James Aswell and Grace Metalious

I have mentioned my great admiration for Grace Metalious as a woman who sat down at her kitchen table, like Harriet Beecher Stowe and J.K. Rowlings, and created not just a popular book, but one that entered the American lexicon and changed the way that Americans, especially small-town Americans felt about themselves, all in an age when it was forbidden to say the word “pregnant” on television.

“Peyton Place” became a major motion picture with Lana Turner and surprise! Lorne Greene as the prosecutor. Then it became a television show with Mia Farrow and Ryan O’Neal. Farrow left the show to get married to Frank Sinatra. Imagine being married to Frank Sinatra and Woody Allen.

Anyway I’ve been trying to find out how many copies of Metalious’ first novel were sold, but all I’ve learned is that 60,000 were sold in the first ten days, and it was on the New York Times bestseller list for more than a year. There were at least 19 printings in the first two years after it was first published — 1956 and 1957.

As you have probably read in the papers or on line or wherever you get your news, teenage phenomenon Kaavya Viswanathan received a $500,000 advance from Little Brown for her book, “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life,” which Little Brown has had to take off the market because readers of Megan McCafferty noticed more than 40 passages in Viswanathan’s book that were nearly identical to scenes in McCaffrey’s book. McCafferty declined to seek compensation of any kind, just insisted the book be withdrawn. I haven’t been able to learn if Viswanathan had to return the advance.

Well it might interest you to know that Grace Metalious could have ended up in the same position as Kaavya Viswanathan if alert readers of James Aswell’s little known book “There’s One in Every Town,” published in 1951 had noticed certain passages in “Peyton Place.”

I have to confess that despite my admiration for Grace Metalious as a writer, and despite the fact that I collect her books, I have not read “Peyton Place.” But my daughter Sarah did, when she was about thirteen years old. As the granddaughter of Russell Banks, she felt it was important to become acquainted with other members of the New Hampshire White Trash School of Literature.

Well, then I stumbled onto a copy of “There’s One in Every Town” at a rummage sale and noticed the cover art – these weirdly drawn fingers all pointing at this woman. So I picked it up to show to her. I said I thought it was a cheap knock-off of Peyton Place until she said patiently, “Look at the copyright, Dad.” I admit I should have thought of that.

Well, then my young literary scholar plowed through the Aswell book and lo and behold she found a passage that is virtually identical to a passage from Peyton Place, or rather, the other way around, since it was written five years earlier. The passage has to do with a widower and his son who seem to have a jolly time “baching it,” meaning being bachelors together.

I thought that was a rather clever piece of scholarship for a 13-year-old.

Another pretty rare find is a book by George Metalious (Grace’s husband) and June O’Shea called “The Girl From Peyton Place.” I haven’t read this one either, but I did pick out this quotation to show that when Grace wrote about scandalous behavior, she was writing from firsthand experience. George quotes a paper Grace wrote in 1959:

“I couldn’t make my husband happy, in fact, he seemed happier away from me than at home. Everyone told me how wonderful he was at school, how happy he was. I gave up completely. I started drinking like a fish and was soon embroiled in a very stupid love affair.

“The man was a farmhand with no education and I didn’t even have to try to measure up to him. He thought I was spectacular. He told me I was beautiful, smart and wonderful. It was nice to hear and stupid to listen to.

“I had finished ‘Peyton Place’ and it seemed to me that I faced a terrible vacuum. I couldn’t have a baby; and I couldn’t start another book; George had his school and the kids had him. I had a bottle and a man who told me what I wanted to hear. The greater my feelings of guilt became, the more I drank and the more I ran.”