Published in 1956, Peyton Place became a bestseller and a literary phenomenon. A luridand gripping story of murder, incest, female desire, and social injustice, itwas consumed as avidly by readers as it was condemned by critics and theclergy. Its author, Grace Metalious, a housewife who grew up in poverty in aNew Hampshire mill town and had aspired to be a writer from childhood, looselybased the novel’s setting, characters, and incidents on real-life places,people, and events. The novel sold more than thirty million copies in hardcoverand paperback, and it was adapted into a hit Hollywood film in 1957 and apopular television series that aired from 1964 to 1969. More than half acentury later, the term “Peyton Place” is still in circulation as a code for acommunity harboring sordid secrets.
In UnbuttoningAmerica, Ardis Cameron mines extensive interviews, fan letters, andarchival materials, including contemporary cartoons and cover images from filmposters and foreign editions, to tell how the story of a patricide in a smallNew England village circulated over time and became a cultural phenomenon. Sheargues that Peyton Place, with itsfrank discussions of poverty, sexuality, class and ethnic discrimination, andsmall-town hypocrisy, was more than a tawdry potboiler. Metalious’s depictionof how her three central female characters come to terms with their identity aswomen and sexual beings anticipated second-wave feminism. More broadly, thenovel was also part of a larger postwar struggle over belonging andrecognition. Fictionalizing contemporary realities, Metalious pushed to thesurface the hidden talk and secret rebellions of a generation no longer willingto ignore the disparities and domestic constraints of Cold War America.