Ardis Cameron. Unbuttoning America: A Biography of Peyton Place

Ardis Cameron. Unbuttoning America: A Biography of “Peyton Place.” Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015. xiv, 223p., ill. ISBN 080145364X. US $24.95.

In this comprehensive analysis of Grace Metalious’s 1956 novel, its scandalous reception, and the movie and television show it spawned, Ardis Cameron establishes herself as the preeminent scholarly expert on Peyton Place. Cameron wrote the introduction to the Northeastern University Press 1999 reissue of the novel and has been the book’s greatest champion since. In Unbuttoning America, she joins the small but eminent group of scholars (Emily Toth, Sally Hirsch-Dickinson, and Anna Creadick among them) who have rescued Peyton Place from the fate of most bestselling bodice-rippers. The work of these scholar-sleuths has inspired a critical reappraisal of the novel that most academics had considered a dirty book lacking any scholarly value.

Cameron’s subtitle is not a conceit. She has written the life story of the runaway bestseller that took America’s sexual dirty laundry and hung it out for all to see, the book that discreet readers hid under their beds and secretly devoured under the sheets. Exhaustively researched, brilliantly contextualized, and captivatingly written, Cameron’s book takes readers inside Peyton Place (to appropriate the title of Toth’s biography of its author) and gives them a revealing tour of the many intellectual spaces it occupies. Using interviews and archival research in concert with close readings of the novel, Cameron discusses Peyton Place through a variety of scholarly lenses. In comprehensively documented chapters, Cameron painstakingly pieces together Metalious’s complicated journey to authorship via interviews with her friends and colleagues. She composes a detailed history of nineteenth-century middle-class American women’s writing and maintains that Peyton Place continues the vital cultural and political work of this genre. She presents an account of the novel’s composition and publication that focuses on the female editor and publisher who saw in Metalious’s book a serious indictment of the repression of Cold War-American culture. She analyzes thousands of fan letters that readers sent to Metalious maintaining that they lived in Peyton Place. Amidst these revelations, Cameron presents close readings of the novel that remind us that beneath Peyton Place’s sexual salaciousness lies a compelling story about one heroine’s quest to pursue a literary career. Most significantly, she dissects the reasons why, in the decades since its publication, this complex novel became a parody of itself (including, but not limited to, its cinematic and television adaptations).

The book does have some weaknesses. It starts off rather slowly and often detours from the main streets of Peyton Place into tangential cul-de-sacs that some readers may find repetitive. Cameron’s lengthy discussion of the television show may be of limited interest to scholars of book history. But, like its subject, most of Unbuttoning America is a page-turner that will both inform readers about Peyton Place and prompt scholars to embark on investigations of other novels with bad reputations, such as Forever Amber and God’s Little Acre. Indeed, Cameron’s multifaceted biography “makes a world of difference” (14) in the scholarship on the dirty book. As she asserts in her introduction, “Light fiction, it turns out, is serious business” (28), and so is her magisterial study which will no doubt prompt scholars from many disciplines to revisit Peyton Place.

Julia Ehrhardt
University of Oklahoma