Unbuttoning America: A Biography of Peyton Place by Ardis Cameron (Book Review)

unbuttoning america

Unbuttoning America: A Biography of Peyton Place by Ardis Cameron is a social commentary of the impact of what would become one of the most controversial novels of its era and would shape American Women’s fiction for generations to come. It is at times unnerving as it is honest. An impactful summary of a time in America when the dirty little secrets of small town America were kept carefully hidden.

“…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…”

Peyton Place was published in 1956 and became a literary phenomenon. A bestseller about murder, incest, female desire and social injustice. It was condemned by leaders in politics and the clergy for its immorality. The author, Grace Metalious, was an unknown writer. A housewife who wrote her stories in her spare time. She would come upon the lurid tale of murder and rape that would be the basis of her novel and catapult her into international fame. The term Peyton Place, to this day, refers to a small town and its secrets.

“…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 smile 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…”

Peyton Place was based loosely upon the murder of Sylvester Roberts by his daughter Barbara in the village of Gilmanton, New Hampshire, in the fall of 1947. The trial would show that Barbara did in fact kill her father, but it would also bring to light the years of abuse she suffered at his hands. The beatings and the rapes. In the writing of Peyton Place, Metalious was told to make certain changes to her novel. Changes that her publishers demanded. In her book, the daughter Selena was raped by her stepfather and not her father. In the book, they were poor white trash and not the landowners that the Roberts of Gilmanton, New Hampshire were. Regardless of the truth, only a poor, impoverished family would commit incest. And only a stepfather would, certainly not a good church going father. The pivotal scene in the novel, where the frightened teenage daughter is forced to seek out an abortion. The result of her father’s continual rapes. The scene where the town doctor must decide what to do nearly twenty years before Roe vs Wade, during a time that performing an abortion would sentence him to prison.

“…You’ve lost, Matthew Swain, it said. You’ve lost. Death, venereal disease and organized religion, in that order, eh? Don’t ever let me hear you open your mouth again. You are setting out deliberately this night to inflict death, rather than to protect the life as you are sworn to do.
‘Feeling better, Selena?’ asked the doctor, stepping into the darkened bedroom.
‘Oh, Doc. I wish I were dead.’
‘Come on now,’ he said cheerfully. ‘We’ll take care of everything and fix you up as good as new.’
And to hell with you, he told the silent voice. I am protecting Life, this life, the one already being lived by Selena Cross…”

Peyton Place came on the American cultural scene at a time when Leave it to Beaver, Father knows Best and Gunsmoke ruled the television screen. White Christmas and Singing In the Rain ruled the movie screen. A novel, and subsequent television show about the salacious and lurid secrets of small town America unnerved the established programming Gods but the American Housewife ate it up like candy. As they would eat up a trio of novels about a young innocent girl being initiated into a BDSM sexual relationship seventy years later. The daytime soap operas changed dramatically after Peyton Place. More importantly, it brought out in the open for discussion, sexual abuse of young girls and the social response of blaming the promiscuity of the young girl and not the man involved. In its way, it began a change in the landscape of the American perspective.

Ardis Cameron has written a meticulously researched book on the social, emotional and political ramifications of the novel Peyton Place. She argues, by intention or not, the novel became a rallying cry in the battle for recognition in feminism and civil rights. A voice given to those, that as an society, we chose to not believed even existed.

An important book. A very well written book.

A good read.

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