Dirty Whites and Dark Secrets: Sex and Race in Peyton Place by Sally Hirsh-Dickinson
Hirsh-Dickinson, Sally. Dirty Whites and Dark Secrets: Sex and Race in Peyton Place. Durham: University of New Hampshire Press, 2011. 221 pp.
Since its publication, Peyton Place has been unable to shake its reputation as ‘smut literature’ and thus has remained untouched by scholars — despite its record-breaking sales and overall impact on American Cold War culture. Sally Hirsh-Dickinson intends to revise preconceived notions of Peyton Place’s literary impact in her monograph Dirty Whites and Dark Secrets: Sex and Race in Peyton Place, the first full-length study of Grace Metalious’ debut novel. After Metalious placed her finishing touches on Peyton Place in 1956, she could not have imagined the reaction her novel would receive from the baby boomer generation. Peyton Place truly awakened something in its American readers due to its explicit — and often bluntly phrased — sexual content. Over 100,000 copies flew off bookshelves into coat pockets and discreet paper bags. Adolescents dog-eared the most ‘racy’ sex scenes and housewives whispered in kitchens about the sins in small-town-USA. Peyton Place left no taboo untouched: rape, incest, homosexuality, masturbation and abortion; but this in turn left the novel wide open to harsh criticism from literary journalists.
Hirsch-Dickinson spends the majority of her introduction arguing the case that Peyton Place should be taken seriously as a literary cultural artifact by shelving it in a category of literature termed ‘village revolts.’ Main Street by Sinclair Lewis and Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters, despite being written approximately four decades before Peyton Place, are granted literary legitimacy. These ‘village revolts’ shattered American beliefs that small towns were moral pillars and the ideal escapes from the dirt and filth that lay in urban industrial centers. By situating Peyton Place alongside two other novels that “debunked the myth of the American small town…” (12), Hirsch-Dickinson notes that Metalious’ deromanticization of life in Small Town, U.S.A is not unique and shares the same “thematic preoccupations with sexual repression, religious hypocrisy, corruption, conformity, and small-mindedness” (13). Although Peyton Place offers the same scandalous review of village life, it is penned by a female writer who engages with the same ‘roughness’ as male authors. Many critics classified the novel as ‘trash’ and nothing more than smutty literature shockingly penned by an American housewife and mother of four children.
This negative reception could point to why Peyton Place has long been classified as low-brow literature, especially during a time when America was attempting to situate itself as the ideal capitalist cultural epicenter during the Cold War. The United States did not have an established high-culture niche in comparison to the Soviet Union, which boasted a deep history with the ballet and accomplished classical composers. In turn, by having a scandalous sex novel such as Peyton Place at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for the better part of a year, American cultural critics were nervous about the perception of their literary tastes. The romanticization of the new, warm and pure American family also strongly speaks to why Peyton Place was not as easily absorbed into the same body of ‘village revolt’ literature as its predecessors. The 1950s were flooded with sociological thinking that families should have ‘fun’ but should stop short of neglecting their social duties, as demonstrated in the Roaring Twenties — a time in which Main Street was written. Post-war America was not prepared for a ‘sex novel’ written by a wife and mother to upset the balance of a new way of post-war American life, and thus why Peyton Place was hurriedly devalued by reviewers and the true deconstruction of post-war American politics etched in the subtext of the novel were ignored. Hirsch-Dickinson’s research is largely concerned with highlighting the significance of Peyton Place as an important literary critique of race and sexuality in post-war America.
Hirsh-Dickinson’s approach is made two-fold by the inclusion of discussion centered around the topics of race and changing perceptions of female sexuality through an analysis of rape narratives. First, she revises the ways that scholars interpreted women’s sexual liberation, casting light on the nature by which the novel offers a critique on American culture as a whole. Her central argument, however, is found in the novel’s ‘darker-skinned’ characters Samuel Peyton, the freed slave who founded the New England town; Tom Markis, Peyton Place’s newest resident; and Selena Cross, a shack dweller who murders her father. These racialized characters symbolize pillars of discomfort in the New England community and Hirsch-Dickinson uses a unique stream of analysis which argues that underneath the ‘sex’ in Peyton Place lie racial tensions that give way to the town’s perversions and thus are at the heart of the novel’s controversy. Although Hirsch-Dickinson is set on evaluating Peyton Place through a deconstruction of blackness and whiteness, her assessment of race is often lost amidst politics of gender and sexuality that litter the novel. This problematizes Hirsch-Dickonson’s unique approach to the novel. By not clearly articulating how race complicates sexuality, Hirsch-Dickinson actually rehashes age-old literary critiques of sexual tensions between white-and darker-skinned characters.
The discussion of race is somewhat lost throughout the monograph; however, Hirsch-Dickinson does employ a distinctly different methodology in her approach to deconstructing race in Peyton Place. By using Whiteness Studies, a new method of critical analysis in race studies pioneered by Toni Morrison, Ruth Frankenburg and David Roediger which seeks to understand white privilege, white superiority and ‘whiteness,’ Hirsch-Dickinson seeks to mark the “unmarked marker of whiteness” (35), but the consistent use of this methodology throughout the monograph is unclear. Hirsch-Dickinson racializes her white characters by juxtaposing them with an already-racialized character and drawing attention to their differences: for each trait that a dark-skinned character has, there is a white character who does not possess it. Rather than structuring a characteristic definition of whiteness, Hirsch-Dickinson defines whiteness as not dark. Furthermore, the ‘dark-skinned’ characters in Peyton Place acknowledge that they are ‘othered,’, as demonstrated through Selena Cross recognizing that she cannot tell the truth about her step-father’s murder because of her ‘duskier’ skin, while Constance MacKenzie does not understand that her indigestion is caused by her repressed sexual feelings. When she is ‘rejuvenated’ by the darker-skinned Tom Markis, she does not make the connection between the systemic issues of whiteness and her sexual disorder and thus does not acknowledge the racial oppressions that can be just as damaging to her as they are to Selena.
One of the strongest perspectives that Hirsh-Dickenson lends to Peyton Place is her revisionist analysis of female sexuality. Although the reader has to do a significant amount of work to piece together this deconstruction, it proves to be the most interesting cross-time analysis of changing views of women’s sexual pleasure. Hirsh-Dickinson notes that, contrary to previous views which stated that the novel offers up women discovering and reclaiming their sexuality, instead “their sexual self-determination is effected through sexual assault” (98). Constance MacKenzie is the best character to use when re-reading female sexuality in Peyton Place. Constance is raped by Tom Markis in order to re-awaken her dormant female sexual desires and thus implies that “Constance wants and needs to be raped in order to experience the wholeness of an identity that comes with a fully integrated and functioning libido” (98). Rape is inherently recast as either seduction or foreplay by Metalious. Through analyzing this particular rape rhetoric, Hirsch-Dickinson deconstructs how ideologies about sexual violence have changed. She notes how significant the novel’s display of ‘sex’ and sex roles have changed in American culture. Tom Markis and his ‘seduction’ of Constance is no longer socially acceptable, but rather his behaviour is borderline ‘date rape,’ a concept unknown in the 1950s (177). In Peyton Place, women’s sexual awakening is not an independent road to self-discovery like once thought, but instead a process that is mediated, dependent on and often forcefully applied by men. This is the most valuable critique Hirsch-Dickinson employs because it re-evaluates Peyton Place as a novel that is ‘all about sex’ and is instead offers an important critique of women’s sexual autonomy.
The value of Dirty Whites and Dark Secrets is particularly telling for an age in which the distinction between high- and low-brow literature is still present in contemporary discourse. Peyton Place and the reaction of the American public can be easily paralleled with the recent release of Fifty Shades of Grey, a novel that was founded in an online forum and made its way to the top of the bestseller list. Regarded as ‘smut’ literature, Fifty Shades of Grey can offer critiques of female sexuality and autonomy that are similar to those that Peyton Place puts forth, though perhaps not as deliberately utilized by the author. Scholars should be cautious when declaring a book as worthy or unworthy of critical attention due to the public scandal surrounding its publication. At the heart of Hirsch-Dickinson’s introduction and conclusion is her stance that Peyton Place should be taken seriously as a critique of 1950s American socio-political climate and that the novel should be separated from the public backlash it caused. Admittedly, Dirty Whites, Dark Secrets tries to cover too many aspects of Peyton Place in one ‘short’ monograph, yet Hirsch-Dickinson provides a valuable stepping-stone into the scholarship on Peyton Place. She opens the door for other scholars to micro-analyze the aspects of race, sexuality, masculinity, femininity and public space on an aspect of American literary culture that has been ignored for far too long.
Krista Kermer is a Masters Candidate in History at the University of Windsor. Her major paper “Pieces of Work: An Analysis of Working Women’s Fashion in Three Hollywood Films (1926-1934)” analyzes how the three female leads can be viewed as ‘New Women’ negotiating their newfound independence in an American society that was formulating new ideas about female behaviour, sexuality and gender presentation. Her current research includes film history, LGBTQ+ history, gender history and materials manufacturing in Southern Ontario.