How to Teach a Dirty Book

On the 50th anniverary of Peyton Place, Emily Toth considers what she's taught students and learned from them about the once scandalous novel.

September 22, 2006

My students like to take it on the road.

At Penn State, they used to take it to the laundromat. While their undies thrashed about and everyone around them was struggling with Principles of Accounting and Introduction to Physics, my students would be turning page after page -- laughing, crying, panting.

They still do, though now most of my Louisiana State University students also have full-time jobs. They take it with them to offices, beauty parlors, and  fast food joints -- and they leave their greasy thumbprints on the best pages.

They even take it home and read it in front of their parents -- something my generation never did.

We knew we weren't supposed to read Peyton Place in front of our parents.

Grace Metalious's novel, 50 years old this month, is still a byword for lusty secrets. When South Carolina Congressman Lindsey Graham opened the impeachment hearings against Bill Clinton in 1998, he demanded, "Is this Watergate or Peyton Place?"

My students ask about Watergate -- but they know about Peyton Place.

My generation was the last one that could be ruined by a book, I tell them. Peyton Place was supposed to be the agent of our corruption. From the moment we heard that it had cost the author's husband his job ("Teacher Fired for Wife's Book") -- we were on it. Teens hungered for it. Once it came out in paperback -- not routine in those days -- we hot-footed it down to the drugstore by ourselves and purchased the small book with the black and yellow cover.

When I talked about it on "20-20" in 1981, for the book's 25th anniversary, the cameraman told me he'd sewn a special little pocket inside his leather jacket just to hold his copy of Peyton Place.

Imagine young men doing that now.

Peyton Place has always been in schools, of course. It was confiscated from school lockers everywhere. We passed it around in study hall, snickering and puzzling over the backyard scene in which a naked couple gets amorous, and his head disappears between her legs. (Peyton Place was 17 by the time Monica Lewinsky was born.)

Grace Metalious had spent some 17 years writing her succès de scandale, plugging away night after night, with her typewriter on her lap because she was too poor to buy a table. She was 32, a New Hampshire housewife with an unemployed husband and three children, when the book was published. Her life was never the same.

Though it had been an international best seller for years, Peyton Place wasn't mentioned in August, 1977, when Elvis Presley died. I wondered what had happened to Grace Metalious, that other icon of teen lust during the repressive 1950s -- and I found out that she was gone, too. Unable to cope with success, hounded by sharks and exploiters, she'd drunk herself to death by 1964. She was not yet 40.

I hunted up a dog-eared old copy of Peyton Place -- in a church rummage sale, for 25 cents -- and I became obsessed with researching the author's life. My Inside Peyton Place: the Life of Grace Metalious was published in 1981 (Doubleday), then reissued with new material in 2000 (University Press of Mississippi). Mine is still the only Metalious biography, no doubt because such a famously-lurid book cannot be considered "literature." I was writing before Cultural Studies made everything acceptable in English departments, and upholders of the Great Tradition snarled that I was "studying trash." But Penn State's School of Journalism welcomed me, to teach a new course on "Cultural Aspects of Mass Media."

My students eyed Peyton Place warily.

Some with very liberal parents had been allowed to catch "Peyton Place" when it was TV's first notorious night-time drama (1964-69), precursor to "Dynasty" and "Desperate Housewives." My students hoped the book would be racy, but they'd been fooled before. In high school they'd all read The Scarlet Letter -- a  book about adultery! -- and it had been a soul-curdling bore.

Peyton Place, though, delivered the goods. It begins floridly: "Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle...." By page 15 we've met the town drunk, heard about the faithless wife who drove him to it, and  seen the spinster schoolteacher, the awkward boy who's later dismissed from the army for being a "psycho-neurotic," and the rude playboy whose comeuppance is one of the novel's thrills.

My students enjoyed Peyton Place's earthy language ("green pecker," p. 10), its intertwined plots and its familiar secrets: births out of wedlock, religious hypocrisies,  sneaky sexual encounters. Students noted that Peyton Place has everything a pop novel needs: strong plot, abundant action, clear characterization, and traditional values -- meaning the good people win. Besides being a wild ride through the sinful underbelly of a small New England town, Peyton Place is very satisfying. Justice wins in the end.

But it's the middle that excited the world and got the book banned in Fort Wayne, parts of Rhode Island, and all of Canada. (This year the book's anniversary, on Sunday, falls during Banned Books Week.) As media professionals-in-training, my students were eager to learn what gets a book banned and what makes a best seller -- and there was no better textbook than Peyton Place.

Still, there's more to it. My students could see that Grace Metalious had written a very feminist book. Her best women characters aren't satisfied to be spiteful housewives. (As Betty Friedan showed seven years later in The Feminine Mystique, that's what happens when women don't have outlets for their energies). Metalious's best female characters are businesswomen, teachers, and would-be novelists -- who protect, cherish, and mentor each other.

One story still stands out. Teenaged Selena Cross, sexually abused by her stepfather, kills him in self-defense and buries his body in the sheep pen, the only place where the winter ground isn't frozen. Eventually she's found out and put on trial -- whereupon the town doctor makes a sensational confession. Selena's stepfather had gotten her pregnant, and Dr. Swain had performed an abortion. His speech is a ringing defense of women's right to control their own bodies -- at a time when abortion was illegal everywhere in the United States.

For the book's first young readers in 1956, it may have been the first time they ever heard of abortion. For my Pennsylvania students in 1981, it added to underground knowledge they'd grown up with. Dr. Robert Spencer of Ashland, Pennsylvania, in the anthracite coal country, had been performing safe,  cheap, and illegal abortions for more than 40 years. Everyone knew about Dr. Spencer, who died four years before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973. Everyone (including me) knew teens who'd gone to him; and when he was put on trial three times, the townspeople -- all of whom knew exactly what he was doing -- acquitted him.

Did Grace Metalious know a Dr. Spencer type in real life? My students wondered. Well, her Dr. Swain was like him, and so was her own physician, Dr. Slovack, whom I interviewed. "Their names all begin with S," my students noticed. They knew that old writer's trick for drawing on real people by using their initials. "So, was Dr. Slovack an abortionist?" they asked.

I didn't know; I hadn't thought to find out.

Our students do teach us about the gaps in our research.

But what about Peyton Place as a dirty book?

My students enjoyed the same "good parts" that the first readers found titillating. Even my 25 cent church copy opened to them. When I was researching my Metalious biography, I'd ask people what they remembered, and both sexes could recite their favorites, which were always the same. So let me now encourage you, my readers, to guess which was the girls' favorite and which was the boys'.

  • Rod, the rich teen playboy, takes Allison (a "nice" girl) to the school party, but goes out for a lusty make-out session with mill girl Betty in his car -- until Betty says, "Is it up, Rod? Is it up good and hard? Then go shove it into Allison McKenzie!"
  • Connie, the sexually  repressed dress shop owner (Allison's mother) goes for a midnight swim with Tom, the massive, virile high school principal, who tells her, "Untie the top of your bathing suit. I want to feel your breasts against me when I kiss you."

Students in the early 1980s had no trouble guessing which had been whose favorite in the 1950s. But when I taught Peyton Place again, in 2002, the students were much less sure.

This time it was an English department course on "Images of Women," which I subtitled "Women's Secrets." I had moved to Louisiana State University, and most of my students had been born in the 1980s -- except for one older man who was delighted to read Peyton Place "at last." He announced that he and his wife would read the good parts aloud to each other, and try to recapture that old-time delicious sense of sin.

Meanwhile, my younger students complained that their parents made off with their Peyton Place copies -- not to censor, but to read the forbidden book at last. ("Don't tell your grandmother.") Students and parents talked about the book, too, in that open, we-have-no-boundaries way that's become so much more common. In the years since Peyton Place was first published, divorce has become routine; children know that teachers have sex; unwed motherhood has little stigma; bisexuality is commonplace; and young people know more about casual sex than about yearning for love.

My 2002 students enjoyed the jolly, strange drunken behavior in Peyton Place, but also recognized some deadly patterns. Selena's stepfather, for instance, is a classic wife beater: charming when sober, violent when drunk, and insistent on isolating his wife from anyone who might notice her bruises. "Why doesn't she go to a battered women's shelter?" my students asked -- and were appalled that no such places existed in the 1950s. Even the terms "battered women" and "domestic violence" did not exist, and what we now condemn as terrible behavior was just "married life."

The characters' eccentricities also inspired my students to try their own.

One male student, fascinated by the "psycho-neurotic" boy in the book, came to class in an orange dress and wig and wanted to be called "Bernice." The other students critiqued his wardrobe ("visible panty line") and then ignored him. We are, after all, in Mardi Gras country -- and today's young people pride themselves on being cool.

What did get them going, though, were the favorite lines from the past. Which was the girls' favorite, and which the boys'? I asked. The students' votes were split almost evenly.

The "Rod" quote, the one most beloved by young men in the 1950s and 1980s as a celebration of male power, struck half my recent students as a turn-on for women, not men. "Betty's in charge," said one student. "She tells him where he can go."

The "Untie" quote, once most beloved by young women readers who wanted to feel desirable, now struck some young men as tender and appreciative -- but many women hated it. "Domineering pig," said one. "Bordering on date rape" -- another concept unnamed and unknown in Grace Metalious's day.

Peyton Place tells us how sex roles have changed.

In an interview after her book had become a best seller, Grace Metalious was asked if Peyton Place would "last," and whether people would be reading it 25 years later.

"Absolutely not," she predicted, and she was absolutely wrong.

Though Peyton Place was rejected for the Penguin Classics series, my Metalious biography has been bought by Sandra Bullock for a feature film, to be  called "Grace." Bullock, born five months after Grace Metalious died, sees a  strong character whose ideas put her out of step, way ahead of her time.

For Grace Metalious was not just a trashy writer. She felt passionately protective toward the weak, the poor, and the young, and she gave Allison McKenzie her own astonishing drive to be a writer. I saw a lot of myself in Allison, in that I was always a dreamy scribbler. Grace Metalious told me to keep at it, and I wasn't alone.

A few years ago, in the Philadelphia airport, I ran into one of the Penn State students who'd read Peyton Place with me in 1981. Grace Migliaccio could still recite both sets of favorite lines, and said she often thought about Grace Metalious as a lonely feminist pioneer. And so, when she contemplated getting married, Grace Migliaccio -- now a writer and a human relations professional --- never  considered changing her name. "I want to be Grace M. forever."

We could do worse, for as the original Grace M. said: "If I'm a lousy writer, then a hell of a lot of people have lousy taste."

Maybe that's a good lesson to learn in school.


Emily Toth, a professor of English at Louisiana State University, has published biographies of Kate Chopin and Grace Metalious, as well as Ms. Mentor's Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia. She writes the "Ms. Mentor" online advice column.


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