Town and Country

Why is Peyton Place, a fictional tale of poverty, murder and female desire, not still popular today?


in Books


Some time ago, I embarked on a personal reading project: An informal survey of books that once had been widely read — so widely read, in fact, that they had earned their place in the literary lexicon.  

The criteria for my project did have certain strictures. The operative word was once. The contents of these books were basically ignored by today’s readers. But their renown or familiarity endured. 

This was not the distinct pleasure of discovering some hitherto-forgotten book or author. The books I selected weren’t obscure. They just occupied a sort of literary Twilight Zone. 

Peyton Place, for example, had garnered such fame as to merit inclusion in the American vernacular, as a shorthand for a gossipy, backstabbing locus. It seemed as good a place as any to start.       

As irrational as it sounds, it was a minor revelation that Peyton Place existed at all; procured with minimal effort; covers opened, pages turned (at least in my Kindleless universe). It was akin to gaining easy entrée to a party or event you’d totally forgotten about.  

I read Peyton Place in an attractive paperback edition published by Northeastern University Press. The fact that it was reissued under the aegis of a university press is a double-edged sword. A university press bestows some gravitas. It conveys the concept that Peyton Place is worthy of reexamination. On the other hand, it also conveys irrelevance, akin to a long-ago hit song. 

Peyton Place, a novel written by one Grace Metalious, was published in 1956. In every sense of the word, it was a sensation. The sales figures were startling: 60,000 copies were sold in less than two weeks, with total sales topping off at 12 million copies. Peyton Place was a brutal, uncensored look at American small-town life. Its explicit contents were a radical departure from the mainstream book world of 1956. An intoxicating, salacious sheen of the verboten emanated from Peyton Place. The unpolished Grace Metalious had sprung out of nowhere. It was known — details fuzzy — that she had cribbed freely from the life and goings-on of her own town, Gilmanton, New Hampshire. The novel’s climactic murder scene is based on a real incident from the 1940s, the so-called sheep pen murder. All of this added to the book’s taboo allure. 

Peyton Place dealt openly with matters that had never made it into popular fiction — or if they did, were handled in the most oblique way possible. There was nothing oblique about Peyton Place, with its plotlines of murder, sexual abuse, and abortion. 

One large assumption was that Metalious was no fabulist and instead constructed Peyton Place out of her own life and experiences: an airing out of dirty laundry on a large scale. This is not true. Despite its verisimilitude, Peyton Place is a work of fiction, an invention. It came from a literary talent. 

Peyton Place is associated with gossipy intrigue. This is probably because its subsequent spin-offs blurred any associations with the gritty, class-conscious novel. Metalious was not shy about monetizing her success. The film version, starring Lana Turner and a young Hope Lange, came out in 1957, with the novel’s jagged edges softened. There was a subsequent novel, Return to Peyton Place, which was also made into a movie in 1961. 

Then there is Peyton Place, the glossy prime-time soap opera of the 1960s, which featured pre-stardom Mia Farrow and Ryan O’Neal. This is often the immediate association people make with the name Peyton Place.  

The uproar Peyton Place generated is completely understandable. It’s quite easy to see what the fuss was all about. Much of the novel takes place on the wrong side of the tracks, among the have-nots, those parts of New England where people live in tar shacks. There is accurate-sounding, foul-mouthed dialogue: “‘There ain’t much a feller can do when he’s married to a born whore;’” “brick shithouse.”  

Small-town life, in Metalious’s rendering, was provincial, mean-spirited, and ultimately lethal. The toxicity and narrow-mindedness of small-town life was not, in 1956, exactly a revelation. American writers — Sinclair Lewis and a host of others — had extensively mined this terrain. And anyone who had read Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome knew that swaths of New England bore little resemblance to peppy college football games, mugs of hot chocolate, and hearty Thanksgiving dinners. Peyton Place, though, took it all a good deal further. 

Allison MacKenzie, one of the novel’s teen protagonists, grows up in a fatherless household — the legacy of her mother Constance’s affair with a married man. The most harrowing storyline in the book is that of another teen protagonist, Selena Cross, daughter of a housecleaner who lives in a tar shack and shares quarters with Lucas, her heinous, abusive stepfather. She becomes pregnant by him and Swain, the town doctor, provides an abortion. The doctor’s actions are rendered entirely sympathetically. This was shocking in 1956. Given today’s political climate, it is shocking anew. 

In a horrifying scene, the predatory Lucas approaches Selena again. Metalious is unsparing in what happens next: 

. . . [Selena] brought the fire tongs around with both her hands and smashed them with all her strength against the side of his head. . . . She wrapped the blanket around the crushed thing that had been her stepfather. 

Selena and her brother bury the battered corpse in a sheep pen — the fictional reenactment of the sheep pen murder. These were not the things one could normally expect to find in a bestselling work of fiction. 

Peyton Place was not simply a recitation of horrors. Some of the novel was undergirded with a certain understated humor — perfect for the rendering of small-town New England’s denizens. Tomas Makiris, the incoming new high school principal, has been imported from distant New York City and is — to the consternation of the know-nothing townspeople — of Greek descent. “’A Greek?’ demanded Peyton Place incredulously.” Corey Hyde, owner of the town’s diner, worries about competition: “’The next thing you know, we’ll have an all-night fruit store.’” Then there is this bit of patter as Makris arrives in Peyton Place via train and attempts to extract information from the station master: 

“. . . could you tell me how I can get into town from here? I noticed a distressing lack of taxicabs outside.” 

     “Be damned peculiar if I couldn’t.” 

     “If you couldn’t what?” 

     “Tell you how to get uptown. Been living here for over sixty years.”  

Metalious also exhibits a certain authorial sympathy for the townspeople, showing solidarity with them in the face of outsider scorn. A passing New Yorker spends a few hours in Peyton Place and finds it all laughable, in that condescending manner still all too familiar: 

. . . and he was thinking what an amusing anecdote this would make to tell his friends when he returned to New York. He would practice that nasal twang, and when he returned home he would tell of the picturesque old native whom he had met and conversed with in northern New England. 

Metalious was also skilled in the realm of the sensory: the reader feels and sees the small town, the terrain — internal and external. The novel is framed by lyrical opening paragraphs —  “Indian summer is like a woman” was the famous opening line — that wax poetic about the seasons. And a descriptive exposition follows: 

“The sky was low, of solidly unbroken blue. The maples and oaks and ashes, all dark red and brown and yellow, preened themselves in the unseasonably hot light, under the Indian summer sun.”

The novel, then, had more than its fair share of literary attributes. Those attributes, though, received scant attention.  

There is one passage in Peyton Place that is unforgivable, in which the hot-blooded Tomas Makris is unable to contain his passion for Constance MacKenzie and brutally forces himself on her. This is depicted as standard operating procedure. What it is in reality, rape, although the breathless prose certainly doesn’t render it that way. One didn’t have to turn to Peyton Place to imbibe scenes like that; they were all around in books and film. Misogyny and its attendant violence were embedded in American culture. Metalious, so perceptive in so many ways, nevertheless absorbed some of that societal poison.  

Metalious was dubbed “Pandora in blue jeans” (wearing jeans, in those days, meriting special mention). What made Peyton Place so powerful was that she built on standard motifs, like the unsavory goings-on in a small town. The 1950s were also the era in which teen culture commanded a huge amount of public attention, for good or ill. Peyton Place, though, took these familiar tropes and went in a different direction. The book was not uncovering hitherto-unknown terrain — like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County— and bringing it to light. It was not transporting the reader to the blackboard jungle of urban juvenile delinquents and their savage rock ‘n roll. Peyton Place’s terrain was all around and possibly in front of you. That familiarity made the shock all the greater.  

The Pandora’s box that Grace Metalious opened was, to an extent, a medium-sized one. Peyton Place was not a call for political activism or an exhortation to go out and correct societal inequities. She also did her literary reputation no favors by her relentless commercialism. And every subsequent iteration of Peyton Place — the films, the book sequel, the soap opera — was akin to the game of telephone, in which a phrase is quietly passed around the room until the original meaning is distorted. The gritty, socially relevant novel was subsumed in favor of the perception that what Metalious had done was write a sort of prequel to “Harper Valley PTA,” the classic country song in which the female protagonist calls out the small town’s many hypocrisies.  

And then, of course, came the 1960s, rendering much of Peyton Place instantly irrelevant. Grace Metalious died in 1964 at the age of 39, essentially drinking herself into an early grave. Her unexpected passing also certainly added to the stigma of obsolescence.  

For decades, Metalious’s saga was consigned as a chronicle of a benighted, intolerant age. Its prose does not feel contemporaneous, but it is startling and hugely disturbing that many of the issues Peyton Place so graphically brought to the reading public’s attention are of the here and now. If only the book really was a relic. But it is not.  

Small-town poverty, for example, is at a more desperate level today than it was in the pages of Peyton Place: The opioid crisis, in 1956, would have been the stuff of dystopian fiction. The circumstances of a Selena Cross obtaining a safe abortion have as much resonance today as it had then. And more, perhaps: Selena Cross and Dr. Swain were in no danger of bounty-hunting anti-abortionists.  

Peyton Place holds up an uncomfortable mirror to today’s crazy-quilt, chaotic political landscape, where the acceptable becomes verboten almost overnight (in vitro fertilization comes to mind). The 1950s are commonly thought of as a repressive era, but could Peyton Place be published in today’s world of mainstream publishing? And if it was published, would it run afoul of the current legions of crazed moralists and be purged from libraries everywhere?   

What is most shocking about Peyton Place is how un-shocking much of it is. Since 1956, a huge amount of repression and intolerance has indeed been vanquished. But in many respects, not much has changed at all. In many respects, things have gotten worse.  

The nicest fate for Peyton Place would be to relegate it yet again to the annals of history: A chronicle of an earlier, unenlightened time, when grotesqueries like sexual violence and class oppression were allowed to flourish. But it is just the opposite.  Peyton Place, instead, deserves to be reread and reexamined for the cautionary tale that it is: Vanquished modes of repression don’t stay vanquished. They can be — and are — resurrected with jaw-dropping speed and efficacy.•


Callahan, Michael. “Peyton Place’s Real Victim.” Vanity Fair, March 2006 

Cameron, Ardis. Unbuttoning America: A Biography of “Peyton Place” (Cornell University Press, 2015) 


Richard Klin is the author of two books of nonfiction and Petroleum Transfer Engineer, a novel published by Underground Voices. His writing — fiction and nonfiction — has appeared in The Atlantic, The Millions, The Brooklyn Rail, Cultural Daily, The Forward, and many others.