Sex, violence and murder-aren't those the characteristics of a juicy novel? In a society where Stephen King and Danielle Steel top the best-seller lists, one would be inclined to agree. However, readers of the 19
50's were not prepared for the sexy thriller of Peyton Place that uncovered every secret and rumor of any household. Grace Metalious created a story so unconventional, so sexy and so scandalous that every housewife and rebellious teen in America r
ead its contents. The novel topped the 1956 best-seller list and in 1975, it sold over ten million copies in hardcover and paperback combined. "In less than a year it reached the 7,277,000-copy mark" (James 41). The novel later turned into a successful mo
tion picture with and a television series, proving to be an extremely influential book of the latter decade. Several factors contributed to its success including its risqué content, an extensive publicity campaign and the real life drama of the author bey
ond the novel.
Published in 1956, Peyton Place "unbuttoned the straitlaced New England of popular imagination" (book cover). In the fictitious town of Peyton Place, there was your incest, unwed pregnancy, power struggles and everyday gossip. Suburban residents fr
om all over could easily relate to the issues, characters and problems of Peyton Place. " "I'm sure you're writing about my town," a reader wrote Metalious. "I live in Peyton Place" "(Cameron ix). While Metalious claimed that Peyton Pl
ace was purely imaginative, there was truly an ample douse of reality within the story. Beyond the pretty landscape, Metalious uncovered the heart of every New England town, baring it to the world. "To a tourist these towns look as peaceful as a postc
ard picture, but if you go beneath that picture it's like turning over a rock with your foot. All kind of strange things come out. Everybody whole lives in the town knows what's going on-there are no secrets-but they don't want outsiders to know" (Cosm
At a time when sex was tabooed and problems were masked, critics were amazed with Metalious boldness. The reviews Peyton Place received were extremely mixed, with most praising her for her candidness. "Authoress 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" (Time 100). Another reviewer appreciated the Metalious for her "humor, heart, vigor, [and] a feeling for irony" (San Francisco Chronicle 17). However, there re
mained an abundance of critics who could only focus on the sexy content. "This novel is 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" (
Catholic World 152).
While the focus seemed to remain on the lewd and sexual content, its popularity stemmed from the taboo attached to the novel. In 1956, Americans were not supposed to read Peyton Place. Although people knew things such as abortion, rape and incest o
ccurred, no one wanted to talk about them. Those were secrets that were supposed to remain covered. Critics were quick to blame for the sexual content, but did not acknowledge that her realism prompted the novel's success. In a Cosmopolitan interview Met
alious stated, "I don't know what all the screaming is about. To me, Peyton Place isn't sexy at all. Sex is something everybody lives with-why make such a big deal about it." Readers were relieved that someone acknowledged their troubles and wasn
't afraid to discuss them. For example, the story of Selena's sexual abuse by her father Lucas Cross was based on Jane Glenn "a local girl who confessed in 1947 to killing her father and then, along with her younger brother, burying him in the barn" (Ca
meron xi). While newspapers covered the incident, many were afraid to tell the story as it was, shunning away from words such as "rape" or "incest." While Metalious was criticized for her blatancy, she should have been praised for her candidness. She was
n't afraid to be real and address the issues. Metalious set the "landscape of female desire, of woman-owned dreams dead and denied" (Cameron xxv).
The author's public persona also contributed to the popularity of the book. At the time Grace Metalious was already a mother of three and married to a school principal in Gilmanton, New Hampshire. Aside from writing, Metalious' main work was in the home
as a housewife. Her publicity crew emphasized her role and became known as the "housewife who wrote bestsellers" (Cameron xv). Thus tactic was enormously successful as a marketing tool, it also meant that Metalious's work would be judged as much for wh
at it revealed about her role as a wife and mother as for what it disclosed about her skills as a writer" (Cameron xxv). The media also emphasized her residency in the small town of Gilmanton. After Peyton Place's release, the residents of Gilman
ton took personal offense to the novel, believing it was based on them. Shortly after, George Metalious was fired from his job as principle. The media used his job loss to add another air of mystery to the novel, leading Americans to believe that its' co
ntents were so raunchy that a man even lost his job over them.
Julian Messner, Peyton Place's publisher, did an extraordinary job of publicizing the novel. Yet, the story basically sold itself. In 1957, it appeared as a Twentieth Century Fox motion picture starring Academy Award nominated actress Lana Turner,
Lee Philips and Hope Lange. The movie received 9 Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Director (Mark Robson) and Best Screenplay. The film was later made into a popular 1960's television series starring Mia Farrow and Ryan O'Neal. The
show aired from 1964 to 1969 and later served as the basis for modern-day soap operas.
Aside from the popularity in the media, the 1956 bestseller was recently published through Northeastern University Press. It features an in-depth and insightful introduction by Ardis Cameron examining the numerous issues within the text, including gender
roles, class, and ethnicity. Since the book is now presented to a society in which sex and violence is a commonality, critics were able to focus more on Metalious' writing skills and not the content. Kirkus stated that "Metalious was a competent writer w
ith some flair whose punchy workmanlike prose efficiently captured her little inland New England's hamlet's earthy populace. Peyton Place is, on its own terms, both a perfectly decent popular novel and an honest one" (Kirkus, 1999).
As a modern-day reader and through recent reviews, it is clear that Grace Metalious came way before her time. While she still made bestseller status, the 1950's critics were not able to appreciate and acknowledge her intuitiveness of the problems and tho
ughts of women. Nonetheless, Peyton Place was a national success, giving rise to novels written by, for and about women.
Peyton Place. Northwestern University Press, 1999.
Catholic World (11.56)
Chicago Tribune Review (9.23.56)
Cosmopolitan (8.56 & 8.58)
Library Journal (9.15.56)
New York Herald Tribune Book Review (9.23.56)
New York Times (9.23.56)
New Yorker (10.20.56)
San Francisco Chronicle (9.28.56)
Saturday Review (10.6.56 & 11.3.56)
Virginia Kirkus (7.15.56)