Unbuttoning America: A Biography of Peyton Place

Ardis Cameron

With its frank discussions of poverty, sexuality, class and ethnic discrimination, and small-town hypocrisy, Peyton Place was more than a tawdry potboiler.

Excerpted from Unbuttoning America: A Biography of "Peyton Place" by Ardis Cameron © 2015 (footnotes omitted), and reprinted by permission of Cornell University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.

The Novel Truth

When I read [Peyton Place] at ten years old, I knew the world around me was a lie.

-- John Waters

In the autumn of 1956, Mrs. John L. Harris sat down to read Peyton Place, but her reading was fraught with difficulties. Her son, a student at Dartmouth College, “was disgusted,” she wrote its author, “and my husband wasn’t much better pleased.” Distracted and annoyed by the men in her family, the Seattle housewife nevertheless found the story “completely fascinating,” while the writing “caused me to fairly race through the pages.” Peyton Place’s critics had simply missed the point, she fumed. “The so-called ‘filth’ which many people censure in your book is to me only a small part of a truly good story.” Mrs. Harris urged Grace Metalious to carry on. “Please keep writing,” she implored. “Your talent is too good to hide.” Then she sat down to read Peyton Place a second time.

Mrs. Harris was hardly alone. “Finding nothing about to read on a dull evening,” Frank Allen picked up a copy of Peyton Place that someone had left behind at his New Hampshire summer camp. He had avoided reading the novel for almost three years after his favorite literary critic, Parker Marrow, panned it. “After a few pages,” Allen exclaimed in a letter to Metalious, “I whistled in astonishment and thought that so & so parker! he ought to be shot ... I have taken up cudgels in your defense ever since.” Even the harried cookery book writer Julia Child found in Peyton Place the perfect “reading-for-pure-self-indulgence.” Finding a copy in paperback a year after its publication, she recommended it to her friend Avis DeVoto. “Quite enjoyed it,” she confessed. Then, her vacation over, Child “soberly and happily” returned to Goethe.”

Figure 1. For some readers, Peyton Place was real enough to map. Map of Peyton Place by reader Deborah Briskey. Gift to the author.

Despite its reputation as a form of leisure, the reading of novels has never been a trouble-free activity, especially for women, whose readerly desires and habits have long been the subject of passionate concern and controversy. Almost from the first stirrings of the genre, the novel irritated people of quality. “Novels,” the Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush warned his readers, should be avoided at all costs, for rather than “soften[ing] the female heart into acts of humanity,” novels “blunt the heart to that which is real.” What made the new genre “novel,” in other words, was its focus on the imaginary and invented realms of human life, putting the novelist in tension with eighteenth-century calls to reason, evidence, and truth. Things only got worse. By the nineteenth century, fiction was jamming empiricist aspirations to objectivity and fact like dirt in a trigger. “History, travels, poetry, and moral essays” became, as Rush recommended, the preferred antidote to “that passion for reading novels which so generally prevails among the fair sex.”

Republican mothers were no less vexed over the types of fiction that women readers preferred. Popular novelists like Hannah Webster Forster wrote extensively against the dangers inherent in certain books. She lamented “the kind of reading now adopted by the generality of young ladies,” which to her mind was “foreign to our manners.” Susanna Rowson worried as well that the reading of novels could “vitiate the taste and corrupt the heart,” joining Foster in decrying the ability of novels to promote among female readers “impure desires,” “vanity,” and “dissipation.”

At the heart of these debates was the assumption, driven by Enlightenment concerns over the relationship between reason and passion, that fiction, especially romantic, gothic, and sensational novels, overly engaged the imagination of readers, making it difficult, if not impossible, for the untutored and “primitive” to distinguish between fact and fiction, fantasy and reality. Unlike the normative educated male reader, whose reasoning capacity, it was argued, provided a more critical rendering of such materials, female, working-class, and subjugated readers were said to lack the capacity to curb readerly flights of fancy. For them, novels reduced the rational self to the imitative behavior of the “captive audience,” whereby readers, too caught up in the thrills of fiction, forfeited their capacity to engage the narrative in a reasonable and productive manner. “For all of these lesser subjectivities,” scholars have made clear, “the exercise of the imagination was problematic.” The credulous reader could literally get lost in a book, so closely did she identify with character, plot, and scene. Even the sober mill girls of New England, it seems, fell under the sway of sensational reading, as newspaper cartoons like the one shown here invited readers to draw connections between cheap wages and cheap fiction at the very time when Lowell manufacturers were seeking to prove the moral as well as the monetary benefits of female wage labor. Nothing good, it seemed, could come from the irrational mental wanderings of fiction, for “novels not only pollute the imaginations of young women,” one American critic warned, but also give “false ideas of life.”

Figure 2. Caricature of Lowell factory girls reading “cheap literature.” The woman on the left is reading a French sex manual, while the pair in bed share a racy novel by Joseph Holt Ingraham. “Factory Girls,” cover, Boston City Crier and Country Advertiser, April 1846. Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

In the summer of 1905, Henry Dwight Sedgwick had had enough. Readers, he lamented, were nothing more than an indiscriminate “mob” rushing here and there in pursuit of the latest best-seller. “The proletariat, the lower bourgeois, and the upper bourgeois,” it mattered not at all, he wrote, for each class had abandoned its better instincts and training in quest of the “mob novel.” The numbers, Sedgwick reported, were shocking: “The Crisis, 405,000 copies sold, the Eternal City, 325,000, the Leopard’s Spots, with its career still before it, 94,000.” Like many of his literary brethren, Sedgwick worried over the state of American Letters and the nation that produced them. He explicitly linked the turbulent mass strikes that rocked his generation with the consumption of cheap novels and sensational stories, warning readers against the “Mob Spirit” that now engulfed Literature. In the grip of cheap fiction, he charged, the reader grew “more tumultuous, more passionate, more a creature of instinct and less a creature of reason.” The “reading mob the bigger it grows, becomes more emotional, more excited, it reads and talks with greater avidity, is increasingly vehement in its likes and dislikes, and opinions, forces the book on its neighbors, gives, and lends more and more with the swift and sure emotions of instinct.” Fiction had become a “contagion” spreading itself across the classes and undermining the educational efforts of schools and intellectuals.

Sedgwick was born in 1861, seven years after the founding of the Boston Public Library, and his career as a lawyer, essayist, and historian paralleled the great boom in literacy and the mass marketing of books. Cheap paper put romance stories and dime novels into the hands of increasingly large numbers of working-class and immigrant readers, while free lending libraries not only expanded the reach of books but also gave local librarians the power to decide what kinds of books the public might check out. Publishers listened while library donors cringed. When Samuel Tilden learned that 90 percent of the books borrowed from the Boston Public Library were fiction, he came close to canceling his $2.4 million bequest to New Yorkers who hoped to establish their own free library. Literature, Sedgwick concluded, needed new leadership: “men of natural gifts and educated taste, experienced in the humanities,” who could “tame the turbulent mob spirit” as it coursed through the veins of American social and literary life. Literary men, that is, who shared his passion for Democracy and presumably the Atlantic Monthly. Bad novels made bad citizens.

For those who sought to inflame the laboring mobs, cheap novels were blamed for making shoddy activists. Born in Russia, Rose Pastor came to the United States as a young girl of twelve and quickly found work in the cigar factories of Cleveland. Like Sedgwick, she was a “serious” reader, who turned her love of words into the literary arts, writing poetry and eventually advice columns for the Jewish Daily News in New York City. Moving to New York in 1903, she became active in the Socialist Party, writing on behalf of the working classes as an advocate of radical social change. Already popular among working girls on the Lower East Side, she became their heroine when she married the millionaire James Graham Phelps Stokes. Like Sedgwick, however, Pastor worried over the enormous popularity of cheap fiction and its effects on women and girls. Joining a growing chorus of progressive reformers and union leaders critical of working girls’ participation in consumer culture, especially their “frivolous” pursuit of fashion and romance novels, Pastor feared that dime novels would turn wage-earning women away from political struggle and working-class organization. As Nan Enstad notes, labor activists viewed stories that “offered a fantasy of magnificent wealth bestowed on the working-girl heroine through a secret inheritance and marriage to a millionaire” with condescension and suspicion. Serious times demanded serious books. “With our free circulating libraries,” Pastor scolded laboring women in 1903, “what excuse is there other than ignorance for any girl who reads the crazy phantasies from the imbecile brains of Laura Jean Libbey, The Duchess, and others of their ilk! ... I appeal to you—if you read those books—stop! stop!”

It was not to be. Pastor’s own marriage seemed the stuff of fantasy, her continuing radicalism living proof to readers of Laura Jean Libbey that fiction carried with it certain truths their own lives had yet to reveal, certain possibilities that might yet be played out. Readily available from pushcarts and newsstands throughout immigrant and working-class neighborhoods, dime novels joined pickles, bread, and eggs among the necessaries of daily life. But was Sedgwick right? Did cheap novels make for cheeky citizens?

Not surprisingly, proponents of women’s rights were there from the beginning, defending a woman’s right to read whatever her heart desired, more or less. But the relationship between fiction, fantasy, and femininity raised for feminists as well a number of troubling questions. Could the reading of gothic, romantic, and sensational novels, Mary Wollstonecraft and Jane Austen famously wondered, turn the female reader into the degraded “object of desire,” leading to a “conventional, dependent, and degenerate femininity”? Echoing Rose Pastor’s fears, Betty Friedan saw in the “sex glutted novels” of the post–World War II era a serious erosion of “independent activity” among American women which forced them to find “their sole fulfillment through their sexual role in the home.” Consciously catering to the “female hunger for sexual phantasy,” Friedan opined, Peyton Place was another sad symptom of the feminine mystique. In the minds of both progressives and conservatives, in other words, fantasy and imagination could have only negative effects. In the minds of the former, they stirred up erotic and romantic emotions that supplanted reason, promoted female passivity, and undercut a woman’s autonomy and emancipation, while to the latter group of thinkers they inspired “ambitious excess,” provoking not only “disgust for all serious employments” but also a general dissatisfaction with one’s station in life. Only in recent years have attitudes toward the female reader begun to shift. Indeed, entire forests have surrendered themselves to the scholarly exploration of female acts of reading and the everyday uses of books. Secondand third-wave feminists have been especially astute in rethinking the effects of fantasy, repositioning the female reader as a complex social actor who is neither the passive receptor of textual messages nor extraneous to movements of social change. Light fiction, it turns out, is serious business. For women and girls, who stood in the imaginative center of modern consumer society—men produced, women shopped—dime novels and newspaper stories called new attention to their spending habits. Hardly reflective of reality, the gendered narratives of consumption nevertheless gave women and their interests an unexpected edge by placing both at the center of modern consumer culture and rising concerns over its unpredictable emotional and psychic effects. Sharp dichotomies took hold: Was modern consumerist society and the “mass culture” it unleashed a new opiate or a potential site of rebellion and transformation? Labor historians have most often sided with Pastor, assuming, as her Enlightenment predecessors argued, that political engagement and collective action presupposed a coherent and fully formed political identity as “worker,” “woman,” “American.”

Ladies of labor and girls of adventure, however, tell a different tale. In her powerful study of labor politics in the early twentieth century, Enstad shows that dime novels, like clothes and movies, offered girls and women who labored in constrained circumstances a way to negotiate contradictory positions. Building on the work of Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, and Joan Scott, Enstad underscores the mutability of subjectivity, arguing that women’s political consciousness and actions emerged less from “clear and coherent identities” than from the contradictions laboring women experienced as terms like “worker” and “working class” increasingly took on meaning in opposition to womanhood and all things feminine, including the consumption of dime novels. “Precisely because working ladies found themselves excluded from the honorable categories of ‘worker,’ ‘American’ and ‘women,’” writes Enstad, “the resources of popular culture were of particular importance in their efforts to claim identities out of contradictions, and gain a sense of dignity and worth.” Unable to make sense of the categories available to describe their experiences as both wage laborers and American ladies, immigrant girls fashioned a “particular form of radicalism and their own gender and class language.” With fiction and fantasy, girls of toil spun new dreams and conjured different selves, reworking old identities as they went and fashioning new, aspirational, and at times political subjectivities. From this perspective, subjectivity unfolds as a process linked to “self ” and “identity,” but it accentuates more than either the never-ending momentum of becoming. Novels did not cause working women to go on strike in 1909, but in their ability to articulate scenarios of readerly desire, they allowed laboring women to imagine themselves in new ways. In the fantasies of fiction and fashion, female readers found common ground and a collective desire that captured—perhaps produced—their imagination as “women” in common cause. At the beginning of every good story is a reader’s silent longing.

To tell the truth, readers were always a mixed lot. There was never a “universal reader,” and the concept of “the female reader” was pure fiction, the rejected Other who gave to the serious reader its privileged identity. Reading itself is a deeply mediated activity. Habits of reading reflect differences in class and ethnicity as well as in gender and individual psychology. The segmentation of publishing, as Lawrence Levine pointed out, was well advanced by the turn of the twentieth century, and the notion of “the female reader,” like the “mob reader,” misrepresented both readership and the literary marketplace. Still, in the long and furious battle over Good Books and the dangers of reading invention and “phantasy,” the “woman reader” emerged as an undifferentiated subject of concern and complaint. Historically bound together by the fetters of criticism, women across classes and regions, ethnicity, race, and sexualities now found themselves yoked together as problematic consumers of questionable taste. To pick up a “best-seller” was to confirm and mark that identity linking disparate women together as frivolous readers and femininity with the trashy and lightweight. Real men read history.

Let them. The girls of toil and the ladies of leisure cared not a fig. For where, if not in novel form, could the female reader find herself an actor in a world where women’s actions mattered? How else except with a novelist’s pen was the history of women written? Where else did the concerns of the female reader find a telling? Of what use, George Eliot asked her readers, was Casaubon’s expanding index file of “facts, facts, facts” to the busy women of Middlemarch, whose purposeful lives passed in front of the historian’s gaze without note or notice? Of what use was History for those edited out of its pages? Novels spoke to women because History had nothing to say to them. “Women were not only not interested in history,” the historian Jill Lepore writes, “they didn’t trust it.” It simply didn’t speak their language. Represented as the antidote to the stormy passions and turbulent falsehoods of fiction, History lashed itself to the oak-like mast of hard fact. It cleared its decks of subjectivity, fantasy, and desire and jettisoned undocumented lives. Women were the first to lose interest. “It tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me,” Jane Austen’s heroine Catherine Morland confides in Northanger Abbey. “The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention.” Fiction was interesting because it gave a telling to things History would not. The coquette, prostitute, spinster, society matron, factory operative, slave girl, parson’s daughter, woman in the attic, girl detective, and woman behind bars all found a place in the popular archive of fiction. The difficulties readers encountered were but flies in honey. Women read the critics, heard the debates, suffered the slings and arrows of husbands and sons, and then, like Mrs. Harris, settled into the hidden lives and secret truths that every truly good story promised.

Like the category “woman,” then, the “female reader” constituted an act of social engineering, shaping and defining over time the hierarchical contours of gender difference and the essential nature that separated the feminine realm from that of the masculine. But as Enstad and others have shown, the reading of melodrama, gothic, romance, and sentimental fiction could just as easily alter a reader’s relationship to both. “Don’t tell me that woman wasn’t happy!” the deserted husband of Lulamae tells the young narrator in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. “Reading dreams. That’s what started her walking down the road. Every day she’d walk a little further: a mile, and come home. Two miles, and come home. One day she just kept on.” Lulamae did not simply follow her dreams, nor is it the case that stories made them up for her. Rather stories are always produced in the exchanges between text and reader so that both are subject to change, each the shifting product of fantasy. Is there ever one meaning locked into any given story? Is there truly ever one reader? In the textual fantasies Lulamae wiggled herself into, the “clear and invariable” wife her husband knew wobbled and disappeared. If Lulamae couldn’t make it down that road, Holly would go lightly, finding in her new name itineraries Lulamae could only dream about. The “fictive securities of reality,” as Michel de Certeau put it, slip away in the reading of books, taking with them “the assurances that give the self its location on the social checkerboard.”

Sex upped the ante. “Reading, dear reader, is a sexual and sexually divided practice,” the literary scholar Cora Kaplan writes as she sets out to probe her compulsive reading habits when, as a teenager in the 1950s, fiction became an especially powerful force in her life and “narrative pleasure lost its innocence.” She confesses, “Peyton Place, Jane Eyre, Bleak House, Nana: in my teens, they were all the same to me, part of my sexual and emotional initiation, confirming, constructing my femininity, making plain the psychic form of sexual difference.” Longish, robust novels like these collectively invited readers to identify with multiple characters, and unlike the formulaic “romance novels” of more recent years, they seldom confirmed conventional gender or sexual norms. “Rather,” Kaplan argues, “they evoke powerful overlapping scenarios in which the relation of reader to character is often deliciously blurred.” Novels, Kaplan theorizes, helped female readers like herself “to identify across sexual difference and to engage with narrative fantasy from a variety of subject positions and at various levels.”

Few readers can match Kaplan’s self-awareness or capture her astute rendering of the social and psychic implications of youthful reading. But as we shall see, she was not alone in reading herself into a sexualized womanhood and, in the case of Peyton Place, into manhood as well. Readers tell of devouring Peyton Place with “heart pounding and hands straying,” and in its pages coming to terms with what those inexact yet powerfully rooted concepts meant and would come to mean as they repositioned themselves within the unconventional scenarios the novel evoked.

In the language of many critics, however, Peyton Place was simply a “sexy” book. While serious literary critics like Carlos Baker linked Peyton Place to “the revolt from the village school” and compared the young author to literary lights like Sherwood Anderson, Edmund Wilson, John O’Hara, and Sinclair Lewis, the novel found cultural traction as a salacious, spicy, even “sexsational” novel, a reputation the publishing industry kindled. Even before it hit the bookshelves, the novel was marketed as so shocking that it had caused the dismissal of the author’s husband from his teaching job. Pictures on the front pages of New England newspapers showed a smiling Grace Metalious surrounded by her family and her unemployed husband, George. What kind of wife could do such a thing? What kind of mother could write such a book?

Journalists, too, increasingly connected Peyton Place to a category of erotically infused novels loosely defined as “sex novels,” best-sellers from Anthony Adverse and Whistle Stop before the war to Forever Amber, Kings Row, The Amboy Dukes, and Mandingo in the years that followed. Uneven in skillfulness and literary acclaim, they were united by their willingness to explore the intimate frontiers of everyday life. Where Whistle Stop adopted a gritty social realism that only hinted at sibling incest, Forever Amber used a sexually explicit language of pragmatic realism to relate, according to the attorney general of Massachusetts, “70 references to sexual intercourse, 39 illegitimate pregnancies, seven abortions, and 10 scenes in which women undressed in front of men who were not their husbands.”

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