Archive for October, 2009

Revisiting Peyton Place

Grace Metalious’ infamous novel, Peyton Place, was published in 1956. In a year marked by such media events as Elvis Presley’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, Marilyn Monroe marrying Arthur Miller, My Fair Lady opening on Broadway and Grace Kelly moving to Monaco to become a princess, Metalious’ novel about small-town scandals competed for, and won, its own sensational niche. And, while musical adaptations of Pygmalion don’t exactly blow our minds anymore, Peyton Place still has the ability to shock.

Hope_Lange_in_Peyton_PlacePeyton Place tells the story of that eponymous, small, New England town and its inhabitants during the last years of the Depression and into WWII, but is focused primarily on the experiences of two girls, Allison MacKenzie and Selena Cross. On the surface, they are strikingly different. The former is the daughter of Constance MacKenzie; a single widow who owns a respectable business, and the latter is a “shack dweller” who lives in filth and poverty with her syphilitic mother, Nellie, and a violent, drunken stepfather, Lucas Cross. While the girls begin the story as best friends, their differing temperaments place them on separate trajectories. Allison is bookish and immature. Selena is world-wise and world-weary. One derives her comfort from fantasies, the other from cold reality.

Yet, they are not as different as the prudish Allison would believe. Hidden skeletons in their respective closets bind them to each other and to their small-town neighbors. And, as Metalious reveals, what spectacular skeletons they are. Incest, illegitimacy, cuckolding, alcoholism, abortion, venal acquisitiveness, power wielding, pettiness, religious hypocrisy, sexual deviancy and murder are all happening just behind the whitewashed picket fences. There is not a deadly sin left unearthed in Peyton Place, and it is from the strangely contemporary-feeling scandals depicted throughout, that the novel derives its ability to shock more than 50 years after its publication.

Metalious accomplishes this trick by first setting up the superficial, moral parameters of the townsfolk and then systematically throwing each character into a crisis. For instance, the neer-do-well town scion, Rodney, gets a girl pregnant and then has his father pay off the girl’s family to get her out of town. Norman, a cloistered mommy’s boy who is given “medicinal” enemas — well into his adulthood — peeps on a man performing cunninglingus on his pregnant wife and never recovers from the illicit shock. Allison MacKenzie finally discovers that she is a bastard and that her fantasies of a princely father are just that. Most shockingly, Selena Cross becomes pregnant after being raped by Lucas, and the town’s upstanding doctor gives her an illegal abortion. Selena later murders Lucas, when he tries to rape her again, and buries him in the sheep pen.

The descriptions of sex, the inquisition of the era’s mores and the dialogue hold up as well as anything from fiction written by more accomplished and respected authors. This might be because two unsung editors at Julian Messner purportedly rewrote the book before publication. But, who writes their own books anymore anyway?

While it would be easy to scoff today at the uproar caused by the publication of Peyton Place in Ike’s America, there is no theme explored in this story that isn’t still being beaten to exhaustion on the Lifetime Television Network or in the media generally. The recent disapproving uproar caused by Mackenzie Phillips’ revelations that her father drugged and raped her when she was a teen, and the flock of apologists who descended upon the world’s stage to protect that other child rapist, director Roman Polanski, illustrate that the plight of Selena Cross is just as relevant today as it was in 1956. (See related story in the New York Times.)

In 2006, it was reported that actress Sandra Bullock had signed on to portray Metalious in a biopic about the author. Nothing has been reported since, but, given the utterly-contemporary feel of her 50-year-old best-seller, a fresh look at the author seems relevant — though hopefully Bullock will do a better job at depicting Grace Metalious than she did with her uncomfortable rendering of To Kill a Mockingbird author, Harper Lee, in the film Infamous.

Peyton Place is worth another look; if only to realize anew that, though American women have come a long way, baby, we still have much further to go.

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