Peyton Place. No, really. Peyton Place, Grace Metalious' Peyton Place, is the subject of Our Mister Brooks' Sunday sermon:
When critics write about "Peyton Place" today, they tend to see it as a premonition of the glorious achievements of the 1960's. Some describe it as an early revolt against the repressive bourgeois order of the 1950's suburbia. But "Peyton Place" was set in a rural town without radio, TV, or much consumerism--with farms and outhouses instead of split-levels. This was the sort of supposedly quaint rural community people in the 1950's were trying to get out of in order to flee to the suburbs.
Others see "Peyton Place" as a precursor to feminism and [CAUTION, David Brooks witticism dead ahead, please stow all beverages:] the baby boomers' invention of the female orgasm, which apparently took place at Woodstock. But Metalious treats their strength and sexuality as obvious features of human society, and clearly rejects the notion that to be a woman is to be a member of a cause or the sisterhood collective.
Questions: 1) Was there actually a time when people took Brooks' pop pseudo-sociology pseudo-seriously? It's really the reason he has a gig with the Times and News Hour? 2) Is there any reason why I should take Brooks (and others) limitless war on the 60s as something other than a personal confession he (and they) never got laid? 3) Does the Times stylebook really specify enumerating decades with an apostrophe (1950's)? And if so, why?
Let's sort out a couple of the ground rules first. It ought to occur to anyone that this sort of game can't be played with art, which, fortunately, Peyton Place isn't. Second, it ought to be played with some regard for internal consistency. Objecting that Mrs. Medalious did not write an 800-page feminist tract is clearly beside the point. It's like objecting that H. G. Wells never wrote an instruction manual for the microwave oven.
Whether there's some biographical tidbit in Brooks' past that explains his psychedelicaphobia, and whether that or anything else might possibly explain why several inches of the New York Times Op-Ed page in August of 2006 is given over to a discussion of Peyton Place remains moot. But Metalious' bio is relevant: daughter of an alcoholic mother (what she would become) and an absentee father, raised by her grandmother in a female-dominated family; showed an early interest in writing but married at eighteen in 1943 when she became pregnant. Her husband enlisted shortly thereafter, survived the war and returned home, like many, to a wife and child he barely knew. They struggled to get by. Eventually he went to college on the GI Bill while she worked for their support. She had two more children. Peyton Place was her second novel, first published; it happened to catch the eye of a reader in a prestigious firm who then happened to get a job with Kitty Messner, one of the few women of that day to found and run a publishing house. The book became a best seller, but it was in the newfangled paperback market that it really took off.
It is that popularity, and not her literary merit, that Brooks' unnamed critics address, and his Bobo blandishments ("After the class consciousness of the late 1930's, and the national solidarity of the 1940's, Americans in the 1950's were inclined to define problems in moral and psychological terms, not as the products of economic or political forces.") don't seem even to have a point. The book didn't sell millions of copies because it defined problems in psychological terms, or because it told a cautionary tale of grey men in grey flannel, but because of its blunt treatment of S-E-X.
It's hard to figure how Brooks could miss that, or how he could tout the "moral terms" of a book which treats rape as an act of violence and an abortion as a life-saving act of humanity while he claims its proto-pop-feminism as the figment of a buncha hippies. But then this is the pop-culture version of the Right's Lessons of WWII series: a prefabricated moral pasted over historical events in cheap paper. Get it anywhere near the light and you can see right through it.
Of course the point of transforming Peyton Place from rank and horny to (Otto) Rank and (Karen) Horney * is the preservation of the Pre-Fab 50s of popular wingnut imaginings. But there's something a bit odd at work:
Tasting affluence, worried about the power of advertising, troubled by pervasive racism, Americans fixated on the power of social pressure, and the way individual autonomy could be inhibited by the judgments of the crowd.
Hmmmm. Tasting affluence, check. I'm not sure just how many Americans worried about the power of advertising; more of an elitist thing, wasn't that Mr. Brooks? Troubled by racism? Go back and read the Times own coverage of the Civil Rights movement from, say the Montgomery bus boycott through the end of the decade. Longer, if you'd like. I believe you'll discover that most Americans, at least as the story editors and headline writers saw them, were more troubled by Negro misbehavior than pervasive racism.
It's interesting as always to note that while the Right has gotten to have it both ways for a quarter-century now it still can't win an argument. But there's the acrid taste of metal being smelted nearby, of new coins hurriedly struck from old, devalued currency, and not just in the denial of 50s racism. It's as if, with the neo-con agenda a pile of cinders, and most of the rest of the "conservative" program smoldering rubble, the "Crowd", once the arbiter of all things moral and reasonable, decent and American, is now the problem, the dumb dead weight holding down the Libertarian Republican who will enact the real right wing program once and for all. And this time we mean it. Maybe Grace Metalious was trying to tell us we needed John McCain.
*Old joke, sorry.