Roundtable Popular and Profane: Race, Gender, and Regionalism in Peyton Place

AHA Session 50
Coordinating Council for Women in History 2
Friday, January 7, 2011: 9:30 AM-11:30 AM
Room 202 (Hynes Convention Center)
Stephen Nissenbaum, University of Massachusetts

Session Abstract

We propose a roundtable discussion of the 1956 novel Peyton Place. Our session will flip the AHA theme, “History, Society, and the Sacred,” in order to explore not the sacred but the perverse, or more pointedly, a cultural production that was considered perverse by many at the time of its publication. This tale of the underside of life in a small New England town scandalized not only the community in which its author, Grace Metalious, resided, but also the region and the nation. Many found its frank explorations of small town hypocrisy, sexual desire, and sexual violence troubling. Others found its disruption of the narrative of sexually demure, law-abiding New Englanders liberating. Regardless of the opinions of the pundits, girls and women across the country found Peyton Place irresistible. The book remained at the top of bestseller lists for more than a year, found its way to screen and to television, and generated significant contemporary discussions about the pleasures and the dangers of popular fiction. The appellation “Peyton Place” quickly made its way into the American lexicon as a stand in for any community in which the profane existed all too comfortably beside the sacred, or in which the two had become impossibly difficult to differentiate. Our roundtable discussion provides the opportunity for this group of scholars, and our audience, to explore the novel as well as the larger society in which such a publication would take on such import. In essence, we will consider together, what does it mean when the profane is located precisely within the popular? Our goal in the roundtable is to engage each other and the audience in considerations of Peyton Place as popular literature, as social commentary, as empowering cultural vehicle, and as teaching tool. The first two presenters have written or are completing books on Peyton Place and will introduce ways of reading the novel that resonate in larger reading contexts. Ardis Cameron will explore the novel's fan mail in order to better understand the modes of communication popular fiction generated in the postwar period. Sally Hirsh-Dickinson will explore the racialized sexuality in Peyton Place, arguing that it was this element of the novel's (and the society's) sexual behaviors that made the work so scandalous. The second two presenters will explore the novel in terms of the uses to which it can be put in the history classroom. Dona Brown will invite us to examine the novel as a important way in to understanding New England regionalism, and Jennifer Scanlon will explore how the novel lay the groundwork for other “liberated” publications addressed to women. Our chair, Stephen Nissenbaum, has a longstanding interest in the novel and in cultural politics generally. We envision a lively discussion that merges our interests in scholarly and teaching approaches to popular literature.

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