Critical Evaluation

Peyton Place generated controversy about its sexual themes, controversy that one would have expected in the staid 1950’s. A number of New England communities banned the novel after its publication in 1956, and while many small-town newspapers condemned its content, such critiques may have been less in reaction to the salacious content of the novel than motivated by fear about the dialogue its revelations might provoke. The publicity helped the novel sell sixty thousand copies in ten days, a record at the time, and it topped The New York Times best-seller list for over a year. A popular film adaptation, directed by Mark Robson and starring Lana Turner, was released in 1957. A hastily written sequel, Return to Peyton Place (1957), was followed by a film adaptation of its own in 1961. A nighttime television serial loosely based on the novel’s characters was broadcast from 1964 to 1969.

Grace Metalious approached six publishing houses before Julian Messner’s wife, Kitty, helped convince him to publish the novel. Kitty Messner also helped edit the novel, excising passages she felt were too romantic and insisting that Metalious make Lucas Cross a stepfather, not a father, to Selena. Metalious was angered by that change in particular, believing it diminished Selena’s tragedy.

Emily Toth, author of a Metalious biography, believes that most of Kitty’s recommendations improved the novel’s style but diminished the emphasis on Allison as a writer. Perhaps Messner wished to forestall the inevitable parallels between Metalious and her heroine that emerged after the novel’s publication. While Metalious always insisted that the novel was fiction, not autobiography, a number of its plots were rooted in reality. Most famously, Selena’s murder of Lucas is likely based upon an actual patricide in Gilmanton, New Hampshire. As speculation about Metalious’s source material swirled and more libraries banned the novel for its sensational content, sales exploded.

Despite the condemnation and censorship, the novel earned the praise of a number of literary critics, particularly for its efforts to undermine assumptions about propriety. In The New York Times Book Review, Carlos Baker compared Metalious to Sinclair Lewis, a fellow rebel against small-town hypocrisy. Other critics discussed the ways in which the author’s passionate opening description of Indian summer offered a subversion of the rather stolid portrayals of New England that dominated American conceptions of the region, a holdover from the Puritan era. More important, though, the novel’s opening imagery invokes feminine power, both sexual and psychological, and intimates the tenuous nature of the control held by patriarchal...

(The entire section is 1125 words.)