was very sorry now that he had made the
promise about not seeing Allison” (249) – his resentment manifests
itself in an equally masochistic, displaced reaction. Spying on an act of oral
sex between a husband and his pregnant wife, the first-time voyeur strangles
a cat and subsequently seeks comfort in the arms of one whose offer of an enema
to soothe his “‘little tummy’” is met with distinct relief
The warped togetherness that circumscribes the Page home stifles Norman through
adulthood; while Allison escapes the confines of the home that had fed her paternal
obsession, Norman cannot function in the outside world without his maternal leash.
Hence, he is discharged from the military “on the grounds that he was mentally
unfit to handle the duties of a soldier” – a shameful fact Evelyn
conspires to obscure beneath a “little subterfuge” she constructs
of Norman as an injured war hero. Like Constance MacKenzie and Elizabeth Standish,
Evelyn Page is most concerned that exposure of her “respectable fiction” will
shame her and her son: “Do you want to disgrace the both of us so that
we can never hold up our heads again?” (307-308). Norman’s reluctant
compliance with the fabrication leaves him feeling “as if he moved through
an unreal world” – one in which his mother’s constricting grip
manifests itself in a recurring dream that begins with sex with Allison and ends
with Norman fleeing in panic for the comfort of his mother: “It was always
at this moment, when he reached his mother, that Norman reached a climax in the
excitement engendered by Allison. At such times, Norman awoke to warmth and wetness
and a sense that his mother had saved him from a terrible danger” (309).
Evelyn has effectively castrated her son, ensuring his indefinite confinement
to his childhood home. The outward war injury that Norman fakes – a “stiff
leg” – is a physical manifestation of the internal affliction contained
within the impenetrable domestic space that is at once the site of assault as
well as the sole source of consolation for the assaulted.
The sexual-familial dynamic that shapes the MacKenzie and Page households becomes
exponentially more sinister in the home of Selena Cross, who is repeatedly raped
and eventually impregnated by her stepfather, Lucas. In the eyes of Doc Swain,
who performs an illegal abortion when Selena reveals her baby’s paternity, “Lucas
Cross was guilty of a crime so close to incest that the borderline was invisible” (157).
Shame compels Selena to preserve the shroud of domestic secrecy that first helped
foster these assaults. At the same time, this shroud is kept intact by the community
at large, which turns a blind eye towards the poverty and abuse in families like
the Crosses by rationalizing, “They pay their bills and taxes and mind
their own business. They don’t do any harm” (29). This cultural denial
is equally complicit in Selena’s victimization, forcing her to contend
with her stepfather’s assaults on her own. Not until resistance results
in death does Peyton Place become invested in the girl’s fate, albeit
to see Selena punished for killing a man who “provided for the child just
as if she was his own” (335).
That Lucas has provided for Selena as if she were his own daughter only makes
his violation more despicable. In contrast with Allison’s paternal fixation,
Selena gives little thought to her biological father, who died in a lumbering
accident before she was born. “Lucas Cross” – who married Selena’s
mother, Nellie, when the girl was just six weeks old – “was the only
father Selena knew.” Though she has good reason to disassociate herself
from this abusive alcoholic, Selena makes not so much as a semantic distinction
between Lucas and her “real” father, imagining, “If Allison
were in my shoes . . . I bet she’d always be talking about half brothers
and stepfathers and that kind of stuff” (37).
Even so, once Selena’s “Pa” realizes his fourteen-year old
daughter has reached sexual maturity, he eyes her through a lens that is anything
but fatherly. Continuing to invoke his paternal authority – “I been
decent to you just as if you was my own. Kept a roof over your head and food
in your belly” (57) – Lucas conveniently justifies his assaults by
asserting that he is no blood relation. As he claims when Doc Swain forces a
confession out of him, “Besides, it ain’t like she was my own. .
. . She’s Nellie’s kid” (159). Exploiting his rights as a father
and his unencumbered access to his victim, yet unfettered by the moral impediments
that would designate his actions as “taboo,” Lucas becomes a sexual
predator far more dangerous than anything Selena would encounter outside the
home. Any arbitrary distinctions Lucas makes between himself and Selena’s “real” father
do little to mitigate the damage he inflicts, as indicated when Doc Swain persuades
Selena to reveal the paternity of her unborn child: “‘It’s
my father’. . . . She raised her head and looked Matthew Swain straight
in the eyes. ‘My stepfather,’ she said” (142).
As Madonne M. Miner affirms, Lucas inflicts on Selena “a violation so terrible
that it can only be described in terms of its effect – such is the horror
of actual incest” (69). The horrific narrative of incest is so unspeakable
that Selena only reveals it once her body threatens to expose the truth. Haunted
by the fear that “every window” in town “held a pair of eyes
that stared at her and knew her secret at once,” Selena is paralyzed by
the same apprehensions that plagued Constance MacKenzie: “A girl in trouble,
said every pair of eyes. . . . Not a nice girl, a bad girl” (140-141).
The veracity of Selena’s fears are underscored by Doc Swain, who reluctantly
agrees to perform an abortion because he realizes the alternative “will
ruin the rest of her life” even as it will “leave its mark on him
for the rest of his life” (144). The doctor’s willingness to subvert
the law and his own values speaks to the magnitude of Lucas’ transgression.
Were Lucas Selena’s biological father, as Emily Toth points out, it would
be easy to justify an abortion. Instead, “The doctor gives her an abortion
for humanitarian reasons, not medical ones” (Toth 106). Driving Lucas out
of town after exacting a confession, Doc Swain is unmoved by the brute’s
protests that he has nowhere to go: “Selena had nowhere to go to get away
from you. . . . Now the shoe is on the other foot, and if it pinches, that’s
too bad” (161). Only outside the home can Selena locate a true father figure
willing to place a priority on her welfare, even when that puts him at enormous
personal and professional risk.
In contrast to mid-century images of convivial family togetherness, only by eradicating
the oppressive, destructively intimate presence of the father can the Cross home
reach any semblance of normalcy. Yet this victory is temporary. Selena’s
mentally ill mother commits suicide upon overhearing the confession, ultimately
presenting Lucas with the sordid opportunity to substitute the young, beautiful
Selena for her older, slatternly mother. Like Evelyn Page, Lucas subscribes to
a fluid notion of family relationships that blurs the boundary between child
and spouse. “It ain’t like I was your real pa. . . . There ain’t
nothing wrong in you bein’ good to me.” When Selena resists, she
must defend her body and then her life from his unwanted advances. (296-297).
Again left to her own resources, Selena brings a pair of fire tongs down on her
attacker’s head in an instinctive, and fatal, bout for survival.
Though Selena’s act of self-defense is clearly justified, the isolation
in which she has endured these assaults compels her to hide her stepfather’s
body along with the ugly truth surrounding his demise. Reflecting on the fears
that led to this evasive act, Selena probes the implications of the silent shame
enforced by a culture that has no ear for such unpleasant narratives:
Shall I say that I killed Lucas because I was afraid he’d get me in trouble
again? . . . No one would believe her. Why should they? Why had she kept silent
for years and years? Why had she not gone to the police if Lucas was molesting
her? Because a shack dweller never goes to the law, thought Selena wryly. A good
shack dweller minds his business and binds up his own wounds. (337)
As Selena shrewdly deduces, the story that a town like Peyton Place tells about
itself has no space for disturbing counter-narratives that define families like
the Crosses. Indeed, the wholesome cultural narrative of family togetherness
relies on girls like Selena to suffer in silence rather than risk public humiliation.
This narrative of denial absolves Lucas from accountability for his crimes while
increasing Selena’s culpability once her own crime is discovered. “Lucas
might have been a drunkard, a wife and child beater, the most irresponsible of
fathers,” ruminates Selena’s ambitious boyfriend Ted, “but
he had paid his bills and minded his own business. And the fact that he had not
been Selena’s own father would hurt her in Peyton Place.” Rationalizing
his decision to abandon Selena, who would now be a tremendous liability to his
future legal career, Ted reiterates this last point ad nauseam: “She wasn’t
even his own, Peyton Place would say. He married Nellie when Selena was just
a newborn baby, but he provided for the child just as if she was his own” (335).
The sense of commodification implied by the oft repeated colloquialism “his
own” is indicative of the power structure that entraps Selena. In the vernacular
of the day, Selena is owned by and thus obligated to a man who both is and is
not her father. This lack of a biological link mitigates the gravity of Lucas’ crimes
while making it more difficult to justify those of Doc Swain and Selena. Selena’s
only defense lies in establishing a rhetorical rather than a biological construction
of fatherhood, a feat that can only be accomplished by someone of Swain’s
Risking his reputation, the doctor casts himself as the failed parent who should
have reported Lucas to the authorities after performing the abortion, thus shielding
Selena from the onus of defending herself. Notably, it is Doc Swain’s well-established
reputation and not Selena’s inherent innocence that convinces judge and
jury to declare her “not guilty,” for “the court looked no
further than Matthew Swain for an excuse for the girl” (348). In significant
ways, Selena is still at the mercy of the paternalistic infrastructure that first
enabled her to become Lucas’ victim. The doctor is guilty of a crime akin
to murder in the eyes of the law but will suffer no punishment. Selena may have
escaped the court of law, but she cannot evade the court of public opinion. As
Allison observes, “All the fine friends who didn’t want to see her
hang for murder are hanging her themselves with their vicious talk” (351).
While the novelty of her story will eventually wear off, Selena will always be
pigeonholed by a community whose own “respectable fiction” has no
room for a distasteful narrative of toxic togetherness and its consequences.
Most interestingly, however, had Peyton Place been published as Metalious had
originally written it, Selena’s tale would have “cracked open a national
fiction that even [the novel’s] publishers thought too rock-solid to confront” (Cameron
xii). In the original manuscript, Lucas Cross is Selena’s biological father
and thus “guilty of the crime of incest, a crime worse than child abuse
between homosexuals, in the doctor’s mind” (Toth 105). Indeed, the
incest storyline is the only one Metalious based on fact, derived from a case
of patricide that had made local headlines some years earlier. In that instance,
a young woman served time in prison rather than face a trial that would force
her to reveal “the sordid details of an unhappy childhood” (Toth
81-84). This striking testament to the stigma so feared by incest victims was
echoed by the publisher’s assertion “that incest/rape could not be
published, not in 1956” (Toth 105).
Regardless of the myriad challenges that Peyton Place posed to the literary and
sexual mores of the fifties, the notion of a father raping and impregnating his
young daughter presented far too severe an assault against the wholesome cultural
narrative of domesticity. Rather than revise the dominant narrative to reveal
its shadier elements, Metalious reluctantly agreed to rewrite her own story by
refashioning Lucas as a stepfather – a move, in the author’s own
summation, that turned the novel into “trash rather than tragedy” since
Selena’s abortion could no longer be justified medically (Cameron xii,
Toth 106). In truth, Selena’s unwanted pregnancy is only the most tangible
sign of the violation that takes place within the Cross home. Father or step/father,
Lucas exploits the isolation of the nuclear family for the most insidious of
purposes, and Selena’s narrative becomes all the more revealing in light
of the cultural denial that so dramatically censured its telling.
The censorship that Peyton Place faced in the literary marketplace mimics the
sweeping cultural denial that contained narratives of familial dysfunction within
the home. Cutting across the proliferation of “respectable fictions” that
enabled such violations to go unspoken, the novel registers the profound disconnect
between public discourses of nuclear familial bliss and private discourses of
familial dysfunction. That the most controversial “potboiler” of
the 1950s appropriated the nuclear family to inscribe the unmentionable speaks
to the broad-ranging discursive power of the Cold War togetherness ideology,
which foregrounded an idealized narrative of domesticity while shoving private
narratives of domestic disturbance into the margins. Working from those margins,
Peyton Place unraveled a Cold War fiction as illusory as the metaphorical picture
postcard Metalious famously used to articulate her assessment of small town life: “[I]f
you go beneath that picture, it’s like turning over a rock with your foot – all
kinds of strange things crawl out” (qtd. in Toth 123).
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by Grace Metalious. The New York Times Book Review 23 September 1956: 4.
Cameron, Ardis. “Open Secrets: Rereading Peyton Place.” Introduction.
Peyton Place. By Grace Metalious. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1999: vii – xxx.
Cassuto, Leonard. “Beyond Peyton Place.” Chronicle
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Coontz, Stephanie. The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia
Trap. 2nd ed. New York: Basic Books, 2000.
Eisler, Benita. Private Lives: Men and Women of the Fifties. Danbury, CT:
Franklin Watts, 1986.
Freedman, Estelle. “‘Uncontrolled Desires’: The Response
to the Sexual Psychopath, 1920-1960.” Journal of American History 74:1
Hackett, Alice Payne and James Henry Burke. 80 Years of Best Sellers:
New York: R.R. Bowker Company, 1977.
Hendler, Jane. Best-Sellers and Their Film Adaptations in Postwar America.
New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2001.
Justice, Keith L. Bestseller Index: All Books, by Author, on the Lists
of Publishers Weekly and The New York Times Through 1990. Jefferson,
NC: McFarland & Company, 1998.
Metalious, Grace. Peyton Place. 1956. Introduction by Ardis Cameron. Boston:
Northeastern UP, 1999.
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