hosted by Ardis Cameron
Cameron: Author of ‘Unbuttoning America’
Event Location: Camden Public Library
CAMDEN — Ardis Cameron, author of Unbuttoning America and professor emerita of American and New England studies, will talk about the phenomenon of Peyton Place at the Peyton Place Retrospective at the Camden Public Library on Thursday, July 14, at 7 p.m.
Published in 1956, Peyton Place became a bestseller and a literary phenomenon. A lurid and gripping story of murder, incest, female desire and social injustice, it was consumed as avidly by readers as it was condemned by critics and the clergy, according to Cornell University Press. Its author, Grace Metalious, a housewife who grew up in poverty in a New Hampshire mill town and had aspired to be a writer from childhood, loosely based the novel's setting, characters and incidents on real-life places, people and events.
The novel sold more than 30 million copies in hardcover and paperback, and it was adapted into a hit Hollywood film in 1957 and a popular television series that aired from 1964 to 1969. More than half a century later, the term "Peyton Place" is still in circulation as a code for a community harboring sordid secrets.
In Unbuttoning America, Cameron mines extensive interviews, fan letters and archival materials, including contemporary cartoons and cover images from film posters and foreign editions to tell how the story of a patricide in a small New England village circulated over time and became a cultural phenomenon. She argues that Peyton Place, with its frank discussions of poverty, sexuality, class and ethnic discrimination — and small-town hypocrisy — was more than a tawdry potboiler. Fictionalizing contemporary realities, Metalious pushed to the surface the hidden talk and secret rebellions of a generation no longer willing to ignore the disparities and domestic constraints of Cold War America.
In an interview with Jennifer Hunter posted on star.com, Cameron said, "[Peyton Place] was considered an outrageous book, so it is startling to realize that one in 29 Americans bought a copy. It was the bestselling novel of the 20th century until The Godfather came along. So many of the unconventional sexual and gender behaviors that were going on in the 1950s were under the radar screen. But the women of Peyton Place — Selena Cross, Allison MacKenzie and Betty Anderson — dealt with issues such as unwed mothers, incest, homosexuality. That resonated for many people. Readers could identify with these stories. They could use the stories to describe their own feelings and describe behaviors they felt were beyond words, like incest. It attracted all kinds of readers, from Julia Child, who found it a great read, to John Waters.
"The term Peyton Place has entered into the American lexicon. Grace Metalious may not be remembered, but the title of her book is! And the novel has been rediscovered over the past 10 years. There are about 50,000 copies sold each year. The reason I wrote about Peyton Place is because I believe it had a tremendous impact on American history and because Metalious was a sharp critic of the social landscape. My interest is in it as a cultural work and its impact is something people haven't looked at or explored."