- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 4, 2006


on Grace Metalious’


Fifty years ago an obscure young New England writer was transformed into what it is given to few writers to be — a lasting force in American life.

The writer was Grace Metalious, a 32-year-old mother of three in Gilmanton, N.H., who, in years of desperate writing, had never published a word. The novel that brought her fame, or notoriety, was “Peyton Place” (Northeastern University, $16.95, 372 pages, paper) a name that became a synonym for small-town meanness, bigotry and sexual hypocrisy.

If places could be eponyms, Peyton Place would be one, for it has entered that pantheon of fictional places that are invoked as shorthand labels, like Main Street or Tobacco Road.

“Peyton Place” came out in September 1956 from Julian Messner, a small publisher that was willing to take a chance on its scandalous contents because it also saw the possibility that those contents would cause it to take off. Which it did. Rather quickly, helped by an Associated Press interview with the author, word of it got out and it began to climb the New York Times best-seller list.

On Nov. 25, it reached No. 1, the first of two separate stays, totaling 29 weeks, at the top spot. It remained on the list for almost a year and a half. In the fall of 1957, a paperback edition came out.

Propelled, in those innocent days, not by an expensive promotional campaign but by its own popularity, the novel’s sales reached more than six million by 1958 and 10 million by 1966. One report said it outsold the total of all the books ever written by Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Melville, Dreiser and Joyce.

In 1957 a film was made of it, for the rights to which a giddy Metalious received $250,000. In 1961 came a sequel movie, “Return to Peyton Place” (which was as little faithful to Metalious’ own sequel novel of the same name as the first movie was to the original novel).

Then, in September 1964, ABC launched a half-hour television drama series. It was called “Peyton Place,” but its story line bore little resemblance to the novel. It blossomed into the first prime-time soap opera hit and attracted a cult following. It appeared two and sometimes three times a week and ran for 514 episodes until June 1969.

But by that time, the progenitor of all this commercial success had been dead for five years. Grace Metalious was brought down at the age of 39 by her love of demon rum and by a number of other demons that haunted her short, troubled life.

A daughter of French Canada who had always lived in the small, poor towns of New Hampshire, she apparently was less able to cope with the stresses of success than with those of poverty. Besides “Return to Peyton Place,” she published two other books, “The Tight White Collar” (her own favorite) and “No Adam in Eden,” before dying in February 1964 of chronic liver disease.

What is it that this talented young scribbler wrought? If you read, or reread, “Peyton Place” carefully today, you might conclude that it is two-thirds potboiler, one-third classic. For purple prose, its opening sentences can stand with the best of them: “Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle, she comes and goes as she pleases … .”

It ripped the lid off the secrets of the small town, as the press used to say back when the press was called “the press” instead of “the media” (and, indeed, as its own dust jacket proclaims). But then, books have been ripping the lid off the secrets of American small towns at least as far back as Sinclair Lewis’s “Main Street.”

The novel’s twin, related themes — so related as to be virtually one — can be summarized in statements from two widely separated scenes. It is said of John Anderson, a Swedish immigrant mill hand who runs up against the power of Leslie Harrington, the villainous mill owner, that “in 30 years he had not learned the devious art of living in a small town in America.”

In the second, Elsie Thornton, a tired, dedicated teacher at Peyton Place school, thinks in regarding her young charges, “What chance have any of these children to break out of the pattern in which they were born?”

There you have it: How to live in a small town, and how to get out of it. And that, again as far back at least as “Main Street,” has been the theme of many an American novel.

That, however, is not why millions of people have read “Peyton Place.” They read it because it’s a rip-roaring good yarn. If the term “page turner” has any complimentary meaning, it applies here.

This is no Grover’s Corners. Metalious writes, “In Peyton Place there were three sources of scandal: suicide, murder, and the impregnation of an unmarried girl.” She provides all three.

Allison MacKenzie is the 13-year-old daughter of Constance MacKenzie, owner of the Peyton Place apparel shop, who is guiltily hiding the dark secret that her daughter is illegitimate, the child of a love affair she had with a married man.

That is only the first of many dark, and similar, secrets in the town of Peyton Place, N.H., in a time — the late 1930s and early 1940s — when illegitimacy is a circumstance to hide.

Constance’s situation is echoed again and again: Much later, Allison goes to New York and has her own brief affair with a married man; Betty Anderson, a teenage shack dweller, is got with child by Rodney Harrington, the knavish son of the villainous mill owner; and, most despicable of all, Selena Cross, another young shack dweller and Allison’s friend, is raped and impregnated by her stepfather, Lucas Cross.

For this last reprehensible act Metalious drew inspiration from a real scandal in her own town and from reading of a similar incestuous incident in Henry Bellamann’s “Kings Row,” a best-selling novel that ripped the lid off a small town in the preceding decade.

This is followed by Selena’s abortion — then, of course, illegal as well as shameful — and by the suicide of Nellie Cross, Selena’s addled mother who is unable to bear the guilty secret of what her husband has done to her daughter.

Lucas is driven from town by Dr. Matthew Swain, the kindly town doc who secretly performed the abortion. When, years later, Lucas comes back, trying his lecherous ways on Selena again, she brains him with the fire tongs and she and her brother, Joey, bury the evidence.

Of course, murder will out: Selena is put on trial, but Dr. Swain, at the peril of his medical license, comes to her rescue, and she is acquitted. Everyone is pleased with this just outcome, and there is redemption, closure and peace.

Most satisfying. If Metalious sets up some of her confrontations with all the subtlety of Dink Stover biffing a bully at Yale; if some of her characters are drawn from ancient cardboard stock; if there are logical inconsistencies; and if her sex scenes are overly ripe; these are offset by usually sound psychology and sociology; by other character portraits that are honest and believable; and by a compelling story. And someone, either Metalious or her editors, had an absolute gift for novel construction.

But what does it all come to now, five decades later? Making the Times best-seller list, or a movie, or all that other foofaraw are not necessarily proof of lasting significance.

It comes down to the realization that Metalious has lasted as a force in American life for reasons different from, or at least in addition to, what she first was acclaimed for. In recent years, scholars, particularly feminist scholars, have rallied to Metalious’ defense. They have pointed out that a remarkably good bad novel got lost in its own sensational publicity.

Emily Toth, in her “Inside Peyton Place,” says that, in its attitudes toward women, the novel was a book before its time. In “Two-Bit Culture,” a study of the paperback revolution, Kenneth Davis writes that Metalious’ female characters “were on the cutting edge of a movement that had not arrived and still had no voice. They wanted more than to simply find the right man, settle down and begin breeding and keeping house.”

Similar appreciative comments can be found in such reference works as “The Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing” and “The Bloomsbury Guide to Women’s Literature.”

That’s usually the way of it: The scholars take years to come up with a reason for admiring what the masses took to immediately. Either way, to Grace Metalious, whose life was a struggle, it surely would have given some satisfaction.

Roger K. Miller, a former newspaper book review editor, is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor.

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