Leonard Cassuto: Peyton Place, 50 Years After

Roundup: Talking About History

[Leonard Cassuto is a professor of English at Fordham University.]

Next month marks the 50th anniversary of publication of Grace Metalious's Peyton Place, one of the most notorious novels of its time. The book exposed the petty, sordid, and urgently erotic hidden life of a small town. A best seller of precedent-setting proportions, it was also widely disparaged by the literati of the 1950s, who saw it as little more than a prurient diversion. Today millions of viewers tune in weekly to watch Desperate Housewives, which exposes the petty and sordid eroticism of a contemporary suburb. Is Desperate Housewives just Peyton Place made over for today's audience? Surely in some ways, but the differences between them also highlight the extent to which our cultural life has become ever more self-reflexive.

The popularity of Peyton Place resulted from its relentless stripping away of social veneer during the postwar period, at a time when the appearance of domestic tranquillity was increasingly valued. Peyton Place has many characters, and the search for hidden truth braids together the many threads of the plot. The trunk story climaxes when young Allison MacKenzie finally breaches her mother's carefully tended facade of respectability to expose a festering secret: Her mother never married, and Allison is illegitimate.

The novel has "no story," scoffed the The Saturday Review of Literature. The New York Herald Tribune called it "offensively crude," and even the comparatively positive review in The New York Times, by the literary critic Carlos Baker, described it as "lurid" and a "small-town peep show." The sneering of the critics didn't prevent Peyton Place from saturating the popular-entertainment market. Rescued from a small publisher's slush pile by an alert young editor, Metalious's novel appeared in September 1956 and became an immediate best seller, ringing up 60,000 hardcover sales in its first 10 days and more than 100,000 in its first month.

When it was issued in paperback in the fall of 1957, the book blew the roof off the publishing business to reveal an expanse of economic potential. Paperback books were still relatively new in the 1950s, having come into wide use when the government sent large numbers of them to soldiers abroad during World War II. Book publishers still had little idea of the kind of profitability the paperback market offered. Peyton Place educated them in a hurry. Unsupported by any concerted advertising campaign, the paperback version of the novel essentially marketed itself — selling a startling three million copies in its first year in paperback. The year after, it sold another three million, continuing to do well through the late 50s and into the 60s and making Metalious a celebrity (a role whose pressures contributed to her early death from alcoholism).

In 1958 Peyton Place eclipsed Gone With the Wind to become the top-selling novel of all time. It held that position for almost 20 years. The book's success in the face of constant critical disparagement inspired Metalious's famous retort: "If I'm a lousy writer, then an awful lot of people have lousy taste."...

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