Friday, January 11, 2008

Grace Metalious' Peyton Place: The Great Lost Beat Novel?!?

Back in October, when I attended the Jack Kerouac Conference at the University of Lowell in Massachusetts, I took note about how one of the featured speakers made this interesting observation:

UConn Professor Richard Pickering came on to deliver his paper “It’s Like Turning Over a Rock with Your Foot: On the Road and Peyton Place as Pandora’s Boxes”. Citing the popular culture of 1956-57, when Detroit had more cars being built, Elvis was on the radio, and television was showing Civil Rights protests to a wide audience, Professor Pickering argued that the success of Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place (which was considered quite shocking at the time due to its depiction of rape, infidelity and overall sexuality), released in hardcover in ’56, not only engendered a ready-made audience of teens as well as adults waiting to pick up the cheaper paperback edition published the following year, but also whetted their appetites for Kerouac’s On the Road (also released in 1957). Pickering also made a persuasive augment for the enduring merits of the Metalious novel, citing his assigning it to his students, who found they couldn’t put it down.

(Above, top: Peyton Place book cover. Below: Grace Metalious)

Of course Professor Pickering's (current day) students couldn't put the book down! After 52 years, Peyton Place still rocks the world with it's alternatively adult and near-sordid depiction of the dark secrets underneath a small (slightly fictional) New England town sometime in the 1930's, as seen through the eyes of central character, young teen ager Allison MacKenzie. There's alcoholism, incest, murder, teen age sex, illegitimate births and so much else going on that it's easy to forget Metalious has managed to craft a riveting narrative that holds the audience's attention, even when shifting from one group of characters (there's quite a large cast) and situations to another. (Said scene shifting, along with some purple prose, are probably the only real drawbacks of the novel.) And the language! Except for the likes of such then-popular authors Norman Mailer, James Jones and Mickey Spillane, no best selling author ever used such graphic and profane words in a popular novel that wasn't male-oriented. (I may be wrong, but, aside from various female pulp writers using male-sounding pseudonyms, Grace Metalious may be the first prominent female novelist to write such coarse-yet-realistically "rough" dialogue in her works. Can anybody out there confirm this?)

Metalious' then-bold and frank description of adult situations caused quite a bit of outrage in it's day. Most critics hated the book, yet the public made it an instant best seller. More importantly, when Kerouac's On The Road came out in hardcover the following year, it was joined by the first paperback printing of Peyton Place, which, thanks to it's lower price and smaller size (easier to hide it from one's parents or spouse)became even more accessible to readers eager to see what the fuss was about. Meanwhile, those that had already read the book moved on to the similarly mature-themed Road novel, itself already getting its' fair share of outrage.

(Below: Covers of Kerouac's and Metalious' follow up novels.)

But is Peyton Place really "Beat"? Well, just barely. Again citing the mature themes of the book mentioned earlier, the novel also shares, especially with the works of Kerouac and the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, a central character (Allison) who wants more out of life than what's being offered, while becoming aware of the dark underbelly of her surroundings. That's silmilar to the desires Road's protagonist Sal Paradise carries. Sal, like Allison, has to grow up and mature to survive, while still seeking some kind of internal satisfaction/justification for his existance.

Grace Metalious probably didn't see herself as a Beat writer. But her most popular novel (a sequel, Return to Peyton Place, came out in 1959, followed by one or two lesser books before her untimely death, from alcoholism at the age of 39, in 1964)certainly shares many Beat characteristics. (And yes, the manner of Metalious' death does prefigure and parallel that of Kerouac's, who died of similar circumstances five years later.)

The library only carries the first Peyton Place novel. I'll ask the video librarian about getting the 1957 movie version, currently available on DVD, for the catalog.

(Peyton Place and it's immediate sequel were made into very popular, if slightly sanitized, movies in 1957 and 1961, respectively. A quite popular television serial (which I barely remember), starring Mia Farrow as Allison, and featuring a then-unknown Ryan O'Neal, aired from 1964-69 on ABC. Some years back, Barbara Delinsky penned a sort-of sequel to Metalious' novel, Looking for Peyton Place in 2005. As for the tragic life and times of Grace Metalious, click here.)


(Below: Photo of the 1960's Peyton Place television cast. Currently, there are no plans announced to release the series on DVD.)

(Clockwise from right: Ed Nelson, Christopher Connelly, Ryan O'Neal, Barbara Parkins, Mia Farrow and Tim O'Connor.)

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