The following entry presents commentary on the "Nancy Drew" juvenile novel series (1930–2006), written under the pseudonym "Carolyn Keene," through 2003.
Starring an independent-minded young woman with a passion for crime-solving, the various incarnations of the "Nancy Drew Mysteries" have sold over two hundred million copies worldwide over their seventy-five year lifespan and are often credited with espousing a prototype of juvenile feminism. Begun in 1930 by the Stratemeyer Syndicate as a female counterpart to their earlier "Hardy Boys Mystery" series, Nancy Drew was an immediate hit with her primarily adolescent female readership. Courageous, daring, and fully autonomous in an era when such characteristics were frowned upon in young ladies, Nancy Drew is regarded by many as the vanguard of a new frontier in juvenile girl's literature. While Nancy has evolved throughout her lengthy sleuthing career and has seen her exploits charted by a myriad of ghostwriters, she remains, in the words of Anne Scott MacLeod, "the very embodiment of every girl's deepest yearning … an image that combines the fundamental impulse of feminism with utter conventionality." Her novels blend mystery, adventure, and gothic settings, often obeying the familiar series fiction pattern where events proceed in similar orders, a formula that breeds comfort between reader and text. While not the sole female detective in juvenile literature, Nancy Drew has endured as the genre's preeminent girl detective, while many of her early contemporaries and upstart rivals have faded into obscurity. Still relevant to readers over seventy years after her initial debut, Nancy Drew is currently the lead protagonist in a number of concurrent mystery series targeting a variety of audiences, including the "Nancy Drew Files," "Nancy Drew on Campus," "River Heights," "Nancy Drew Notebooks," and "Nancy Drew & Hardy Boys Supermysteries" series, among others.
The various Nancy Drew series have been authored by dozens of ghostwriters, each author being disguised by the pseudonym "Carolyn Keene." Edward Stratemeyer, director of the Stratemeyer Syndi-cate—an early twentieth-century publishing group—is credited with originating the character of Nancy Drew. A fan of the pulp novels of the late nineteenth century, Stratemeyer hoped to tap into the relatively open market for popular genre fiction in the United States. Recognizing the wide appeal of dime novels and so-called penny dreadfuls, his concept was to market serial fiction solely to the children's market. To that end, he began his inaugural series, The Rover Boys, in 1899. That series evinced many of the characteristic conventions that would later become Stratemeyer hallmarks. Among these conventions were the unique pseudonyms that would follow each series—Carolyn Keene became the fictional author of Nancy Drew, while Franklin W. Dixon was the moniker assigned to The Hardy Boys. In reality, each series would be the product of a variety of writers, called "half-ghosts" by Stratemeyer, since he provided authors with plot outlines and extensive editorial oversight. Further, each book would adopt a standard methodology in regards to how the stories' plots were structured and ultimately resolved. Following the positive reception of The Rover Boys, Stratemeyer introduced subtle variations on the theme, with the Bobbsey Twins and Tom Swift series following in short order. While these series proved popular, the arrival of The Hardy Boys in 1927 provided a substantial boost to sales. Seeking a corresponding heroine to appeal to the underdeveloped market for girl's serial fiction, Stratemeyer conceived of his infamous girl detective and, in 1930, the Nancy Drew series debuted with The Secret of the Old Clock. After Stratemeyer's sudden death later that same year, ownership of his company passed to his two daughters, Harriet and Edna. Unable to find a suitable buyer for their late father's empire, Edna agreed to let Harriet purchase her share and assume leadership of the company. Harriet Stratemeyer, or Harriet Stratemeyer Adams as she was known throughout the bulk of her editorial career, then took over stewardship of her father's flagship series of adolescent mysteries. She took a particular interest in Nancy Drew and is today regarded as the character's primary author/editor, along with Mildred Wirt Benson. Soon after inheriting the series, Adams began altering the nascent figure of Nancy Drew, making her slightly less boisterous and more feminine and proper.
Adams vigorously protected her new creation, providing storylines for most of the subsequent Nancy Drew books as well as establishing strict rules of conduct and overarching traditions that the ghostwriters were meant to follow exactly. Among the most firm of these rules was the anonymity of the ghostwriters, as Stratemeyer and Adams both believed that the continuity of the series was enhanced by the popular perception that the books were all written by the same benevolent, mysterious figure of Carolyn Keene. However, this authorial cloak of anonymity was broken in the 1950s by a public relations director for a publishing house who revealed that Walter Karig had been one of the many "Carolyn Keenes" up until that point. The revelation was meant to enhance the profile of Karig's latest book. This declaration, Karig later avowed, was issued without his permission as he had signed a binding contract with the Stratemeyer Syndicate. The resulting lawsuit by the Syndicate, as well as another widely reported suit between rival Nancy Drew publishers in the 1980s, embarrassed the Syndicate by revealing many private details about its inner workings. Moreover, these lawsuits exposed the ironclad contracts the Syndicate required of its ghostwriters, including their agreement to forfeit any rights to royalties, although Edward Stratemeyer's 1930 will did provide for a share of royalties to writers after his death. Among the beneficiaries of his estate was Mildred Wirt Benson, who is now recognized as one of the most prodigious of the Stratemeyer "half-ghosts." As the primary writer for the Nancy Drew series from 1930 to 1945, Benson was responsible for thirty-two of the early Nancy Drew books, a job for which she was paid between $125 and $250 per volume—three times her monthly salary as a journalist at the Toledo Blade. A key witness in later lawsuits, Benson was eventually given credit as a major influence on Nancy Drew's creation and evolution. Still, there remains widespread debate over whether responsibility for the creative development of the Nancy Drew series rests with individual ghostwriters or with the Stratemeyer family, and the exact amount of input from each party remains a mystery. Some of the other notable Nancy Drew ghostwriters over the years include Leslie McFarlane, Margaret Scherf, Nancy Axelrod, Susan Wittig Albert, James Duncan Lawrence, Wilhelmina Rankin, George Waller, Jr., and Charles Strong.
PLOT AND MAJOR CHARACTERS
The majority of the Nancy Drew mysteries share the same primary characters as well as many of the same plot elements. Of course, the star is the uncannily gifted, teenaged amateur detective Nancy Drew, whom Carol Billman describes as having "a knack for about everything—from piloting planes and boats to swimming and shooting game, from acting and dancing to evaluating art and writing short stories." As a result of the transition between writers and editors and the character's role as the model of a contemporary teenager, Nancy Drew's persona has continuously evolved over her seventy-five-year literary lifespan. Fans and scholars have noted clear personality changes between different generations of Nancy Drew, though there is no definitive categorization scheme for Nancy's many permutations. Some critics have identified as many as five different eras of Nancy Drew stories, while others only recognize three or four. One scholar, Karen Plunkett-Powell, has separated the young detective's history into five periods. The first era, which Plunkett-Powell calls "Classic Ethereal Nancy" (or "Original Nancy"), establishes the foundation for the character, a persona developed by Stratemeyer and Benson. Genteel, adventurous, and smart, this Nancy is the prototype that readers most often associate with the series. While Harriet Stratemeyer Adams did tone down this Nancy's flippancy and tomboyish-ness, she nonetheless remains the same iconic figure throughout most of the first twenty years of the series. In the second era, termed "Bobby-Soxer Nancy" by Plunkett-Powell, the character adopts many of the fashions of the 1940s and 1950s, ultimately becoming more of a real teenager and less of a precocious pseudo-adult. With this alteration came some basic changes to the content of the books, with typical plots featuring more action and adventure, although Nancy Drew less frequently found herself in life-threatening situations. Further, to accommodate the change in the era's legal driving age, this Nancy ages seemingly overnight from sixteen to eighteen. Plunkett-Powell's next subdivision of the Nancy Drew chronology is called the "Trendy Nancy" period, including books from 1965 to 1979. Featuring Nancy traveling abroad more frequently, these stories are also much briefer than earlier volumes. A period of slowing sales for the series, Betsy Caprio describes this era as one where "events stumble over events…. This is the era of the Two Dimensional Nancy, with plots so alike they are hard to remember." During the 1980s, or the "Debutante Nancy" period, the storylines became even shorter still, with contrived coincidences and unlikely events—such as flying saucers—becoming the norm. Not surprisingly, this period proved unpopular with longtime readers of the series. After Adams' death in 1982, the Stratemeyer Syndicate sold off their remaining assets to Simon & Schuster, who branched Nancy Drew off into several different series, including one which offered a return to Nancy's early self-reliant, crime-solving roots, albeit in more contemporaneous frameworks featuring such topics as animal rights and inter-racial romance. Similarly, in 1950s, publishers also updated aspects of the original Nancy Drew mysteries to accommodate cultural shifts, particularly with regards to race, releasing revised editions of the older volumes. Some of the new "alternate Nancy Drew" series from Simon & Schuster, which are still published today, variously portray Nancy as a pre-teen, college student, and older professional detective.
In terms of plot and characters, set in the intentionally generic town of River Heights, the Nancy Drew novels feature a core group of "chums" and family members who assist Nancy in her endeavors. Among them is Carson Drew, her lawyer-father, who often inspires Nancy's adventures via the dilemmas of his clients. After the early death of Nancy's mother, she and her father share an easygoing relationship in which he tolerates her risk-taking for the purposes of her crime-solving. Often assisting Nancy are her two best friends, cousins George Fayne, a gregarious tomboy, and the more feminine Bess Marvin, who delights in shopping and boys, but is easily frightened. Nancy's original best friend, Helen Corning, was unceremoniously dropped after four volumes, although she does reappear in several of the revised stories published in the 1950s. Nancy also has an understanding boyfriend, Ned Nickerson, a star football player at nearby Emerson University. Their relationship is at best platonic—the young couple never shares more than a simple kiss. Rounding out the cast of Nancy's allies are her housekeeper-cum-mother figure, Hannah Gruen, and her terrier, Togo. But the final, key element to a Nancy Drew mystery is the villain, which Billman has noted are standard Stratemeyer-type figures where "their names," such as Hector Keep, Bushy Trott, Alpha Zinn, Fred Bunce, Tom Tozzle, Felix Raybolt, "give away their status, and so do their nonstandard grammar, their rough and impolite behavior, and—especially in this series—their clothing." Plotlines in the Nancy Drew series are fairly standard: Nancy takes the case of some victimized local, discovers several clues, and finds herself in trouble before her quick wit saves the day and solves the case. MacLeod describes the Nancy Drew series as one of "a privileged existence of financial ease and extraordinary independence, which Nancy uses to pursue her calling as an amateur sleuth. Each story is a showcase for Nancy's straight thinking, remarkable competence, and unshakable dignity, and each adventure ends with Nancy admired and applauded by all."
As one of the first female characters in juvenile literature to have her own recurring series, Nancy Drew is regarded by many as an important milestone in early feminism. While she was preceded by other girl detectives—such as Ruth Fielding, Dorothy Dale, and Betty Gordon—Nancy is notable for her independence and utter lack of reliance on male characters for aid. While many prior literary heroines found themselves married or at least heavily invested in the lives of male characters, Nancy has maintained her personal autonomy throughout her series. Lucy Rollin has identified another appealing aspect of the Nancy Drew series for young female readers, suggesting that, "[Nancy] represent[s] a powerfully appealing fantasy for teen and pre-teen girls: an attractive, well-mannered, intelligent girl from a comfortable home, whose independence (symbolized by her expert driving in that little blue roadster) gave her dignified access to the adult world." With her adventurous spirit and seeming inability to fail, Nancy Drew is seen by some as a prototype for future, more modern depictions of gender roles in children's literature. So strong is her potential to empower young girls that Carolyn G. Heilbrun has called the early Nancy Drew mysteries "a monument in the history of feminism." Further, Nancy Drew's adventures uphold the notion that the world operates according to principles of fairness and justice. Stories of Nancy Drew's stubborn drive to bring happiness to victimized people espouse all-American virtues that include, according to Anne Lundin, a "confluence of mystery and justice, of might and right." The appeal of these mysteries is derived in part from both Nancy's commitment to justice and the assurance that both she and the basic emotional arcs of her adventures will remain the same. Despite the great variety of authors who have written as Carolyn Keene over the years, changes to the Nancy Drew formula have been largely slow and gradual, offering layers of comfort to young readers who can be assured of always recognizing the young heroine. As one author who adopted the "Carolyn Keene" pseudonym noted in a 1995 essay, "Nancy Drew has passed through so many hands and voices and imaginations and yet remains distinct and consistent through the years." Following Nancy's exploits from book to book provides her readers a chance to participate in her world, which Kathleen Chamberlain labels "a white middle-class world, a world that most of her readers either occupy or to which they aspire." Chamberlain adds, "In either case, [her readers] need to be instructed in the rules of that world," noting the moralizing quality of the series. Ultimately, Nancy Drew mysteries are considered by critics to be inspiring, light reading for a primarily female readership, presenting a world of female empowerment where Nancy makes all the rules. And there is no end to the series in sight; as Billman has stated, "Nancy can never get away from it all; a mystery lurks at the destination of every pleasure trip."
Although Nancy Drew has emerged as one of the most recognizable characters in modern children's literature, the critical reception of her long-running series has encountered many of the same criticisms that face much of the serial fiction canon. While scholars have lauded the enduring qualities of Nancy Drew's appeal, others have faulted the series' lack of character development and reliance on predictable, formulaic plots. Thus, the question has been raised—how can past and future Carolyn Keenes retain the aspects of Nancy Drew that have made the character so internationally popular without allowing her adventures to become stagnant and overly familiar? On one side of the argument, Bobbie Ann Mason has argued, "Nancy Drew had liberated readers from that tyranny [of 'giggling girl' heroines], but who is to liberate new readers from the established complacency of the Nancy Drew series? If Nancy is to live up to her image as a superheroine, she must step beyond the old limits of her role and again advance into forbidden territory." Such critics have noted that Nancy's formerly progressive opinions during the 1930s and 1940s have become dated over time and attempts to make Nancy more traditionally feminine have created several inconsistencies within her basic character. Kathleen Chamberlain has asserted that "the character continues to teach conflicting lessons about gender and retains the essential 'straightness' and 'complacency' that were present even in the fairly radical early volumes of the series." However, Chamberlain has further commented that, "Nancy Drew remains an adolescent superheroine despite contradictions in her character and despite a fundamental conservatism that at first seems surprising given her independent, adventurous reputation." Many scholars have similarly countered such criticisms of the series, particularly extolling the value of Nancy's role as a symbol of independence and self-reliance for young female readers, despite various dated aspects in Nancy's characterization. In her examination of the Nancy Drew series, Betsy Caprio quoted an African-American woman who grew up in 1940s Virginia who stated that, "It may seem funny that a black girl like me would use WASPy Nancy Drew as a model, but she was the only exciting young female I had ever come across. And there was something about her person and the stories that went beyond race or even time." One ghostwriter who wrote under the "Carolyn Keene" pseudonym has proposed that the idealness of Nancy's world is one of the major factors that continues to captivate young fans, suggesting that, "Nancy has a pretty good gig. She goes where she likes, when she likes, and is always surrounded by good friends. She's friendly, popular, generous with her time and energy, always ready to help those in need, and able to solve most any problem. The girl gets results. She's basically no one, and therefore anyone, and when we are Nancy (inside that place that is Nancy Drew) we're in very good shape."
"Nancy Drew" Mystery Series
The Secret of the Old Clock (juvenile novel) 1930; revised edition, 1959
The Hidden Staircase (juvenile novel) 1930; revised edition, 1959
The Bungalow Mystery (juvenile novel) 1930; revised edition, 1960
The Mystery at Lilac Inn (juvenile novel) 1930; revised edition, 1961
The Secret at Shadow Ranch (juvenile novel) 1930; revised edition, 1965
The Secret of Red Gate Farm (juvenile novel) 1931; revised edition, 1961
The Clue in the Diary (juvenile novel) 1932; revised edition, 1962
Nancy's Mysterious Letter (juvenile novel) 1932; revised edition, 1968
The Sign of the Twisted Candles (juvenile novel) 1933; revised edition, 1968
The Password to Larkspur Lane (juvenile novel) 1933; revised edition, 1966
The Clue of the Broken Locket (juvenile novel) 1934; revised edition, 1965
The Message in the Hollow Oak (juvenile novel) 1935; revised edition, 1972
The Mystery of the Ivory Charm (juvenile novel) 1936; revised edition, 1974
The Whispering Statue (juvenile novel) 1937; revised edition, 1970
The Haunted Bridge (juvenile novel) 1937; revised edition, 1972
The Clue of the Tapping Heels (juvenile novel) 1939; revised edition, 1969
The Mystery of the Brass Bound Trunk (juvenile novel) 1940; revised edition, 1976
The Mystery at the Moss-Covered Mansion (juvenile novel) 1941; revised edition, 1971
The Quest of the Missing Map (juvenile novel) 1942; revised edition, 1969
The Clue in the Jewel Box (juvenile novel) 1943; revised edition, 1972
The Secret in the Old Attic (juvenile novel) 1944; revised edition, 1970
The Clue in the Crumbling Wall (juvenile novel) 1945; revised edition, 1973
The Mystery of the Tolling Bell (juvenile novel) 1946; revised edition, 1973
The Clue in the Old Album (juvenile novel) 1947; revised edition, 1977
The Ghost of Blackwood Hall (juvenile novel) 1948; revised edition, 1967
The Clue of the Leaning Chimney (juvenile novel) 1949; revised edition, 1967
The Secret of the Wooden Lady (juvenile novel) 1950; revised edition, 1967
The Clue of the Black Keys (juvenile novel) 1951; revised edition, 1968
The Mystery at the Ski Jump (juvenile novel) 1952; revised edition, 1968
The Clue of the Velvet Mask (juvenile novel) 1953; revised edition, 1969
The Ringmaster's Secret (juvenile novel) 1953; revised edition, 1974
The Scarlet Slipper Mystery (juvenile novel) 1954; revised edition, 1974
The Witch Tree Symbol (juvenile novel) 1955; revised edition, 1975
The Hidden Window Mystery (juvenile novel) 1957; revised edition, 1975
The Haunted Showboat (juvenile novel) 1958
The Secret of the Golden Pavilion (juvenile novel) 1959
The Clue in the Old Stagecoach (juvenile novel) 1960
The Mystery of the Fire Dragon (juvenile novel) 1961
The Clue of the Dancing Puppet (juvenile novel) 1962
The Moonstone Castle Mystery (juvenile novel) 1963
The Clue of the Whistling Bagpipes (juvenile novel) 1964
The Phantom of Pine Hill (juvenile novel) 1965
The Mystery of the 99 Steps (juvenile novel) 1966
The Clue in the Crossword Cipher (juvenile novel) 1967
The Spider Sapphire Mystery (juvenile novel) 1968
The Invisible Intruder (juvenile novel) 1969
The Mysterious Mannequin (juvenile novel) 1970
The Crooked Bannister (juvenile novel) 1971
The Secret of Mirror Bay (juvenile novel) 1972
The Double Jinx Mystery (juvenile novel) 1973
The Mystery of the Glowing Eye (juvenile novel) 1974
The Secret of the Forgotten City (juvenile novel) 1975
The Sky Phantom (juvenile novel) 1976
The Strange Message in the Parchment (juvenile novel) 1977
The Mystery of Crocodile Island (juvenile novel) 1978
The Thirteenth Pearl (juvenile novel) 1979
The Triple Hoax (juvenile novel) 1979
The Flying Saucer Mystery (juvenile novel) 1980
The Secret in the Old Lace (juvenile novel) 1980
The Greek Symbol Mystery (juvenile novel) 1981
The Swami's Ring (juvenile novel) 1981
The Kachina Doll Mystery (juvenile novel) 1981
The Twin Dilemma (juvenile novel) 1981
Captive Witness (juvenile novel) 1981
Mystery of the Winged Lion (juvenile novel) 1982
Race against Time (juvenile novel) 1982
The Sinister Omen (juvenile novel) 1982
The Elusive Heiress (juvenile novel) 1982
Clue in the Ancient Disguise (juvenile novel) 1982
The Broken Anchor (juvenile novel) 1983
The Silver Cobweb (juvenile novel) 1983
The Haunted Carousel (juvenile novel) 1983
Enemy Match (juvenile novel) 1983
Nancy Drew Ghost Stories (juvenile novel) 1983
The Mysterious Image (juvenile novel) 1984
The Emerald-Eyed Cat Mystery (juvenile novel) 1984
The Eskimo's Secret (juvenile novel) 1985
The Bluebeard Room (juvenile novel) 1985
Phantom of Venice (juvenile novel) 1985
The Double Horror of Fenley Place (juvenile novel) 1987
The Case of the Disappearing Diamonds (juvenile novel) 1987
The Mardi Gras Mystery (juvenile novel) 1988
The Clue in the Camera (juvenile novel) 1988
The Case of the Vanishing Veil (juvenile novel) 1988
The Joker's Revenge (juvenile novel) 1988
The Secret of Shady Glen (juvenile novel) 1988
The Mystery of Misty Canyon (juvenile novel) 1988
The Case of the Rising Stars (juvenile novel) 1989
The Search for Cindy Austin (juvenile novel) 1989
The Case of the Disappearing Deejay (juvenile novel) 1989
The Puzzle at Pineview School (juvenile novel) 1989
The Girl Who Couldn't Remember (juvenile novel) 1989
The Ghost of Craven Cove (juvenile novel) 1989
The Case of the Safecracker's Secret (juvenile novel) 1990
The Picture Perfect Mystery (juvenile novel) 1990
The Silent Suspect (juvenile novel) 1990
The Case of the Photo Finish (juvenile novel) 1990
The Mystery at Magnolia Mansion (juvenile novel) 1990
The Haunting of Horse Island (juvenile novel) 1990
The Secret at Seven Rocks (juvenile novel) 1991
A Secret in Time (juvenile novel) 1991
The Mystery of the Missing Millionairess (juvenile novel) 1991
The Secret in the Dark (juvenile novel) 1991
The Stranger in the Shadows (juvenile novel) 1991
The Mystery of the Jade Tiger (juvenile novel) 1991
The Secret of the Tibetan Treasure (juvenile novel) 1992
The Mystery of the Masked Rider (juvenile novel) 1992
The Nutcracker Ballet Mystery (juvenile novel) 1992
The Legend of Miner's Creek (juvenile novel) 1992
The Secret Lost at Sea (juvenile novel) 1993
The Search for the Silver Persian (juvenile novel) 1993
The Suspect in the Smoke (juvenile novel) 1993
Mystery on the Menu (juvenile novel) 1993
Mystery of the Missing Mascot (juvenile novel) 1994
The Mystery of the Crystal Palace (juvenile novel) 1996
The Legend of the Lost Gold (juvenile novel) 1997
In Search of the Black Rose (juvenile novel) 1997
The Secret of Candlelight Inn (juvenile novel) 1997
The Clue of the Broken Locket (juvenile novel) 1998
The Wild Cat Crime (juvenile novel) 1998
The Chocolate-Covered Contest (juvenile novel) 1999
The Clue of the Gold Doubloons (juvenile novel) 1999
Mystery at Moorsea Manor (juvenile novel) 1999
The Key in the Satin Pocket (juvenile novel) 2000
The Legend of the Emerald Lady (juvenile novel) 2000
The Music Festival Mystery (juvenile novel) 2000
The Mystery in Tornado Alley (juvenile novel) 2000
The Secret in the Stars (juvenile novel) 2000
Whispers in the Fog (juvenile novel) 2000
The Case of the Lost Song (juvenile novel) 2001
The Clue on the Crystal Dove (juvenile novel) 2001
The Curse of the Black Cat (juvenile novel) 2001
Lost in the Everglades (juvenile novel) 2001
The Secret of the Fiery Chamber (juvenile novel) 2001
The Case of the Creative Crime (juvenile novel) 2002
The Crazy Carnival Case (juvenile novel) 2002
The Crime Lab Case (juvenile novel) 2002
The Crook Who Took the Book (juvenile novel) 2002
The Mistletoe Mystery (juvenile novel) 2002
Mystery by Moonlight (juvenile novel) 2002
The Mystery of the Moss-Covered Mansion (juvenile novel) 2002
The Mystery of the Mother Wolf (juvenile novel) 2002
Danger on the Great Lakes (juvenile novel) 2003
Intrigue at the Grand Opera (juvenile novel) 2003
No Strings Attached (juvenile novel) 2003
The Riding Club Crime (juvenile novel) 2003
En Garde (juvenile novel) 2006
Susan R. Brooker-Gross (essay date February 1981)
SOURCE: Brooker-Gross, Susan R. "Landscape and Social Values in Popular Children's Literature: Nancy Drew." Journal of Geography 80, no. 2 (February 1981): 59-64.
[In the following essay, Brooker-Gross attempts to link the ostensible moral values of Nancy Drew and the varied geographical landscapes presented throughout the Nancy Drew stories.]
Fiction is a potential tool for the geographer. Lloyd and Salter and Tuan have described its use for the researcher in providing a novelist's insight into landscapes.1 Other geographers have commented on the merits of regional novels as teaching devices that can de-emphasize "ethnocentricity for the purposes of developing understanding of other cultures,"2 or "provide students with the opportunity to gain a more intimate appreciation of people who come to grips with their environment."3 Novels, thus, are a means of transporting researchers and students alike into another time or place—ultimately into another "skin."
The use of fiction also may serve another purpose in the classroom by enabling students and researchers to step outside their own society, not to examine some other social group, but rather to examine their own social milieu. This function may be better served by popular fiction than by more serious writings. Whereas serious literature can enable us to feel and vicariously experience an unfamiliar setting, it may also let us feel too much a part of our own. When the talents of a gifted author are directed at a familiar setting, the subtleties and complexities of the work may allow us to lose ourselves as we empathize with the characters rather than examine them. In more popular fiction, however, the characters often are only caricatures of ourselves, thus making us visible to ourselves.4
When an adult reads popular children's literature, the effect is intensified because the subtleties and complexities have been reduced for the young reader.5 Stereotypes of good and evil usually prevail, and there is often a mission to teach children the moral values of the author's social group. Undoubtedly, we can all recall some principle of good or evil from our favorite childhood story. The task of ferreting out geographical stereotypes involving moral judgments is somewhat more difficult, however, because such stereotypes are more likely to be part of the unexam-ined value system of the author. Whereas the intent to teach that lying or stealing is wrong may be obvious, reinforcement of the existence of good and evil environments is often an unintended lesson.
The purpose of this paper is to examine the covert lessons in moral social geography as found in one set of popular juvenile fiction—the Nancy Drew mystery stories, published by Grosset and Dunlap between 1924 and 1978. The longevity of the series, its translation into seventeen languages, and its large volume of sales attest to its popularity.6
Geographical elements are used in many ways in the stories. There seems to be an effort to enlighten readers about places, from Kenya to southern Illinois. Exotic geography and haunted micro-geography also are used to enhance the mysterious tone of the stories. Such uses appear to be conscious and intentional. The judgment of landscapes is less clearly intentional and probably reflects the author's own values—those common to American middle-class society.
Landscape symbolism in the Nancy Drew stories accords with symbolism used in more serious literature, but is more obvious and less complex. The values outlined are typically American and typically middle class.
A pastoral setting is the most highly valued landscape. Leo Marx has described the tension between the urban scene dominated by technology, and the wilderness where nature alone rules. Both environments have been invested with a legacy of disdain and fear. The protagonist in much of American literature leaves the "civilized" world only to encounter peril in the wilderness and return to the city. In the midst of this odyssey, however, the hero finds that idyllic compromise, the pastoral landscape, a managed but natural environment.7 This landscape is the most valued setting in the Nancy Drew stories.
Also highly valued are romantic landscapes. Writing of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travelers, Jakle has stated, "Romantics sought emotional release in landscape."8 Capitalizing on the converse, the author of the Nancy Drew mysteries uses romance to involve the reader emotionally. As in the travelers' accounts, romance in the Nancy Drew stories is most likely to be found in landscapes "where heroic events had occurred, where relics of the past remained on the landscape, or where nature survived pristine."9 Rural and agricultural landscapes may be romantically described, but antiromantic landscapes usually symbolize an evil or dangerous situation. Although rare in the Nancy Drew stories, utilitarian images may be romanticized or may indicate evil or danger.
The landscapes depicted in the stories can be categorized according to location, pastoral image, and romance. There are urban environments that may be sufficiently imbued with pastoralism and romance to be "good" places, or sufficiently technological and utilitarian to be dangerous. Rural environments are always pastoral and always romantic. In addition, these environments may be agricultural and known to be useful, but the utilitarian image always defers to the romantic. Finally, there are the wilderness environments, obviously nonpastoral and dangerous, yet still romantic. Seemingly tranquil pastoral rural areas may suddenly revert to wilderness, a phenomenon most easily accomplished by the onset of severe weather.
Urban environments may be either pastoral, romantic, and good, or utilitarian, technological, and dangerous. Cities are not frequently used as settings, however. Even in trips to cities, Nancy does not necessarily spend much time there. On a train trip to New York City, Nancy enjoys the mountain scenery en route, but the urban scene merits no description at all10 Similarly, although The Secret of the Wooden Lady is set on an old ship in Boston harbor, Boston itself is ignored.11
When the author elaborates upon cities, they are often portrayed as beautiful places. Pastoral elements, particularly flowers and gardens, are emphasized, as are historic elements. Certain cities seem inherently more amenable to such nostalgic and pastoral descriptions than do others. Cities with industrial—hence utilitarian—reputations are not likely candidates for the setting of a Nancy Drew mystery, but cities of the gracious, historic South are more favored.
In The Hidden Window Mystery, Bess, Nancy Drew's girlfriend, evaluates Richmond, Virginia: "'What a lovely city!' Bess remarked, as they drove through the tree-lined streets and saw one charming colonial house after another, each with a beautiful garden."12A well-managed but natural environment is the basis for her evaluation, and there is little in the description of Richmond to differentiate it from a rural roadside with scattered homes. The historic element also adds to the romance of Richmond, as Nancy and her friends tour historic spots associated with Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry.13
New Orleans is a particularly rich setting for the romantic, pastoral, yet urban theme. As Bess proclaimed in The Ghost of Blackwood Hall, "New Orleans is such a romantic city!"14descriptions of the city emphasize the French Quarter and its elegance of a bygone day. On another trip to New Orleans, the same sort of features are noted—the courtyards and flowers of the French Quarter, along with its historic charm and distinctive architecture.15
The opposite view holds urban places to be unromantic, filled with dirt and crime. Such settings are not described as fully as are the pastoral, romantic settings; the author provides only hints of the less savory aspects of cities in descriptions of the quarters of unscrupulous characters or of traffic congestion. These relationships are discussed below in conjunction with the use of landscape stereotypes to reinforce social stereotypes.
Only one book provides a clear statement of values concerning urban places. In The Double Jinx Mystery, a scathing attack is made on the process of urban expansion, a negative assessment of urban sprawl overwhelming small-town and rural settings. Conflict occurs between a rural zoo-aviary and a construction company wanting to build high-rise apartments on the aviary-zoo site. The aviary-zoo represents the pastoral, and Nancy stands for its interests. Nancy's housekeeper, Hannah, continues the antidevelopment rhetoric, proclaiming that the site where a pretty park was destroyed to construct high-rise apartments is a "disaster area." Ever treading the middle ground, however, Nancy suggests a compromise solution to this land use conflict.
Nancy told him that she could visualize the development very clearly. A cluster of high-rise apartment houses would face on a man-made lake. There would be a swimming pool, a park, and a playground. And on the other side of the lake Mr. Thurston's zoo and aviary as an added attraction.16
Nancy's solution is reminiscent of the pastoral descriptions of Richmond and New Orleans. The stories evince the belief that urban life and rural values are not necessarily incompatible, but that rural values must triumph over "urbanization."
Rural settings—small towns and farm areas—are the most typical landscapes in the Nancy Drew mysteries. The romantic appeal is high, and the pastoral rural area is invariably described in a positive manner. The first book of the series sets the tone:
Selecting a recently constructed highway, Nancy rode along, glancing occasionally at the neatly planted fields on either side. Beyond were rolling hills.
"Pretty," she commented to herself. "Oh, why can't all people be nice like this scenery and not make trouble?"17
In order to receive a complimentary description, landscapes must show evidence of the actions both of human beings and of nature. As we have seen, even large cities can qualify as long as the environment is well kept and abounds in vegetation.
Utilitarian landscapes can be pleasantly pastoral, if their function is subservient to their aesthetics. While touring Pennsylvania Dutch country, Nancy and her companions found the farms particularly praiseworthy. Note, however, that there is no mention of the practical aspects of farming, of the hard labor required to maintain this idyllic landscape.
The girls rode for nearly an hour through the methodically planned, beautiful farm country, stopping only long enough to eat lunch. Everything looked spick-and-span. Fields of corn, potatoes, and tobacco were straight and green. Weedless vegetable gardens of beets, carrots, and beans were surrounded by neat borders of flowers. Cockscomb, begonia, and geranium bloomed in profusion.
"These are the finest-looking farms I've ever seen," Bess remarked presently. "What fun it would be to live on one!"18
The pastoral setting—natural but managed—is Nancy's haven, her respite from the dangers of cities. Even more, it is a sanctuary from the uncertain treacheries of the wilderness. Wilderness implies an absence of human management and an uncertainty of events. Since the weather, of all common human experiences, is perhaps least subject to human control and least predictable, the author uses it to create a sense of peril. A common device is to abandon Nancy to the elements while she is driving through the countryside. The peaceful rural scenery is suddenly menacing when a thunderstorm sets in. In The Secret of the Old Clock, Nancy is driving back to her hometown.
About halfway to River Heights, while enjoying the pastoral scenes of cows standing knee-high in shallow sections of the stream, and sheep grazing on flower-dotted hillsides, Nancy suddenly realized the sun had been blotted out.
Vivid forked lightning streaked across the sky. It was followed by an earth-shaking clap of thunder. The rain came down harder….19
The violence and unpredictability of the weather is evident as the pastoral scene abruptly changes into calamitous wilderness. The same device is used in many other stories, from a sudden storm interrupting a motorboat outing to a dangerous cloudburst in arid Arizona.20 In other stories, dense and overgrown natural vegetation symbolizes danger. Unfettered nature denotes an unpredictable situation, perfect for criminal activities.21
The three locations—urban, rural, and wilderness—thus demonstrate a belief in the moral superiority of the romantic and pastoral. The location need not correlate exactly with its rating as pastoral or not, however. Urban places may have pastoral elements, and rural settings may waver back and forth between pastoral and wilderness.
Social Stereotypes and Landscape Stereotypes
Once landscape values are established, they may be attached to persons. A character's high moral standards are indicated through his or her association with cared-for pastoral environments, while a lack of standards is demonstrated by association with an unkempt environment. Linking the description of a residential environment with the analysis of one's character is not a process limited to fiction. As Duncan has stated, "The landscape in which an individual lives is a major factor in his self-perception and in the image he presents to society."22 The personalization of one's residence has been seen in other contexts as an expression of personal traits, just as the type and value of a dwelling can be an indicator of social class.23 In the Nancy Drew stories, dwelling descriptions are used to establish social class and to separate the heroes from the villains.
Nancy Drew's home exemplifies dwelling characteristics associated with the heroes. Nancy's membership in the upper-middle class is obvious from the substantial size of the house she inhabits. The dwelling is described as a "large red-brick house"; the sturdiness of brick is perhaps symbolic of Nancy's steadfastness and trustworthiness. Other attributes of Nancy's house equate it with the pastoral settings that invariably evoke "goodness." The dwelling is set out of the mainstream of traffic, out of the potential urban congestion. Surrounding the home are green spaces, reminiscent of the countryside.24
Similar housing styles are associated with Nancy's upper-middle-class clients. The houses are substantial, like Nancy's own, and always neat and conservatively decorated.25 Red Gate Farm, a clearly pastoral environment, epitomizes the careful management of a natural environment:
The farm [had a] huge barn and various adjoining sheds and the large, rambling house [was] partly covered with vines. There were bright-red geraniums in the window boxes, and a freshly painted picket fence surrounding the yard.26
Save for the barn, there is little indication that such unromantic, utilitarian actions as hard, sweaty, dirty work ever take place there. The farm's inhabitants, Nancy's clients, immediately become positive characters. Flowers and trees, tidiness, and separation are the common elements of the homes of clients and friends. Such places are typically located on side streets away from busy activity centers, but not so removed as to be antisocial. Houses are often "colonial" and surrounded by manicured lawns and flowers.27
Positive characters are not always middle or upper-middle class, and pastoral seclusion cannot always be achieved; but if a character were sincere and honest, the pastoral image would emerge in adornment of the home. Flowers take the place of more expensive care for lower-income homes. In one episode, for example, Nancy helps an eight-year-old girl and her mother who live in a rundown section of the city. The yard, however, is "a mass of colorful flowers,… and vines half-covered the unpainted, weatherbeaten porch."28 In another episode, a modest cabin's cleanliness indicates the owner's status as a positive character.29 Cleanliness is a common theme, applying to different people from a pair of sisters who shelter Nancy during a countryside storm30 to residents of a lower-class urban neighborhood where "the houses were shabby, many of them needing paint, but they were neat and the windows glistened."31 A middle-class orientation is evident in the symbols used. Tidiness, cleanliness, and flowers are signs of morality, regardless of class.
Evidence from social science indicates that the positive values assigned to tidiness and to personalization of home with flowers do not extend beyond the bounds of the middle class. To the extent that Gans's description of the working class in Boston is typical (as Duncan and Duncan believe it is32), the working class would not value "presentation of self" through exterior adornment of the home.
Housing is not the same kind of status symbol for the West Enders that it is for middle-class people…. West Enders, unlike the middle class, do not have to put on as impressive a front for such people, and there is no need to have "an address" or a well-manicured yard in a carefully zoned neighborhood.33
In addition, upper-class values do not necessarily mandate tidiness. In Duncan's analysis of landscape types in Westchester County, New York, he found a preference for the anglophilic "studied seediness" among the traditional and established wealthy. There, the "beta" residents—those who live in recently constructed homes and are of somewhat lower socioeconomic status than the established "alpha" residents—reside on properties that are "exceptionally neat and carefully planned. They are intended to be aesthetically pleasing."34 This landscape appears to have many of the elements valued in the Nancy Drew mysteries. On the other hand, the separation from the street and from other houses that is valued in the Nancy Drew books is more characteristic of the Westchester County "alpha" group: "The roads and lanes are narrow and crooked, usually overhung with branches of spreading maple and oak trees and lined by dry stone walls."35 This hint of upper-class values adds to the romance.
Landscape values transcend culture in the Nancy Drew stories. While in South America, the same appreciation of flowers and of separation, but not total withdrawal, appears. Visiting their client's home, Nancy and her friends are intrigued by the house with its "glimmering pool and varicolored flowers." In Lima, Peru, "the North Americans were impressed by the large homes and beautiful gardens." Similar descriptions of pastoralism and positive characters occur in settings in Scotland, France, and Turkey.36
Villains live in environments that are the reverse of the positive characters' abodes. Like the heroes, villains are not unique to any one social class, although their landscape symbols are still judged by middle-class standards. The two features that distinguish villains of all social classes are (1) seclusion and (2) neglect of their dwelling.
Seclusion is a difficult characteristic to assess. If a dwelling is merely out of the flow of traffic, separation can be a positive trait; but if it is evident that the owner or inhabitant has taken pains to discourage neighborly interaction, then seclusion becomes a negative trait. For example, while in Scotland, Nancy immediately, and correctly, suspects a houseboat of being a villain's hideout simply because it is distant from the other houseboats.37 Excessive use of walls and the natural seclusion of caves also indicate evildoers' hideouts.38
In the case of the Blue Iris Inn, another hideout, unmanaged vegetation is added to seclusion to imply low moral standards.
Far removed from the surrounding farmhouses, the wooden building stood lonely and forlorn in a spot shaded by tall pines. Flower beds, including the iris from which the inn had taken its name, were choked with weeds.39
The presence of weeds here and the structural neglect of buildings in other stories indicate that the inhabitants lack a proper respect for the ideal of a neat and carefully managed pastoral environment and must, therefore, be villains.
In urban settings, dirtiness is the norm used to identify "shady" dealings. Criminal activities take place in a "dingy-looking office building" with a "dimly lit stairway" and a reception room that is "dirty and drab." A con man is followed into "a cheap boarding house on a squalid street by the railroad tracks." In a search for a place where a criminal has done business, Nancy goes to a "not very attractive" place in a shabby part of town.40 In these and most cases, the criminals are assumed to be of low socioeconomic status. In one case in which the villains are upper-income people, gaudiness and poor taste take the symbolic place of shabbiness.41
There are examples in which the villains' houses do not fit the dirty or walled or tasteless stereotype, but rather appear to be the houses of positive characters. This inappropriate juxtaposition permits the characters to comment upon the stereotype directly, thus reinforcing it.
A gravel roadway led to the top of the rise, where a large white colonial dwelling with a broad veranda was visible among some trees.
"It's a beautiful place," Bess said in a low voice. "I can't believe crooks live there."42
The characters made similar comments about a Key Biscayne mansion, a setting that appropriately turns out merely to have been "borrowed" by the villains.43
In summary, proper care and appreciation for one's environment are the hallmarks of well-meaning people. And well-meaning people do not barricade themselves away from other people—or so the Nancy Drew books suggest.
Landscape in Nancy Drew mystery stories is not merely a passive setting; it is even more than its intended geography lesson on unfamiliar places. The use of landscape constitutes a sort of tutelage in moral geography. These stories raise questions as to the pervasiveness of landscape values in popular fiction and generally in popular culture. What devices promote middle-class landscape expectations? Given such landscape stereotypes, it is not remarkable that our society continues to label the undesirable living conditions of the poor as the fault of the poor, and thus to extrapolate their unworthiness from the appearance of their surroundings.
Moral judgments attached to landscape may be more intensely characteristic of Nancy Drew mysteries than other stories, since landscape in many ways is an important ingredient in the formulas for these mysteries.44 The values and moral lessons are not likely limited to the Nancy Drew stories, however, particularly since they are a subconscious but accepted part of American middle-class values. The books reviewed here are not presented for the purpose of castigating the author for foisting unwarranted values on innocent readers; indeed, the Nancy Drew group has been responsive in the past to changes in acceptable middle-class values, rewriting pre-World War II episodes to eliminate racial and ethnic stereotypes.45 The success of the books hinges on their middle-class-ness, from Nancy's law-abiding and respect-for-elders demeanor to her primness in her relationship with her boyfriend.46 Landscape judgments are more deeply embedded in the invisible, taken-for-granted sphere of our culture. As such, they are rarely subject to questioning and are unlikely to be revised in either the books or American popular culture.
In the Nancy Drew stories, the landscape-social stereotypes are unusually apparent. They should provoke geography teachers at all educational levels to search for the many and more subtle ways in which such expectations are perpetuated. Social implications of popular landscape descriptions warrant our greater awareness and recognition, so that we may begin to question the appropriateness of landscape stereotypes.
1. Christopher L. Salter and William J. Lloyd, Landscape in Literature, Association of American Geographers, Resource Papers for College Geography, No. 76-3 (Washington, D.C., 1977); Yi-Fu Tuan, "Literature and Geography: Implications for Geographical Research" in Humanistic Geography, ed. Marvyn Samuels and David Ley (Chicago: Maaroufa Press, 1978), pp. 194-206.
2. Colin D. Gunn, "The Non-Western Novel as a Geography Text," Journal of Geography 73 (1974): 27.
3. Sherman E. Silverman, "The Use of Novels in Teaching Cultural Geography of the United States," Journal of Geography 76 (1977): 140. For uses of novels in teaching, see also A. J. Lamme III, "The Use of Novels in Geography Classrooms," Journal of Geography 76 (1977): 66-68.
4. Milton C. Albrecht, "Does Literature Reflect Common Values?" American Sociological Review 21 (1956): 729.
5. Bonnie Loyd, "The Changing City Landscape in Children's Books," Places 1 (1974): 15.
6. Julie Kagan, "Nancy Drew—18 Going on 50," McCall's (July 1973): 27; "Nancy Drew, Other Stars of Children's Book Series, Keep Rolling Along," Wall Street Journal, 19 July 1973; Arthur Prager, "The Secret of Nancy Drew," Saturday Review of Literature, 25 January 1969, pp. 18 and 34; James P. Jones, "Negro Stereotypes in Children's Literature: The Case of Nancy Drew," Journal of Negro Education 40 (Spring 1970): 121; James P. Jones, "Nancy Drew, WASP Super Girl of the 1930's," Journal of Popular Culture 6 (Spring 1973): 707-17. The stories are written under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene and are largely the work of Harriet Adams.
7. Leo Marx, "Pastoral Ideals and City Troubles" in The Fitness of Man's Environment, ed. Robert M. Adams et al. (Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1968).
9. Ibid., p. 9.
10. Carolyn Keene, The Clue in the Old Album (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1947), p. 87.
11. Carolyn Keene, The Secret of the Wooden Lady (New York: Grossett and Dunlap, 1950), p. 25.
12. Carolyn Keene, The Hidden Window Mystery (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1956), p. 37.
13. Ibid., p. 41.
14. Carolyn Keene, The Ghost of Blackwood Hall (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1967), p. 19.
15. Carolyn Keene, The Haunted Showboat (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1957), p. 52.
16. Carolyn Keene, The Double Jinx Mystery (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1973), p. 146.
17. Carolyn Keene, The Secret of the Old Clock (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1959), p. 34.
18. Carolyn Keene, The Witch Tree Symbol (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1956), p. 26.
19. Keene, Old Clock, pp. 36-37.
20. For examples, see Carolyn Keene, The Bungalow Mystery (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1960), pp. 1-11; Carolyn Keene, The Secret of Red Gate Farm (New York: Grosset and Dun-lap, 1961), pp. 53-55; Carolyn Keene, The Sign of the Twisted Candles (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1968), p. 1; Carolyn Keene, The Secret of Shadow Ranch (New York: Grosset and Dun-lap, 1965), pp. 70-73.
21. For examples, see Carolyn Keene, Clue in the Diary (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1962), pp. 77-78; Carolyn Keene, The Mystery of the Ivory Charm (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1936), pp. 41-42.
22. James S. Duncan, Jr., "Landscape Taste as a Symbol of Group Identity," Geographical Review 53 (1973): 334.
23. John A. Jakle, Stanley Brunn, and Curtis C. Roseman, Human Spatial Behavior: A Social Geography (North Scituate, Mass.: Duxbury Press, 1976), pp. 24 and 35.
24. For examples, see Keene, Old Clock, pp. 12-13; Carolyn Keene, The Hidden Staircase (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1959), p. 11; Carolyn Keene, The Mystery at Lilac Inn (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1961), p. 25; Carolyn Keene, The Mystery of the Glowing Eye (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1974), p. 8.
25. See Carolyn Keene, Password to Larkspur Lane (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1966), p. 45.
26. Keene, Red Gate Farm, p. 59.
27. For examples, see Keene, Old Clock, p. 50; Carolyn Keene, The Clue of the Tapping Heels (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1969), pp. 4-5; Carolyn Keene, The Clue of the Old Stagecoach (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1960), pp. 5-6; Keene, Bungalow Mystery, p. 97; Carolyn Keene, Mystery of Crocodile Island (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1978), p. 136; Keene, Hidden Window, p. 47; Carolyn Keene, The Clue of the Leaning Chimney (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1967), p. 14.
28. Carolyn Keene, The Clue in the Crumbling Wall (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1973), p. 11.
29. Carolyn Keene, The Strange Message in the Parchment (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1977), p. 26.
30. Keene, Old Clock, pp. 36-46.
31. Carolyn Keene, Nancy's Mysterious Letter (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1968), p. 40.
32. James S. Duncan and Nancy G. Duncan, "Housing as Presentation of Self and the Structure of Social Networks" in Environmental Knowing, ed. Gary T. Moore and Reginald G. Golledge (Stroudsburg, Pa.: Dowden, Hutchinson, and Ross, 1976), p. 251.
33. Herbert J. Gans, The Urban Villagers (New York: Free Press, 1962), p. 21.
34. Duncan, "Landscape Taste," p. 347.
35. Ibid., p. 343.
36. See Carolyn Keene, The Mystery of the Brass Bound Trunk (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1940), p. 143; Carolyn Keene, Clue in the Crossword Cipher (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1967), p. 27; Carolyn Keene, Clue of the Whistling Bagpipes (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1964), p. 110; Carolyn Keene, Mystery of the Ninety-Nine Steps (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1965), p. 91; Carolyn Keene, Mysterious Mannequin (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1970), p. 145.
37. Keene, Whistling Bagpipes, p. 58.
38. For examples, see Carolyn Keene, The Secret of Mirror Bay (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1972), p. 78; Keene, Red Gate Farm, p. 66; Keene, Strange Message, p. 39.
39. Carolyn Keene, The Clue of the Velvet Mask (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1953), p. 131.
40. For examples, see Keene, Red Gate Farm, p. 16; Carolyn Keene, The Whispering Statue (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1937), p. 85; Keene, Strange Message, p. 96.
41. Carolyn Keene, The Clue of the Broken Locket (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1934), p. 19.
42. Keene, Larkspur Lane, p. 107.
43. Keene, Crocodile Island, pp. 19-20.
44. See Douglas R. McManis, "Places for Mysteries," Geographical Review 68 (1978): 319-34, for the importance of landscape in adult mysteries.
45. Jones, "Nancy Drew"; Jones, "Negro Stereotypes."
46. Kagan, "Nancy Drew."
Carol Billman (essay date 1986)
SOURCE: Billman, Carol. "Nancy Drew: Gothic Detection." In The Secret of the Stratemeyer Syndicate: Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and the Million Dollar Fiction Factory, pp. 99-120. New York, N.Y.: Ungar Publishing Company, 1986.
[In the following essay, Billman examines the general formula to which most prototypical Nancy Drew narratives adhere, while additionally offering an examination of the Gothic aspects of the Nancy Drew series.]
"If you keep on the way you've started, you'll surely edge your old dad out of his practice yet," said Mr. Drew.
Nancy gave her father's arm an affectionate pinch.
"I'm beginning to think it may be wise to protect my practice by taking you in as a partner."
Nancy smiled, highly flattered at the praise her father had bestowed upon her.
"All right," she declared eagerly. "Put out your sign. 'Carson Drew and Daughter.'"
—The Secret at Shadow Ranch
Carson Drew expressed the sentiments above in the fifth volume of the Nancy Drew series, written in 1930, the year Carolyn Keene introduced her blonde, teenage sleuth nonpareil. For over half a century Nancy has averaged almost 1.5 cases per year, and at present some two or three titles are issued annually.1 While never accorded official partnership in her dad's law practice, she has handled many investigative assignments for him over the years, as well as much work she has taken on herself. The cases she has cracked, it must be acknowledged, have not always matched the detecting coups of the Hardy Boys in scope. A far greater proportion concern missing antiques, stolen jewels, and false claims to inheritance in or near her hometown of River Heights, rather than the practices of international crooks—though especially since the 1960s Nancy Drew has turned to extensive traveling and run into assorted smugglers, kidnappers, and other evildoers along the way. Like Ruth Fielding, Nancy can never get away from it all; a mystery lurks at the destination of every pleasure trip.
The girl's achievements are in no way diminished by the fact that most of her detection is done locally. Indeed, she is a legend in her own time in the world within her series. It is the rule that new acquaintances have read of her exploits in their newspaper. "You are often spoken of in glowing terms for your cleverness in apprehending unscrupulous people," a potential client comments.2 Concerning breadth of achievements, this Syndicate heroine is omnitalented. In the last fifty-five years she has displayed a knack for about everything—from piloting planes and boats to swimming and shooting game, from acting and dancing to evaluating art and writing short stories. Who else could tap dance in Morse code? What other fictional hero or heroine has ever maneuvered a car so skillfully? Her analytical skills are keen, too. She deciphers codes, old manuscripts, and ancient inscriptions with dispatch; in Nancy Drew the Stratemeyer Syndicate finally came up with a detective who combines deduction with quick legwork and amazing intuitive abilities. She thinks rings around the sometimes dimwitted Hardys.
According to current Syndicate records, upward to eighty million copies of the Nancy Drew books have been sold; two and a half million paperbacks have been purchased in the last three years.3 The back end-paper of every library edition of the series I have checked out is covered with stamped due dates.4 Another measure of the series' success is that among all American girls series books Nancy Drew has received the lion's share of critical attention. As this chapter should make clear, she has been featured in every existing book-length study of the series book phenomenon. Articles about Carolyn Keene and her creation have appeared in scholarly journals, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue and Ms. magazines; a poem bearing Nancy's name has been published in Poetry; and prominent essayists like Ellen Goodman and Frances Fitzgerald have written about the teen detective's significance. Still another sign of her impact is the fact that the figure of the teenage female sleuth, informed in large part by the character of Nancy Drew, has been the butt of satiric films and plays. (Just last week I learned of a local theater's upcoming offering of Trixie True, Teen Detective.)
Nancy may be the teen detective queen, but there are many attendants in her court. Among Stratemeyer offerings in the 1920s, at least four heroines spent a good amount of their energy solving mysteries: Ruth Fielding, Billie Bradley, Betty Gordon, and Nan Sherwood. Another series—the Blythe Girls begun in 1925—though more a member of the sentimental romance genre frequently contained mystery subplots and introduced a figure named Chester Drew, who in name anyhow may have inspired Keene's Carson Drew.5 And after Nancy Drew a long line of girl gumshoes followed, both in and outside the Syndicate: the Dana Girls, Judy Bolton, Trixie Belden, Cherry Ames, and Kay Tracey, to name only some of the most prominent.6 In England, Sylvia Silence aided her eccentric investigator father as early as 1922 in the story paper Schoolgirls' Weekly, and approximately a decade later, in 1933, Sylvia's creator, John W. Bobin, invented another girl detective by the name interestingly enough of Valerie Drew.7 This flourishing tradition set forth, the facts remain that Nancy Drew was the first major full-time investigator in American girls' series books and that she has displayed inimitable lasting power.
Nancy has outlasted the foremost authors of her series. Conceived by Edward Stratemeyer, who wrote the first three titles in the series just before he died (The Secret of the Old Clock, The Hidden Staircase, and The Bungalow Mystery ), Nancy was then inherited by Stratemeyer's daughter Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, who once said she came to regard Nancy as her "fiction daughter." Immediately, Adams made some changes in the Syndicate's budding star. "She had been too bold and too bossy," according to Adams, and this author accordingly altered Nancy's treatment of Hannah Gruen, the Drews' housekeeper.8 Adams elsewhere confirmed that what she calls "half-ghosts"—writers who filled in plot outlines but were in no way responsible for story ideas—have been involved in the series attributed to Carolyn Keene.9 When she died in 1982, the current Syndicate partners were left with the responsibility of continuing the Drew saga. Today Nancy Axelrad keeps the young detective going, and the Bobbsey Twins as well.
What are the secrets of the Nancy Drew mysteries? First, surface changes have been made to keep the series abreast of new generations' tastes in fashions, automobiles, and fun. The dust jackets and, more recently, the cover art have been changed many times, as have illustrations within the books. Initially, Nancy was neatly dressed in a blue traveling suit and white gloves; she wore pastel frocks to afternoon teas and fraternity parties; her hair style was a "curly golden bob." By 1935, the bob was intact, but Nancy was pictured on the dust jacket of The Secret of the Hollow Oak in a longish brown walking skirt and sporty jacket. In the 1960s Nancy could be found in shirtwaist dresses, and her hair had become "titian-colored." Now she wears jeans, but only for the more physical aspects of her detecting; usually she works in the kinds of casual skirts and blouses seen in "Junior Miss" sections of department stores. Her hair has inexplicably inched back toward the blonde ("strawberry" is the usual adjective).
These emendations, though, have far less to do with Nancy Drew's longevity than do the constant features of the series—namely, the mixture of active and suspenseful exploration of some unknown criminal scheme and the strong Gothic undercurrent that aligns these novels with that genre of horrific fiction that began with Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho. Let's consider The Clue in the Crumbling Wall.
In chapter 1 Nancy is faced with two assaults: her purse containing a potentially valuable pearl she discovered in a local river clam is stolen, and her garden has been violated—painted daisies and hollyhocks trampled and four choice rose bushes removed. Almost instantaneously, Lieutenant Masters, a young policewoman described in the terms reserved for good characters in the series ("charming," "cultured," etc.) appears and tracks down the garden saboteur, an eight-year-old named Joan Fenimore.
The first complication in the plot has been arrived at. Joan and her poor mother are eking out an existence, but they live in the shadow of a family mystery. Mrs. Fenimore's sister, Florianna "Flossie" Johnson, was a talented and famous dancer until she disappeared while on a vacation trip, an odd occurrence since she was newly engaged to a wealthy manufacturer named Walter Heath. Heath died five years after Flossie's disappearance and left his estate, including Heath Castle, a mansion in the English style, to his missing betrothed. Now—in exactly three weeks, to be pre-cise—this unclaimed inheritance is to be converted into a county park. This case is made to order for Nancy Drew, who specializes in bringing or restoring wealth to its rightful claimants, and the added time factor in the mystery increases its challenge. Mrs. Fenimore asks the girl to help her and her daughter establish their claim to the fortune, for she like "nearly everyone in River Heights … knew that [Nancy] was as clever as she was pretty."10 Nancy demurs at first—"I hardly know what to say," she says—but naturally accepts the invitation.
Walter Heath had made his fortune in buttons: he had a button factory on his estate, which used the fresh water mussels from the Muskoka River. The entire estate, Nancy learns, is presently being looked after by a shady lawyer with the giveaway name of Hector Keep. The young investigator asks her ever-ready chums, George Fayne and Bess Marvin, to take a motorboat ride with her up the Muskoka to explore the estate. Out on the water, hapless Bess immediately topples into the water when another boat collides with them. Nancy must dive in and rescue her. Never one to take a hint that somebody does not want her interference, Nancy goes back to the castle by car. This time she and George meet with an explosion. Typical of the chain of difficulties the detective gets into, she is hurled by the blast into a storage closet, the door slams shut, and the ceiling caves in.
At home meanwhile, her father, renowned lawyer Carson Drew, displays a rare nervous reaction to Nancy's activities, though he says he knows it is useless to ask his determined daughter to give up the case. (He's right.) Instead, he agrees to accompany her to Heath Castle—she has by now extricated herself from the closet—and there they find two clues: "freshly made footprints" (a staple of a Nancy Drew mystery) and a torn scrap of paper on which are the remnants of a note,
cret which I
in a wall
Housekeeper Hannah Gruen later makes the helpful suggestion that Nancy check the handwriting of the note against Walter Heath's signature on books he has given to the River Heights Historical Society. Hannah seems to have a special interest in this organization, for in the 1980s she continues to urge Nancy to research her cases in their archives.11
Next, Nancy decides to return to the castle-cum-button factory, this time by plane; the place apparently draws her magnetically. Nancy, Carolyn Keene interjects, feels every girl should learn to fly. At this point in the story faithful readers' inevitable question—where is Nancy's boyfriend Ned Nicker-son?—is answered. He is off in South America, and Nancy's pulse quickens at the sight of a letter he has sent her. It is thus established that George and Bess will serve as Nancy's only sidekicks on this case. Once again, the three head out to Heath Castle for a picnic in the "Faerie Gallerie." Now it is George who falls into the water; she wanders off and plummets into a stagnant pool choked with water lilies. Her clothes, which she has set out to dry in the sun, are mysteriously stolen by a twelve-year-old boy in a scene that illustrates the extent of the sexual content in the series. On another part of the estate, Nancy has slipped through an open side door into the castle itself. She hears a cry and frantically searches through the dark rooms full of sheet-draped furniture; she thinks Flossie Johnson may be imprisoned, in the tower most likely. "How like olden times to imprison someone in a tower!" she remarks heavy-handedly (p. 84). Readers know that her turn is coming as she ascends the circular iron stairway to the tower room.
Sure enough, somebody locks Nancy in, and even she is unable to negotiate the forty-foot drop from the parapet to the ground. Nor can she pry open the door lock with her nail file. Just as she begins to feel faint, a stranger clandestinely helps her to escape. At home once more, she tells her father that the castle walls are not crumbling from age: they are being tampered with for some purpose.
Pursuing another angle of the case, Nancy sets out to discover what became of Flossie Johnson. In nearby Hampton she locates an immensely forthcoming tourist-home owner whose memory is long. The woman will certainly help the young sleuth, who's "hardly a stranger by name," for her exploits have been covered by the local paper. The gist of the informant's story is this: the dancer had come to the tourist home ten years before to recover after being hit by an automobile. The owner further remembers that Miss Johnson had mentioned something about a farm near Plainville.
Nancy and her assistants turn to deciphering the partial note found earlier at Heath Castle. In an uncharacteristic burst of insight, Bess comes up with a hypothetical completion. Walter Heath, she concludes, has hidden in the wall a "worthy secret" that will make him famous. But it is Nancy who knows where to find the gloss for the cryptic message. She retrieves a book on old houses and gardens, in which there happens to be an illustrated discussion of the original on which Walter Heath's mansion was based. This book contains the essential clue:
It was a quotation in Old English…. Nancy, who had learned to read the works of the old English poet Chaucer in school, eagerly translated it.
"'I have hid my treasures in the niches of the cloister through which, all unsuspecting, the gay men and fair ladies pass each day to bathe,'" she read.
Never mind that Chaucer wrote in Middle English, Nancy knows how to interpret a clue when she finds one: she is certain there is treasure to be found in a cloister within the Heath Castle gardens.
There is—in the form of a rusty metal box buried in the wall. In the box Nancy discovers a journal that mentions a process for extracting magenta dye from the whelk shells Heath used in making buttons. This must be the "worthy secret" referred to in the torn scrap of note. There is yet another clue in the wall as well, a cement block containing a picture of a woman's slipper and the inscription "Cinderella." A specialist in footprints, Nancy guesses that Flossie Johnson's foot will fit this slipper and that the lost dancer is no doubt the "C" addressed in the note.
The evidence is mounting up nicely, but a problem remains. A sinister figure approaches, "walking with a catlike tread along the flagstone cloister" (p. 157). It is Hector Keep!
Nancy and her friends escape pell mell, and that concludes the hair-raising part of the story. The last sixty pages of The Clue in the Crumbling Wall are devoted to unraveling the cat's cradle of intersecting narrative threads. A strange woman appears and asserts that she is Flossie Johnson. She produces the other half of the message the girls had found and stakes her claim to the Heath fortune, but the impostor is quickly exposed by Nancy. (Her feet were too big to fit the slipper mold in the wall.) Then the sleuth tracks down the real Florianna in a dungeon at the castle. This "beautiful character with great charm" had been kidnapped and confined by Hector Keep and his minions, who were searching for the formula for the magenta dye themselves, in addition to seeing to it that the fiancée of Heath did not return to ask for her rightful inheritance. Finally, readers are given to believe that Flossie, her sister, and little Joan will live happily thereafter, thanks to the tireless sleuthing of Nancy Drew.
The formulas of characterization and plotting in Carolyn Keene's series differ but little from those at work in the Hardy Boys books. The villains go by names like Hector Keep, Bushy Trott, Alpha Zinn, Tom Tozzle, Fred Bunce, or Felix Raybolt. Once in a while there is a villainess—for example, Mrs. Dondo in The Hidden Window Mystery. As usual in Stratemeyer titles, their names give away their status, and so do their nonstandard grammar, their rough and impolite behavior, and—especially in this series—their clothing. As Nancy's wardrobe has followed vicissitudes of fashion, the antagonists' have, too. But the latter always overdo it when it comes to apparel, whether their sartorial preference runs toward flashy checked suits, showy ensembles that are unsuited for afternoon wear (among the women), or, more recently, "trendy" designer jeans and a fisherman's knit sweater. Good characters, by contrast, like Lieutenant Masters in Crumbling Wall are decorous in taste, speak in rich, modulated tones, and rush immediately to Nancy's assistance. The assignment of characters to either stereotypically bad or equally good status is even more pronounced in this series than in earlier Stratemeyer publications. Not only do readers know forthwith which camp a character belongs to according to the signs named above, but the discerning Miss Drew intuitively evaluates every character she comes across. When, for instance, she meets two circus per-formers in The Mystery of the Ivory Charm, her judgment snaps into action. She tells her friends, "I was amazed when Rai called Coya his son…. Somehow Coya seems of much finer quality."12
Here is a shorthand summary of the standard pattern of action between Nancy Drew and those set on doing wrong. She either takes a case (sometimes it is passed on to her by her father, other times influential clients such as museum directors or wealthy dowagers actually solicit her help) or else she stumbles onto one, as in Crumbling Wall, in the first few pages of the book. More likely, both formulas are used, and as in the Hardy Boys the denouement of the story will reveal the seemingly disparate mysteries to be two sides of one puzzle. Nancy next rushes into investigation; inevitably the bad characters threaten her or try to bully her into dropping her inquiries. As Carson Drew notes time and again, however, it is no use trying to deter his daughter once she has sniffed a mystery.
The villains nonetheless keep trying. Perhaps the salient formula in a Nancy Drew book is the chain of assaults made upon the sleuth's person. It is amazing that any thinking power is left after the beatings she has taken. People are forever trying to get at her through her car, of course. The brakes and steering of the various blue models she has driven—from her first roadster to a convertible to the sports car she spins around in these days—are the most frequent targets for those wanting to get rid of the girl. Nancy, moreover, has had a snake coil around her, was nearly electrocuted by a wired puppet, has recently been struck by a clanking armored figure, and was once poisoned by a sword doll, to mention just a few of the exotic things that have happened to her. Then there are routine events like being imprisoned in some nook or cranny of a large house. (Alternatively, she is spirited away by boat and held captive in its claustrophobic cabin, as in The Clue of the Tapping Heels. )
Undaunted, the heroine springs back for further battering, always bolstered by the clues she finds. In point of fact, they almost find her, deus ex machina fashion. As other commentators have noted, clues are essential to the suspense and the seductiveness of the Nancy Drew series.13 They function like the magical objects come upon by fairy-tale protagonists. They give the plot a forward motion, or sense of progress, that is much needed since revelation of the young detective's evolving analysis is not a part of the series mystery modus operandi. If the detective finds a clue,
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in other words, readers can assume headway is being made in solving the case. What constitutes a clue? Generally, it is something old, something valuable, something that exudes special meaning or evokes sentiment—again, something almost magical in its aura. A short list of Nancy Drew titles illustrates the sort of clue Keene favors: The Clue in the Diary, The Sign of the Twisted Candles, The Mystery of the Brass Bound Trunk, The Quest of the Missing Map, The Clue of the Black Keys, The Clue of the Velvet Mask, The Scarlet Slipper Mystery, The Clue of the Whistling Bagpipes.
Nancy perseveres, in both rebounding from her knocks and following out her clues, and finally she uncovers the perpetrators of evil and restores missing objects, and harmony, to those who called upon her for assistance. Once she tracks down the thieves, or kidnappers or smugglers, the plot is fait accompli. Things fall into place like clockwork, due primarily to the fact that the bad characters are suddenly overcome by the inclination to be cooperative. Not since Dan Baxter melted before the Rover Boys have adversaries been so accommodating. "Felix Raybolt … what are you doing here?" Nancy demands, and it is not long before she breaks him down and, further, persuades the crook to write out checks to those he has swindled.14
In the end, Nancy Drew acts in uncommonly modest fashion, often blushing at the praise of all who have watched her work. Then she accepts a reward, usually in the form of some artifact that earlier served either as a clue or the object of her detection (or a cameo ring, a valuable doll, an old clock, a Paul Revere bell). She does not accept money, as did the Hardy Boys, but her well-established fame is a perquisite she can't deny.
Beyond her infallible ability to judge character and reduce crooks to jelly, Nancy's defining qualities are her coolness and her independence. She never loses her composure in the face of crisis. Caught in a dark and watery tunnel in The Secret of the Forgotten City, Nancy does not panic even though she "knew she was in serious trouble."15 In The Message in the Hollow Oak she has the presence of mind to rescue a sleepwalking friend, who meandered out onto the fire escape of their hotel, using the rope tricks learned earlier in the novel. Likewise the sleuth's calm practicality manifests itself in her reaction to the uncanny. In over seventy volumes she has been involved in an untold number of spooky confrontations, but never for a moment does she give in to the possibility that supernatural forces—forces she cannot triumph over—might be in operation. Eminently pragmatic, she pooh-poohs the fears and "overactive" imaginations of those around her. In The Ghost of Black-wood Hall, readers are told that Nancy "took no stock in ghosts or spirits."16 Elsewhere she proves the point. Searching an empty house on a night when the wind whispers dismally through the swaying boughs and loose shutters creak on their rusty hinges, the girl detective runs headlong into a skeleton, whose long, bony fingers brush against her throat. Her reaction: "It's—it's nothing. Nothing but a skeleton."17
The ultimate effect of such sangfroid is to make Nancy Drew seem less—or more, possibly—than human. She is the premier example of what Arthur Svenson was talking about when he spoke of the Syndicate's "Ubermenschen."18 Even her most loyal readers have recognized that such coolheadedness, combined as it is in this heroine with easy mastery of every activity and area of study she takes up, borders at times on the ludicrous. Bobbie Ann Mason has persuasively argued that at least two of Nancy's successors, Judy Bolton and Trixie Belden, are flesh-and-blood girls by comparison to the icy perfection of the blonde teen private eye.19 Within the novels, Nancy's staunchest friends and admirers acknowledge her near-perfection: "Which mystery does my lady wish to solve today? Or shall we slay the wicked dragon—?" asks George Fayne mockingly in a 1974 publication.20 In fact, the only thing that truly upsets the "world's most famous girl detective," as Ned Nickerson labels her, is not having a case to work on. A conventional ending in the Drew books has Nancy experiencing something very close to anomie when she wraps up her investigation. Put more positively, she yearns for her next mystery. At the end of one story a histrionic actor quotes Shakespeare's King John:
The day shall not be up so soon as I, To try the fair adventure of tomorrow.
Nancy agrees wholeheartedly; she says she needs a new mystery.21
Nancy Drew's independence is apparent in various spheres. For one, she seems to be above or beyond school. It is true that she does take summer vaca-tions—in a contemporary book, The Sinister Omen, she specifically takes a spring vacation in Fort Lau-derdale—but veteran readers of the series must ask, "vacation from what?" Like the Hardy Boys, Nancy has aged a bit in her fifty-plus years of investigating crime, from sixteen to eighteen. (This "growth" took place in the 1950s and may have had something to do with alterations in driving laws.) But for all intents and purposes she is free of such mundane occupations as going to school and in this way differs from the other series heroes and heroines under consideration.
She is not, however, completely free of adult "supervision," a word used loosely in this instance. She must do her detecting within the eye of the law. In the early volumes of the series, Nancy's relationship with local officials was as shaky as Frank and Joe Hardy's; the always Irish cops were of little assistance and sometimes hindered her. But in time Chief McGinnis and Nancy struck up a very good working relationship, to the point of becoming downright chummy. In Forgotten City, they chat away on the telephone, the chief complimenting the girl at every turn of the conversation.
Nancy's nuclear family arrangement, too, allows for maximum self-direction. She is not an orphan like Ruth Fielding and other forerunners in girls' series, but she might as well be when it comes to having free rein. Keene writes, "Left motherless at an early age [pinpointed at three in other books] Nancy had developed a fine sense of responsibility and more than earned her right to complete freedom."22 Hannah Gruen, the Drews' housekeeper, plays the role of surrogate mother. Hannah, like Aunt Gertrude in the Hardy Boys series, spends most of her time cooking. Probably because she does not prepare meals for growing boys, Hannah Gruen's menus run less along the meat-and-potato lines—e.g., waffles, cheese souf-flé, tea sandwiches, seafood quiche. She does fret about Nancy's safety, but precisely because of her subservient status—she is the Drews' employee—she offers no real opposition. (The Stratemeyer Syndicate came to favor a nonnuclear familial arrangement in its series; many of the young heroes and especially heroines lived with an aunt, uncle, or guardian rather than parents. Carolyn Keene's other girl detectives, the Dana Girls, reside with their Uncle Ned and his maid Cora Appel.)
Nancy, to be sure, has one parent very much on the scene. Carson Drew, distinguished lawyer, not only channels cases to his daughter, as Fenton Hardy did to his sons; he also collaborates with her on investigations, seeks her counsel regarding his own work, and always pays attention and tribute to his talented offspring. More important, he never tells her to stay out of trouble or treats her like a child. When the Drew series began, the idea of a generation gap was not a widespread notion.23 In the Drew household, it has never materialized. Indeed, it can be asked if the two Drews don't behave more like husband and wife than father and daughter. At the conclusion of Broken Locket there is a cozy scene: Nancy slips into her father's study where he relaxes in his lounging robe, snuggles down in a big chair, and rests her head on his shoulder. The two look into the fire and think of broken lockets and broken hearts. And this secure arrangement is locked up. Only once that I know of did another woman try to insinuate herself into the scene. A twenty-four-year-old platinum blond lawyer named Marty King entered the picture in The Mystery of the Glowing Eye, but in the end Nancy won again:
"I'd like to speak to Marty."
There was a pause, then Mr. Drew said, "She's no longer working here."
Nancy was smiling to herself and delighted that Marty King had left her father's employ.
"Nancy dear, I may as well tell you the whole story," her father went on. "I'm embarrassed about it, but what brought on my asking Marty to leave was"—there was a long pause—"when Marty asked me to marry her!"
"Dad," she said, "if you ever want to find me a new mother, please promise me she won't be someone who tries to solve my mysteries!"
Her father laughed heartily. "I promise," he said.
The third area in which Nancy exercises utmost control and independence is the one that finally tripped up Ruth Fielding: relationships with the opposite sex of the same generation. By choice, she has been many times a bridesmaid but never a bride, and why should she be? Her life, as it stands, is a perfect blend of domestic harmony and thrilling mystery. Ned Nicker-son, her "special friend" since the beginning of the series, would like Nancy to see matters differently. He periodically presses his case, but Nancy adroitly sidesteps his leading conversation—sometimes she even resorts to playing dumb. Somewhat surprisingly, this wonder-girl is not above girlish reaction when it comes to the subject of boys; her usual response to Ned's remarks is to flush crimson or blush to the roots of her hair. Still, Nickerson, football star at Emerson University though he may be, has never been anything but Nancy's factotum. His stock role is to play Della Street to her Perry Mason. In contemporary English mysteries for girls, the teenage investigator has not a boyfriend but a dog as a companion. Nancy, too, has a canine friend; her terrier Togo has been with her since the 1940s. And, at bottom, she has a puppy dog in Ned, who is ever faithful, obedient, affectionate, and secondary in status. In Crumbling Wall, he is particularly inconspicuous, interacting with Nancy only by long-distance correspondence.
Ned has gained stature in the history of the series. Carolyn Keene once wrote an essay about the se-ries—or at least her handwritten signature is printed at the end of the essay much as Betty Crocker signs her cake-mix boxes—and in it she admits that early on "Ned was an ineffectual partner, so I made him more virile and at times he rescues Nancy just in time from a near-fatal predicament."24 Furthermore, he is allowed to kiss Miss Drew these days. But sexual interest or emotional involvement on her part is out of the question.25 If Nancy were truly attracted to Ned, there would be the danger of the dilemma that tortured Ruth Fielding—that is, the conflict between independence (through work or detection) and the ties of a family. Carolyn Keene's character simply avoids the issue.
The lasting effect of Nancy Drew's all-encompassing independence is that she can be supremely active and mobile, freewheeling in a word. Always on the go, she merely stops in at home to refuel and collect late-breaking news about her cases from Carson Drew. Then she is off again in her car, or her motorboat, or her plane. Thus the automobile is the ideal icon for Nancy, and her skillful manipulation of it, a fitting indication of her independence. In The Sign of the Twisted Candles the heroine displays the range of her automotive know-how. First she gets into trouble while driving during a summer storm: "the wheels, sending sheets of water fender-high, skidded sickeningly." But Nancy manages to extricate herself and her passengers from danger. Then she proceeds to diagnose the roadster's difficulty—"'Oh, pshaw!' Nancy exclaimed in vexation. 'I guess the distributor got wet'"—and does the repair work herself.26
Interestingly, the style of Carolyn Keene's prose jibes beautifully with Nancy's active and mobile nature. Keene wastes little space in description of people or events. She devotes more attention to description of setting. Thus the energy level of her novels is high; characters move quickly through episode after episode. A side effect of this emphasis on rapid, no-frills storytelling is that readers hardly know what Nancy looks like. As in the fairy tales, where princesses are "small" or "good" or "fair" and that is all, Nancy's looks are identified only by short, repeated phrases; her face, for example, is many times described as "not beautiful but interesting." This level of description is appropriate, for a superheroine should be known not for details of appearance or manner but for bold action.
The most notable stylistic feature in Keene's writing, again, underscores Nancy's extraordinary level of activity. In an earlier chapter Keene's favorite grammatical construction, the introductory participial phrase, was labeled the "Nancy Drewster" because it is so predominant in this series. Here are a few examples from Crumbling Wall:
Reaching sufficient altitude, she banked and headed in the direction of Heath Castle.
Closely pursued by the barking dogs, the three girls raced madly to the front wall of the estate.
Scrambling safely over it, they paused, gasping for breath.
As the third sentence, with its additional phrase at the end, demonstrates especially well, this structure is one that allows the writer to fill her prose with active verbs. The main verb "paused" notwithstanding, the sentence leaves the girls with little time to pause, reflect, or rest.
Despite the frenetic energy of the plot and its heroine, a Nancy Drew novel quietly conveys an underlying solidity. Take Nancy's ability to judge character without fail, or the clear-cut depiction of villains as social outcasts or misfits in the River Heights milieu, or the essential security of the Drew household—all these elements bespeak a bedrock of firmly held beliefs about what is right and what is wrong, who is the right sort of person and who is not. Nancy is a Brahmin in her society. (Harriet Stratemeyer Adams once stated that were her fictional daughter to mature beyond eighteen she would go to "Wellesley, of course."27) Her values, and correspondingly those on which this mystery series is built, are conservative even as she seemingly projects a new approach to gender roles.
Nancy is altruistic, always eager to help others through her sleuthing, but whose cause does she champion? Down-and-out aristocrats like the proud and cultured Marches in [The Secret in the Old Attic, ] who by birth deserve to have their missing fortunes restored, their properties reclaimed. Conversely, the evildoers in this series, from the Topham family in the first title on, are social climbers out to insinuate themselves by false scheming into higher echelons of the perfectly acceptable status quo. In the early years of the series, it has been well documented, Nancy Drew exhibited a distinct prejudice against ethnic and racial minorities—blacks, Jews, Italians, and Irish, most obviously.28 Now the egregious bigotry has disappeared, but fundamental beliefs about social propriety remain the same. The value system inherent in the Drew books is nicely summed up by one of the most prevalent images in the series: the great house now in decay and overgrown by unruly shrubs and weeds. It is part of Nancy's role as detective to do the "landscaping" necessary to restore the fine old house to its former glory and its rightful owners, as she aims to do with Heath Castle in Crumbling Wall.
Thoughts of landscaping bring up the subject of setting in the Nancy Drew books. River Heights is to Nancy as Bayport is to the Hardys, a steady and supportive home base from which to operate. Like Frank and Joe, she has traveled out from her hometown increasingly since the 1960s; in fact, she was off to New Orleans in 1945 in The Ghost of Blackwood Hall. But wherever she goes, River Heights is al-ways the starting block and the finishing line for her investigations, and it provides a stable frame of reference regarding Nancy's previous accomplishments and instilled values. In this respect it functions like Alice's aboveground world in Lewis Carroll's fantasy or Dorothy's home base, Kansas, in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—at the outset of the series River Heights is, by the way, placed in the Midwest, though later its location is less clear.29 There is, however, an important distinction. Nancy has everything she wants in River Heights: security, independence, approbation, and mystery. She does not need a Wonderland or Emerald City; thus, more often than not there is no trip beyond her immediate surroundings.
Arthur Prager has gone so far as to compare River Heights with the land of Oz in terms of their common remoteness from the world readers live in: "like the land of Oz, Nancy Drew country is in another time dimension, untouched by the outside world."30 This is not exactly so; for example, there is brief mention of the Depression, or at least its effects on certain characters' lives, in the volumes published in the 1930s, and today high tech has invaded River Heights in [Clue in the Ancient Disguise. ] Nonetheless, in terms of the series' spirit, Prager's comment is on the mark. River Heights has always seemed a little "out of it" in the twentieth century, a place where teas and charmingly decorated drawing rooms matter. What is more, it inevitably strikes readers as a playground, an isolated fantasy world made to order for Nancy's constant amusement. Why should she want to leave this world for Oz?31
As a backdrop for Nancy Drew's activities, then, River Heights is a significant aspect of Keene's formulaic mysteries. But it does not cast or create any particular atmosphere for the mysterious action. The books do have atmosphere. The threatening mood of the Gothic novel laces the adventure in almost every title. Adjectives like "eerie," "weird," "creepy," and "spooky" crop up everywhere in the writing, and publicists have chosen the word "spinetingling" to describe the series in their blurbs on the back covers of the books. Spinetingling?—well, not entirely. Nancy's matter-of-fact reaction to skeletons, glowing eyes, and potential ghosts becalms the anxious, horrific atmosphere on many occasions. Still, the Gothic trappings favored by Keene, especially when coupled with magical clues, fresh footprints, and other accoutrements of the mystery genre, do contribute to the suspense. Together, the formulaic ingredients of Gothic and detective fiction leave Nancy perpetually caught up in a cycle of chasing (or being chased), confinement in scary circumstances, and escape by means of strenuous struggle. This seesaw pattern of pursuit, confinement, and release, in turn, wrings out readers' emotions by exciting alternating feelings of tension and exhilaration.32
Exactly what are the Gothic elements in the Nancy Drew series? Foremost, there are innumerable antiquated inns and manor houses whose true ownership and other secrets Nancy investigates, places with such names as Twisted Candles Inn, Pine Hill, Lilac Inn, Pleasant Hedges, Moonstone Castle, and—in Crumbling Wall —Heath Castle. Nancy once in a while goes treasure- or secret-hunting in a cave (the one at Bald Head Cliff in [The Mystery of the Tolling Bell, ] for example) or an underground reservoir (see The Mysterious Mannequin ), but she does not rival the Hardy Boys in this regard. Her preferred place of confinement, where she spends a substantial period of time in most of her mysteries, is the cobwebbed attic, the dank cellar, the castle tower, the secret chamber, the hidden staircase, the locked closet—in sum, the stock haunts of the Gothic novel. And like the motherless heroines of the Gothics, Nancy normally enters old houses alone in search of clues to the activities or motives of (usually male) figures.
Other Gothic conditions prevail in the Drew books. Ominous voices murmur "N-a-a-ancy" or warn her away from her search, ghostly footsteps are heard in other rooms. Once the young detective is pursued by a driverless red car; another time she is chased by a puppet across a moonlit lawn. There have been hexes in Pennsylvania Dutch country and séances in New Orleans. Clammy hands and bony fingers regularly brush against her face and fumble for her throat. Finally, the weather around River Heights seems especially stormy, mainly after dark.
Stories of domestic detection have a long history among female writers and readers; and this is not surprising given the fact that household settings were the norm in nineteenth-century women's fiction. It was only a small departure to introduce the mysterious crime into the daily routine of these "interior" tales, as did Mrs. Henry Wood in East Lynne or Mary Elizabeth Braddon in Lady Audley's Secret. Nor was Carolyn Keene the originator of the hybrid Gothic mystery. American predecessor Mary Roberts Rinehart had begun to combine sensational Gothic ingredients with mystery plots nearly a quarter of a century before Nancy Drew solved The Secret of the Old Clock. Rinehart's titles alone suggest similarities between her mysteries of family secrets and many of
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the Nancy Drew books: The Circular Staircase, The Album, The Red Lamp, Episode of the Wandering Knife, The Window at the White Cat.33 To explore but one of these, The Red Lamp contains the now empty home of a gentleman (Twin Hollows) that itself holds a dim figure standing at the foot of its staircase; then there is the semimagical object referred to in the title, which so resembles one of Nancy Drew's clues. Keene's second book, The Hidden Staircase, written in 1930 just five years after Rinehart's, makes use of similar Gothic iconography, right down to the name of the decaying estate. Here is called Twin Oaks.
The appearance of an adolescent heroine in a Gothic tale is something else that is not unique to the Nancy Drew series. The first Gothic, Radcliffe's late eighteenth-century The Mysteries of Udolpho, is the story of a young heroine named Emily St. Aubert and her suitor Chevalier Valancourt. The adolescent girl is a natural character in stories that are fairly transparent explorations of the mysteries of sexual awakening and its attendant psychological fears. Tales of confinement in gloomy castles owned by dark but gentlemanly strangers are certainly related to the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, the classic eighteenth-century text of which first appeared in a girls' magazine.34 That story, too, concerns the psychology of first love—the young Beauty is both attracted to and repulsed by her Beast.35
These are Nancy Drew's antecedents, but it cannot be forgotten that the Stratemeyer series is Gothicized detection from which all prospect of growing up and sexual discovery has been removed and that psychological distress will never be known by the outgoing, no-nonsense girl detective. A Nancy Drew novel is to the truly terrifying Gothic tale as Walt Disney's whitewashed visualization of the fairy-tale Snow White is to the earlier and violent story of jealousy and maturation collected by the Grimms. Nancy has transcended terror as surely as she has overcome the need for money, for boys, for anything she does not already have. Living in the nearly fantastic land of River Heights, she is hermetically sealed off from change, growth, failure. And her chosen avocation—private, nonprofit investigation—is a curiously unrealistic endeavor itself. Very few girls, or boys either for that matter, really grow up to become detectives. As a symbolic figure, however, the young female private eye is everything girl readers could ask for, combining "all the energy and purposefulness of the working girl and none of her restrictions."36
Nancy Drew, in summary, is a fantasy figure who is a worthy successor to the Stratemeyer Syndicate's first female superstar, Ruth Fielding. But Ruth, like so many of the career girl detectives in series books popular during and after World War II, finally got caught in the middle of real-life dilemmas: she was divided between, on the one hand, being an independent career woman (and sometimes sleuth) and, on the other, moving along the course traditionally taken by women to marriage and children. The tomboy or the lady?—as other girls' books of the 1920s and 1930s framed the question. For Nancy Drew, there is no such dilemma, though the opposition is represented in her series by the detective's two friends, boyish George Fayne and plump and giggly Bess Marvin.
As do much popular film and fiction, the Nancy Drew novels offer an escapist fantasy, and they allay their readers' real ambitions and doubts with a vision of a mythic heroine who is immensely talented and virtually omnipotent. There is, ultimately, an interesting irony underlying Nancy Drew and the success of her series. It would seem that the transition from the heroines of nineteenth-century domestic fiction—so limited in their choices—to the supremely confident and independent girl investigator represents an expansion of possibilities regarding both literary characterization and its effects on readers. Nancy is not socially confined to houses or domestic situations as were the females in sentimental fiction that prevailed, in girls' books anyway, on into the twentieth century, as demonstrated by Pollyanna or Rebecca of Sunny-brook Farm. Nor is she trapped physically or psychologically within quarters. This was the fate of the orphaned heroines who moved into rich men's houses in the Gothic novels that replaced sentimental fiction and have remained popular with young and mature female readers throughout Nancy Drew's reign—for example, Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, written in 1938 and turned into a superbly terrifying Gothic film by Alfred Hitchcock two years later. Unlike the normally blonde stars of Hitchcock's thrillers Nancy can find her way out of scary houses and haunted inns/motels.37 And as for being trapped in an oppressive life, that is simply the antithesis of Nancy's charmed existence. Yet … it is precisely because she is so far removed from the little qualms and the big frustrations and decisions facing real girls and women that she cannot be considered a helpful fictional model of successful womanhood, the fact that she has been praised in the pages of Ms. notwithstanding.38
Like Carroll's Alice books, the Nancy Drew novels depict a resourceful and imaginative heroine in action in a place where special rules operate—namely River Heights, where crooks always give in to determined girls. But neither Carolyn Keene nor Lewis Carroll takes issue with the social, moral, and gender values dominant at the time she or he wrote. Alice and her readers must return to Victorian England and become proper ladies. Nancy gets to stay in her playground indefinitely, but readers must move on. To what? If we extrapolate from the cultural assumptions behind Keene's series, Nancy Drew would, as Mason first observed,39 grow up to be like Mrs. Bobbsey in another Stratemeyer series—pretty, demure, completely forgettable. She is saved from that fate, but there is nothing in her series to make us believe that its creators would have things any other way for the vast young female readership that devours the books.
Of course, only tiresome adult rereaders of Nancy Drew will raise such questions, the same kind of critic who would pity the Hardy Boys' fate of being confined to endless reruns of their adventures. Girls hooked on the series will continue to revel in traveling to River Heights, where life is at once safely predictable and excitingly mysterious and where criminal activity is both intriguing and easily dealt with. For preteens, unsure of their footing in their own surroundings, Nancy's ability to triumph over wicked, grown men and emerge from dangerous encounters unscathed is as reassuring and confidence-inspiring as it is thrilling. These encounters, and their easy outcomes, may not mirror those that will face readers, but the teen detective's quick thinking and fancy footwork go beyond providing an afternoon's fun. They do suggest, in bold and fantastic relief, patterns of active exploration of the world and the questions it presents.
As for the matter of getting "hooked" on the series, readers don't stay under the spell for long. Children's librarians tell me that Nancy's appeal evaporates somewhere around the fifth year of elementary schooling. Then the girls who fantasized with Nancy Drew will seek literary pleasure and encouragement elsewhere—in the adolescent novel, in adult popular fiction, in historical fiction and biography, in the classics, in true fantasy literature. Author Frances Fitzgerald confesses to shucking her Nancy Drews around age twelve for the Gothic governess and her demon lover.40 But as she goes on to say, "we can't really have forgotten Nancy Drew or abandoned her completely for Jane [Eyre]…. They complement each other. One is an Enlightenment child—rational, secure, active. The other, a Romantic—sensuous, vulnerable, ruled by passion." Whatever literary or life experiences readers graduate to, Nancy does seem to be in American girls' bloodstream; and as part of their larger reading and developmental pattern, she not only has won—but has—her place.
1. Recent titles are published by Simon and Schuster in their Wanderer Books line. Enemy Match and The Mysterious Image, which came out in 1984, introduced a new assistant to Nancy, Midge Watson.
2. The Clue in the Old Album (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1947), p. 5.
3. Letter received from Nancy Axelrad, 24 January 1984.
4. Some libraries, however, do not let the series circulate. While researching this chapter at the Free Library of Philadelphia, I was told by one of the children's librarians that they did not circulate books "written by committee."
5. Chester Drew appears in The Blythe Girls: Rose's Great Problem; or, Face to Face with a Crisis (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1925) by Laura Lee Hope.
6. The Dana Girls and Kay Tracey were Stratem-eyer efforts and were originally published by Grosset and Dunlap and Cupples and Leon, respectively. Margaret Sutton's Judy Bolton series was also published by Grosset and Dunlap, as was the Cherry Ames series created by Helen Wells. Whitman Publishing Company issued The Trixie Belden Library.
7. These detectives are discussed in the sixth chapter of Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan's excellent book The Lady Investigates: Women Detectives and Spies in Fiction (London: Victor Gollancz, 1981).
8. Quoted by Karen DeWitt, "Nancy Drew's Author—She's No Mystery," San Antonio (Texas) Express-News (August 7, 1977), pp. 10-11.
9. "Their Success Is No Mystery," TV Guide (June 25, 1977), p. 14.
10. The Clue in the Crumbling Wall (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1945), p. 3.
11. Clue in the Ancient Disguise (New York: Simon and Schuster/Wanderer Books, 1982).
12. The Mystery of the Ivory Charm (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1936), p. 15.
13. Craig and Cadogan, The Lady Investigates, p. 155.
14. The Clue in the Diary (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1932), p. 179.
15. The Secret of the Forgotten City (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1975), p. 172.
16. The Ghost of Blackwood Hall (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1948), p. 7.
17. The Secret in the Old Attic (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1944), p. 50.
18. "Tom, Jr.," New Yorker (March 20, 1954), p. 26.
19. The Girl Sleuth: A Feminist Guide (Old West-bury, N.Y.: Feminist Press, 1975), chap. 5.
20. The Mystery of the Glowing Eye (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1974), p. 4.
21. The Clue of the Dancing Puppet (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1962), p. 172.
22. The Clue of the Broken Locket (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1934), p. 15.
23. On this point see Joseph F. Kett, Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America, 1790 to the Present (New York: Basic Books, 1977), p. 262.
24. The essay appears in Otto Penzler's collection The Great Detectives (New York: Penguin, 1978), pp. 82-84 (quote, p. 83).
25. Instead, the young women in the book work off extra energy through constant eating. In The Mystery of the Tolling Bell (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1946), p. 6, they stop their sleuthing for the largest "snack" on record: puffed shrimp, fried clams, tomatoes, cabbage salad, potatoes, hot biscuits, lemonade, and apple pie. The oral gratification in this series is discussed by Lee Zacharias, "Nancy Drew, Ballbuster," Journal of Popular Culture, 9 (1976), pp. 1027-38.
26. The Sign of the Twisted Candles (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1933), pp. 2-3.
27. DeWitt, "Nancy Drew's Author—She's No Mystery," p. 10-11.
28. This aspect of the series is considered fully by James P. Jones, "Nancy Drew, WASP Super Girl of the 1930's," Journal of Popular Culture, 6 (1973), pp. 707-17.
29. Nancy is called a "true daughter of the Middle West" in The Secret of the Old Clock (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1930), p. 26.
30. Rascals at Large, or, The Clue in the Old Nostalgia (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971), p. 76.
31. I have found two suggestions of Oz actually written into the series. First, Nancy's dog is named Togo—Dorothy's was Toto. Second, in The Clue in the Jewel Box (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1943) the impostor Nancy unmasks is Francis Baum; the Oz books were written by L. Frank Baum.
32. In their other book, Craig and Cadogan compare the emotional effect of reading a Nancy Drew book to "the feeling of being driven along in a very fast car. Dramatic incidents are over almost before the reader is aware of what is happening." See "You're a Brick, Angela!": A New Look at Girls' Fiction from 1839–1975 (London: Victor Gollancz), p. 305
33. Rinehart's Gothic mysteries are explored by Jan Cohn, Improbable Fiction: The Life of Mary Roberts Rinehart (Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980).
34. This version was written by Madame Leprince de Beaumont and appeared in her Magasin des enfans in London in 1756; the English translation, The Young Misses Magazine, was published in 1761.
35. Patricia Meyer Spacks notes the "specifically adolescent female experience" in Gothic fiction in The Adolescent Idea: Myths of Youth and the Adult Imagination (New York: Basic Books, 1981), chap. 5.
36. Craig and Cadogan, The Lady Investigates, p. 150.
37. Thirty-one years after Hitchcock's 39 Steps was released Carolyn Keene wrote a Nancy Drew volume whose title evokes that film: The Mystery of the 99 Steps (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1966).
38. See Jane Ginsburg, "And Then There Is Good Old Nancy Drew," Ms. (January 1974), pp. 93-94.
39. The Girl Sleuth, p. 74.
40. "Women, Success, and Nancy Drew," Vogue (May 1980), p. 324. Regarding what readers pick up after Nancy Drew, see G. Robert Carlsen, Books and the Teenage Reader, rev. ed. (New York: Harper and Row, 1980), chap. 3.
Betsy Caprio (essay date 1992)
SOURCE: Caprio, Betsy. "The Mystery of the Multiple Nancys." In The Mystery of Nancy Drew: Girl Sleuth on the Couch, pp. 17-27. Trabuco Canyon, Calif.: Source Books, 1992.
[In the following essay, Caprio compares and contrasts the various incarnations of Nancy Drew that have appeared during the character's seventy-year career. Caprio dismisses the more modern versions of Nancy Drew as a "watered-down" shadow of the original character.]
As many readers already know, there is Nancy Drew, and then … there is Nancy Drew. The Nancy of 1930 is very different from the Nancy of 1990, and there are a few other Nancys in between. Our subject is Nancy Drew's essence, and its effect on readers for sixty years. Behind this essence is a long and interesting publishing history, a subject beyond the scope of this book. However, we do need to take a short behind-the-scenes look at the creation and the promotion of this famous girl sleuth, so we can be clear about which Nancys we're considering, and which, if any, affect us….
The Nancy of the first three eras was the heroine of fifty-six stories, bound first in blue, and then yellow hardcover volumes, published by Grosset & Dunlap. However, because all thirty-four of Nancy's Era One and Era Two titles were completely rewritten during Era Three, the total number of books in her original canon comes to ninety.
Nancy Drew was a daughter of the east coast Stratemeyer Syndicate, founded at the turn of the century by Edward Stratemeyer, creator of over 125 series of juvenile books. The first Nancy Drew is a daring and very elegant sixteen-year old of Depression days, (although neither Depression nor other current events are more than hinted at in her stories, as it was house policy to avoid references which might date its books). Her true creator was award-winning Iowa and Ohio journalist, Mildred Augustine Wirt, who ghosted for Stratemeyer under several pseudonyms, including Carolyn Keene, and also had many juvenile titles published under her own name.
Let us take a look at how Mildred Wirt presented Nancy in her initial appearance of April, 1930.1 Volume One, The Secret of the Old Clock, opens one evening with Nancy and her father in his library. Lawyer Carson Drew is reading the paper and admiring the rich glow his study lamp makes upon Nancy's curly golden bob. They discuss an eccentric old man's missing will, thus laying out the mystery's groundwork. Next morning at breakfast, the Drews make a date for 'luncheon,' a date they hope will further their investigation into Josiah Crowley's mysterious legacy.
Carson Drew leaves for his law office and Nancy goes to the kitchen to consult with the maid, Hannah Gruen, about the "work of the day." The author continues:
Although only sixteen, Nancy was unusually capable, and under her skillful direction everything ran smoothly in the Drew household. On the death of her mother six years before, [Later books say Mrs. Drew died when Nancy was three—Ed.] she had taken over the entire management of the establishment …
The responsibility of the household might have weighed heavily upon Nancy, but she was the type of girl who is capable of accomplishing a great many things in a comparatively short length of time. She enjoyed sports of all kinds and she found time for clubs and parties.
In school Nancy had been very popular and she boasted many friends. People declared that she had a way of taking life very seriously without impressing one as being the least bit serious herself …
"I'll not be back for luncheon today," Nancy told Hannah, as she prepared to leave the house. "I have made out the dinner menu and ordered the groceries, so I guess you won't need me for a few hours."
Leaving the house, she went to the garage where she kept her automobile. It was a shining new blue roadster, the birthday gift of her father … She drove swiftly down the boulevard, and upon reaching the more congested streets, wormed her way skillfully through heavy traffic.
(pp. 12, 13)
Wirt's Nancy is a vivacious and capable girl. After reading a few more chapters, we see that she has amazing freedom for her time, and that she expresses her feelings with passion. It is revealed early on, too, that Nancy is a champion of the underdog, as she takes the side of a frazzled shopgirl who is subjected to harassment by the uppity nouveau riche Topham sisters. An American heroine and role model is born!
Nancy Drew's name was chosen by Edward Stratem-eyer himself as a feminine counterpart to the earlier evocative surnames given the heroes of his male series: Rover Boys, Tom Swift, Hardy Boys, Don Sturdy.
Think of it: 'Drew,' the past tense of 'draw,' connotes competition and power, for we draw a bow, or draw on an opponent, and maybe even draw and quarter him, or we draw a salary. And 'drew' is also about attraction and pulling something toward oneself, as in times when we drew fire or water or an audience or a breath. We even speak of how honey draws flies. Similarly, drawing a wagon or drawing blood is also about pulling something; drawing money or interest pulls something out of a bank; a chimney draws or pulls a fire upwards; we pull or draw information out of someone. All these expressions speak to the young reader of power.
But we can also say "he drew the curtains," and "she drew up her will." Now the word indicates 'closing off,' as it has at those times we 'drew near' a goal or a conclusion and could see the end of a task. Yet we can 'draw away' too, recoiling in horror perhaps, or simply 'withdraw' to recoup. The word 'drew' can have a note of grace also, for it can be about sketching a picture. Nancy, incidentally, eventually … attends art school.2
So, Nancy Drew bears a name with many meanings. It is a rich name, with reference to several arenas of human life, and even to contradictory activities. It's not an adjective like 'Swift' or 'Hardy,' but a verb—an action word, and yet in the past tense, an action completed. The nuances suggested by Nancy's name are not accidental. It was chosen for a purpose by her creator, and has affected her readers subliminally for sixty years. Let's allow this exploration of her name to sit and steep for a bit, and return to it later. You may ask: "Does all this really matter?" Well, imagine what the difference might be if we were thinking of Nancy Smith …
Nancy had predecessors: the Stratemeyer Syndicate's investigative teen heroines of World War I days, such as Ruth Fielding and Dorothy Dale. Betty Gordon, Billie Bradley, and other young women were featured in series of the 1920s. Their appearance parallels the rise in popularity of adult detective fiction.3 Soon after her birth, Nancy was joined on the bookstands by sister sleuths: Judy Bolton, the Dana Girls, Kay Tracey, Beverly Gray, and aviatrix Dorothy Dixon, among others.
The days of the 1940s and World War II focused on career-girl detectives, including Connie Blair from the world of advertising, nurse Cherry Ames, and flight attendant Vicki Barr, all hot on the trail of very catchable crooks. Younger teens like Trixie Belden joined the ranks. Later, there would be more daughters, the girl sleuths of recent decades. But none of these bright, inquiring young women has equalled Nancy Drew either in longevity or number of adventures, or in their impact upon American women and men.
Early Nancy Drew
Era One of Nancy-time spans the twenty years of the 1930s and 40s, and consists of the first twenty-six books of the series. All but four of these were written by Wirt, with increasingly heavy in-house editing as the period moved along.
These volumes were unforgettably illustrated for Grosset & Dunlap by fashion artist Russell H. Tandy, famous for his silhouette endpapers and watercolor dustjackets, picturing 'Classic Nancy' in red, white and/or blue. Much of Nancy's success is undoubtedly due to Tandy's cover art, which often included the male villain of the story. A sub-category of Tandy covers features hidden villains. A sneaky perpetrator might peer through a window at an unsuspecting Nancy, or spy on her from a secret panel. Young readers loved these pictures then, and adult collectors eagerly seek them today.4
Here is a memory from Edith, who grew up in the 1940s in the countryside of the Blue Ridge foothills in central Virginia. Like many adults her age, she recalls the impact the Nancy Drew covers made on her life.
When I was a girl, my grandmother used to clean and cook for a family in the big brick house up on the hill, and when I got big enough to help—seven or eight, I guess—she let me come along with her when I wasn't in school.
Well, the old folks who lived there had a granddaughter my age, who used to visit each summer, and when I finished my little chores my Grannie would let me go play with her. I can't recall this girl's name, but I'll never forget the year she brought her collection of Nancy Drews with her. We read them over and over and acted them out, and we even pored over the Sears, Roebuck catalogue trying to pick out the clothes for ourselves that looked like the beautiful ones Nancy wore in the pictures on the covers. Two little girls dreaming of what we might become!
It may seem funny that a black girl like me would use WASPy Nancy Drew as a model, but she was the only exciting young female I had ever come across. And there was something about her person and the stories that went beyond race or even time. I remember how we both raised an eyebrow over the parts that put down blacks, and I was glad to hear that these were cleaned up later. I really believed I could be like Nancy, just as much as my playmate did, and today I'm a social worker at a university near my old home.
Sometimes I wonder if my old friend ever lived out our girlhood dreams as well as I did. I always think of Nancy Drew with the deepest sisterly fondness.5
Era Two of the series, 1950–56, gave us Transitional Nancy. Wirt and Tandy withdrew, and various writers were given assignments to continue the post-war adventures of the famous amateur detective. Her creator, now Mildred Wirt Benson, returned for one of the eight volumes of this period.
Mystery has clouded much of Nancy Drew's authorship, as the Stratemeyer Syndicate demanded pledges of secrecy from their ghostwriters—or 'half-ghosts' as the contract writers were sometimes called, since the plot outlines given them were often very detailed.6
This Nancy of the early 50s is a little more frenetic, her pace accelerated as if to match the pace of that new competitor for young people's attention, television. Although eighteen (to allow her to drive legally), her new illustrator, Bill Gillies, draws her younger. She looks like a high school bobbysoxer. Tandy's svelte and confident miss who sleuths in high-heels and sometimes hat and gloves, is replaced by a Nancy in Peter Pan collar and page-boy hairdo, often gasping and gaping at the latest underhanded goings-on.
Era Three, from the late 1950s until 1979, is characterized by Grosset & Dunlap's overhauled and less expensive format for all its popular series, most books being shortened by twenty or more pages. Nancy Drew dustjackets are gone, and the new yellow volumes have picture covers. A major improvement at this time was the elimination of the many ethnic stereotypes of the earlier stories7 and some levelling of their hierarchical class-structure. Thus, Hannah Gruen evolves from subservient elderly maid deferring to "Miss Nancy," to "The Drews' lovely housekeeper," a mother-replacement and friend.
However, in the new adventures of Nancy Drew, from #35 on, plus the revisions of all the preceding titles, the pace is even more precipitous than before. Whereas in #1 we are told that 'days slip by,' now events stumble over events, with Nancy having five chapters fewer in which to catch her breath, much less enjoy the trappings of gracious living which surround her. This is the era of the Two Dimensional Nancy, with plots so alike they are hard to remember.
1959, the year of the first Nancy Drew revisions, was also the year the Barbie Doll was born. The Nancy of this time is not unlike Barbie and, also, she is akin to the vapid, baby-doll movie heroines of the 50s and early 60s (Tammy, Gidget, et al.) All reflect the regression in the status of women during the decades after World War II.
This watered-down Nancy was the creation of the Stratemeyer Syndicate's Harriet Adams, Edward's daughter and heir. Adams had been involved in editing Nancy's adventures since the 1930s, and eventually claimed authorship of the entire series. She made no secret of her belief that the earlier Nancy was "too bold and bossy, too positive,"8 and set about to make her more gentle, send her off to church regularly, and generally dispel Nancy's larger-than-life mystique. Carson Drew, who early in Nancy's career provided his daughter with a revolver, now became a protective dad who forbids her to go sleuthing alone—and most of the time, Nancy obeys him.
At this stage of her history, her hair color having deepened to strawberry blonde and then titian, Nancy's illustrators pictured her as younger than ever—appropriately, for her reading audience also grew younger. The original Nancy Drew stories were advertised for 10-15 year-olds; by the 1970s she was being aimed at readers aged 8-12. Mason notes that "the illustrations of the Nancy Drew series show the evolution of Nancy from an independent career woman to a fluffy kitten child."9 At the same time, Adams made the heroine's adventures ever more dangerous and far-flung, jetting her from one exotic location to another. There is a sense of incongruity in this less mature Nancy and her increasingly grown-up adventures.
Along with 50s artists Gillies and Rudy Nappi, whose Drew covers began in 1953 and continued through Era Three, many uncredited artists came and went from the series. There had been unsuccessful efforts to woo back Russell Tandy for the revisions begun in 1959, but the visual creator of Nancy Drew would not work for a hundred dollars a book.
In the last five years of Era Three, interior line drawings of Nancy and her friends deteriorated into caricature stick-figures, as if to say these stories were but parodies of the original Nancy Drews.
The last Grosset & Dunlap hardcover title was #56, The Thirteenth Pearl, set in Japan, and published in 1979, and it marks the end of Era Three. Even though the heroine of titles #35 through #56 and the revisions of numbers 1-34 is a watered-down Nancy, the famous girl detective is still recognizable. (The biblical scholars would probably call her quasicanonical, or 'deutero-Nancy.')
Nancy at the End of the Century
Stratemeyer changed publishers to Simon & Schuster in 1979. The Nancy Drews of Era Four—the early 1980s—degenerated quickly into ground-out plots featuring Nancy as a quasi-Gothic novel heroine. The stories of this period, still produced by Mrs. Adams and her colleagues, are even shorter than those that came before, and reflect their versions of the 'in' trends of the Woodstock Generation.
These stories make Nancy's earlier hunch-filled and coincidence-ridden adventures seem gems of Euclidean rationalism. She is beset by everything from flying saucers to vampires. In The Bluebeard Room, a sapphire-eyed Nancy becomes a rock star's 'bird,' and flushes out a Cornish witch coven. Reader response ranged from: "Nancy, we hardly knew ye," to writer Kate Emburg's declaration that "Nancy Drew, Girl Sleuth has become Nancy Drew, Girl Slut." Though hardcover book-club editions were issued in this era, the primary focus was now on mass-market paperbacks.
Many fans of all ages lost interest in what once had been a favorite heroine, not bothering to read or collect the 80s paperbacks. Nancy Drew was written off as another girls' series heroine about to breathe her last.
Ginny, now thirteen, tells of her disillusionment.
When I was ten, I read a few Nancy Drews that my older sister had dumped in the attic, and they were pretty good. Then in the drug store I saw some new ones. They were paper books, but had pretty covers, and I bought The Flying Saucer Mystery.
Yuck! It was so stupid and she acted like such a jerk. I promised myself I'd never read another story about Nancy Drew.
Ginny was not the only reader who felt this way. David Gates, writing in Newsweek finds this Nancy Drew as much a product of her times as earlier Nancys:
… if it weren't for her protofeminist pluck, Nancy, with her clean-cut friends, country-club membership and limitless leisure, would be as ideal a heroine for the Reagan era as she was for the glamour-hungry Depression years.10
However, with hindsight we can see now that the twenty-two titles of Era Four formed an era of Shape-Shifting Nancy. Though the tales lost much, a redeeming feature was added by her new publisher: a charming visual Nancy Drew, created by Ruth Sanderson and Paul Frame, artists whose illustrations are worthy of the original heroine.
In 1983, soon after Harriet Adams' death at age eighty-nine, all the properties of the Stratemeyer Syndicate were sold to Simon & Schuster, who decided to publish two concurrent Nancy Drew series.
The Nancy Drew Files, begun in 1986 and marketed aggressively at the rate of ten titles a year, siphoned off the romance strain that the girl sleuth had acquired over the decade, and packaged it for the pre-teen pa-perback romance market. In these 'more sophisticated' mysteries (i.e. with murder and sex) Nancy is no longer River Heights' most famous amateur detective, but a career woman private eye.
One journalist calls this Nancy "a professional sex tease … a Dynasty bimbo."11 Another reviewer comments on her "libido humming along in overdrive."12 Old-time fans cringed as their favorite sleuth slipped into a skimpy bikini and dissolved in Ned Nicker-son's (and others') arms in the Files, but were pleasantly surprised with Nancy's new publisher's second decision.
In 1987 Era Five, Restored Nancy, began with title #79, continuing the series without the globe-trotting and chest-heaving which had overtaken it.13
The picture covers of this latest era bear the slogan, 'All New!' But they would be more accurate if they read: 'The Old Nancy Drew Returns!' The trio of young women are once again the focus of the tales. Athletic George and Bess—still slightly plump—are at hand, with Carson Drew and Hannah Gruen for back-up, just as in the old days. Ned—and romance—make cameo appearances, but are sidelined. Ned's anger and frustration at being kept on hold for over half a century have been relegated to The Nancy Drew Files.
Details of the calorie-filled, cholesterol-rich menus from Hannah's kitchen, so dear to the pre-teen heart, have returned.14 And Nancy still picks up the check when she and her friends dine out at the many picturesque local eating spots. The stories of Era Five are all set in the United States, with almost half of them in River Heights. Everyday life in Nancy's home town is just as peril-filled as in the 1930s, as rocks with notes strapped to them fly through the Drews' dining-room window during dinner, and shifty-eyed villains aim their guns at Nancy and Co.
Other familiar ingredients are again in place in Era Five:
- The initial warning to "get off the case or else …"
- The cliffhanger chapter endings
- Nancy's risk-taking: e.g. in #84, The Joker's Revenge, Nancy grabs the landing skids of a rising, crook-filled helicopter
- The respect and enthusiastic co-operation of authority figures
- The obligatory epilogue of verbal bouquets
- And once more, Nancy's car is blue, though it's now a 90s Mustang.
Although the contemporary paperbacks which continue the regular Nancy Drew series don't feel as substantial as the old 'thick blues,' the sleuth herself is more like Mildred Wirt Benson's original heroine than any since 1956.
Some things do change, however. Ethnic surnames are now given to the good guys (e.g. Nurse Santos and Lieutenant Chin) and the three girls are sometimes called 'women.' Title #99 is about an animal-rights activist,15 and #96 even features an inter-racial romance.16
The Stratemeyer dictum against current events, which made the earlier books so timeless, is gone. Today's Nancy is slangy and trendy. She advises Bess to "catch some rays," and has an adventure with a rock deejay who airs Bruce Springsteen.17 And she's still a notch above the law, now carrying in her pocket a lock-picking kit as well as the flashlight of earlier days. Nancy even has been known to break into a suspect's apartment with a credit card!
Young readers at the end of the twentieth century may well be confused by the two sets of Nancy Drews in the bookstores, each featuring its distinctive heroine. Perhaps they assume the Nancy of the Files to be a visitor from another planet, or an alien clone with the same name as the original heroine.
Drawn by a variety of artists, Ms. Drew (as she's now styled) often changes in appearance from book to book. On some covers, she is a rugged private investigator, and on others, the lady-like Nancy of yesteryear. Her hair color changes frequently. What is important is that the Nancy Drew series still thrives and is on the job, having survived and recovered from a near-death experience.
Readers interested in the development of Nancy Drew—her creators, their working limitations, business demands which shaped Nancy, and the distribution and promotion which supported her—will find much useful material in Carol Billman's The Secret of the Stratemeyer Syndicate.18 Billman, a student of children's literature, used Syndicate materials crediting only Harriet Adams as Carolyn Keene to tell her story, and her work should be supplemented with other writings about authors who ghosted for the Syndicate.
More details and a complete Nancy Drew bibliography can be found in David Farah's detailed elaboration of Nancy's publishing history,19 and articles from two collectors' magazines: Yellowback Library,20 and The Whispered Watchword.21
So much for Nancy Drew's outer life. Our book is an analysis of her inner life—and more importantly, our own.
As Nancy solves her 100th mystery and moves toward a new millennium, she remains a popular culture icon. She is now the heroine of computer games as well as books and T.V.22 So, let's take a closer look at the separate ingredients found in her saga which, combined, have made her such a legendary heroine. These ingredients are in our souls too. She has mirrored them to us for decades. Mildred Wirt Benson rightly says:
Nancy became the inner self of the reader, in a different way for each person …23
1. Geoffrey S. Lapin's meticulous research on Mildred A. Wirt Benson of Ladora, Iowa—the original "Carolyn Keene"—began in 1963 and appears in "The Mystery of Nancy Drew; or the Clue in the Old Library," Random Notes, Vol. 1:1, 1982, p. 1-5. He expands this article in "Carolyn Keene—Pseud." in Yellowback Library, Nos. 16-18, 23, and 35. Other writers who have shed light on Mildred Wirt's development of Nancy Drew are Linnea Martin, op.cit., and Anita Susan Grossman, in "The Ghost of Nancy Drew," Ohio Magazine, Dec. 1987, p. 41ff. and in an annotated bibliography of writings about Mildred Wirt Benson in Yellowback Library 38, March-April 1987. The research of these and others who have helped Mildred Wirt Benson receive the credit due her as Nancy Drew's creator is summarized by David Farah an his Farah's Guide (Flint, MI: Farah's Books, several edns.). At this writing, Mrs. Benson in her mid-80s is an active newspaperwoman at the Toledo Blade.
2. Thanks to Linnea Martin op. cit., for her comments on Nancy's surname.
3. Harriet Adams, Edward Stratemeyer's daughter, said of her father, "He thought juvenile trends followed adult book trends by about 5 years." Quoted in David Zinman's Saturday Afternoon at the Bijou (Castle Books, 1973), p. 414.
4. Geoffrey Lapin in Yellowback Library 20, March-April 1984, gives his valuable research on artist Tandy. This article includes the first bibliography of children's book illustrations by Russell H. Tandy, listing fifteen series. Tandy's 26 entries in the Nancy Drew series make it his largest body of juvenile series artwork for young people's books. David Farah also describes the Tandy artwork for Nancy Drew in several portions of his series on "Basic Nancy Drew" for Yellowback Library, 1982ff, pointing out the hidden villain covers in Part VIII, Jan.-Feb. 1983.
5. Nancy Drew "extended hope to readers (i.e. girls and women) who otherwise found themselves routinely excluded from the great expectations that American society raises in every citizen … lodged in the banality … is the perennial heady promise of America that the social order is meritocracy …" says Ann Scott MacLeod, in Children's Literature in Education 15:3, Autumn 1984, pp. 127-140. This was the same message Horatio Alger gave an earlier generation of boys born poor, notes MacLeod.
6. Information on Nancy Drew's authorship is from Lapin, op.cit., and "Inside the Stratemeyer Syndicate" by Ernie Kelly in Yellowback Library, #52, Oct. 1988 and #54, Dec. 1988. See also Mildred Wirt Benson's letter to the editor, Publisher's Weekly, Sept. 26 1986. Mrs. Benson was paid $125 per book, but received no royalties and was forbidden to disclose that she was "Carolyn Keene" or to use the name "Nancy Drew" in any way.
7. A most interesting article detailing "Negro Stereotypes in Children's Literature: The Case of Nancy Drew" by James P. Jones is found in The Journal of Negro Education, Spring 1971, pp. 121-125. The author acknowledges the changes in the Drew revisions and finds this series no more guilty of racial stereotyping than any other of its day.
8. Mrs. Adams made her feelings about the early Nancy Drew known in the 1979 trial when Grosset & Dunlap's parent company and Simon & Schuster fought over ownership of the Strate-meyer heroes and heroines. Mildred Wirt Benson says, "My Nancy was not Mrs. Adam's Nancy. Mrs. Adams was an entirely different person—she was more cultured and refined. I was a rough and tumble newspaper person who had to earn a living and who was out in the world. My Nancy was making her way in life and trying to compete and have fun along the way. We just had two different Nancys." (Quoted by Martin, op.cit.) Mrs. Benson also feels that the revamping of Nancy begun in 1959 was "a very poor job" (in an interview with Mona Gable, Los Angeles Times, Aug. 16 1991, p. E-6).
9. Mason, op.cit., p. 136.
10. Newsweek, Mar. 16 1984, p. 12
11. "The Updating of Nancy Drew" by Patricia Holt, in "Between the Lines," San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 19 1986.
12. Lynn van Matre, Chicago Tribune, Sec. 14, p. 7, Dec. 21 1986.
13. My thanks to Melanie Knight, co-editor of the Society of Phantom Friends' newsletter, The Whispered Watchword, for recognizing this shift in the late 1980s Nancy Drews and reporting it in the April 1988 issue. Also, my appreciation to writer Kate Emburg, president of the Society, for her similar comments in the Dec. 1989 issue.
14. The oral gratification in Nancy Drew is noted by Mason, op.cit., p. 126, and Zacharias, op.cit., who comments on Nancy and her friends "eating their way through adventure after adventure and giving their audience a wholesome outlet for repressed or latent sexual desire …" (p. 1027)
15. The Secret at Seven Rocks, Nancy Drew #99 (1991).
16. The Case of the Photo Finish, Nancy Drew #96 (1990).
17. The Case of the Disappearing Deejay, Nancy Drew #89 (1989)
18. Billman, op.cit. Smithsonian 22 (7) Oct. 1991, also carried a detailed history of the Syndicate based on similar sources; see "Tom Swift, Nancy Drew, and Pals All Had the Same Dad," pp. 50-61.
19. Farah, op.cit. (5th and 6th editions).
20. Monthly 36-page Yellowback Library, P.O. Box 36712, Des Moines, IA 50315. Editor: Gil O'Gara. Subscription $12/6mo., $24/1 yr. Deals with all juvenile series.
21. Monthly newsletter, The Whispered Watchword comes with membership in The Society of Phantom Friends, $25/1yr. Co-edited by Linda Joy Singleton and Melanie Knight. Focuses on girls' series books, old and new. The Society of Phantom Friends also publishes a complete directory of girls' series books, The Girls' Series Companion, Kate Emburg ed. and John Tonner pub. with over 200 pages of annotated entries. Queries about availability can be sent to the publisher (see note 12, Ch. 1).
22. In an article on "Y(oung) A(dult) Detective Fiction: Nancy Drew and the Age of Technology" in The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents, 11 (2) Winter 1984, Anita Fisher writes of plans underway at Infocom, Cambridge MA, to develop home computer games based on Nancy Drew, Tom Swift and the Hardy Boys. I have no information as to whether these were produced.
23. Quoted by Martin, op.cit.
Kathleen Chamberlain (essay date June 1994)
SOURCE: Chamberlain, Kathleen. "The Secret of Nancy Drew: Having Their Cake and Eating It Too." Lion and the Unicorn 18, no. 1 (June 1994): 1-12.
[In the following essay, Chamberlain revisits Bobbie Ann Mason's 1975 feminist critical appraisal of Nancy Drew, The Girl Sleuth: A Feminist Guide, and suggests that, although Nancy Drew's former image as a ground-breaking female role model has stagnated, the character still occupies a mythic status in the field of children's literature.]
By 1975, the character of Nancy Drew had all the trappings of a cultural icon. Books featuring Nancy's adventures had been lining the shelves of retail stores and girls' bedrooms for 45 years. Literally millions of copies had been sold. Nancy had been the subject of four feature films. She had starred in her own Parker Brothers "Mystery Game." She had her own cookbook. She had appeared as a prestigious "Madame Alexander" doll. She was also beginning to be the subject of scholarly consideration. In 1975, the first extended feminist examination of Nancy Drew, Bobbie Ann Mason's The Girl Sleuth: A Feminist Guide, appeared.
Like many feminist critics of the 1970s, Mason perceptively explored the issue of the "role model" and detailed the cultural lessons about female behavior that Nancy's character inculcated. Although she praised Nancy's original independence and adventurous spirit, Mason also criticized what Nancy had become. She is "just too straight," wrote Mason. "She no longer does the outrageous, but the obvious and the expected. And the message in her stories is the same as it always was: to give little girls the illusion that they could have their cake and eat it, too" (138). As part of her study, Mason issued a challenge to the Nancy Drew of the future:
Nancy Drew had liberated readers from that tyranny [of "giggling girl" heroines], but who is to liberate new readers from the established complacency of the Nancy Drew series? If Nancy is to live up to her image as a superheroine, she must step beyond the old limits of her role and again advance into forbidden territory.
Interestingly, Mason had delivered her challenge at the very time that Nancy Drew was about to be offered several new chances to meet it. Within two years after Mason's book, a Nancy Drew television series had not only refocused Nancy through the prism of Hollywood but had also expanded the scope of her influence through a burst of merchandising. There were Nancy Drew lunch boxes and jigsaw puzzles, Halloween costumes and greeting card kits, secret code books, mystery mazes, crossword puzzles, and even a "Private Eye Diary" complete with lock and key. By the mid-1980s, the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which created Nancy, had been sold and its principals had died or moved on. The new publisher and owner, Simon & Schuster, has more than doubled the number of titles in the original series and has created new, "spin-off" series such as the Nancy Drew Files and River Heights.1 If Nancy Drew were indeed to "step beyond the old limits of her role," as Mason asked, she has had plenty of opportunity.
For the most part, however, she has not taken this opportunity. My examination of recent Nancy Drew titles shows that the character continues to teach conflicting lessons about gender and retains the essential "straightness" and "complacency" that were present even in the fairly radical early volumes of the series. Yet the books' continuing popularity2 suggests that young readers do not feel the need to be "liberated" from Nancy's "established complacency." Nancy Drew remains an adolescent superheroine despite contradictions in her character and despite a fundamental conservatism that at first seems surprising given her independent, adventurous reputation.
Why? If Nancy Drew has, in fact, fossilized over time (she has, to an extent) and if her books present disturbing pictures of class and gender (they did and do), then why has her popularity remained? The answer lies, at least in part, in the very contradictions and paradoxes that Bobbie Ann Mason cites. As Mason writes, "Nancy gave us the conventional and the revolutionary in one compact image" (138). But to Mason, the suggestion that a girl can have her cake and eat it too is an illusion, one that should be replaced with a reality that presumably would demonstrate to readers that one cannot attain independence while remaining Daddy's dependent or become personally liberated while remaining enslaved to gender and class stereotypes. Yet, to dispel the illusions or "improve" the lessons would destroy the quiddity of the series, for it is precisely such contradictions that are the core of Nancy's appeal and that offer the clearest insights into our culture. Nancy Drew is a powerful cultural icon because of, not despite, the paradoxical nature of the lessons she teaches.
These lessons have remained fairly constant because the Nancy Drew series has changed little in any substantive way since its inception in 1930. Aside from the cosmetic changes necessary to bring clothes, cars, and slang up to date, the stories have seen only four significant developments over the years. First, in the first four or five volumes, Nancy Drew is feistier, more human, and more down to earth than in later books. She feels panic; she uses sarcasm and slang; she is outspoken in her dislikes; she is sometimes unreasonable. After these very early volumes, Nancy becomes more of a paragon. Second, in the late 1950s, the new titles were shortened by an average of 40 pages. As a result, these new books move forward at breakneck pace and have skimpier characterizations; much less description; and fewer, if any, subplots. Third, in 1959, the Stratemeyer Syndicate began revising the earlier titles, editing out offensive racial and ethnic stereotypes and shortening the texts. Fourth, when Simon & Schuster took over complete production of the series in the mid-1980s, the stories became more contemporary; they featured plots dealing with current issues such as weight loss and fitness and offered fewer gender-specific occupations. The earlier books had rarely, if ever, focused on specifically adolescent problems.
Far from altering the dynamics of the series, these changes have all tended to strengthen the mythic power of Nancy and to emphasize her most appealing (if unrealistic) message—that one can, in fact, have one's cake and eat it too. For over 60 years, the Nancy Drew series has told readers that they can have the benefits of both dependence and independence without the drawbacks, that they can help the disadvantaged and remain successful capitalists, that they can be both elitist and democratic, that they can be both child and adult, and that they can be both "liberated" women and "Daddys' little girls."
These messages grow first from Nancy's character. As most critics point out, Nancy Drew is a nearly perfect heroine.3 She is intelligent, confident, capable, talented, and attractive. In Nancy's Mysterious Letter, the narrator notes that Nancy's father, the famous lawyer Carson Drew, "often said that she was a more helpful partner to him in his work than any man he could pick from the legal talent of the country" (Keene 15). Nancy has no qualms about pitting her ideas against those of adult professionals—and she is always taken seriously. Even the criminals know that in Nancy they have met their match. Swindler Felix Raybolt, for instance, backs down in front of Nancy's challenge because "something warned him that he was not dealing with a girl who could be bluffed" (Keene, Clue in the Diary 196).
There is virtually no task to which Nancy is not equal. In her first adventure alone, The Secret of the Old Clock, 16-year-old Nancy can repair motorboats, fix flat tires, maneuver her car on slick roads during dangerous thunderstorms, administer first aid, and offer psychological diagnoses. (After all, the reader is told, she had "studied psychology in school" .) During the 1930s, when the books are at their most class-conscious, Nancy manages her father's household and hires, directs, and trains servants as needed. As the series progresses, more talents come to light—Nancy can ride horses bareback, sightread music, use Morse code, translate Chaucer, dance a ballet; skate a waltz; shoot straight; act; draw; and play bagpipes, golf, and piano. In the original The Mystery of the Black Keys, she even endures torture with barely a murmur.4
Beyond these abilities, Nancy is personally thoughtful, caring, and nurturing. Sometimes she seems more like a mother than a friend to her chums Helen, Bess, and George. Her usual attitude toward these pals is one of tolerant amusement. At other moments, however, she becomes their protector and saves them from any number of dangers. Her maternal sense extends to their general well being, too. When the girls become lost during The Secret at Shadow Ranch, Nancy takes double watch duty because "she knew that George was tired and needed her sleep" (142). In The Secret at Solaire, she worries that Bess is becoming obsessed with diet and exercise.5
From a literary standpoint, Nancy Drew is neither a complex nor particularly well-drawn character; her abilities and qualities are almost exclusively plot driven and arise mostly from the demands of the action. As the series progressed, elements of characterization were even further reduced; Nancy ended up as more of a line drawing than a fully realized portrait. Those few substantive changes cited above contributed to this streamlining of Nancy. Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, who oversaw the basic plotting of the series after the first few volumes, said that she found the early Nancy "too bold and bossy" (Billman 101).6 In eliminating these traits, Mrs. Adams also made Nancy less individualistic and thus more available as a type of blank slate on which new generations of readers could write their own versions of the Nancy myth. The drastic shortening of texts that occurred in the late 1950s also eliminated the scope for a more subtle characterization. The result was weaker literature but stronger potential for myth.
That potential is realized in the messages that Nancy's character offers. Nancy Drew allows young readers independence and domestic protection at the very time when girls view these options with mixed emotions. For many adolescents, independence inspires both fear and desire, while domestic protection can be both a frustration and a haven. With Nancy, readers do not have to choose between freedom and security; like Nancy, they can have both—at least in the world of the stories. Nancy has the independence of her roadster, but she also has the stability of her comfortable home. She has a father whose parental motto appeared to be "no interference," yet she also has his support, his money, his legal resources, and the benefit of his reputation. In housekeeper Hannah Gruen, she first had a servant who handled all the chores of daily living without having the potentially annoying authority of a mother. Later, when Hannah becomes less like a servant and more like a member of the family, Nancy gains maternal love without having to give up her maid or her self-governance.
This paradoxical Nancy helps us understand the phenomenon of "identification." One of the traditional ways of accounting for Nancy's appeal has been to say that readers—at least white, middle-class readers—could identify with her. Arthur Prager's daughter used these very words: "You can identify with her," Emily Prager told her father (76). Mildred Wirt Benson, the author of over 20 early Nancy Drews, has also used these words. "Girls want characters they can identify with," Mrs. Benson said. "I just wrote somebody I knew they could be like."7
Yet this explanation has always seemed inadequate and inaccurate. If to identify with someone means to see one's own traits, abilities, experiences, and world mirrored in that person, then probably no one on earth, especially no average or even exceptional adolescent, could legitimately identify with Nancy Drew. What young readers see in Nancy is not themselves as they are, but as they would be. As Prager writes, "a little girl could plausibly pretend to be Nancy" (76). "Pretend" is the key word. Far from being a genuine reflection of a reader's world, Nancy represents an avenue to a preteen utopia. Thus, to Bobbie Ann Mason, Nancy Drew was not, as contemporary series heroine Judy Bolton was, "a genuine girlhood acquaintance" but "an elusive image, a mythic heroine on a flying trapeze" (76). As a character who is both "conventional" and "revolutionary," Nancy Drew is less a source of identification than an object of projection. Partly because of her superficial characterization, partly because of the orderly workings of her universe, Nancy is to readers a mannequin that they can dress in their own fantasies. Once dressed, this model allows readers to test out adulthood without actually taking risks.
Nancy's success in her "adult" role of detective, though often completely implausible, simply makes her that much more of a "superhero." In the pre-Simon & Schuster stories, Nancy insists upon her amateur status and accepts only souvenirs, never cash, for her cases.8 Though sleuthing is not merely a hobby to Nancy—as Billman points out, Nancy says she needs mysteries (110)—it is not a full-fledged career. Since the mystery and the action themselves, rather than any eventual reward, are Nancy's motivations, readers' attention also focuses on the nature of the puzzle.
The majority of these puzzles involve loss. Nancy solves cases involving lost treasures, lost inheritances, lost people, and lost identities. Her readers are beginning to face the mysteries of adulthood, puzzles that also depend on lost treasures (such as parts of childhood) and lost identities. "Who am I?" is a major question for any adolescent. A common adolescent daydream finds the ordinary, sometimes gawky and ill-adjusted dreamer fantasizing about being a missing princess or an heiress in disguise, just as many of Nancy's "clients" actually are. Consider Lucy Brown, the waif befriended by Nancy in The Secret at Shadow Ranch. Lucy is "unusually pretty"; her beauty stands out despite her being dressed in "the ugliest rags imaginable" (48). Nancy at once feels "certain that Lucy Brown came of far better stock than squatter quality" (53). To think that the gold beneath one's adolescent dross might be instantly recognized is an alluring concept for many a young reader. In a manner simpler than but similar to many adult mystery stories, the Nancy Drew series shows a world in which all strange events have logical explanations, all questions have answers, all evil can be contained, and all disorder ends in order. Like the determinedly amateur detective Nancy, for whom the puzzle is all, many readers find powerful psychological satisfaction in solving mysteries along with their heroine/leader.
The psychological impact of the series, then, is one of its strongest appeals. Nancy Drew's main readers have always been girls, of varied ages, in a liminal state: on the threshold between the worlds of childhood and adulthood, dependence and independence. Since a threshold is by definition a type of paradox—representing in a sense no state and two states at once—it is rarely comfortable and never permanent. The person occupying the threshold needs somehow to resolve the tension, usually by committing herself or himself to one of the offered positions—by metaphorically stepping forward or backward off the threshold. Nancy Drew speaks so powerfully to young readers because she does not force that painful choice; rather, her character accepts and validates the ambiguity. Instead of requiring a commitment to a new state of being, Nancy Drew allows readers to remain in a state of becoming. Yet, unlike the typical threshold state of becoming, which is intolerable because it is neither X nor Y, the liminal state that Nancy offers is comfortable because it is both X and Y—child and adult; protected and free. The fact that Nancy Drew is a series character intensifies this effect. In each book, a particular mystery is solved; this allows the story to provide the security of closure. But since Nancy will appear again shortly in another volume, she requires no closure; she is free to remain unresolved.
Strong though these messages are, they do not represent the entire power of the Nancy Drew series. In addition to resolving, albeit temporarily, some of the preteen's most intense psychological dramas, the series also offers larger social justifications. Nancy Drew represents a white, upper middle-class world, a world that most of her readers either occupy or to which they aspire. In either case, they need to be instructed in the rules of that world. Nancy's "every-town," the vaguely designated "midwestern" River Heights—with its clearly delineated class strata, its clear-cut moral questions, and its conspicuous consumption of teen cars and clothes—helps readers learn the expectations, regulations, limits, and privileges of their place in a capitalist democracy.
The early stories were unabashedly class-conscious. In The Mystery at Lilac Inn, for instance, Nancy is surprised to meet working-class suspect Mary Mason in an exclusive dress shop. When Mary snubs the "gracious" Nancy, Nancy thinks, "such insolence. One would think she was an heiress instead of a kitchen girl" (77). Later, after she trails Mary to the poor "Dockville" section of town, she reflects on the fact that only the most "poverty-stricken" people live there. This poverty is immediately linked to the inhabitants' behavior; they "stare hard" at Nancy and look "so disreputable" that she decides to leave (94). The message is clear; poor people and menial workers are outcasts from "reputable" society and are legitimate objects of suspicion. Nancy's sleuthing thus becomes a way of keeping such people in their place by uncovering evidence of their guilt, a method of preserving and justifying the class definitions of her and our culture.
Such class distinctions became less overt as the series developed, but they have never wholly disappeared. Even the current Simon & Schuster stories often take place in the spaces of the rich or almost rich, such as posh schools, riding stables, and fitness spas. For the most part, the messages of the early books remain. While working-class people might no longer be immediately suspected of crimes, they remain very definitely "other," or "them." Readers are invited to ally themselves with Nancy, or "us," and thus gain for themselves a comfortable sense of belonging and of the rightness of that belonging.
These class definitions are reinforced by such elements as Nancy's amateur status. The very concept of amateurism is rooted in class distinction. In our time, amateur is often associated with the person who pursues an endeavor for the sake of the endeavor itself, not for any crass profit motive. This idea is distinctly modern. The word "amateur" did not even enter English until 1784, and then only in its sense of "one who loves or is fond of." In its sense of "one who pursues something as a pastime rather than a profession," the word did not occur until 1803. Concomitantly, amateur was also often used derisively, as in one who merely dabbles or whose work lacks polish. Yet the term has also become emblematic of the disinterested purist, a concept demonstrated by the importance of amateur status in the modern Olympic Games. These modern games began in 1896 at the end of a century in which advances in technology, expansion of the franchise, and improvement in global marketing conspired to permit some members of the lower and middle classes to make significant inroads into those areas of power long the preserve of the aristocracy. To be an amateur—that is, to have no need of the money an activity could bring—was a way for the aristocracy to avoid having to compete on an equal level with the lower classes, whether in athletics or business or society. Thus, what to many seems an ideal of purity was initially a way for the aristocracy to exclude the lower classes. In a less sophisticated but otherwise similar manner, Nancy Drew's amateurism allows the series to draw a fairly clear line between the lower classes and the middle-to-upper classes.
My purpose here is not to justify or criticize the class messages in the Nancy Drew series, though of course one could make a moral case against many of these ideas. Rather, I want to demonstrate how such messages help account for the perennial appeal of the series. Nancy's status as oxymoronic "professional amateur" may indeed make her a social parasite, but it also provides another of the paradoxes or comfortable thresholds by which readers can have their cake and eat it too. For other series heroines involved in careers, such as Connie Blair the advertising agent and Cherry Ames the nurse, having a career means making the choices that the Drew series enables readers to avoid. In the Vicki Barr stewardess series, for instance, one of Vicki's motives for becoming a stewardess is to be financially independent. "Imagine not having to ask Dad for things. Being master of my own fate and captain of my own pocketbook," she says (Wells 30). In exchange for this freedom, Vicki must pay by losing the security of her home and loving family. In the Nancy Drew series, however, no payment is required. Readers can enjoy the benefits of a capitalist system without ever really entering the marketplace. Just as they can be adults without being adults, readers can be capitalists without being capitalists and can occupy a desirable class position without any attendant moral responsibility.
These patterns, established in the first volume of the series, remain intact in the current incarnation of Nancy Drew, those volumes published by Simon & Schuster. Nancy is still more or less perfect, although to some extent a more human dimension has crept in. In The Case of the Artful Crime, for instance, she is surprisingly nervous and cautious during her first outing as an undercover waitress. She also suffers the embarrassment of being tripped while carrying a customer's wine, the sort of humiliating misadventure that would have happened to George Fayne in the original series. Occasionally, this more human characterization threatens to undermine Nancy's mythic power as a fantasy figure. The Eskimo's Secret, one of the weaker recent volumes, actually has Nancy giggling out of embarrassment for having suspected a seemingly pleasant young man (37).
Usually, though, Nancy's mythic status is protected, often through the presence of her foils. When a given plot requires exposition about some specialized activity, it is the chums, Bess Marvin or George Fayne, who confess to being "confused" and ask for elucidation. As in the original series, George and, more often recently, Bess continue to play Watson to Nancy's Holmes. Though some volumes from the 1970s and 1980s eliminated the giddier aspects of Bess's character, these elements are back in full force in recent books. Bess is still obsessed with food, to Nancy's amusement. She cracks gum, reads fashion magazines, goes weak at the thought of a movie star in The Mystery of the Missing Millionairess, and has now added "shop till you drop" to her catalog of loves. With such ordinary characters present to throw her superhuman abilities into relief, Nancy retains her mythic power.
Like fairy tales, the simple world of the Nancy Drew stories offers a landscape on which readers can play out some of the psychological, moral, and social dramas that they must enact in order to take their adult place in their world. What perhaps makes this series even more attractive to young readers is the fact that so many of these dramas are acted out for them; all they need do is accept the comfortable positions that the paradoxes of the books offer. That such passive acquiescence might not be what we would wish as the effects of juvenile literature is beside the point. Nancy Drew remains a powerful cultural icon because she responds to some of her readers' fundamental needs.
The pervasiveness of Nancy Drew's message is underscored by the presence of adult spoofs and satires. Doug Kenney's National Lampoon piece, "The Case of the Missing Heiress" makes explicit the issue of capitalism. In the story, naive, conservative Nancy stumbles into the Patty Hearst case. By the end, she has learned a shocking lesson: her father earns money by helping manipulate news as a way to sell newspapers. "Where do you suppose those monthly roadster payments come from—the Easter Bunny?" asks Carson Drew (66). More recently, Mabel Maney's The Case of the Not-So-Nice Nurse, a full-length "Nancy Clue" mystery spoof, brings to the fore the underlying homoerotic content of many juvenile mysteries by showing a loving lesbian affair between Nancy and "Cherry Aimless".
In both cases, the authors' satire reminds us that many adults remain just as unwilling or unable to ask difficult moral and cultural questions as pre-teenagers. The "adults" in the spoof receive and accept simplistic answers to complex questions. They prefer not to look beyond the nearest stereotype. Police accept Cherry Aimless and her friends as innocent because the women say they are girl scouts; Cherry's parents never question the "bachelor" identity of her brother Charlie and his male roommate. Naivete is not the only cause of adult narrowness; Carson Drew's cynical acceptance of illegal benefits is simply another version of the "easy answers" paradigm out of which many people never grow. Like Nancy's young readers, too many of us "grown-ups" still yearn for a world in which all is comfortable and secure and someone else pays for our roadsters.
1. Though several Nancy Drew series exist, this study focuses on the "traditional" or "original" series, which began in 1930 with The Secret in the Old Clock and whose current volumes are numbered in the 110s. Since the newer series, such as Files and River Heights, target different age groups and topics from the original series, they are not part of the study.
2. At the Nancy Drew Conference at the University of Iowa in April, 1993, Simon & Schuster editor Anne Greenberg confirmed that the original series continues to sell well.
3. See, for example, Billman, Mason, and Prager.
4. When this title was revised in 1968, the torture scene was deleted.
5. The Secret at Solaire is the first book in which Bess's chronic weight problem is treated as anything more than comic relief. But the message the story sends is problematic; we are told that Bess, whose "plumpness" is a series staple, is merely six pounds overweight. This news devastates her; she thought she needed to lose only five pounds. For a book to offer to preteens such an unrealistic definition of what it means to be "overweight" is inconsiderate at best, dangerous at worst.
6. The question of the authorship of Nancy Drew is complex. The credited author, Carolyn Keene, is a house pseudonym owned by the Stratemeyer Syndicate. The syndicate produced books by farming out plot outlines to various freelance writers. Until his death in 1930, Edward Strate-meyer created the characters and the plot outlines, including those for the first three or four Nancy Drews. According to Mildred Wirt Benson, the freelancer for most of the first 25 Nancy Drews, Stratemeyer's outlines were apparently quite sketchy and offered the freelancers considerable scope for development. After his death, his daughter Harriet Adams took over the syndicate and ran it until her death in 1982. Over the years, Mrs. Adams assumed greater and greater creative control; she provided elaborate outlines and often significantly revised the freelancer's final manuscripts. Thus—though Mrs. Benson is now generally accepted as the main author of volumes 1-7, 11-25, and 30-Mrs. Adams's influence cannot be entirely discounted. Mrs. Benson herself agrees that Nancy's early change from a realistic girl to primmer, less individualistic paragon is due to Mrs. Adams' revisions. "She [Mrs. Adams] was … refined," says Mrs. Benson. "I was a rough-and-tumble newspaper person…. We just had two different Nancys" (Martin 28). For more information the authorship of Nancy Drew, see Farah, Lapin, and Martin.
7. Mildred Wirt Benson, personal interview, 20 May 1992.
8. In the Simon & Schuster stories, Nancy's status is more ambiguous. Though she usually shows a more professional attitude toward her sleuthing—actively soliciting "cases," referring to her "clients"—there is still little mention of cash payment or any suggestion that Nancy actually earns her living.
Billman, Carol. The Secret of the Stratemeyer Syndicate: Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and the Million Dollar Fiction Factory. New York: Ungar, 1986.
Farah, David. Farah's Price Guide to Nancy Drew Books and Collectibles. 7th ed. N.p.: n.p., 1990.
Keene, Carolyn (Stratemeyer Syndicate). The Secret of the Old Clock. New York: Grosset, 1930.
――――――――. The Mystery at Lilac Inn. New York: Grosset, 1930.
――――――――. The Secret at Shadow Ranch. New York: Grosset, 1931.
――――――――. The Clue in the Diary. New York: Grosset, 1932.
――――――――. Nancy's Mysterious Letter. New York: Grosset, 1932.
――――――――. The Clue of the Black Keys. New York: Grosset, 1951.
――――――――. The Eskimo's Secret. 1985. New York: Minstrel-Pocket, 1988.
――――――――. The Mystery of the Missing Millionairess. New York: Minstrel-Pocket, 1991.
――――――――. The Case of the Artful Crime. New York: Minstrel-Pocket, 1992.
――――――――. The Secret at Solaire. New York: Minstrel-Pocket, 1993.
Kenney, Doug. "The Case of the Missing Heiress." National Lampoon 4 (1974): 41; 44; 60; 65-66.
Lapin, Geoffrey S. "The Ghost of Nancy Drew." Books at Iowa 50 (1989): 8-27.
Maney, Mabel. The Case of the Not-So-Nice Nurse. Pittsburgh: Cleis, 1993.
Martin, Linnea. "The Ghost in the Attic." The [Cleveland] Plain Dealer Magazine (22 May 1988): 27-28, 31.
Mason, Bobbie Ann. The Girl Sleuth: A Feminist Guide. Old Westbury, NY: Feminist, 1975.
Prager, Arthur. Rascals at Large; or, the Clue in the Old Nostalgia. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971.
Wells, Helen. Silver Wings for Vicki. New York: Grosset, 1947.
Carolyn G. Heilbrun (essay date 1995)
SOURCE: Heilbrun, Carolyn G. "Nancy Drew: A Moment in Feminist History." In Rediscovering Nancy Drew, edited by Carolyn Stewart Dyer and Nancy Tillman Romalov, pp. 11-21. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1995.
[In the following essay, Heilbrun argues that Nancy Drew functions as an unwitting model for early twentieth-century feminism, noting that, "[t]o understand [Nancy Drew's] significance we must look at her as she appeared in 1930 and the years immediately following, and not as we look back on her now with all our newfound sensibilities and critical sophistications."]
Nancy Drew—the original Nancy Drew, written by that active woman Mildred Benson—is a moment in the history of feminism. Almost all the critics writing about Nancy Drew have read the later novels, not written by Mildred Benson, and the revisions of the early novels Benson did write. The clue here is that they all refer to Nancy as eighteen, and she was sixteen through all of Benson's accounts of her adventures. The reasons for this age change are unclear: partly, it is said, to conform to new driver's license regulations. Far more likely was the attempt to make her more grown up, more a "lady," more likely to act on her own. The point is that it was the sixteen-year-old Nancy Drew, born at age sixteen in 1930, who was a vital but alas solitary moment.
To understand her significance we must look at her as she appeared in 1930 and the years immediately following, and not as we look back on her now with all our newfound sensibilities and critical sophistications. Frankly, to read The Bungalow Mystery, published in 1930, as I have recently done, is to see something incredibly clear and, at the same time, terribly flawed to our current vision. I want to offer a few gems from The Bungalow Mystery, but not without a tribute and thanks to Professor Donna Perry, who saved almost all these early editions from her childhood and kindly lent some of them to me in preparation for the Nancy Drew Conference. Yet even Donna Perry had only the dimmest memories of Nancy Drew.
And this dim memory was the first astonishing fact I learned about Nancy Drew when, because of the conference, I began mentioning her. Everybody perks up at her name, stands up and salutes as it were. At the same time, nobody can remember a thing about the plots of the books, nor do they have any of the facts about her in very good order. One and all they glow with fond memories: she is their favorite childhood character. But when asked what they remember—if they have not reread the books since their child-hood—they mention the roadster, and perhaps her friends Bess and George; a certain number, to my surprise, remembered that she was blond. In short, they remember more a sensation of pleasure than any of the particular components of that pleasure. And that pleasure came, I wish to assert, from the adventures of a sixteen-year-old girl who took events into her own hands. Certainly the plots have long since faded into gossamer, but Nancy Drew's autonomy has not.
Scholarly critics like Ellen Brown of Virginia Polytechnic, in an interesting essay on Nancy Drew, ask significant and profound questions about the books. But critics like Brown have reread them. So when Brown asks: "What did Nancy Drew teach me?" she is mediating between her fourth-grade self and Nancy Drew with a sophisticated feminist, multicultural, and lit crit consciousness. She is not reading Nancy Drew as we first read A Room of One's Own or Jane Eyre, with a wild sense of recognition and discovery. She is not reading the Nancy Drew of the 1930s.
Now I have one memory many who are younger cannot have—a memory of the first, heady, hopeful, exciting, and, yes, as Adrienne Rich has said, erotic days of feminism in the early seventies. The astonishing fact about those original Nancy Drews written by Mildred Benson is that Nancy Drew sounds just as we did, flinging about the same daring challenges we offered to each other in those early years. I was in my forties, I had waited a long time for feminism, and if I had been reading Nancy Drew in her original form at that moment I would have suspected she was a contemporary.
What I would also have suspected more forcibly than do her younger critics of today was her connection to the mysteries that comprised the so-called Golden Age of detective fiction.
Read Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan in The Lady Investigates, because much as I admire them and their critical work on the detective story, I think they're wrong her in a particularly contemporary way. Craig and Cadogan say:
Every one of the rules laid down for adult detective fiction during the period known as the Golden Age is infringed in the Nancy Drew stories. There is no mystery about the identity of the criminals; plots and subplots are welded together by a series of preposterous coincidences; the triumphant conclusions are not presented as a result of logic or even of plausible chance…. The girl can spot a wrongdoer at first sight. Her unreasonable assumptions are invariably correct. She sees connections where none could possibly exist. She's helped, too, by clues in the form of strange messages which drop out of the air.
Now Nancy Drew may commit all of the above sins, but so did many of the detectives of the Golden Age apart from Agatha Christie's. Golden Age detectives used intuition, as does Nancy Drew, and they used, furthermore, the contingency that often makes that intuition possible. In all work, I would like to claim, there comes a moment when intuition leaps to the fore, and when, as happens in comic strips, a light suddenly gleams. On this subject, I have the word of no less monumental an authority than Stephen Jay Gould, and he, furthermore, knows that intuition is how science works and that it is how literary detectives work also. But he begins with Nobel Prize winner Barbara McClintock to make his point:
McClintock does not follow the style of logical and sequential thinking often taken as a canonical mode of reasoning in science. She works by a kind of global, intuitive insight. If she is stuck on a problem, she will not set it out in rigorous order, write down the deduced consequences and work her way through step by step, but will take a long walk or sit down in the woods and try to think of something else, utterly confident that a solution will eventually come to her. This procedure makes scientists suspicious.
[This procedure] is a common practice, though perhaps rare in science. It is neither mystical nor, in another vulgar misrepresentation, feminine as opposed to masculine in character…. I am particularly sensitive to its denigration because I happen to work in the same way. (I am hopeless at deductive sequencing and can never work out the simplest Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes plot.)…
I think the best description of this style was presented not by a psychologist or neurologist, but by another mystery writer, Dorothy Sayers, who, I am convinced, worked this way herself and established Lord Peter Wimsey as a conscious antidote to the Sherlock Holmes tradition of logical deduction. Now Wimsey was no intellectual slouch, but he solved his cases by integrative insight (and those I usually figure out).
Having defended intuition, I now shall proceed further to defend Nancy Drew as a Golden Age detective. I return, and indeed you must have wondered how far I meant to wander from it, to The Bungalow Mystery as published in 1930. The story begins, you may remember, with Nancy and her friend Helen overtaken by a storm while out on the lake in a motorboat. The boat capsizes; Helen cannot swim:
"Hold your breath when you see a wave coming," Nancy instructed. "Don't be afraid. I won't let loose of you."
She knew that Helen would soon wear her out unless she overcame her fear and remained quiet. Already Nancy was short of breath, and for a swimmer far from shore that was a fatal warning. Yet never for a moment did she consider abandoning Helen, although by doing so she might save her own life.
On to Dorothy Sayers, Golden Age exemplar. Peter Wimsey has got himself and Bunter stuck in a bog.
"Wish you'd keep away, Bunter," said Lord Peter peevishly. "Where's the sense of both of us …?" He squelched and floundered again.
"Don't do that, my lord," cried the man entreatingly. "You'll sink farther in."…
"Get out while there's time," said Peter. "I'm up to my waist. Lord! This is rather a beastly way to peg out."
"You won't peg out," grunted Bunter.
(Clouds of Witness, 200-201)
Back to Nancy Drew in The Bungalow Mystery:
"Oh, what shall I do, Nancy?" Laura cried desperately. "I can't go back!… I have no place to hide. I am without friends."
"You mustn't forget that I am your friend," Nancy returned quickly. "I'll do everything in my power to help you."
Back to Sayers: Harriet Vane: "It seems very probable that I shall not survive…. People have been wrongly condemned before now." Peter Wimsey: "Exactly; simply because I wasn't there" (Strong Poison, 46).
I'm not suggesting that Nancy Drew and Peter Wimsey are equals as detectives. I am suggesting that Nancy Drew is not as far from her predecessors as some contemporary critics would like us to believe. And when Laura, in The Bungalow Mystery, complains that her guardian "doesn't keep a single servant" (65), we are to remember, while getting ourselves into a modern, anticlassist frenzy, that Lord Peter might have noted the same thing about someone with that income at that time.
Let us return to Nancy Drew, resembling a newly minted feminist from the seventies in The Bungalow Mystery: "She had talent for unearthing mysteries" (11). "Certainly, Nancy Drew never missed an opportunity for a thrilling adventure" (12). "If I get through, I must depend upon my own initiative" (54). But later she has learned some lessons we learned in the later seventies: "It was with difficulty that Nancy controlled her anger as she saw the man…. She longed to fly out at him and accuse him face to face. However, she was far too wise to allow herself to be governed by a mad impulse. She must bide her time" (102). The narrator says of her, which is more than could be said of many of us back then, "Although courageous, she was not foolhardy" (95). But we are reassured that "to think was to act with Nancy Drew" (110). Or, as Nancy sums it up near the conclusion, "I seem to have a way of getting into the thick of things" (203).
In an article called "The Mystery of Nancy Drew," in the new Ms., Jackie Vivelo testifies to the changes which the revisions in the Nancy Drew mysteries have instituted. Contemporary adult, socially enlightened critics of Nancy Drew have probably read the revisions of the early Benson novels. All the changes point to the original Nancy Drew as a true feminist adventurer, while her more recent avatar makes her more of a Barbie doll conforming to that ideal of femininity dear to the radical right. A few examples: official positions originally filled by women are now given to men. Where Nancy drove policemen in her car, they now drive her. At camp, in the new versions, the girls are supervised by a chaperon. What Nancy once did for herself is done by her boyfriend Ned in the revised version, or else she is carried off by him to rest after combat.
Although Vivelo does not say so, I'm fairly certain that Bess and George are also not so subtly transformed. These two girl cousins, friends of Nancy's, don't appear until the fifth of the original books. Here is how they are introduced at the beginning of The Secret at Shadow Ranch:
"Alice is pretty as a picture," George supplied. "Not at all like me."
"Why, you're not a bit homely," Nancy assured her promptly. "I think you're quite distinctive looking myself."
"You base flatterer! Look at this straight hair and my pug nose! And everyone says I'm irresponsible and terribly boyish."
"Well, you sort of pride yourself on being boyish, don't you? Your personality fits in with your name, you will admit."
"I do like my name," George admitted.
George's cousin Bess is "noted for always doing the correct thing at the correct time. Though she lacked the dash and vivacity of her cousin, she was better looking and dressed with more care and taste" (4). Surely it is not too wildly difficult to guess which cousin Mildred Benson most admired and resembled, but, alas, the revisions make Nancy more like Bess and less like a union of the two of them, each representing an authentic side of her. As Bobbie Ann Mason puts it:
Not only is Nancy perfect, but she possesses the ideal qualities of each age and sex: child, girl, teenager, boy, and adult. She has made a daring stride into adulthood, and she also trespasses into male territory…. Nancy's two sidekicks, squeamish Bess and tomboy George, emphasize this ambivalence. Bess Marvin is "dainty" and "feminine," and George Fayne, her cousin, is boyish and says "Hypers" a lot. George wears her hair short and scoffs at Bess's romantic ideas.
Nancy, if not boyish, is allowed the efficiency reserved in more stereotypical times for boys. So she skillfully backs a car out of a tight corner in The Bungalow Mystery, having no trouble reversing. But Jan Morris, who, you will remember, underwent as James Morris a sex change operation, reports in her book Conundrum that, after her sex change operation: "I did not particularly want to be good at reversing cars, and did not in the least mind being patronized by illiterate garage-men" (150). Men convinced they must become women by the most extreme surgical means may long, of course, for stereotypical femininity. Nancy, the early Nancy, eschewed it.
But, from World War II on, through the terrible fifties and early sixties, only boys were allowed to be daring and to be proud of a gift for "getting in the thick of things." I was reminded of this some time ago during a bout of house cleaning. As those who have grown children well know, getting them to leave home is child's play compared to getting them to take their possessions with them. After a decade of storing objects about which children feel sentimental enough to keep in your space but not sentimental enough to store in their own, most parents rebel. "Come and get it," they say, "or out it goes." Some time ago, as most of the accumulation was going out, I rescued two paperbacks originally published in 1940 and 1964 entitled The Boys' Book of Great Detective Stories and The Boys' Second Book of Great Detective Stories, both edited by Howard Haycraft. (These were the years in which Mildred Benson wrote fewer Nancy Drew mysteries; after 1959 the revisions were underway.) Haycraft's preface to the first volume began thus: "This is a book for modern boys in their teens—for those active, growing, adventurous young minds that demand more robust fare than 'children's books.' At such an age boys turn naturally to the detective story" (vii). The collection begins with Poe and ends with Sayers, including Agatha Christie in between. Haycraft no doubt believed then what movie makers believe today, that girls will reverberate to stories about boys, but not vice versa. But that girls and boys are not always so different is witnessed by the Nancy Drew books.
Having identified Nancy Drew as the model for early second-wave feminists, I might add a few of the other requisites for that identification. Most important is that blue roadster. She can not only back it up out of tight places, she can get into it and go any time she wants. She has freedom and the means to exercise it. That blue roadster was certainly for me, in my childhood, the mark of independence and autonomy; the means to get up and go.
Even more important than the roadster, Nancy Drew has no mother, no female mentor from the patriarchy to tell her to cool it, be nice, let the boys win, don't say what you mean. Mothers have long been and were, in Nancy Drew's day and before, those who prepare their daughters to take their proper place in the patriarchy, which is why in so many novels with interesting women heroes, whether by Charlotte Bront? or Mildred Benson, the female heroes are motherless. The lack of a mother bestows possibility on a young girl, at least in fiction. No mother, a roadster, and a father who is quite simply proud of you—it is an adolescent girl's dream. Bobbie Ann Mason suggests that the mystery Nancy Drew is really about for her young readers is the mystery of sex (63). Maybe, but it's also the mystery of overcoming gender expectations and doing something in the world.
The roadster, the lack of a female trainer in patriarchy, and the sheer gutsiness are what make the original Nancy Drew a moment in feminist history. Her class and the fact of her ready money and upper-middle-class WASP assumptions are what make her an embarrassment today. The question is, should we therefore dismiss her as predominantly an embarrassment, a moment in the history of feminism of which we are now ashamed?
The issue is joined as Ellen Brown, whose thoughtful essay I have already mentioned, writes (quoting Judith Fetterley): "nothing less than our sanity and survival is at stake in the issue of what we read" (10). Who can argue with that? But it is on this principle that Brown wishes to discount Nancy Drew's contribution to our sanity and survival. "Many women," she writes, "will continue to lead the wasting lives of Nancy Drew, doomed forever to be eighteen, sexually frozen, unmothered and unmothering, married to the masculine world of order and reason, with avocation but no vocation, dependent on the Great White Father for economic security and permission, driving around in Daddy's car" (10).
I think this is an example of how we deprive ourselves of active female fictional characters because they do not fit our highly developed, and highly defensible, contemporary criticisms of society. Sara Paretsky has noted in her introduction to The Secret of the Old Clock: "The books we relished as children dished up some dreadful racial attitudes." Indeed they did, and reading them today makes one's teeth tremble. Jean Rhys, when she wrote The Wide Sargasso Sea, awakened us all to the racism and patriarchal abuses of Rochester's first wife in Jane Eyre. But for all that, the words of Jane Eyre, unique in all of nineteenth-century literature, pleading for liberty and adventure, still stand as a rare boost to the "sanity and survival" of unhappily restricted girls and women. And Nancy Drew, in her lesser genre, did the same.
I have made my living from literary criticism, feminist theory, and the close analysis of texts. I am not about to disassociate myself from these disciplines. But there is a danger that we critics, with our close analytical machinery and our explorations of social and economic conditions, will damage the original Nancy Drew books, just as the revisions have damaged them, looking for things they do not and cannot offer, while failing to see and praise their real qualities. It is worth noting that novelist Sara Paretsky, while recognizing the racism in Nancy Drew, can remark: "It is easy to poke fun at the girl detective" and still claim her as important to us, just as so many of us have claimed the richer, snottier Peter Wimsey.
Bobbie Ann Mason points out that "Nancy Drew, as girl detective, gets to be adult without sacrificing [her] right to adventure…. In the role of girl sleuth, Nancy, always eighteen [sixteen], escapes time and enjoys the best of all worlds. She doesn't have to confront feminist anxieties" (74). I think we have to be double-minded enough to celebrate Nancy Drew and hang on to our feminist anxieties. Mason goes on to ask what Nancy Drew would become in real life: the answer is she would be with us now, as she helped to make us possible. The point about Nancy Drew we must hold on to is that she did not commit the cardinal sin: to see herself as more intelligent than other women while conforming to the conventions of female lives. Nancy Drew is neither confined to conventional femininity nor considers herself exceptional, and therefore not really belonging to her sex. That was the trick of many accomplished women throughout history. It is one social sin Nancy Drew avoids, and the only one we need bless her for and emulate her in.
Or, to put this in the elegant words of my friend, colleague, and fellow editor Nancy K. Miller:
The deepest vein of inspiration in the 1970s came from the desire to pose a massive challenge to the regime of the universal subject. It was imperative to expose that regime as particularized: the universal subject, it turned out, was merely a man. It was irresistible to insist on a female universal subject. The 1980s revealed that the universal female subject could be just as oppressive as her counterpart; and under accusations of imperialism and essentialism her reign was quickly dismantled.
By the 1990s we have learned that no woman can speak for all women. Certainly Nancy Drew cannot speak for women of color or poor women. Yet if we put her today up against the women we see in films and on television, I think she comes out pretty well. She has a gun, but she doesn't shoot it, she risks danger, she survives without falling into any man's arms. She never says, "Reader, I married him," and she avoids romance.
Of course, there are attractions other than feminist ones. The genre of detective fiction is a popular one because we know it is going to end well and that the major character will not, like major people in our quotidian lives, be hideously snuffed out. Today women detectives age: V. I. Warshawski is contemplating forty. But unless Paretsky wants to pull a Reichenbach Falls, we do not fear for Warshawski's life. And Nancy Drew, like V. I. Warshawski, allows a female to contemplate a destiny almost inevitably assigned to males. That, believe me, is a heady moment.
Arthur Prager, in his article "The Secret of Nancy Drew," recalled his daughter (he was a single parent) reading Nancy Drew. Being a man, and not a broad-minded contemporary feminist critic, he also came to some wrong conclusions. "A parent who tries to fathom the secret of Nancy's success," he wrote, "is doomed to failure, because, strictly speaking, Nancy is a terrible square. Apparently there is a rock-ribbed streak of conservatism in the nine-to-eleven group. They will participate in outlandish fads for the sake of show, but they like things simple, basic, well-organized" (18). Nancy is not terribly square: that is just his word for what she is, a young woman who refuses to be a romance-obsessed sex object, and who takes risks on behalf of those in need of help. She reassures the girl reader about the ephemerality of the "outlandish fads." She says a life of adventure is possible, and even noble. To Prager, that seemed square; to his daughter, it must have seemed strangely promising.
You may know that I have created a woman detective not unlike Nancy Drew. Her name is Kate Fansler: she is rich, white, born to the establishment, and protected by her father's money, conveniently inherited at his death. When I invented her in 1963, I didn't think of any of the social problems we now know to be of the utmost importance. Perhaps because I was born twenty-one years after Mildred Benson, I was aware of the evils of racism. It was sexism that haunted me. It was the horror of the expected and restricted woman's life we all lived after World War II and in the terrible fifties. I was afraid we women were too brainwashed, that we had too completely internalized the patriarchy's rules about women for there to be any hope for us. So I decided to invent a woman who had it all, and to see if she could do anything with it. Of course I wouldn't create such a character today; over the years I have tried to make her grow as she aged, and I hope she has changed, in all but her drinking and smoking, sins which, perhaps along with a few other habits, make her more grown up than Nancy Drew.
I think that what stirred me in 1963 was not very different from what stirred Mildred Benson in 1930; the desire to take a female without domestic burdens and let her battle mostly on her own against the mean, selfish, criminal people. I have no doubt that either of us, setting out today to create such a female detective, would do it very differently. But as I said when I began, Nancy Drew belongs to a moment in feminist history; it is a moment, I suggest, that we celebrate, allowing ourselves the satisfaction of praising her for what she dared and forgiving her for what she failed to undertake or understand.
Carolyn Keene (essay date 1995)
SOURCE: Keene, Carolyn. "Assuming the Role: Writing the New Nancy Drews." In Rediscovering Nancy Drew, edited by Carolyn Stewart Dyer and Nancy Tillman Romalov, pp. 73-8. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1995.
[In the following essay, one writer who has written under the pseudonym "Carolyn Keene" discusses the process that a ghostwriter goes through to compose a Nancy Drew mystery.]
The summer I was ten I read nothing but Nancy Drew. The first one I read was a castoff, my cousin's copy of The Ghost of Blackwood Hall (1948). I read it because, at that point, ghost stories were my favorite kind of book. I'm not sure I realized that I was getting something very different in a detective story. All I knew was that I was hooked, mostly by the suspense and the atmosphere. As Carolyn Heilbrun pointed out, what I recall now about those early Nancy Drews is a very generalized experience of pleasure—I remember blond-haired, adventurous Nancy, her good chums (as they were called then), Bess and George, her "distinguished" father, Carson Drew, the faithful Hannah Gruen, and, of course, the blue roadster. I know I thought Bess very silly (I was a very serious child, and even at ten I basically had no patience for that sort of female); I thought George was sensible, Ned was boring, and Nancy was perfect. Actually, the only thing I couldn't really fathom about Nancy was her attraction to Ned. I still have trouble with that one. I remember somewhat gothic settings—old spooky houses, eccentric elderly women in distress, and stories that were scary and exciting.
I also had a very clear picture of what Carolyn Keene looked like. She was middle-aged, with short, blond permed hair, blue eyes, and had a penchant for wearing white buttoned blouses with scalloped lace collars. She was also quite buxom and always wore a string of pearls. It never, in my wildest dreams, occurred to me that I would grow up to be, among other things, Carolyn Keene. When I really think about this part of my identity, I get a mild feeling of disbelief. It increases when I realize that quite a number of my good friends, many of them male, are also Carolyn Keene. We are quite a diverse company, and it's a tribute to the publishers and their editors, but mostly to the power of Nancy herself, that Nancy Drew has passed through so many hands and voices and imaginations and yet remains distinct and consistent through the years.
She's a very specific vision and as such can be difficult to write. I came to the series through publishing. I'd been working in children's books for years as an editor and a writer. Like many editors, I'd started as an editorial assistant, which means doing everything from typing to answering the phone, to weeding through the slush (unsolicited manuscripts), writing copy, and spending many, many hours cursing at the uncooperative copy machines. I graduated from being an assistant to being a manuscript reader, which is where I first met Anne Greenberg (I was doing freelance reading for Bantam, and she was managing editor there). Later I did proofreading, copy editing, and editing, which included developing and managing other middle-grade and young adult series. I'd even written two young adult mysteries for Random House's My Name Is Paris series, which is set in Paris at the turn of the century and follows a sixteen-year-old American girl who takes up sleuthing à la Sherlock Holmes. And so by the time I came to Nancy Drew, I knew many of the basics of what makes a good story. I had a decent handle, I thought, on plot and character development, language, background, pacing, and what it takes to keep young readers interested.
I've now written seven Nancy Drew books, five in the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories series and two Nancy Drew & Hardy Boys SuperMysteries. I've also written for nine other series and rewritten other people's books in countless other series (though I rarely edit now, I still do a great deal of rewriting and salvage work). I can honestly say that writing Nancy Drew is for me the most difficult work of all. I have a few theories as to why this is true.
Part of the problem is specific to me. I am not ideally suited to write mysteries. As a reader, writer, and editor, I'm very character-oriented. At heart I basically agree with Henry James's theory that character is plot. This is not a useful definition of plot when approaching Nancy Drew. Nancy needs action, one suspenseful event propelling the next, characters who are always in peril, and villains who provide continuous, compelling danger. One of the tightest constraints the writers are up against is that so many other books in the series are still out there. I remember sending in a plot in which one of my cliffhangers was that the brakes on Nancy's car go out, having been tampered with by the villain. It came back to me with an "Oh God! Not her brakes again!" comment. So much has been done, and so much recently, that it's difficult to come up with situations that feel fresh. (It's also difficult to always have to explain why the police are completely unable to solve a crime without Nancy's help.) Nevertheless we're given a lot of freedom by the publisher. We can put Nancy in virtually any place and any situation, as long as it isn't too similar to another Nancy and works within the boundaries of the series.
Plotting is always the most difficult part, and I think this is because I'm not, by nature, a mystery aficionado. When I read mysteries I read people like Tony Hillerman, Ellis Peters, and Dick Francis; and I read them because I'm fascinated by the worlds they describe. Deep down, I don't really care "who done it." One of the things that came into focus for me when I began writing Nancy Drew was that I'm not someone who likes to have every little detail worked out to the point where all is neat, logical, and comprehensible. On a personal level, I believe very deeply in mystery, the Divine Mystery, if you will—there seem to me to be many things in this world that don't conform to neat, rational, explanations—and when left to my own devices I like to leave a bit of mystery, a little room for the unexplained. This, too, is not useful in writing Nancy Drew.
The way I deal with my limitations is that I often start from either a setting or a situation that intrigues me. I love the fact that you can put Nancy absolutely anywhere. For example, when I wrote my first one, The Secret at Seven Rocks (1991), I had recently traveled to the Rockies and was fascinated by the Victorian mining towns, like Cripple Creek, Colorado. And so I created my own little mountain town of Seven Rocks, complete with Gaslight Night, when everyone is decked out in full Victorian regalia. When I co-wrote the Nancy Drew & Hardy Boys Super-Mystery Evil in Amsterdam (1993), my co-writer and I had been talking about how different Europe is from America, in that the shadow of World War II is still so present there. My collaborator had spent time living in the Netherlands, and so we came up with a mystery set in Amsterdam, and the secret of the story traced back to the Resistance movement in Holland.
Many people say to me, "Oh, Nancy Drew must be so easy to write. It's formula." The formula is, in fact, what makes writing them so difficult. It is not a formula which tells you that you have a theft in chapter 1, a red herring in chapter 2, a car chase in 3, a missing person in 4, and in 16 the bad guy confesses all. Nothing about these books is that simple. What the formula does insist on is that every chapter end in a cliffhanger, that the plot be tightly constructed with adequate clues, red herrings, and a logical, believable solution to the mystery. It also insists that Nancy and the characters in her world remain essentially as they've been from the beginning. When you write these books, you put your own ego aside and surrender to Nancy.
To digress, I think what any good book does is to tell the truth. And so in writing Nancy I try to find the truth of the characters, the situation, whatever. I think this is what makes a story feel real.
Writing these characters is a very different experience from reading them. Bess, whom I outright dismissed when I was ten, is great fun to write. She's the easiest way to inject a bit of humor into the story. We've all met people like her. Bess is into guys, food, and clothing. She's loyal and a sweetie, but she can be completely silly, and she's wonderful to play against George. George is also fairly easy to write, because she's such a convenient co-detective. Like Watson, she asks all the right questions on the reader's behalf, and she can be depended on to help Nancy with the logistics. One can always send George to the library for research and trust that she'll come back with a vital piece of the puzzle. I still find Ned dull and so I have never used him, but I'd like to assure you that other writers have been more sympathetic to him and have written good Ned stories.
Nancy has changed a bit over the years, but she's still essentially perfect, and even when you love doing character, it's hard to write someone who's perfect because she's such a long way from anyone you will ever encounter. She is the definition of wholesome. This is a girl who always does and says the right thing. She rarely internalizes about anything that isn't connected to the case. She almost never gives in to anger or fear or despair, is never awkward or neurotic, never has a "bad hair day," never really suffers from doubt, and never worries about money. Some days I find it a little hard to identify with all that, to find the truth in it and make it seem real.
On the other hand, Nancy has a pretty good gig. She goes where she likes, when she likes, and is always surrounded by good friends. She's friendly, popular, generous with her time and energy, always ready to help those in need, and able to solve most any problem. The girl gets results. She's basically no one, and therefore everyone, and when we are Nancy (inside that place that is Nancy Drew) we're in very good shape.
This describes my basic approach to the aesthetics of writing Nancy. But what about the process of putting together one of these books? There are four basic stages, each one very closely supervised by both the packager and Simon & Schuster, meaning you must get approval on each one.
The first stage is the précis, which is a one-page summary of characters, suspects, red herrings, crimes, and the plot. The tough part here is packing a complex plot into one comprehensible page.
Next a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline is submitted. This usually comes back with numerous queries, all of which need to be addressed before going into the first draft. Once the outline is approved, the writer is generally given six weeks to complete the first draft. The first draft is then returned with suggestions for revision by both the publisher and the packager, and then the final draft is written. For me, the outline is the critical stage, because it's here that the complexities of the plot must be worked out. I've found, not surprisingly, that the stronger the outline, the easier it is to write the book.
The process changes with a co-writer. I found the SuperMystery that I wrote with a collaborator to be the easiest of all the Nancys I've worked on. This was because he and I were lucky to have complementary strengths and weaknesses. Plotting is not my forte, but he came to this project having written fourteen action-adventure books and several Hardy Boys. He's a dynamite plotter. He also doesn't care much for writing dialogue. So after a few long, giddy sessions of staying up late and hammering out the plot and outline, we divided up the actual scenes according to preference. We were also careful to see that each of us wound up with fifty percent of the work. He took almost all the scenes that called for heavy-duty action—the chases through the canals, the race across Amsterdam's rooftops, etc. I wrote almost everything that depended heavily on dialogue. He then went through the entire thing, sewed the scenes together, and then went through a second time for consistency of language and style. When the book came back to us for revisions, we talked about what needed to be done, and I put in all the revisions and then went over the whole thing again for consistency of style. It was quick, it was fun, and we were both amazed at how much easier it was to write Nancy as a team than to write solo. Simon & Schuster tells me we achieved what we were trying for, which is the feeling that Carolyn Keene, not two collaborators, wrote the book.
I think that if you're interested in writing with another person, what you need to find is another writer whose ideas spark your own, and someone who doesn't have too much ego tied up in the project—someone willing to have their words changed.
Having gone on to other books as a child, I've developed a new respect for Nancy Drew as an adult. I continue to be amazed by how she works on me and has changed my life. (First of all, I never go anywhere without a flashlight.) It was largely contracts to write Nancy Drew that allowed me to escape New York and move to Tucson. The owners of the first house we rented there told us they chose us from among many other potential tenants because they felt good about someone who writes Nancy Drew. Then, in one of her more unexpected turns, she took me to Iowa for the Nancy Drew Conference.
She's been an instant passport to recognition and acceptance. I can't tell you how many people I've met who have said to me, "Nancy Drew saved my life." I've come to see what was evident in so many of the testimonials at the conference.1 Nancy gets herself and others through difficult times. Whatever her limitations, she's a character of tremendous resonance. So to end, I'd like to acknowledge her enduring power and give my thanks for her presence in my life and the chance to honor it.
1. The testimonials are in chapter 10.
Sherrie A. Jnness (essay data May 1997)
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Mary Linehan (essay date October 1999)
SOURCE: Linehan, Mary. "Nancy Drew and the Clue in the Chubby Chum." Dime Novel Round-Up 68, no. 5 (October 1999): 179-87.
[In the following essay, Linehan offers a critical reading of how the weight of Nancy Drew's compatriot, Bess, is presented throughout the series. Linehan comments that, "[r]ecent scholarship in psychology and women's studies establishes a powerful connection between the images presented in popular culture, such as the Nancy Drew stories, the way girls feel about their bodies, and the extreme—often abusive—measures they undertake to control their body size."]
Fat girls find few role models in juvenile series fiction. Of course, Flossie Bobbsey and Bertha Larson have a tendency toward chunkiness. But, Flossie is six years old and Bertha is a minor character in the Cherry Ames series. Cherry herself is fit and trim. Vicki Barr and her stewardess pals are all svelte. Nancy Drew and the Wakefield twins wear perfect size sixes. Jean and Louise Dana are tall and slim. Neither Trixie Belden nor Judy Bolton obsesses about her weight. For fat girls in search of fictional representation, there is only Nancy Drew's chubby chum, Bess Marvin.
Recent scholarship in psychology and women's studies establishes a powerful connection between the images presented in popular culture, such as the Nancy Drew stories, the way girls feel about their bodies, and the extreme—often abusive—measures they undertake to control their body size. Increasingly, twentieth-century girls receive the message that slenderness is the only standard of acceptability for women.1 The virtual absence of fat people in popular culture is as telling as the negative attributes associated with the few obese characters that do appear in films, television, and books. Juvenile series fiction is especially instructive in tracing the influence of popular culture on the body consciousness of adolescent girls as the same characters are presented in different historical eras, responding to new cultural cues.
Reading the Nancy Drew books has contributed to the socialization and development of generations of American girls. Scholars are now questioning the messages conveyed by the series.2 Through the character of Bess, we see how various authors over a sixty year period perceived obesity and how they instructed young readers in the meaning of fatness. Early in the series, Bess enjoys food and accepts her voluptuousness. As time goes on, however, Bess's appetite is increasingly pilloried and her size mocked. Although surely not the authors' conscious intention, by the 1980s Bess comes to dislike her body and establishes a binge/purge relationship with food. In the 1990s, a slender Bess in the Nancy Drew on Campus series develops bulimia. The impression vulnerable young readers increasingly receive from the Nancy Drew series is that powerlessness over one's appetite is unacceptable and excessive weight repulsive.
Mildred Wirt Benson wrote the first Nancy Drew books as the United States experienced the Great Depression. Between 1930 and 1936, while many Americans suffered hunger and deprivation, food is in abundance in River Heights. In these books, Benson introduces Bess as a young woman who loves to eat. She enjoys food and is not ashamed of her appetite or her body.
The 1932 story, The Clue in the Diary, opens with a typical eating scene. "Plump Bess Marvin … smiled good-naturedly and reached for her fifth chicken sandwich. She had always maintained that picnics were not intended for persons with delicate appetites." Nancy Drew responds to her friend's lunch with amusement: "I was just thinking we need an adding machine to keep track of all the sandwiches you've demolished!… Not to mention all the hot dogs and peanuts you ate at the carnival." Bess quickly defends herself. While her eating may astound the flawless Nancy, she argues that her appetite is no different than that of her skinny cousin, George. Bess seems unaffected by her friend's jibes and wonders what business Nancy has monitoring her food consumption when the feast has clearly made her happy. "'Why mention that?' Bess drawled as she indolently stretched herself. 'George got away with as much as I did—only she eats so fast you don't notice how much she's devoured.'"3
This early Bess is neither afraid of her appetite nor ashamed by her weight. She often expresses delight in food and celebrates her body. She laughs at her lack of physical stamina and her susceptibility to sweets: "I can't resist, even if I gain another pound." Bess would be "green with envy" over Nancy's date with college-man Ned Nickerson, except, "we're going to Grandma's for dinner … and Grandma raises turkeys—umm-m-m!" Depression-era Bess sometimes diets, but food restriction and weight reduction are not a major priority. In one story, as Hannah Gruen brings in a tray of treats, Bess announces an immediate end to her diet: "cocoa and sweet cakes are off my list, but only after this afternoon. Then I'll start all over again."4
The Nancy Drew books published between 1946 and 1955 show us a different Bess. In a post-war period of abundance and plenty, as Hollywood glorified fullfigured women like Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe, Carolyn Keene urged young readers to aspire to a different standard of beauty. Because Bess clearly does not meet this slender ideal, Keene forces Bess to justify her eating. She is always "terribly hungry," "starved," "faint from hunger," "famished," or "ravenous."5 In a typical exchange, Bess asks, "Nancy Drew, don't you think we ever have to eat … I've had nothing but a hamburger since breakfast. I'm practically grown together in the middle."6
Nancy does not hunger. She is very different from the fleshy Bess. The girl sleuth cannot be burdened with an appetite, much less a vulnerability to rich and fattening foods. Such human frailties would interfere with Nancy's detecting. In the 1949 book, The Clue of the Leaning Chimney, when Bess takes a second helping of cake and ice cream a group of women ridicule her food consumption. Nancy does not defend her loyal sidekick nor does she join in the other women's eating. Rather, leaving her own dessert to melt, the detective takes off in pursuit of a clue.7
The various authors writing under the Carolyn Keene pseudonym in the post-war years repeatedly draw out the differences between the trim Nancy and the corpulent Bess. Nancy exists for a larger purpose—righting injustice and solving mysteries—Bess's existence narrowly revolves around food. A typical conversation between the two reflects their contrasting priorities.
Bess, looking very cute in a pale pink taffeta she had bought that day in Masonville, whispered to Nancy, "Did you see it?"
"See what?" asked Nancy, excited. Perhaps Bess had stumbled on some new information to do with the mystery.
Bess leaned in closer. "Did you see that luscious layer cake on the dining room table?"
"Oh, Bess!" said Nancy with a laugh.8
In the post-war Nancy Drew stories, Bess's body becomes the property of her friends. While Nancy finds it amusing, George considers Bess's person an object of ridicule and derision. Either way, young girls are inculcated with the message that slenderness is the ideal and Bess's fatness a humorous—or contemptible—personal failure.
George Fayne, Bess's slender and athletic cousin, is usually the bearer of this message. When Bess wants to end a detecting mission because it is almost suppertime, George responds with disgust: "always thinking of food … [n]obody could be hungry after the sundae you just had." When Bess wants to take up painting, her cousin scoffs: "you know what she'll paint … [s]till-life pictures of double-chocolate sundaes and strawberry shortcake." Bess complains about her aching feet during a rugged hiking expedition, but George has no sympathy. "Oh, be quiet … [y]ou ought to be glad they are getting some exercise." As Bess ponders whether she should diet, George bluntly replies, "you certainly should." Then, as Bess weighs herself, George sneaks up behind her cousin and embarrasses her by exclaiming, "Bess Marvin! You've gained five pounds!"9
This Bess passively accepts her friends' inspection of her person and does not let them deter her consumption of large meals and sweets. She still has a hunger and continues to satisfy her food desires, but the effusive enjoyment she took in her eating during the depression-era books is now tempered by the negative opinion of others. Bess's defense of her eating during these years may be seen as a rather futile protection of her body as it becomes an object of Nancy's amusement and George's ridicule. It may also serve to justify her worthiness to exist in the increasingly slender world of River Heights women. Obesity is not Bess's choice. She would prefer to be thin, but she cannot control the powerful hunger that compels her to eat. We may speculate that her appetite gives Bess a purpose akin to that which Nancy finds in solving mysteries. After all, Bess does not work, go to school, or perform domestic duties. Her day and her identity revolve around consuming food. No matter what motivates her eating, the criticism of Bess by other beloved characters reinforces for young readers that slenderness is the ideal.
Twenty years later, Bess's response to George and Nancy has changed. From 1968 to 1974, in an era of Twiggy-like fashion models and mini-skirts, Bess still desires food, but she increasingly bows to George's acidic criticism and regulates her desire and consumption. This third Bess is evident in The Spider Sapphire Mystery in a typical exchange between the two cousins. At dinner in Africa:
Bess ordered two kinds of fruit, soup, baked fish and a whipped cream dessert.
"If all you do is sit in a plane and sleep and eat, they're going to charge you for being overweight," George teased.
Bess endeavored to defend herself and finally told the waitress she would skip dessert.10
In the same story, the three friends attend a buffet supper. Keene writes, "Bess was ecstatic and started to heap her plate. One dark glance from George and she put back a luscious-looking pork chop." George continues to police Bess's food consumption. As the cousins unpack grocery bags, readers are told that "Bess's eyes were glistening. 'Um!' she said, taking out jars of jam and jelly. 'Peach preserves and pineapple—'" George interrupted her cousin with a "stern look. 'You sound like an eating contest. Take it easy.'" George "groaned" at the thought of lifting Bess, "I may be strong but I'd have to be Supergirl to hold your weight." Later, as Bess contemplates a second slice of cake, "George cast an annoyed glance at her cousin." She said, "pretty soon you're going to look like a sweet roll." After a particularly risky sleuthing venture in the 1970 edition of The Whispering Statue, Bess announces she could "go for" a great big steak, French fries, and a chocolate fudge sundae. Keene writes, "George looked at her cousin sternly. 'Eat all the steak you want but no French fries or sundaes. How about substituting a big bowl of spinach and a grapefruit."11
In story after story, Bess allows George to monitor her eating and evaluate her body. She offers no defense and no longer justifies her hearty appetite. Bess is "always talking about going on a diet," but aside from limiting her consumption in response to George's taunts, she takes no action to change her body.12 It is as if Bess has relinquished power over her person. A true woman, Keene seems to imply, must have control of her appetite and her weight. Having failed at this, Bess gives up. She now understands that she must be ashamed of her hunger and of herself. Unlike the post-war books, in the Twiggy era there is no excuse for obesity. The message presented to young readers is that while Bess may crave large meals and sweets, this behavior is inappropriate and unacceptable.
In the aerobicized mid-1980s—as Karen Carpenter's death reflected the dangerous extremes American women were willing to go to in their quest for the idealized slender body—another Bess Marvin emerges in the pages of the Nancy Drew Files. This fourth Bess has a highly confused relationship with food. In an odd sort of binge/purge cycle, half the time she "mournfully" refuses to eat, the other half she overeats with an almost sexual passion and abandon. In either case, Bess is unhappy with her body. Some books in the Nancy Drew Files portray Bess in a purge mentality. In one story the three friends have lunch. Nancy and George order lasagna, Bess orders a "low-cal green salad." On another occasion Nancy tries to tempt Bess with a second slice of pizza. "'No way,' Bess shook her head mournfully" as she "grabbed her diet soda."13 Bess even loses her historic vulnerability to sweets. When Nancy enjoys a banana split and George a sundae, Bess sips a "diet drink."14
At the same time the various authors writing as Carolyn Keene also present a Bess who has an insatiable desire for food. In Playing with Fire, a typical "binge" book, George jokes that "food and guys" are "the top two on Bess's greatest hits list." Bess, however, is not paying attention. She is thinking about a "Reuben … with lots of cheese." While Nancy and George discuss the clues in a murder case, all Bess can do is wonder when the pizza will be delivered. When it comes, Bess "ecstatically" eats the pizza. Bess's passionate involvement with her eating continues. "'Puff pastry with Bavarian cream filling.' Bess closed her eyes in … ecstasy. This is what I call Heaven.'"15
In these books from the 1980s George and Nancy still claim the right to inspect and judge Bess's body. As the arbiters of correct body size for young readers, they make it their responsibility to remind Bess that she should be dieting. As Bess eats an "enormous mouthful of strawberry ice cream," Nancy laughs and asks if she is on her "famous ice cream diet." When Bess wants to take a cooking class, "George snorted," and asks, "didn't you just start a new diet?" Bess retorts that her diet can wait another six weeks. This Bess is so out of control that she can no longer be restrained by George's snide comments.16
Sixty years of yo-yo dieting and the judgmental attitudes of her friends have taken their toll on Bess. Whether she is in her purge cycle or bingeing she is unhappy with her body and its functions. The jolly fat girl becomes depressed. As Bess sighs and picks at her lettuce, she tells her chums, "you guys are so lucky … you can order whatever you want and never gain an ounce." By contrast, Bess says, "I gain weight just looking at something fattening." She refers to herself as a "horse" and a "blimp." She laments that her size keeps her from wearing the clothes she likes. Insisting "I've got to look perfect," Bess tries to find ways to combine her desire for food and her disgust with her body. She comes up with such unhealthy alternatives as the cookies and salad diet.17 It is no wonder that in the 1990s, the Nancy Drew on Campus series presents Bess as a practicing bulimic.18
In the 1990s, Bess is no longer fat. Though she has achieved conformity with societal expectations through drastic and abusive measures, Bess is now slender. The authors' message to young girls is that just as Bess must purge her body of disgusting excess food, fat women are so repulsive and shameful that they must be purged from the fictional world of River Heights. Fat girls no longer have a role model in juvenile series fiction. Indeed, this new Bess models for young readers the effectiveness of vomiting after meals as a means of controlling weight. The old chubby Bess, however, was hardly an inspiring example for girls.
From the 1930s through the 1980s, the writers of Nancy Drew books ascribe a consistent set of characteristics to Bess Marvin. Few of these traits are positive. Bess is loyal to Nancy. She effusively praises her chum and proudly extols her friend's accomplishments. Frequently, Bess sympathizes with the plight of others. The authors also portray her as a stereotypical jolly fat girl. Nancy notes, "they could always count on Bess to break the tension."19
Most often, however, the writers present Bess in negative terms. She is matronly, timid, dumb, judgmental, lazy, overly-sensitive, a whiner, vain, boy crazy, and a shopaholic. These traits—many directly related to Bess's extra weight—make her a very poor sleuth. They keep her from meaningful involvement in the productive work of the series. Because she does not contribute to the solving of mysteries, and often interferes with Nancy's work, Bess is useless, an impediment to Nancy's progress. In sum, Bess's weight problem becomes everybody's problem. This excuses—the authors seem to maintain—the proprietary attitude Nancy and George have toward Bess's body and the often contemptible way they treat their chum.20
The Nancy Drew books influenced generations of young readers. From the 1930s through the 1990s, various authors writing under the Carolyn Keene pseudonym dealt with issues of body size through the character of Bess Marvin. Increasingly, her excess weight is mocked and her appetite condemned. She suffers much abuse from her thin friends. In the 1990s, the authors make Bess slender. The one image of a fat woman in juvenile series fiction is reconfigured to meet cultural standards. Both the caricatured portrayal of Bess as an obese woman and the later absence of any fat characters in the Nancy Drew series leave young readers with the implicit image that hunger is disgusting and obesity revolting. In reading these books girls cannot escape the clue offered by the chubby chum: a fat woman is a useless anathema.
1. Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993). Lyn Mikel Brown and Carol Gilligan, Meeting at the Crossroads: Women's Psychology and Girls' Development (New York: Ballantine, 1992). Joan Jacobs Brumberg, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls (New York: Random House, 1997). Joan Jacobs Brumberg, Fasting Girls: The Emergence of Anorexia Nervosa as a Modern Disease (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988). Kirn Chernin, The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness (New York: Harper, 1981). Peggy Oren-stein, School Girls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap (New York: Doubleday, 1994). Mary Pipher, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (New York: Ballantine, 1994). Carole Spitzack, Confessing Excess: Women and the Politics of Body Reduction (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990). Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used against Women (New York: Morrow, 1991).
2. On the influence of the Nancy Drew stories see: Carolyn Stewart Dyer and Nancy Tillman Romalov, eds., Rediscovering Nancy Drew (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1995). Sherrie A. Inness, ed., Nancy Drew and Company: Culture. Gender, and Girls' Series (Bowling Green: Popular Press, 1997).
3. Carolyn Keene, The Clue in the Diary (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1932), pp. 1-2.
4. Carolyn Keene, The Clue of the Broken Locket (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1934), p. 136. Carolyn Keene, Nancy's Mysterious Letter (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1932), pp. 5-6, 62, 117. Carolyn Keene, The Sign of the Twisted Candles (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1933), p. 19.
5. Carolyn Keene, The Clue in the Old Album (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1947), pp. 185-186. Carolyn Keene, The Ghost of Blackwood Hall (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1948), pp. 24, 167. Carolyn Keene, The Secret of the Wooden Lady (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1950), p. 39. Carolyn Keene, The Mystery at the Ski Jump (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1952), p. 152. Carolyn Keene, The Scarlet Slipper Mystery (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1954), p. 94. Carolyn Keene, The Witch Tree Symbol (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1955), p. 64.
6. Keene, Mystery at the Ski Jump. p. 47.
7. Carolyn Keene, The Clue of the Leaning Chimney (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1949), p. 59.
8. Keene, Clue of the Leaning Chimney, p. 57.
9. Keene, Secret of the Wooden Lady. pp. 49, 116. Keene, Witch Tree Symbol, p. 89. Keene, Clue of the Leaning Chimney, p. 71. Carolyn Keene, The Mystery of the Tolling Bell (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1946), p. 2.
10. Carolyn Keene, The Spider Sapphire Mystery (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1968), p. 58.
11. Keene, Spider Sapphire Mystery, p. 113. Carolyn Keene, The Secret of Mirror Bay (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1972), pp. 16-17, 33. Carolyn Keene, The Whispering Statue (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1970), pp. 116-117.
12. Keene, Secret of Mirror Bay, p. 2.
13. Carolyn Keene, Smile and Say Murder (New York: Archway, 1986), p. 68. Carolyn Keene, Wings of Fear (New York: Archway, 1987), pp. 51-52. Carolyn Keene, Stay Tuned for Danger (New York: Archway, 1987), pp. 1-2.
14. Carolyn Keene, White Water Terror (New York: Archway, 1986), p. 12.
15. Carolyn Keene, Fatal Ransom (New York: Archway, 1987), p. 6. Carolyn Keene, Playing with Fire (New York: Archway, 1988), p. 85. Carolyn Keene, Recipe for Murder (New York: Archway, 1988), p. 25.
16. Keene, Stay Tuned for Danger, p. 149. Keene, Recipe for Murder, p. 5.
17. Keene, Smile and Say Murder, p. 68. Carolyn Keene, Deadly Doubles (New York: Archway, 1986), pp. 5-6. Keene, Wings of Fear, p. 73. Keene, Playing with Fire, p. 39. Carolyn Keene, Most Likely to Die (New York: Archway, 1988), p. 1.
18. Carolyn Keene, Otherwise Engaged (New York: Archway, 1997), pp. 52-55, 86, 112-115.
19. Carolyn Keene, The Mystery of the Ivory Charm (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1936), p. 5. Carolyn Keene, The Haunted Showboat (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1957), p. 2. Carolyn Keene, The Secret of the Golden Pavilion (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1959), p. 68. Carolyn Keene, The Invisible Intruder (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1969), p. 129. Carolyn Keene, The Crooked Banister (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1971), p. 34. Carolyn Keene, The Double Jinx Mystery (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1973), p. 126. Carolyn Keene, Mystery of the Glowing Eye (New York: Grosset & Dun-lap, 1974), p. 3. Keene, Clue of the Broken Locket, p. 137. Keene, Spider Sapphire Mystery, pp. 43, 55, 92. Keene, Wings of Fear, p. 84. Keene, Recipe for Murder, p. 9. Keene, Playing with Fire, p. 126.
20. The meaning of fatness in the Nancy Drew books will be examined in a subsequent paper.
Lucy Rollin (essay date 1999)
SOURCE: Rollin, Lucy. "The Mysterious and the Uncanny in Nancy Drew and Harriet the Spy." In Psychoanalytic Responses to Children's Literature, edited by Lucy Rollin and Mark I. West, pp. 23-9. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1999.
[In the following essay, Rollin expounds on the role of detective work in the Nancy Drew series and Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy.]
It may seem odd to compare Louise Fitzhugh's ground-breaking 1964 children's novel Harriet the Spy with the series of Nancy Drew mysteries pouring from the Stratemeyer Syndicate since 1930, even though their appeal is rooted in the same phenomenon: mystery. Nancy solves mysteries of stolen jewels and missing wills; Harriet solves mysteries of human behavior. One is a modern classic of realism, the other is light entertainment. One is highly individual, the other bland and predictable in style. However, from a psychoanalytic point of view, their treatment of mystery offers a clue to the lasting appeal of both. Nancy and Harriet both seek the solution to the transcendent mystery of human behavior, but Nancy's discoveries offer an illusory satisfaction which keeps us longing for more. Harriet's discoveries are less concrete, but ultimately more human. Nancy's solutions keep us reading more books; Harriet's keep us looking at ourselves and others with sympathy.
When Nancy Drew was created in 1930, she represented a powerfully appealing fantasy for teen and pre-teen girls: an attractive, well-mannered, intelli-gent girl from a comfortable home, whose independence (symbolized by her expert driving in that little blue roadster) gave her dignified access to the adult world. For Anne Scott MacLeod, Nancy "is the very embodiment of every girl's deepest yearning … an image that combines the fundamental impulse of feminism with utter conventionality" (47).
The success of the books was immediate and lasting. Fitzhugh's Harriet, on the other hand, would hardly be anyone's fantasy. Although she represents the so-called New Realism of 1960s children's literature, she differs considerably from the frequently noble, independent, mature child characters in that genre (Vera and Bill Cleaver's protagonists, for example) because she is clumsy, unattractive, noisy, rude, and clearly neurotic. She is also funny and achingly familiar to most children, and to any adults who can get past their discomfort at the popularity of such a character and remember what being a child was really like.
The two characters share one obsession: both are compulsive snoops. Nancy can't wait to get away from her friends at times so she can sleuth; she accepts boyfriend Ned's attentions only when they are convenient, preferring skulking to dancing any time. Bobbie Ann Mason comments that "the entrance to her emotions and physical desires are closed up tight" (65), a characteristic established in the first novel The Secret of the Old Clock, when she manipulates her friends into helping her without their knowledge and worries about the case so much that her father orders her to go window shopping to get her mind off it. Much of her inner dialogue consists of variations on "I'm not going to give up; I'm sure I'll find a clue today!" Harriet also seems incapable of accepting her schoolmates as friends, preferring her notebook and spy route to their company. Like Nancy, she hides in alleyways, listens at doorways, and peeps through windows.
Spying is not a particularly unusual activity for children, though it may take many forms. Most listen at their parents' doors from time to time, or eavesdrop on adult phone conversations; it is a common way to learn about adult life, since adults hide so much from children. With Harriet and Nancy, however, spying has come to dominate their lives—a neurotic response which Freud explored in one of his most intriguing essays, "The Uncanny" (1919). In his examination of that particular combination of fascination and dread, which he called unheimlich and which is usually translated as a sense of the uncanny, he turned to a tale of a child's spying and its tragic consequences: E. T. A. Hoffmann's famous tale of mystery, The Sandman, first published in 1816. For him, the tale held a "quite unparalleled atmosphere of uncanni-ness" because of its treatment of the folklore figure of the Sandman and its motif of eyes. In the story, the boy Nathanael develops an obsessive fear of the Sandman, whom he believes not only casts sand in children's eyes to make them sleepy but steals the eyes of naughty children and feeds them to owls with hooked beaks, a story told to him by his nurse.
Nathanael becomes convinced that the old lawyer Coppelius (the name comes from the Italian for "eyesocket"), who visits his father, is indeed the Sandman. He hides in his father's study when Coppelius visits, witnessing a strange alchemical experiment, and when he is discovered, Coppelius almost blinds him with hot coals. This scene may be fantasy, may be real; his father dies mysteriously soon afterward.
Nathanael's obsession with eyes—he everywhere encounters spying, spyglasses, opticians, eyeglasses, and windows—continues into adulthood and ends in madness as he throws himself from a balcony at the apparition of Coppelius, screaming the words of the mysterious old lawyer—"Ah, nice-a eyes, nice-a eyes!" (167). Hoffmann's horrific expansion of a bit of folklore (now mostly hidden from popular eyes by its transformation into the cheerful ballet Coppelia) fascinated Freud particularly because it leaves the mystery unsolved. It also led him to speculate that the fear of blinding was related to the infantile fear of sexual knowledge and the punishment thereof—specifically castration.
As we might expect in books about spying, eyes are a central motif in the Nancy Drew mysteries and in Harriet the Spy. Nancy's villains generally have dark and shifty eyes, or dark and penetrating eyes. Nancy's own eyes tell her unfailingly when someone is dishonest, dangerous, or innocent. Harriet, too, is always watching others, but the motif becomes particularly powerful when her schoolmates find her notebook and others begin watching her: "She looked at all their eyes and suddenly Harriet M. Welsch was afraid. They just looked and looked and their eyes were the meanest eyes she had ever seen" (181). The next day at school she writes, "They are out to get me. The whole room is filled with mean eyes."
When Harriet spies on her friends as they build their spy-catcher clubhouse, a cat with one eye stares at her. When she slinks away, realizing they had formed the club to exclude her, "there were seven cats sitting looking at her. One of them had no eyes at all" (214). Harriet's own spying glasses have no lenses—an-other poignant detail suggesting her self-delusion and frustration—her blindness. Ultimately, unlike Nancy's, Harriet's eyes are turned inward, on her own pain.
On the surface, these novels seem hardly to suggest the castration complex that Freud found in Hoffmann's "The Sandman." But Freud sought beyond this single connection, toward other evidence of infantile fears and speculations. Ultimately, what he found was a subtle but powerful connection with the whole notion of home. The German word for the uncanny is unheimlich, that which is unfamiliar, strange, creepy; but its root is the German for home: Heim. To Freud's surprise, that which is comfortable and familiar has the same linguistic origin as that which is frightening and strange.
Certainly, for children, this oxymoron describes sex, and Bobbie Ann Mason believes that in the Nancy Drew tales, mysteries "are a substitute for sex, since sex is the greatest mystery of all for adolescents" (63). But I see Harriet as going a step further, as a kind of "metamystery," in which what is hidden is not only sex, but that for which sex is only part of the puzzle: the complex secret of home.
Nancy's sleuthing usually takes her into people's homes: elegant or crumbling mansions, tidy or decrepit farmhouses, summer houses, cellars, drawing rooms, back gardens. Even when she visits camps or inns, their atmosphere is homelike, cozy and comforting. To quote Mason again, "adventure is the superstructure, domesticity the bedrock" of the Nancy Drew mysteries (with no hint that these might contradict each other) (60). Within the coziness are people in the grip of strong feelings of anger, betrayal, and fear, but Nancy does not seem especially interested in those feelings. Keeping her own feelings (in Mason's phrase) "closed up tight," Nancy seeks only tangible objects in these domestic settings: wills, jewels, money, letters, notebooks. When these are restored, the mystery is solved and Nancy goes on to the next puzzle without a backward glance.
Harriet takes comfort in objects—her books, spy tools, tomato sandwiches, and especially her notebook—but she is not seeking them. Harriet spies because, as she says, she wants to know "everything in the world, everything, everything" indiscriminately. But when she asks direct questions, they always focus on one thing: "What does it feel like?" How does it feel to meet the person you're going to marry? How does it feel to be asked to get married? How does she feel when she misses her nurse, Ole Golly? Like Nancy, she spies on domestic scenes of high emotion, but she seems especially interested in emotions between parents and children, unconsciously choosing—as Hamida Bosmajian says in her Touchstones essay about the novel—the objects of her scrutiny (77). Unlike Nancy, she seeks not objects but the emotions themselves. On the last spying trip before she is caught in Mrs. Plumber's dumbwaiter and her friends find her notebook, Harriet observes climactic moments in the lives of her subjects. She sees the Robinsons with their new sculpture: an enormous wooden baby—"a fat, petulant, rather unattractive baby," its fat hands holding, "surprisingly, a tiny mother" (157). "Gazing at it in speechless joy," the Robinsons are arranging it so it will "dominate" the room. As she observes this, her own emotions are repressed. She writes none of her usually direct comments about this in her notebook; she only writes about missing Ole Golly—an entry which suggests how disturbing this image is to her.
Her next stop is the Dei Santis house, where their family argument about Fabio reaches its climactic moment with a car accident, Mrs. Dei Santis' hysterical swoon, and the revelation that Fabio has a job. Harriet, still keeping her own emotions under wraps, rejects their noisy happiness, but does comment directly: "My, my, better than a movie. It's such a happy ending I don't believe it for one minute" (163).
The chapter ends with her visit to the unhappy Harrison Withers missing his substitute children, his cats. This time she acknowledges his emotion, and hers: "She looked a long time. Then … she wrote in her book: I will never forget that face as long as I live…. Do people look like that when they have lost?" (164). All of this leaves her "grumpy." That very night Harriet pretends to be an onion, probing the layers of feeling she has witnessed, and finally wondering at her own vague response: "I just feel funny all over" (171).
Spying on other people's lives usually leads her to question her own, and the questions often have to do with parents and children. She wonders if Pinky Whitehead's mother hates him, and whether the Robinsons might kill their baby if it weren't perfect. These musings culminate in her entry about Ole Golly and Mr. Waldenstein:
Life is a great mystery…. I wonder if people act like this when they get married. How could she get married? Would Mr. Waldenstein come to live with us then? They could put their child in my room if they wanted to. I wouldn't mind. I don't think. Unless it was a very nosy child who tried to read my notebooks. Then I would smash it.
In her notebook Harriet has put it rather clumsily, but she has summed up life's great mystery: home—that container for powerful emotions, that Freudian knot of sex, parents, children, love, hate, generosity, jealousy, joy, and sorrow that represents the familiar and the mysterious at once.
When Freud approached the subject of the uncanny, he found a linguistic conundrum. He found that over time, heimlich and unheimlich had become interchangeable in usage, both referring to that which is familiar and hidden, known and secret, congenial and frightening: "this uncanny is in reality nothing new or foreign, but something familiar and old-established in the mind that has been estranged only by the process of repression" (47). The prefix unwas the token of that repression (51).
One could hardly wish for a better description of the complex phenomenon we call "home." Although home is familiar, it is full of secrets, especially for children. Harriet's spying and listening at home generally add to the mystery of her life—the mumbling of her parents behind the library door, the gaze of her parents at her antics, her mother's response to her questions about meeting her father for the first time. Even Ole Golly, the most familiar part of Harriet's life, doesn't help. She quotes Dostoyevsky to Harriet: "If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things." When Harriet asks what that means, Ole Golly stumbles over an explanation and finally subsides into "Well, that's about it …" (24)
At the climactic moment of the novel, she bursts into that famous bit of nonsense "The Walrus and the Carpenter," and in her letter to Harriet, part of the wisdom she dispenses is the most frustrating (and possibly meaningless) line in all English poetry: "Beauty is truth, and Truth, beauty; That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know." She adds, "And don't you ever forget it" (275). When Ole Golly does tell the unvarnished truth, it is another conundrum: You have to lie to others but always tell yourself the truth. Bosmajian defends the novel as a touchstone of children's literature on just this point: its uncompromising honesty in telling children they have to compromise (82).
To every child, home is the great mystery—not only sex but a whole constellation of notions and feelings, onion-like in their layers, peeling away only to reveal another mystery: paternity, maternity, ambivalence, physical security, powerful emotions suppressed yet threatening, the pre-existing place which yet seems so fragile. Nancy Drew's triumphant discoveries of wills, letters, or jewels provide only a momentary, illusory solution to the mystery.
In his pivotal essay "Beyond the Pleasure Principle," which he wrote the year following "The Uncanny," Freud described his young grandson's "fort/da game"—hiding his toys and joyfully discovering them, again and again, to control his anxiety over his mother's departures. This homely example was an instance of the infantile compulsion to repeat, which in young children is an effort at mastery, each repetition bringing only a measure of, rather than complete, success (599-611). This is one reason—to me a fundamental one—that Nancy Drew books and similar light detective fiction usually exist in series. The detective is like a child, continually repeating the search for what is hidden and finding no real satisfaction. Nancy is a "sleuth"—the word comes from the Middle English for an animal track—always tracking, always on the move, but finding only objects, not the realities behind them. Reading about her reminds us unconsciously of similar fruitless searches in our early childhood, which we can yet enjoy in this controlled way, just as Freud's grandson enjoyed his game. On the other hand, Harriet is a spy, watching in stillness, and eventually facing the real mystery of human relationships. We might read Harriet many times, but each time we will have the sense that we have come close, not to the solution itself, but at least to the nature of the "metamystery": ourselves in relation to others.
No wonder most of us like to indulge in what someone has called "the pleasures of the keyhole," in literature and in life. What we hope to find there, like Harriet, is "everything, everything."
Bosmajian, Hamida. "Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy: Sense and Nonsense." Touchstones, Vol. 1, 71-82. West Lafayette, IN: ChLA Publishers, 1985.
Fitzhugh, Louise. Harriet the Spy. New York: HarperTrophy, 1964.
Freud, Sigmund. "The Uncanny" (1919). In Studies in Parapsychology, ed. Philip Rieff. New York: Collier, 1963.
――――――"Beyond the Pleasure Principle" (1920). In The Freud Reader, ed, Peter Gay. 594-626. New York: W.W. Norton, 1989.
Hoffman, E. T. A. "The Sandman." In Selected Writings of Hoffman. Edited and translated by Kent and Knight. Vol. 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.
Keene, Carolyn. The Secret of the Old Clock (1930). Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1991.
Mason, Bobbie Ann. The Girl Sleuth (1975). Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995.
MacLeod, Anne Scott. "Nancy Drew and Her Rivals: No Contest." American Childhood: Essays on Children's Literature of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. 30-48. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994.
Michael G. Cornelius (essay date August 2000)
SOURCE: Cornelius, Michael G. "When I Grow Up, I Want to Move to River Heights, USA, Too: The Male Psyche and Nancy Drew." Dime Novel Round-Up 69, no. 4 (August 2000): 111-25.
[In the following essay, Cornelius offers strategies for male readers attempting to read Nancy Drew mysteries by comparing Nancy with other famous male and female literary detectives.]
If I were to choose a book character to come alive and make this a better world, it would be Nancy. But Nancy is not a real person and never will be. Her books can make a difference though. She influences many young girls growing up in a cruel world.
Claire Victoria Folkins, Age 11, Grade 5, Penn Elementary School, North Liberty, Iowa1
Young Miss Folkins makes two interesting points in her statement. Yes, Nancy Drew can and has made a difference in the lives of individuals; Betsy Caprio's wonderful Jungian study of the girl detective, The Mystery of Nancy Drew: Girl Sleuth on the Couch, confirms this2 And yes, Nancy Drew has influenced many young girls in her time. Now seventy, Nancy Drew books have sold over seventy million copies worldwide and are still going strong, with four different Nancy Drew series still churning out new books every year. America's titian-haired titan, the all-time queen of juvenilia, has become a cultural icon and a household name. Millions of little girls still read her books, while millions upon millions of adult women recall fondly how Nancy Drew helped to shape their own lives, both as youngsters and as adults. Tricia Zimic, a Nancy Drew cover illustrator, states that "Nancy Drew can help young girls feel strong and powerful in their world. If Nancy is in trouble, they know she'll get out of it."3 According to retired Columbia University scholar Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Nancy Drew represents a significant "moment in the history of feminism."4 Or as mystery novelist P. M. Carlson stirringly proclaims, "Yes, we're female, but we to can hunt down truth! We can fight for justice! We too can have adventures! We can do it!"5
Yet we're not all female. Men, too, read Nancy Drew; men, too, follow Nancy on adventure after adventure, on dates and trips around the world; men, too, marvel at Nancy's amazing detective skills, at the clever way she can decipher any code, and at the humongous meals she and her friends devour in almost each and every chapter. Men, too, like so many women, desire to be a part of Nancy's world.
There has been no study conducted, to my knowledge, on the readership of Nancy Drew, at least not one that will break down the ratio of female-to-male readership. Certainly more women read Nancy Drew than men (having worked in a public library for ten years, I can assure you that more women read than men, period.) Yet Nancy's male readership is significant, not only for the contributions they've made to the growing field of Nancy Drew study, but also for the reasons why they read Nancy Drew.6 Men cannot and do not react the same way to Nancy Drew as women; and while theories of female response to Nancy Drew have been the subject of much speculation and academic work, little has been done examining why men also respond to America's favorite girl detective.
Naturally, as with the female response to Nancy Drew, there is no one reason why men are drawn to the character. Certainly there are aspects of Nancy Drew, such as her relationship to her father and her burgeoning 1930s feminism, that appeal to both women and men. However, it is the different perspectives that make exploring male responses to Nancy Drew worthwhile. In this essay, I plan to examine several areas where Nancy appeals to men and explain why this appeal may exist; it is hoped these brief examinations may shed some light on the Drew phenomenon and her appeal to men.
Of course, it is difficult to examine Nancy Drew without first deciding which Drew to scrutinize. Karen Plunkett-Powell, in The Nancy Drew Scrapbook, places Nancy Drew into four separate categories, giving rough times for each figure. Classic Ethereal Nancy existed from 1930–1950; Bobby-Soxer Nancy, from 1950–1965; Trendy Nancy from 1965–1979; and from 1980 to the present, we've been experiencing Debutante Nancy. Plunkett-Powell's categories are designed merely to distinguish the different looks and styles of the series books, but her classification also works well from a more academic stance; each change in date represents broad cultural swings: the Depression and the War years, the stability and historical blandness of the 1950s, the growing hippie movement and new youth cultures, and finally, the onslaught of the Reagan years and the so-called "me" generations and Generation-X. These classifications also incorporate, of course, changes made to Nancy herself, in attempts to update both the books and her look.
For the purposes of this essay, I'm looking at Nancy over a broad spectrum; certainly she has changed over the years, as have men, but by maintaining a broader perspective I hope to catch a glimpse of the bigger picture of Nancy's appeal to her male readership. My own experiences with Nancy Drew, however, began as a ten-year-old in the mid-1980s, meaning that my first Nancy Drews were the later revised editions as well as the paperback continuation of the hardcover series and the slightly later Nancy Drew Files. Thus, while many Drew scholars began with the original Nancy, I began at the end and worked in reverse, resulting in perhaps a more modern and politically correct sense of Nancy's own morality. I do not believe, however, that this negatively influences this study; rather, I believe that many male readers of Nancy Drew, while certainly attached to the first editions for various reasons, became devoted to Nancy Drew through the revised editions, books more readily available in school and public libraries and books available at a time when gender boundaries—normally so strong, especially in aspects such as children's toys and entertainment—began to become slightly more blurred than when the original editions of Nancy Drew first appeared.
Nancy Drew vs. the Hardy Boys
It may seem odd that Nancy Drew has a wide appeal to men, considering that the Stratemeyer Syndicate created more male detective series than female. Nancy's direct predecessor, the Hardy Boys, are certainly viewed as her male counterparts, both in book sales (the Hardy Boys are second only to Nancy) and in cultural status. It seems that just as soon as either Nancy or Frank and Joe gain an advantage, such as a new series or a television special, the other pulls even.
While it is certainly true that women read and enjoy the Hardy Boys, Frank and Joe do not elicit the same zealous devotion from their opposite-gendered readers as Nancy Drew does. This proposes an interesting dilemma. In their detective techniques, the aggressive, action-oriented, rush-on-in with fists flaring Hardys are often deemed the masculine version of Nancy Drew's more analytical, more thoughtful, more instinct-inspired approach. Yet cold calculation and analysis are not traits typically associated with femininity and female detectives. Women are often portrayed as emotional; in detective literature, they are the caretakers and problem solvers, not adventure seekers. Miss Marple, Agatha Christie's great female detective, almost always takes a case in order to aid another person. She provides answers, solace, and peace. In "The Thumbmark of St. Peter," Miss Marple becomes involved with the case to aid her niece, Mabel. In "The Christmas Tragedy," she tries to aid a woman whom she is convinced is about to be murdered by her husband. Conversely, Hercule Poirot takes a case because he finds it challenging. He provides answers, but he does so, like Sherlock Holmes, because he wishes it so, not to ease the sufferings of others. Should that happen, it is merely accidental. In "The Adventure of the Clapham Cook," Poirot turns a deaf ear on his female client's emotional appeal to take her case. It is only when she challenges his ego that he agrees. In the story "Triangle at Rhodes," Poirot, like Miss Marple, becomes convinced that a murder is about to take place. Yet unlike Miss Marple, Poirot is not concerned with saving the life of anyone specific; while Miss Marple is convinced that the killer in "The Christmas Tragedy" is aware of her prescience, Poirot silently observes events as they unfold. Both detectives eventually warn the prospective murderers that they are aware of what is about to take place, but Miss Marple does this to save the victim, while Poirot does it to save the killer and prevent a murder. Both are noble aspirations, but their differing perspectives demonstrate that while for Miss Marple the person and the life she tries to save are what is most important, for Poirot, it is preventing the action he foresees that remains paramount.7
Even modern female detectives take cases to benefit others. Stephanie Plum, the creation of mystery writer Janet Evanovich, is a professional bounty hunter whose cases may come to her through her work but who pursues them often at the urging of another person.8 Despite her tough-as-nails modern woman persona, the emotional appeal works as well on her as it did on Miss Marple fifty years ago.
Nancy Drew, however, is drawn to her cases not to help people, but for the adventure. Yes, she helps people, but the end of the mystery, Nancy is never reflecting on the lives she's changed; rather, she ponders when another adventure will cross her path. For Nancy, there is never enough excitement; like Poirot and Holmes, she most truly lives when she's plunged into a puzzling mystery. Miss Marple, however, often seems reluctant to take a case, and Stephanie Plum usually reflects upon the completion of her cases that she hopes this is the last one. They are not addicted to adventure like Nancy.
This addiction to adventure is something Nancy shares with her male readership. While female readers often relate that for them, reading Nancy Drew is exciting, it is perhaps more often Nancy's existence as female in a male world that they find so interesting. This is a departure from a prevailing view that deems that Nancy inhabits a world that is essentially feminine9 I disagree with this assertion, however; while it is certainly true that Nancy Drew is feminist, and feminizes the world around her, she hardly inhabits a feminine sphere. This may seem like semantic quibbling, but let's examine each distinction more carefully. Nancy is certainly feminist; Carolyn G. Heilbrun calls her "a moment in feminist history," and Nancy was certainly, from the beginning, a feminist voice, someone who broke gender barriers and inhabited worlds traditionally not ascribed to women in her time.10 When Nancy broke through into these traditionally male spheres, such as police work or teen-aged independence, she feminized male roles by taking them on herself. The world that she inhabits, however, is not essentially feminine at all, but rather masculine in most of its aspects, particularly those involving her detection. As Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan note, "[Nancy] drives a blue roadster, knows how to handle a speed-boat and an aeroplane, round up steers, keep control of an unruly mount and stun a would-be kidnapper with a single blow … Nancy has never had to waste time wishing she were a boy; for all practical purposes, she is …"11 Thus, Nancy's forays into and eventual mastery of masculine spheres is a large part of what excites women and draws them to the character.
For Nancy's male readership, though, it is the adventure itself that seems so addictive. It is not the spheres she inhabits, but rather how she inhabits them. In her book, Caprio relates several different testimonials from individuals about how Nancy Drew has impacted their lives. Though only three of the testimonials are from men, each of them in some way reflects on the sense of adventure in the Drew books. As Mark, a construction worker, puts it, "I grew up in an alcoholic family, and therefore learned that addiction was normal. I didn't drink, but I could be addicted to excitement. By reading these books I'd get my River Heights high."12 This craving for excitement also corresponds directly to the need to control that excitement. Nancy very effectively controls and contains the world around her; at the end of two hundred pages or so, all will be well again. As Mark later adds, "I learned from Nancy that is was OK to try to control. I wanted to control the adults around me. And I wanted to right the wrongs in my life. But I was powerless. Nancy wasn't, so I lived in her world. After many years of trying to understand this, now I see that all addictive behavior is a way we try to stay in charge when we feel helpless."13
This is certainly an aspect of Nancy Drew I can relate to. Though I have not had the same experiences with addiction that Mark had, many teenagers today grow up in a society that seems to swirl around them uncontrollably. The years from thirteen to seventeen are all about lack of control. Teenagers are powerless to affect the things around them, but are old enough to no longer be sheltered by them. Because of our patriarchal society's views on teen-age women, they are often expected not to have to control or contain the things that happen to them. Teenage women are still protected and sheltered, though much less now than when Nancy first appeared. Men are not protected; in fact, just the opposite occurs.14 As Amy M. Holmes notes, "While teen girls get attention, sympathy, and government-sponsored programs, teen boys are left to their own destructive devices."15 Men are sometimes forced to face the rigors of the world at an earlier age, in order to toughen them for the future. Nancy always faced similar situations, and each time she triumphed. Her courage in the face of adversity, and her constant need to win, coupled with her phenomenal rate of success, make her a very appealing role model to young men.
Another interesting difference between Nancy Drew and other female detectives is that most women sleuths seem to prefer playing a lone hand. Both Miss Marple and Stephanie Plum work alone, only seeking police help when absolutely necessary. And who could forget the climactic final scene of the film Si-lence of the Lambs, when FBI Agent Clarice Starling must find, confront, and subdue serial killer Buffalo Bob by herself? Nancy, however, rarely works alone; rather, she leads a small corps of junior detectives, male and female, while solving the mystery. This is reflective of Holmes' relationship with Watson and Poirot with his assistant Captain Hastings, Georges, his valet, and his efficient secretary Miss Lemon. Leadership is another important quality traditionally ascribed to masculine behavior, and while most female detectives work alone, Nancy, like the male detectives before her, prefers to lead a team of detectives in the search for the solution to the mystery.
The Hardy Boys were the action-adventure heroes of the 1930s, but Nancy Drew is a detective in the same vein as Holmes and Poirot, where thought comes before action. Remember, in a Nancy Drew story, there is always action, whether a chase, a fight, or an escape, that is integral to the story. The action, however, is not viewed as aggressive and as haphazard as in the Hardys' series because it is more thought-out and used only when necessary. Clearly, then, Nancy is not the feminine version of the Hardy Boys. Rather, she represents the cerebral side of masculinity, the side where one looks before one leaps. Thus, part of Nancy Drew's appeal to men might simply be that she appeals not to masculine violence but rather to masculine patterns of thought and deduction, to the less aggressive side of masculinity. This may not be a traditional approach, but the success of Holmes (who, like Nancy, used action only when necessary and often advised his captured criminals to give up without a fight) and Poirot (who almost never resorts to action of any kind) demonstrate that it is a successful one.
As a youth growing up, I quickly found that my niche was that of brain rather than athlete. In my small hometown, brawn is preferred over brains, and consequently, I had very few cerebral role models. Nancy Drew was my first; she taught me that it was okay to be smart, and that one could even be popular and "cool" while still being intelligent. Later, I would discover other cerebral role models from Holmes to Bill Gates, but Nancy still makes intelligence look the best, even for men, and this is not only because of the fact that she maintains social status while being smart, but because her intelligence is what opens the doors that so many of her peers cannot go through. Thus, Nancy's intelligence allows her to straddle both the teen-age and the adult worlds successfully, and to be a prominent participant in both.
Nancy and Her Father
Traditionally, father and son relationships are represented as lacking emotional significance. Rather, fathers and sons relate to one another through a third medium—sports, repairs, television—if at all. Until recently, affection was rarely depicted between father and son on film or on television. Fathers and daughters, on the other hand, are often affectionate; echoes of "Daddy's little girl" rings through the ears of anyone discussing fathers and daughters. Fathers are represented with their daughters as stern, protective, but affectionate and warm, often hoping that their daughters end up with a man just like them.
Hence, traditionally, sons are allowed more freedom: to date, to travel, to own cars and seek out a professional life, while daughters are protected, doled out affection, and generally kept out of harm's way. If one combines the two groups, then sons and daughters would have an ideal relationship with their fathers. This ideal relationship is captured between Nancy Drew and her father Carson. Women are attracted to their relationship because of the freedom Nancy has. At age sixteen, she has a car, runs the household, and in general can do what she likes, as long as she's home for dinner. By eighteen, Nancy can fly off to Turkey at a moment's notice, or to Greece, or Rome, or Australia. Carson Drew usually only advises his daughter to "be careful" before handing over his credit card. As Caprio points out, "Any reader's wish to find a perfect father is certainly more than satisfied by Carson Drew. He is all a dad could be: affirming, devoted, affectionate, concerned, and generous."16 As Nancy herself says in The Clue of the Broken Locket (1934), "You're a peach, Father. You let me do anything I like." This freedom allowed Nancy to do things and go places most 1930s girls were not permitted to do. Nancy's absent mother also allowed the orphaned girl to run the household, to grow up quickly and become the adult that Carson Drew sees her to be.
Many girl detectives of this era were orphaned figures: Ruth Fielding grew up in an orphanage, and the Dana Girls, Jean and Louise, not only went off to boarding school but lived, when school was not in session, with an aunt and uncle. The lack of parental guidance allowed these detectives the very freedom they needed to detect; later detectives like Trixie Belden, who had a large and somewhat strangulating family life, were often asked not to solve mysteries, or were asked to focus their energies on family or school. Mystery solving for Trixie and the other BobWhites of the Glen was merely a diversion; for the orphaned girls, detective work was their sole passion in life. Other activities may have acted as a diversion, but it was always mystery and adventure they craved. In fact, when Ruth Fielding grew up and married, starting a family of her own, her series died out. Her lost freedom, and the constraints on her time, resulted in the death of her detecting days.
Men, however, do not respond to the freedom Nancy Drew has, but rather the constraints. Or, to be more precise, men appreciate the affection and devotion Nancy and her father have without her having to lose the independence she so desires. It is this that men find so appealing about Carson Drew. He is, as Caprio rightly points out, the ideal father, and Nancy's male readers react to this. Since Nancy is highly independent, affection is not asked for, but rather given freely and openly. Thus, Nancy does not have to relinquish her freedom, and indeed, her self-identity, to build a close relationship with her father. The adolescent male fear of emasculation through emotional relationship (of being considered something akin to a "mama's boy") is thus averted while at the same time an ideal paternal relationship is established. This is something rarely depicted, even today, in film, television, or literature, and yet the end result is significant to both men and women. Some critics have theorized that Nancy had to lose her mother in order to gain an ideal father, and this may be true; however, under the circumstances, both Nancy and Carson Drew have made the absolute best of their relationship, to both of their mutual satisfaction, and Nancy's male readers learn that independence does not necessarily mean emotional distance.
Growing up, I was fiercely independent and resented any interference into my activities from either of my parents. I tolerated it more from my mother, though, because it was more expected. As I've grown, though, I've come to realize that an emotional relationship with one's father does not make a man "wimpy" or emasculated, but is rather the natural extension of the parental bond. My relationship with my father has thus become more like Nancy's and her father's relationship, and the ideal that was built in the Drew series has certainly given me a necessary foundation from which to build this relationship. Though I cannot say that Nancy Drew is responsible for the closeness my father and I now share, she nonetheless provided me with an excellent model and the necessary encouragement to pursue such a relationship without the fear of loss of independence.
Nancy as Mate
Most men do not read Playboy for the articles.
The heterosexual male response to a female character may often include some evaluation of that character as a mate.17 This is not to say that heterosexual men have nothing but sex on their minds. Rather, it is an almost innate response we all have, to on some level consider those of the gender one is attracted to as potential mates. Naturalists consider this response as almost instinctual; recent studies have examined what it is men find attractive about women (and vice-versa) and compared those findings to the features necessary for promulgating the species (i.e., well-proportioned breasts on a woman might indicate ample amounts of milk for young, a strong backside on a man ample power for thrusting and impregnating. It sounds almost absurd, but much study has been done in this field as of late; even The Learning Channel [TLC] has done a well-received series on this.) Beyond biology, of course, we all seek someone to be a companion, to comfort us, and grow old with; someone merely to be there when we need them.
Of course, if this is the criteria upon which one evaluates a potential mate, Nancy Drew would lose every time. She's rarely around, and when she is, she's off on another mystery. As for growing old with someone, well, Nancy's profession's insurance statistics aside, she hardly seems capable of staying in one spot long enough to mature past eighteen, let alone grow old.
Poor Ned Nickerson! It took him over forty years to even get to first base. Ned and Nancy's dates are constantly interrupted by car chases, stake-outs, and breaking and entering. As Ned himself pointed out in Nancy Drew Files Case #8, Two Points to Murder (1987), even Nancy's suspects come before he does! Nancy is cold, busy, distant, often attracted to other men, and Ned knows exactly where he comes on Nancy Drew's list of important things—dead last.
There's a great scene from the Nancy Drew Files Case #24, Till Death Do Us Part (1988), that illustrates this. Ned asks Nancy to marry him, and frankly, Nancy is taken aback.
"You never mentioned wanting to get married before."
"No, but I've been thinking about it. Haven't you?"
Nancy felt her cheeks grow warm.
The truth was, she hadn't.
Typical Nancy Drew. And even after she tells Ned no, he stays loyal to her.
Why Ned stays with Nancy is, well, a mystery. Clearly he's smitten with her. He's definitely one of the world's most patient men. Though Nancy has warmed up to Ned over the years, he still is not nearly as important to her as her mysteries, her clues, and her suspects. As Joanne Furtak notes, "Nancy enjoy[s] male company but [knows] there [a]re more important things in life. After her first date with handsome Ned Nickerson, Nancy went to bed dreaming of clues, not kisses. She was a feminist's dream before the dream became fashionable, a Gloria Steinem without an air of defiance."18
So what is it about Nancy that makes her appealing to men? Quite simply, it is her disinterest that makes Nancy Drew an appealing mate. A man knows where he stands with her. Ned is never left wondering. Nancy is not dependent on him, nor does she need him for anything. When they do spend time together, it is because Nancy wants to do so, for the simple fact that she likes Ned. What Ned loses in sexual satisfaction he gains in peace of mind. The fear of cuckoldry does not pervade their relationship, if only for the simple reason that Nancy and Ned have never advanced to that point in their relationship.
Another interesting aspect of Nancy and Ned's relationship is that fact that one is constantly saving the other. Ned knows he can depend upon Nancy when he's in trouble. He also knows that Nancy is game for anything: skiing, piloting airplanes, hiking through deserts. Both are constantly challenging the other on the same level, and except in the field of detection, Ned is Nancy's equal. But what is even more important, Nancy is Ned's equal. She's one of the guys. Ned can be proud of her; he knows she'll always succeed, always rescue him, always solve the mystery and save the day. Nancy Drew may be a lousy girlfriend, but as Ned discovers in Nancy Drew Files Case #9, False Moves (1987), when he dates ballet-dancer Belinda during the brief period he and Nancy have split, Ned doesn't want a girlfriend. He doesn't want to support someone from the sidelines, admiring her pas de trois and playing the part of the handsome but silent boyfriend. Ned wants action, but he also wants safety: safety from abandonment, safety from cuckoldry, and safety from the criminal element he helps round up. And as Ned has discovered, only with Nancy can he have it all.
Nancy Drew and Gay Male Response
If heterosexual men are attracted to Nancy because of her steadfastness and unswervingness (i.e., the guy always knows where he stands), then why does Nancy Drew attract a homosexual male readership? There are no specific figures on Nancy's gay readership, but if the success of Mabel Maney's gay/lesbian parody Nancy Clue is any indication, Nancy Drew reaches a large homosexual audience.19 Much has been done to discuss why lesbians are attracted to Nancy Drew. They respect and her admire her early feminism, as well as see themselves somewhat reflected in the relationship of Bess Marvin and George (a girl with a boy's name) Fayne. Bess and George, cousins and Nancy's best friend, nonetheless can be seen to reflect lesbian femme/butch relationships.20
Nancy's appeal to gay men that has been left largely unexplored, and yet, a large number of gay men read and collect the Drew books voraciously. Why? What is it about Nancy Drew that makes her so attractive to a homosexual audience?
It is tempting to go back to the notion of Nancy as a kinder, gentler form of masculinity. If Nancy represents the less violent aspects of masculinity, the less aggressive form of manhood, then perhaps this explains her appeal to gay male readers. This, however, does not satisfy me for two reasons. The first is that this supposition is based on the stereotype that gay men exhibit less masculinity than heterosexual men. There is no scientific evidence to support this theory. The other reason I discount this is that while Nancy does represent a more subversive masculinity, this was done so that she could inhabit traditionally masculine spheres. Simply put, while it is tempting to ascertain that Nancy Drew appeals to gay men because, in some fundamental respects, she acts like them, that simply is not true.
In a paper I delivered at a recent New York College English Association Conference entitled "The Case of the Mystery of the Secret of the Clue of the Search for One's Self: Seeking Self-identity in the Pages of Nancy Drew," I described that one of the strong appeals of Nancy Drew to a multi-cultural audience is the community of good people she fosters. While the early Nancy Drew is often considered everything from xenophobic to a WASP-y white supremacist, the later Nancy Drew, from the 1950s to the present, is open and accepting. It is true that multi-racial characters rarely appear in the earlier Drew series, but when they do, such as the Chinese characters in The Clue of the Leaning Chimney (1967), the series and Nancy herself do not treat them any differently than any other character. Ming Lei is just as fast a friend with Nancy as Helen Corning or Laura Pendleton is. This derives from the fact that Nancy, in her role or protector and savior, can never adopt the moniker of persecutor. Unless one is a criminal, one can expect only goodness and kindness from Nancy Drew. And because of her strong, radiant personality, the people and community around Nancy also reflect this general good-natured friendliness.
Furthermore, in Nancy Drew land, everything always turns out for the best. Missing wills? No problem. Father's been kidnapped? She's right on it. Murder, international espionage, industrial sabotage—Nancy solves them all without batting an eyelid. And not only are the crimes solved and the day saved, but all personal problems are solved, in ways often unimaginable to the characters. Carol Whipple, in the Sign of the Twisted Candles (1968), suffers the tragic life of an orphan placed in a very unhappy foster home. By the time Nancy finishes with her, though, she not only has a rather sizable inheritance, but she's also discovered a slew of aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins. Her life has been altered in the most joyous ways possible.
Like many of Nancy Drew's readers, gay and lesbian individuals can readily identify with Carol Whipple. Fortunately for them, Nancy's on the case. The constant re-affirmation that everything will work out for the best and Nancy in the role of avenging and protecting angel are irresistible to anyone who feels out of place or unhappy. Because of Nancy's unyielding constancy in her views and disposition, even the most repressed social groups somehow feel that, at least in River Heights, it will all work out for the best. It will all be okay. Thus, thanks to Nancy Drew, River Heights becomes a Utopia of sorts. As Carol Billman declares in The Secret of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, "Nancy has everything she needs in River Heights: security, independence, approbation, and mystery."21 Note that Billman places security as her first criteria, though she has it slightly askew; River Heights does not provide Nancy with security. Indeed, the numerous bumps, bruises, and auto wrecks alone can testify to that. It is Nancy who, by rounding up local gangs and uncovering local inheritances, provides security for River Heights. She is a one-woman police force, but even more importantly, she acts as a moral gauge for the rest of the town as well. One gets the sense that, in the revised series and the later paperback books, a diverse culture becomes an integral part of River Heights, and that Nancy, whose own high sense of morality sometimes acts as a center for those around her, would not tolerate intolerance, as it were, anywhere in her vicinity. This is depicted in the fact that criminals are almost overwhelmingly Caucasian; that the names of more minor figures—especially the police—are reflecting multiculturalism, changing from Smith and O'Malley to Chin and Garcia; that African-American, Hispanic, and Asian characters abound in River Heights,22 and not just when Nancy travels to far-off locales; and even that a recent Drew title, The Key in the Satin Pocket (152) features a mystery focusing on a clearly identifiable lesbian couple.23 Thus, as Nancy Drew continues to mature as a series, the innate sense of community that she develops continues to re-define itself, to the point that now, only criminals are excluded, and that all others are included as long as they respect the law—both criminal law and Nancy's inclusionary morality.
As a gay man, I cannot really speak about my own experiences regarding Nancy Drew as potential mate; rather, I often viewed Nancy as a friend and mentor, someone to whom I could tell anything. Indeed, I probably came out to Nancy Drew before coming out to anyone else, and she took the news in stride. "That's nice," I used to imagine her saying, "but let's get back to the mystery." The lack of the personal in Nancy Drew and the focus on the mysteries, or the professional, seemed to me to imply that sexuality simply wasn't all that important in the real world, and that good people like Nancy did exist, and in droves. Because of Nancy's strong example, I found acceptance throughout the town of River Heights; if Nancy Drew said I was cool, then who would dispute her? The only people who ever crossed her were criminals, and we know what happened to them at the end of the story.
In her gay and lesbian parody of Nancy Drew, Mabel Maney takes this concept to its natural extreme. She creates a gay and lesbian fairyland, where all the good guys are queer, the bad guys are straight, and being homosexual is as natural as wanting to solve mysteries. Maney's creation, however, is not as outlandish as it seems; rather, the Nancy Clue series seems to reflect only the wishful extension of the community of good works and people that Nancy Drew creates and inspires every day.
Nancy Drew as cultural phenomenon is here to stay. Part of the reason for that is not only her broad appeal to her female readership, but the strong appeal Nancy has to her other gendered readers. It is interesting that the bases for this appeal for men and woman are pretty much the same, and that it is the perspectives that differ. Men and women like the same things about Nancy Drew, just for different reasons. More than any other juvenile detective of her time or since, Nancy has learned to cross boundaries and break down the barriers of gender exclusion, for both men and women. As young Claire Folkins notes, "I think a book character, by displaying honesty, courage, persistence, generosity, and by valuing good friends can make a difference. If all characters in books and movies were like Nancy, the world might be a better place to live in."24 It certainly would.
1. Taken from Carolyn Stewart Dyer and Nancy Tillman Romalov. Rediscovering Nancy Drew. Iowa City, IA: U of Iowa P, 1995: 143.
2. Caprio, Betsy. The Mystery of Nancy Drew: Girl Sleuth on the Couch. Trabuco Canyon, CA: Source Books, 1992.
3. Plunkett-Powell, Karen. The Nancy Drew Scrapbook. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992: 5.
4. Dyer and Romalov, 11.
5. Carlson, P. M. "Introduction." The Bungalow Mystery. Carolyn Keene. New York: Applewood Books, 1991.
6. One of the most significant contributors to Nancy Drew scholarship is David Farah, author of Farah's Price Guide to Nancy Drew Books and Collectibles (Newport Beach, CA: Farah's Books, 1990), an invaluable piece of any serious Drew fanatic's collection.
7. These stories can be found in The Thirteen Problems (London: Berkley Publishing, 1985) and were originally published under the title The Tuesday Club Murders, except for "Triangle at Rhodes," which can be found in Murder in the Mews and Other Stories (London: Berkley Publishing, 1987).
8. Stephanie Plum novels include One for the Money (1994), Two for the Dough (1996), Three to Get Deadly (1997), Four to Score (1998), and High Five (1999). All are available from Simon and Schuster.
9. Bobbie Ann Mason asserts this in her excellent book The Girl Sleuth, written in 1975 and reprinted by the University of Georgia Press in 1995. See also Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan. The Lady Investigates: Women Detectives and Spies in Fiction. New York: St. Martin's, 1981.
10. From an article entitled "Nancy Drew: A Moment in Feminist History," from Dyer and Romalov, 11.
11. Craig and Cadogan, 150.
12. Caprio, 54.
13. Caprio, 69.
14. This is a traditional view, almost a stereotype, one that becomes less true each year. However, it is a tradition that informs the masculine patterns of Nancy Drew. Furthermore, much study has been done recently, in light of the gun violence perpetrated in American institutions of secondary education, regarding the "abandonment" of young males in our society, and studies have borne out that this patristic tradition is still perceived by the American public to be true. For more information, see Michael Thompson. Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys. New York: Ballantine, 1999, or Michael Gurian. The Good Son: Shaping the Moral Development of Our Boys and Young Men. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1999, to name a few of the recent studies done on this topic.
15. Holmes, Amy M. "Boys Today: Snakes, Snails—and Guns?" USA Today, December 10 1999, A31. Holmes' article is part of a growing field of research focusing on this issue.
16. Caprio, 91.
17. A fact I prove to myself time and again when I introduce a character like Chaucer's Wife of Bath to my literature classes, the male members of whom almost always utter something akin to "I'm glad she's not my wife!" William Dunbar, a post-Chaucerian Scottish poet, makes fun of this same male trait in his poem "The Tretis of the Twa Meriit Dames and the Wedo" ("The Treatise of the Two Married Dames and the Widow") when, after telling a tale of three horrid wives, he rounds on his male audience and asks them to choose which one they would most want to marry.
18. Furak, Joanne. "Of Clues, Kisses, and Childhood Memories: Nancy Drew Revisited." Seventeen (May 1984): 90.
19. Maney's excellent Nancy Clue trilogy are The Case of the Not-So-Nice Nurse (1993), The Case of the Good-for-Nothing Girlfriend (1994), and A Ghost in the Closet (1995). All are published by Cleis Press (Pittsburgh, PA) and are absolutely worth checking out.
20. For more on this, see Sherrie A. Inness. The Lesbian Menace: Ideology, Identity, and the Representation of Lesbian Life. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.
21. Billman, Carol. The Secret of the Stratemeyer Syndicate: Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and the Million Dollar Fiction Factory. New York: Ungar, 1986.
22. For more on Nancy Drew and minorities see "Fixing Nancy Drew: African-American Strategies for Reading" by Njeri Fuller and "Befriending Nancy Drew Across Cultural Boundaries" by Dinah Eng. Both articles can be found in Dyer and Romalov. A good example of a multi-cultural Nancy Drew text is the paperback The Secret of Shady Glen (#85) where Nancy, Bess, and George befriend a single African-American woman and her young son and help them to financial stability.
23. Keene, Carolyn. The Key in the Satin Pocket. New York: Minstrel Books, 2000. The couple, Sarah Sassoon and Delia Cox, lived together as "companions" for many years. The mystery concerns Nancy's search to discover the missing treasure surrounding these two women, now hidden in Haddon Hall, the old Sassoon estate. Though the book never labels the two women lesbians—one would not expect it to—the relationship is described of in several places as exclusive, close, and lasting their whole lives. The language of the relationship may encode the lesbian aspect, but it is still present; for more on encoded language and homosexuality, one could consult the works of Eve Sedgwick or John Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). One also finds gay and lesbian characters in the Nancy Drew on Campus series.
24. Dyer, 143.
Ilana Nash (essay date April 2001)
SOURCE: Nash, Ilana. "New Evidence in the Authorship of Nancy Drew." Dime Novel Round-Up 70, no. 2 (April 2001): 57-63.
[In the following essay, Nash presents evidence of publisher Edward Stratemeyer's direct influence on the first Nancy Drew novels, asserting that, "The Secret of the Old Clock is very clearly Edward Stratemeyer's book."]
Fans and researchers of the Nancy Drew series know that Edward Stratemeyer hired Mildred A. Wirt, already working on his Ruth Fielding series, to write the "breeder set" of the new Nancy Drew series in 1929. What has not been known, however, is the extent of the guidance Wirt received from Stratemeyer in his outlines. Because Stratemeyer required ghostwriters to return his outlines with the completed manuscripts, Wirt did not keep them, nor did Simon & Schuster include them in their large donation of the Stratemeyer Syndicate records to the New York Public Library.
Through the efforts of private collectors, however, the outlines for the first three Nancy Drew books have now come to light and they reveal interesting information. First, they are far longer and more detailed than some of the other outlines Stratemeyer was providing his ghostwriters at the time—perhaps because he felt that a brand-new series required more preparation and more detail than an already-established one would. The outline for the first book, The Secret of the Old Clock, is nearly 4 pages long, single-spaced, on 8.5 × 11" paper. It is roughly 2300 words long; each page of the published book contains roughly 225 words, which means that this outline is the equivalent of more than ten pages of the finished book. This is far longer indeed than had previously been supposed, and the extent of Stratemeyer's contribution is almost comprehensive.
First, I should note that Stratemeyer's outline contains virtually every scene in the novel. Wirt added some minor scenes and expanded on everything Stratemeyer wrote, to add physical descriptions and general atmosphere. But beyond that, every development and major scene was crafted by Stratemeyer. He also gives every character a name and a general "thumbnail sketch" of personality, as when he describes the Topham sisters as "arrogant to the last degree."
Stratemeyer's outline begins with a summary of Nancy Drew's character and circumstances: "Nancy Drew, a girl of sixteen, is the daughter of a lawyer who has also served as a District Attorney. Mr. Drew is a widower and often talks over his affairs with Nancy and the girl has been present during many interviews her father has had with noted detectives. An up-to-date American girl at her best, bright, clever, resourceful, and full of energy." Wirt followed all of Stratemeyer's dictates, even using his exact language: "A number of times Nancy had been present at interviews which her father had had with noted detectives" (pp. 6-7). In another example, the outline states that "Mr. Drew had often said that he liked the detective work of his cases better than the court work."
Wirt changed "Mr." to "Carson," but otherwise the sentence appears verbatim on page 61 of the novel. Wirt's usage of Stratemeyer's phrasing occurs not just with his descriptive prose, but also dialogue he wrote for characters. The famous first line of the novel, which has been quoted in many nostalgia pieces in magazines over the years, is "It would be a shame if all that money went to the Tophams! They will fly higher than ever!" (p. 1). These words were written by Edward Stratemeyer, not by Mildred Wirt, as has long been assumed. Several other speeches and passages are likewise the products of Stratemeyer's imagination.
The descriptions of Nancy's character are well-delineated in the outline, although it is interesting to see Wirt's additions. Edward Stratemeyer described Nancy as "full of energy"; Wirt adopted that detail as one of her favorites. She sprinkles the text with verbs of action and speed when describing Nancy's movements; Nancy "skips," "scampers," "runs," "darts," and "dances" with excitement. Wirt even describes Nancy as "athletic," perhaps inserting some of her own identity (for she was an extremely athletic young woman) into her fictional character.
Apart from her tireless energy, Nancy's most celebrated trait is her audacity in following clues. In less flattering terms, Nancy's adversaries call it "snooping" when she eavesdrops on their conversations or explores their property. Stratemeyer left nothing to chance in delineating this aspect of Nancy's personality. His outline describes how Nancy hears a private conversation: "Crossing the public park, Nancy sees [the Topham sisters] talking earnestly. She draws closer and catches the word 'will.' With the instincts of a detective, she gets behind the bushes." Wirt amplifies this description but closely adheres to it: "With the instinct of a detective, Nancy Drew crept cautiously closer. The bushes were thick, and by crouching low behind the bench she was able to hear without being seen" (p. 58). The outline also covers Nancy's daring entry into the moving van used by the robbers, to recover the Crowley clock:
Watching her chance, she peers into [the barn to] find a moving van. The back door is locked, but going around to the front, she finds the keys under the driver's seat. She opens the back doors and with her auto flashlight sees that the van contains the goods stolen from the camp. On the top of some blankets rests an old-fashioned, square clock. Scrambling up, she tries to get the clock down because she can hear the men coming out. She manages to get the timepiece out and shuts the doors, locks them, and drops the keys on the ground. She then runs into the woods with the clock. She hears the men come back and one berates the other for dropping the keys. The men get ready to drive off.
Wirt changes one detail: instead of running into the woods, Nancy hides in a manger inside the barn when the men come back. Otherwise, Wirt follows Strate-meyer's description to the letter, only adding the kinds of descriptive touches that give the reader a sense of mood.
While virtually every scene in the novel is described in the outline, Stratemeyer did not give equally detailed descriptions to all of them. These are the occasions when Wirt used her own creativity to a greater degree. For example, Stratemeyer gives short shrift to an altercation between Nancy and the Topham sisters: "Nancy encounters Isabel and Ada again tormenting a salesgirl in a department store. She takes the girl's part. The Tophams depart." Wirt fleshes this bare skeleton out into a richly described scene where Ada Topham breaks a valuable bowl, and then, to avoid paying damages, accuses a salesgirl of breaking it. Wirt creates a confrontational scene where Nancy steps into the fracas and tells the store manager that she had witnessed the accident, and that it was Ada's fault. Ada is furious, saying to Nancy "You'll pay for this outrage!" As Wirt writes, "Nancy made no reply but continued to smile pleasantly, an act which further enraged the Topham sisters" (p. 55-56).
That very bizarre, and frankly rather bitchy, "pleasant smile" is entirely Wirt's touch. In fact, one of her most pronounced contributions to Nancy's personality—at least in this volume—is a dash of vindictiveness. Stratemeyer dictated that Nancy should be dismayed by the Tophams' imminent inheritance of the Crowley fortune, but Wirt's Nancy is far more than dismayed. She is righteously indignant, and Wirt heightens the Drew/Topham conflict by staging the final scene of the novel in a uniquely dramatic way. About the deus ex machina at the novel's end, Stratemeyer says only this: "The later will of Josiah Crowley is uncovered and in this it is found that he has left the bulk of his property to [others], much to the discomfiture of the Tophams." Wirt uses these instructions as the basis for an elaborate, even melodramatic scene that mimics the device used in classic detective novels, when the hero summons all the suspects together for the final revelation. Wirt has Nancy arrange for the reading of the new will in the Drews' own home, with all the inheritors in attendance. The "discomfiture" of the Tophams is heightened by the public discovery of their disinheritance; both Nancy and her father act blatantly smug. The overall effect of Wirt's touch is that Nancy is not above a little "nyah, nyah" nastiness towards her enemies. As readers of the entire series know, that element of Nancy's personality was toned down considerably in later books.
Another significant and surprising innovation of Wirt's is her treatment of the scene in which Nancy, locked in a closet and left to starve by robbers, is rescued by the caretaker, Jeff Tucker. Stratemeyer describes the entire scene thus:
[Nancy] has almost forced the door when she hears a shout. "Who's der?" Then she is let out of the closet by Jeff Tucker, the colored caretaker. The colored man appears somewhat befuddled from liquor. "W'at you doin' in dis here place?" he demands. He had left the evening before after locking up. Nancy explains what had happened to her. The caretaker is terribly disturbed over the robbery. Nancy asks about the old clock. "Suah, dat was here; but I didn't keep it wound up, because I owns a watch," said Tucker. As there is no telephone, Nancy agrees to take him to the nearest town to notify the police …
Apart from the dialect and the suggestion that African-Americans tend to drink—a portrayal of minorities not unfamiliar to readers of Stratemeyer's own writing—the scene treats Tucker solely as a passing character. Another ghostwriter could have dispensed with him in a few paragraphs. In Wirt's hands, however, this scene balloons into a lengthy farce which relies on a highly patronizing portrayal of Tucker's class and race. So egregious is this long scene that it was singled out for analysis at the 1993 Nancy Drew conference in Iowa.1 Jeff Tucker arrives on page 137 of the novel; he leaves it on page 150, and spends those thirteen pages being mocked and humiliated at every turn. Both Nancy and the narrator treat Jeff as childlike, lazy, gullible, stupid, and prone to libidinous excess (in addition to being an alcoholic, he has "seven chillun" at home). This passage is by far the most elaborate and offensive portrayal of an African-American in the entire Nancy Drew series. It is very surprising to learn that this heinous scene sprang entirely from the mind of Wirt, who has occasionally commented that she disliked writing the African-American dialect favored by Stratemeyer. At one informal gathering in 1992, Wirt even used the word "uncomfortable" to describe her feelings about writing racist text. This new evidence suggests, however, that Wirt's discomfort did not stop her from doing a thorough job. As an employee experienced with her boss's preferences, she may have taken his very sketchy references to Jeff Tucker as an opportunity to write a comic passage that she knew would earn Stratemeyer's approval.
Wirt also used her own imagination in forging the relationship between Nancy and her father, Carson Drew. By constructing Carson as a widower and Nancy as an only child, Stratemeyer seems to have imagined a close bond connecting father and daughter. But while he frequently refers to Nancy's learning from her father's professional example, Stratemeyer indicates none of the more personal, familial side of their relationship. Wirt begins in the very first scene to build this element:
[Carson] smiled indulgently upon his only daughter. Now, as he gave her his respectful attention, he was not particularly concerned with the Richard Topham family but rather with the rich glow of the lamp upon Nancy's curly golden bob. Not at all the sort of head which one expected to indulge in serious thoughts, he told himself.
Mischievously, Nancy reached over and tweaked his ear.
Wirt formulates several scenes of domestic warmth between Carson and Nancy which do not appear in Stratemeyer's outline; similarly, she inserts several remarks by Carson about Nancy's amazing abilities and his pride in her. The "respectful attention" paid by father to daughter is one of the series' least realistic, and hence most beloved, traits; girl readers have for years found it a sweet fantasy to imagine a father who takes all their opinions seriously and showers them with affection while also trusting them to roam free and do as they like. It is interesting to note that credit for this father/daughter relationship belongs to Wirt and not to Stratemeyer, who was, after all, the father of two daughters.
Wirt's other contributions to Nancy's portrayal fall along similar lines; just as she is coddled and praised by her father, so is she admired by all who know her. The extremity of Nancy's popularity, her never-failing poise and her excessive perfection are no more than mere hints in the outline. Wirt took the kernel of Stratemeyer's suggestions and turned them into a fantasy heroine who excels at all accomplishments and enjoys perfect, total adulation from everyone. Strate-meyer's description of Nancy as "an up-to-date American girl at her best, bright, clever, resourceful, and full of energy," could have signalled a much more down-to-earth heroine. In Wirt's hands, however, Nancy Drew became the superhuman paragon that readers remember. Perhaps it is Wirt's creation of Nancy's god-like perfection that made the character more successful than the Hardy Boys, who had a more "boy next door" averageness about them.
The rest of Wirt's work on this book can be seen largely as expansions upon Stratemeyer's foundations, including much of Nancy's behavior and personality (her boldness in eavesdropping behind bushes; her upright morality in defending the salesgirl). With a few minor exceptions, Wirt adds no significant events or scenes to the novel. Her work, like that of any ghostwriter, was largely limited to descriptions of appearance and atmosphere, the creation of dialogue, and the fleshing-out of sketchily described events.
Over the years, supporters of Mildred Wirt Benson have vigorously championed her authorship of the Nancy Drew books, partly in response to Harriet Adams's oft-repeated claims to have been the only "Carolyn Keene" behind the series. Adams's claims caused misinformation to be circulated and thus justified the pursuit of fair credit to Mildred Wirt. But some have been undiscriminating in the amount of credit they bestow upon her. While Wirt herself has never attempted to mislead anyone, the media—particularly in the blitz following the Nancy Drew conference—have routinely implied that Edward Stratemeyer had only a negligible role in creating Nancy Drew, and that nearly all the credit should go to Wirt. Now that the outlines have been recovered, we can see that such an attitude, while defensible at its core, is overblown. Surely the Nancy Drew that became a national phenomenon owes much of her interiority (to the extent that a series-book character has any) to the ghostwriter who put words into her mouth and thoughts into her head. Similarly, the passages describing Nancy's physical surroundings reach fruition only in the hands of a ghostwriter with a good sense of atmosphere and pacing. But we must now acknowledge that Edward Stratemeyer deserves far more than a hurried nod of recognition. In its plot, its structure, its cast of characters, its sequence of events, and even large portions of its language, The Secret of the Old Clock is very clearly Edward Stratemey-er's book. From now on it will be appropriate for collectors and researchers to acknowledge that the earliest Nancy Drew books truly had two authors.
1. The published version of Donnarae MacCann's paper, "Nancy Drew and the Myth of White Supremacy," can be found in Rediscovering Nancy Drew, eds. Carolyn Stewart Dyer and Nancy Tillman Romalov (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1995), pp. 129-135.
Michael Bronski (essay date September-October 2002)
SOURCE: Bronski, Michael. "Sex and the Teenage Sleuth." Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide 9, no. 5 (September-October 2002): 31-2.
[In the following essay, Bronski recounts the influence of the Nancy Drew series on his development as a homosexual male, particularly in regards to the allegedly repressed sexual innuendo present within the text.]
Mildred Wirt Benson died on May 29th in her home town of Toledo, Ohio. She was 96. Upon her death, Benson received more press than she ever had during her very long life. She was, as all of her obituaries pointed out, the author of 23 of the first thirty Nancy Drew novels. While the books were edited by other people and the series had a host of other writers (all of whom were called "Carolyn Keene"), it was Benson who set the tone and the style for the beloved girl sleuth. It was also Benson who—in a roundabout way that might have been called "The Mystery of the Young Queen" or "The Clue in the Secret Closet"—first got me started on the road to being the gay person I am today.
In 1960, when I was eleven years old, my parents sent me to a child psychologist because they thought that I was homosexual. The reason they thought this was that I was an avid reader of Nancy Drew mysteries. The fact that I also read the Hardy Boys (which were also produced by a stable of writers, this time under the pen name "Franklin W. Dixon") didn't seem to matter to my parents. I was quite fanatical about both series, but my parents—who loved me deeply and were only doing what they thought best at a time when therapy was viewed as the sensible, modern approach to "psychological problems," including deviant sexual orientation—were greatly troubled by what seemed to them my unnatural interest in girl detectives and their exciting escapades. (Interestingly, they didn't tell me this was the reason for my visit to the shrink until many years later.)
I didn't mind going to the doctor's office. In fact, I looked at it as a sort of adventure—something otherwise sorely lacking in the New Jersey suburbs. The therapist was a nice woman, probably far younger than I am now. She asked questions and took notes. As far as I can remember, the topic of sex never came up—although even at that age, I was well aware of my attraction to men and had explicit gay sexual fantasies. But apparently she wasn't very perceptive (or I was an extraordinarily cunning young queen), because she assured my parents I was perfectly "normal" and that there was nothing to worry about.
And so I returned to my Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books, which provided me with endless and quite graphic sexual fantasies—all totally queer, and almost all involving attractive older men. These included Nancy's father, the cultured lawyer Carson Drew, and Frank and Joe's father, the keenly intelligent and handsome Fenton Hardy. While I enjoyed the plots of the books, I liked Carson and Fenton even more. I liked the fact that they were adult men who were worldly and unflappable. They were essentially single—Carson was widowed, and Fenton's wife Laura was a near-cipher, not even present in many of the books. These men were obviously available for sexual trysts, as they spent much of their time sitting around while their children solved the numerous and often nefarious crimes besetting their small, upper-middle-class towns of River Heights and Bayport. With their WASPy good looks and urbane sophistication, the two fathers were far more sexually interesting to me than their children. As far as sexual activity went—well, I was eleven and brought up strictly Roman Catholic, so my imagination wavered somewhere between lounging naked in bed with Fenton or Carson and fondling one another while watching TV, or enacting various vivid, violent, and terribly exciting scenarios I had read and reread in The Lives of the Saints.
I believe that my story about sex and the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books is not all that unusual. The dirty secret of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys—as well as Tom Swift, Bomba the Jungle Boy, the Dana Girls, and even earlier series like the Rover Boys, Dave Fearless, Ruth Fielding, and the Speedwell Boys—is that they're all about sex. Sure, it's often sublimated sex aimed at an audience between the ages of nine and fifteen—but they are in fact smoldering with unmistakable eroticism. That's why—is anyone surprised?—they're so popular! The Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books have sold more than eighty million copies in various editions since the books were first published in 1928 and 1930, respectively. They were the basis for at least six different TV shows, four films (about Nancy Drew, in the late 1930's), and various spin-off books, board games, and CD-ROMs.
The idea that these series contain a simmering sexuality was not lost on people at the time. Indeed, most public and school libraries would not even carry them until after World War II because they were seen as junk writing, or worse, dangerous to children's imaginations. Actually, complaints about such books first surfaced in the late 1890's in reaction to a series written by a stable of writers at a publishing syndicate founded and managed by the enterprising Edward Stratemeyer. In a 1924 article in the Boy Scouts magazine Outlook, for example, chief Scouts librarian Franklin K. Mathiews warned: "The fact is, however, that the harm done by [the series books] is simply incalculable. I wish I could label each one of these books: 'Explosives! Guaranteed to Blow Your Boy's Brains Out.' No effort is made to confine or control highly explosive elements. The result is that, as some boys read such books, their imagination is literally 'blown out,' and they go into life as terribly crippled as though by some material explosion that had lost [them] a hand or a foot."
These "explosive elements" included the excitement generated by the richly plotted adventures. Every chapter ended with a cliffhanger that practically forced you to turn the page without thinking, such as: "Nancy stooped to throw back the lid of the nearest box when a footstep suddenly creaked on the steps!" (from The Sign of the Twisted Candles ); and "Just then they heard heavy footsteps on the veranda. The boys looked at each other in surprise. 'Now who could that be?' exclaimed Frank" (While the Clock Ticked, 1932). Direct descendants of the illustrated penny novels of the 1870's, these books were viewed as potboilers that had no moral worth (even though criminals were always caught and the "good guys" always won). They were contrasted unfavorably with morally and socially instructive literature such as Horatio Alger's "Luck and Pluck" series about tattered newsboys who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. (Of course, back then no one spoke of the fact that Alger was a boy-lover who was expelled from his Unitarian congregation in Brewster, Massachusetts, in 1866, for having sex with a thirteen- and a fifteen-year-old boy, or that all his novels are protracted sexual fantasies of prepubescent and teenage boys getting "help" from stately older men.)
But critics of these series were not concerned merely with their sensationalism; they also were onto something else. Aside from the fact that Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys have enormous freedom, not to mention their own cars and motorcycles, one of the most salient features of these books is that the characters' adventures and mystery-solving are always tinged with sex. I certainly understood this on a semiconscious level when I was reading them as an eleven-year-old. Sometimes the sexual messages are just barely concealed—shrouded in metaphor, double entendre, or some such device that could pass by the censors but still arouse the interest of an observant teenage reader. In The Sign of the Twisted Candles (1932), for example, Nancy, looking for clues, notices "a hair-like crack" on a table:
"A secret compartment!" she exclaimed aloud. "Now, how to open it?"
Her fingers searched the surface of the table for a spring which might release the lid of the secret compartment but to no avail. At length, however, her patient and minute search was rewarded, when she found a slight indentation on the underside of the projecting edge of the table-top.
At the pressure of her fingers the secret compartment flew open, revealing a recess about six inches deep.
This must have been quite a revelation to many tenyear-old girls. The book was reissued in 1968, and this passage was essentially eliminated. (If it had been retained, they might have had to retitle the book The Mystery of the G-Spot.) Similarly, sexual innuendo streams through the Hardy Boys books. Here is the opening of Chapter One of While the Clock Ticked:
"That man leaving here is certainly excited," said Joe Hardy to his older brother Frank as they looked out of their second story bedroom window and watched a mysterious man leave their home.
"Yes. And he only visited with Dad for a few minutes," exclaimed Frank. "He certainly came and went very quickly."
Doubtless the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series were not consciously written to be read in a sexual manner, but you can find myriad passages like these throughout these series, which are riddled with situations in which sex bubbles close to the surface. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the scenes of bondage that regularly turn up in so many of the novels. In fact, there seems to be more bondage in the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys novels than in all the writings of the Marquis de Sade (who, of course, had other, perhaps more outré, charms as well). For young people who live in nice, wholesome neighborhoods, Nancy, Frank, and Joe seem to get tied up a lot. In The Clue of the Tapping Heels (1939), Nancy is bound and gagged in the stateroom of a ship, and has to tap out an important message in Morse code (which of course she knows). The book's frontispiece features a drawing of Nancy on her back, her hands bound behind her, her skirt falling above her knees, desperately kicking out code with her pert little heels. From the porthole above, two people watch her. The jacket art of While the Clock Ticked pictures a bound and gagged Frank and Joe—expertly tied to chairs—facing one another as a mysterious older man watches them from inside a grandfather clock. Frank and Joe are also often awakened in their beds by strange men who have entered their bedroom to leave threatening notes or to steal clues unearthed by the brothers. On the other hand, no men ever break into Nancy's bedroom.
It is impossible to read Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys in their original versions and not be aware of the subliminal eroticism. Of course, all the books have been revised to remove not just the sexual innuendo, but also the pervasive and quite explicit racist and class-biased characterizations. After Nancy accuses the African-American caretaker of not doing his job in the original version of The Secret of the Old Clock (1930), he exclaims, "'I was just fed up bein'a caih-taker. It ain't such an excitin' life, Miss, and while I's done sowing all my wild oats, I still sows a little rye now and then.' 'Yes, Jeff,' replied Nancy, 'I can smell it on your breath right now.'"
But growing up in the 1950's and 60's, I was able to read these books in their original versions. In a sense, they were my first pornography, and they taught me that I could have a mysterious, adventuresome, erotic imagination on my own. I knew that I wanted to be held, touched, and fondled by Carson Drew and Fen-ton Hardy. (Hell, in a pinch I would have taken Joe or Frank; but they were always tied up!)
Although my parents focused on the question of gender identification, it may very well have been these books' sexual subtexts and erotic codings that really bothered them. But at the age of 53—and having had quite a nice life as a homosexual, despite the child psychologist's assertion that I was "normal"—I am happy to say thank you to Nancy, Carson, Fenton, Frank, and Joe. And thank you, Mildred Wirt Benson. I probably could have done it without you, but it wouldn't have been so much fun.
Anne Lundin (essay date January 2003)
SOURCE: Lundin, Anne. "Everygirl's Good Deeds: The Heroics of Nancy Drew." Lion and the Unicorn 27, no. 1 (January 2003): 120-30.
[In the following essay, Lundin considers how such issues as morality, ethics, and justice—among others—are explored in juvenile female mystery fiction and the Nancy Drew series.]
When I was 13 years old, and lived at 43 Lenox Avenue in Ridgewood, New Jersey, I was given a diary called My Private Life: A Personal Record for the Teen Years, written by Polly Webster. The author introduced the book with a letter to "Dear Teener," and followed with advice on developmental changes in adolescence, described as "the BIG FOUR sides to your nature": physical, emotional, intellectual, and social. The author encouraged the reader to write about herself and emphasized this line with italics: "The more you write about yourself the better you will come to understand the teen years of adolescence." Unfortunately, I didn't heed that advice very well; the book is only sparsely filled with my musings. For someone who thought of herself at one time as a writer and wrote stories based on Nanny in Eloise ("Madame Oushaw" I named her), I gradually lost the connection between the text on the page and the text of my life. However, My Private Life documents the dreamy, idealistic self I was at age 13 and reveals the influence of books like Nancy Drew on a ripe, receptive reader. On the page entitled "Inside You," I wrote on the blank space provided:
I like to pretend I am "Nancy Drew" girl detective. I have always made up imaginary characters all my life (so far!). I love to make up stories and hope I can write a book. I hate prejudice (sic) people and I hope I won't ever be! I hate jokes and tricks at the expense of another person."
As I re-read that passage, I see a connection unconscious at the time: that a literary character like Nancy Drew inspired my imagination, literary ambitions, and an ethical conscience: a certain vulnerability—something needing defense—that I detected in myself and in others. Nancy Drew belonged in the same breath as civil rights and the golden commandment of "do unto others." In short, I sense a pilgrim progressing the hills and vales of mid-1950s America—an "Everygirl." To understand that form against the landscape, I wish to explore the anatomy of allegory, the genre of mystery, and the feminist relational theories that help to illuminate for me the Nancy Drew I knew.
What literature frames this confluence of mystery and justice, of might and right? The late fifteenth-century allegory, Everyman, includes characters who could come from such a sharply defined moral universe; the cast includes God, a Messenger, Death, Everyman, Fellowship, Good Deeds, Goods, Knowledge, Beauty and Strength. Everyman is summoned by Death and finds that no one will go with him except Good Deeds. As a late medieval genre grounded in sermon literature, exempla, romances, and works of spiritual edification, the morality play dramatized the battle between the forces of good and evil on the pilgrimage through life to death. Such dramas served as a repository of allegorical instruction to shape the individual to the larger community.
The genre retains a palimpsestic role in a contemporary form of mystery, miracle, and morality. Traces of the drama are inscribed under layers and embedded intertextually. P. D. James, the grande dame of contemporary detective fiction, has described mystery fiction as "a kind of modern morality play." Distinguishing the British detective story from the crime novel, James grounds detection's roots within the larger British literary traditions of pastoral that affirm the moral norm: "the assumption that we live in an intelligible and benevolent universe; the assumption that law and order, peace and tranquillity are the norm; that crime and violence are the aberration; and that the proper preoccupation of man is to bring order out of chaos" (Heilbrun 18). Mystery stories offer a solution, an exorcism of sorts, where the agency is most human, natural.
While some regard "mystery" as a commodious term, with antecedents in the Old Testament as well as in Greek drama, the modern female detective story owes its origins largely to the gothic novels and sensational fiction of the late eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. These predominantly female authors—women such as Maria Edgeworth, Anne Radcliff, Mrs. Henry Wood and Mary Elizabeth Braddon—aggrandized the narrative possibilities of secrets, sensational crimes, investigation, or, in the words of Jane Tompkins, "sensational designs." These authors held "designs" in the sense of presenting an alternative view of womanhood, one that idealized woman's social sphere of domesticity and revealed subversive possibilities of female agency. What is revealed is what Maureen Reddy describes as "women's position in society[:] the terrifying underbelly of the apparently placid domestic haven idealized by official culture" (8). Elaine Showalter, in A Literature of Their Own, argues that the sensationalists spoke the fantasies of their middle-class female readers: "The sensationalists made crime and violence domestic, modern, and suburban; but their secrets were not simply solutions to mysteries and crimes; they were the secrets of women's dislike of their roles as daughters, wives, and mothers" (158). This insight supports Janice Radway's position in Reading the Romance, in which she suggests the oppositional reading of romance fiction by its readers. The interpretation is a feminist endeavor, as defined by Nancy Miller: "to articulate a self-consciousness about women's identity both as inherited cultural fact and as a process of social construction" and "to protest against the available fiction of female becoming" (7). The agency of female detective fiction reinforces the notion of power, a force defined by Carolyn Heilbrun as "the ability to take one's place in whatever discourse is essential to action and the right to have one's part matter" (18).
The "mattering" resonates with sea changes in modern epistemology, a new paradigm that seeks meaning apart from universalism and autonomy toward particularity and community. Carol Gilligan's studies of the moral reasoning of women and girls are grounded on a definition of morality in terms of relationships and the value of affiliations, reinforcing the notion that women read the world differently. In In a Different Voice, the author deconstructs the traditional view of women's moral thinking as too relativistic and thus inferior to the absolutes of male moral principles; she offers instead "an alternative concept of maturity" (22) and a "new perspective" on relationships that expand the moral domain (173). To Gilligan, selfhood and morality are intimately connected. As opposed to the separate and autonomous selves envisioned by Piaget and Kohlberg, Gilligan proposes the relational self, formed through relationships with others, particularly in the critical years of childhood. The self based on relationship, care, and connection is different from the self considered separate and autonomous.
The self that emerges from Gilligan's vision is a storyteller, not a truthteller. Stories imply interpretation and multiple voices rather than facts and evidence. By making the connection between narrative and selfhood, Gilligan suggests that women make sense of their lives by constructing stories about themselves that reveal a moral voice. I find Gilligan's caring voice to be a counterpoint to the ethic of justice, a distinction that contributes a certain context to the act of writing mysteries, the agency of female detectives, and the response of girls reading stories of female detection. Carolyn Heilbrun, in her book Writing a Woman's Life, writes, "I suspect that female narratives will be found where women exchange stories, where they read and talk collectively of ambitions, and possibilities, and accomplishments" (46). These ambitions, possibilities, and accomplishments are often centered on the business of peacemaking, of righting wrongs, of solving the insolvable: the genre of female mystery fiction and its own particular intimacy—a citizenship—in the reader's moral universe.
What of the discourse of juvenile female mystery fiction? To what extent does this genre evoke the intentionality of the morality play? The countertradition of women mystery writers who created female protagonists of moral authority? How does this particular feminist literary form, designed for young female readers, represent "sensational designs" that seek to reshape the social order through relational ethics of care and justice? Where does Nancy Drew fit into my own mysterious quest as a young detective in search of clues to the meaning of the small universe in which I dwelled? These are the questions that intrigue me in the recent renaissance of interest in the Nancy Drew fiction series, which mentored my own sense of imagination, creation, and morality. The School of Journalism at the University of Iowa was the catalyst for scholarly interest—and reader response—concerning Nancy Drew. This conference, held April 16-18, 1993, demonstrated the multiple literary locales interested in the character and the series. It would be hard to exaggerate the significance of this event for privileging popular culture and the particular, personal meanings of readers toward the books. Just as Janice Radway's pioneering Reading the Romance was instrumental in attracting respectful attention to genre fiction and its readers, so also did this conference—and its subsequent publications, Rediscovering Nancy Drew by Carolyn Stewart Dyer and Nancy Romalov, and a special issue of this journal, The Lion and the Unicorn—inspire a revision of Nancy Drew as feminist mentor to many young readers. The surge of critical and popular works that followed examined her persistent and serial appeal, the stereotyping of characters and its implicit ideology, feminist and antifeminist croppings, enigmatic motifs, and other constructs of our own mysterious identification with this character. Their insights illuminate the power of popular culture in its reflection and construction of culture, including gender and socialization, and inform my sense of a literature that lets the mystery be.
My own peculiar questions arise from an intellectual as well as a personal (and gendered) slant. I am interested in how Nancy Drew fiction resonates with the way young female readers read: the role that mysteries may play in their imaginative landscape, in their moral development, in their necessary life-task of resolving the conflict of good and evil. Nancy Drew as detective heroine exemplifies heroic qualities—often attributed to males—of independence, self-confidence, intelligence, and physical courage. These characteristics come to bear not through her own aggressive ambition to solve the mystery but largely through her heroic efforts for others: in the allegorical terms of Everyman, her embodiment of "Good Deeds." The contribution of the serial character Nancy Drew to the art of the juvenile mystery is complex, but lies somehow in the emphasis on a character's explanation of a mystery—the great Mystery of life—through her own powerful agency and generous affiliations with others. Cases are solved because Nancy becomes involved in a larger context of individuals whose situations have been adversely affected by the injustice she seeks to redress. Unlike the hard-boiled private investigator or the cerebral Sherlock Holmes, Nancy Drew engages her inquiries as a form of peacemaking. The crime that has been perpetrated has disturbed the balance of the world, at least as it is known in the microcosm of River Heights. Nancy Drew's benevolence toward the circle of victims leads her to unravel the mystery through the providence of Good Deeds, the knight errant of midwestern law and order, with its concomitant rewards and punishments. Nancy Drew is, in the words of one earlier critic, "a gothic girl scout" (Felder 31).
Nancy Drew's cultural work—a kind of community service—resonates with the developmental reading roles of the age group of juvenile mystery-series readers. In his study of the psychological and literary development of child readers, Nicholas Tucker characterizes the middle years of childhood as "the constant tension between their still surviving infantile fantasies and their increasingly accurate perceptions of the demands of reality" (121-22). Tucker also traces the child's growing sense of natural justice, from an expiatory form of justice to harsh moral judgments to an idea of reciprocity, where the punishment logically fits the offense, and finally toward a more relativistic sense of restitution and reform (127). J. A. Appleyard, in his study of the reading process of fiction, Becoming a Reader, describes the school-age child (roughly the ages of 7-12) as "the Reader as Hero and Heroine." He views this period as one whereby the child reader "is the central figure of a romance that is constantly being rewritten," as the child's schema of the world expands in romantic ideals, which are unconscious analogues of inner selves. The child's sense of self is being shaped by a new sense of mastery—what Robert Kegan calls "agency" (82) and Erikson calls "industry" or "competence" (259). Paradoxically, this growing sense of self-possession includes an awareness of having private feelings, a secret life. As Margaret Meek wisely observes, "Reading is an anti-social activity for most eleven-year olds" (158). Reading assumes aspects of identity, in the image of a hero or heroine who, as an archetype, satisfies the need of the child reader to be, in Appleyard's words, "the central figure who by competence and initiative can solve the problems of a disordered world" (59). That the Nancy Drew series and Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden were fond favorites, the inspiration of my imagination, suggests the deep resonance of secrets and their revelation for prepubescent readers. In a world of encroaching doubt and danger, the Nancy Drew novels offer some reassurance that all will be well, and that I, as a young female reader, will play a part in that brave new world.
The formulaic adventures of Nancy Drew appeal by their consistent and concrete enactment of the defeat of evil by good. Cognitively and affectively, the child is testing whether the world is a place to be trusted, to be the arena of growing competence and deliverance against threatening forces of evil. Northrop Frye reminds us that romance—the backbone of adventure fiction—is the nearest of all literary forms to the wish-fulfillment dream (186). Romance is, to Frye, "the search of the libido or desiring self for a fulfillment that will deliver it from the anxieties of reality but will still contain that reality" (193). Romance suits the way the child reader wishes to see the world: a landscape of larger-than-life figures who embody the mythic representations of human life. Happy endings are assured as Right battles Might, as youthful protagonist rebounds from knocks and restores rightful order. To a young female reader, the endings of the mysteries resonate with what seems fit. While boys often construct story endings that stage confrontation and conquest, girls often seek alliance and mediation (Sutton-Smith 24; Wardetsky 169). To Alison Lurie, the fictional works that re-create this balance, referring to Nancy Drew among others, are "the sacred texts of childhood, whose authors have not forgotten what it was like to be a child. To read them was to feel a shock of recognition, a rush of liberating energy" (x). Nancy's resolutions help to restore a stable and harmonious family.
An examination of Nancy Drew's heroics reveals some of this energy and self-knowledge. Titian-haired Nancy with her blue roadster is empowered to do things that matter, that remedy wrongs, that exemplify the idealism of youth. In the very first book of the series, The Secret of the Old Clock, on the very first page, Nancy performs one of her rescues of the innocent that characterize her adventures. She saves Judy, a little girl who has toppled over a bridge into the water below, due to the erratic speed of a moving van, which, we learn, contains some goods stolen from her house. Judy is the ward of the Turner sisters, who struggle with modest means to raise the rather wayward child. Nancy's overture introduces her to the larger mystery involving the estate of Josiah Crowley, an eccentric who befriended many needy relatives and presumably provided for them in his will. Alas, that will is missing, and the only extant one benefits one avaricious side of the family. In seeking to uncover the missing document, Nancy becomes involved in the lives of the Crowley family and, in her own way, brings justice and prosperity to those who were wronged.
This first book establishes the moral geography of Nancy Drew mysteries and its tutelage. Vice and virtue are articulated through Nancy's engagement in the misfortunes of others that she seeks to ameliorate. The resolution of the mystery is possible through Nancy's heightened charge toward good deeds and engagement with place, a social-moral landscape that involves the reader emotionally. The settings are romanticized, with the pastoral the most privileged. In the first book, The Secret of the Old Clock, the author embues the countryside with moral value:
Selecting a recently constructed highway, Nancy rode along, glancing occasionally at the newly planted fields on either side. Beyond were rolling hills.
"Pretty," she commented to herself. "Oh, why can't all people be nice like this scenery and not make trouble?"
Such rapture can be disturbed by the wilds, the vagaries of the weather. Just pages later, the wilderness breaks through the pastoral kingdom—nature managed and mild:
About halfway to River Heights, while enjoying the pastoral scenes of cows standing knee-high in shallow sections of the stream, and sheep grazing on flower-dotted hillsides, Nancy suddenly realized the sun had been blotted out.
Vivid forked lightning streaked across the sky. It was followed by an earth-shaking clap of thunder. The rain came down harder….
The peaceable kingdom can be threatened by the perils of the unknown, creating a wilderness, as ominous as the Dark Forest of Grimm's tales. In other Drew adventures, a sudden storm disrupts a boating outing, a dangerous cloudburst disturbs the peace on an Arizona ranch, and dense vegetation cloaks the enemy. While cities are suspect, some with more historic resonance, such as the Old South of New Orleans and Richmond, are favored. The settings in the series must be congenial to heroic activity from a redolent past or in their own present natural—but tamed—environment.
Nancy Drew's heroics are shaped by moral geography as well as by gender, particularly the fate of women and children, often replete with pastoral. In The Clue in the Crumbling Wall, Nancy assists an 8-year-old girl and her mother who live in a dilapidated neighborhood but with a yard "a mass of colorful flowers,… and vines half-covered the unpainted, weatherbeaten porch" (11). In The Bungalow Mystery, Nancy rescues her friend Helen at the beginning of the story when their boat is rammed by a log, towing her to the shore in turbulent waters. From this adventure she meets Laura, a penniless girl who has been robbed of jewelry and securities. At one point Nancy almost shies from the challenge. Finding a trap door in the cellar of the bungalow, she contemplates retreat from the danger ahead, "but the fear that some person was in distress gave her the courage to open the trap door" (114). In The Clue in the Diary, Nancy rescues the inhabitants of a burning house, takes 5-year-old Holly Swenson under her wing, and stocks Mrs. Swenson's empty pantry with food, among other good deeds that serendipitously lead her closer to the resolution of a mysterious code. In The Mystery of the Ivory Charm, Nancy befriends a small boy from India who has escaped from a cruel circus-master, only to then become the possessor of a trinket that embodies further mysteries that follow. In The Sign of the Twisted Candles, her cohort George exclaims: "You are always putting yourself out to do a kindness for somebody or other who simply doesn't count in your life at all" (11).
But the young reader knows otherwise. This largesse is the driving force of Drew's energy, the evidential signs of her competence, the marks that matter. The recipients of her benevolence are often women—female prey, hapless victims—much like ourselves. Her ethical sense is quickened by threats to the tokens and tropes of security: material objects that represent a requisite status for survival. Lost heirlooms and relics, the inheritances of poor orphans and spinster sisters, a struggling hostelry, an infamous mantel clock. To the school-age reader, particularly female, Nancy Drew's heroics provide the construct, the schema of possible change—individually and corporately. They form the backbone of character as well as the es-sence of adventure as defined by the struggle toward the familiar and recognizable good. Drew's formulaic fiction confirms for the child, facing diverse new experiences, that a pattern already exists in learning one's way in the adult world. Child readers find solace from the repetition of what Todorov calls the basic structure of childhood narratives: equilibrim/disequilibrim/equilibrim-restored. The reader intuits that this progression occurs in the romance of action (rather than earlier fantasy landscapes) peopled by protagonists, like Nancy Drew, with right traits and right tasks. In her particular strand of moral crusad-ing—her weave of mystery, mayhem, and moral outrage—Nancy is, in the Yiddish words of one editor, "a mensch" (Felder 31). We as readers are comforted by such company.
And in the larger company of a series—a succession of books with ritualistic plots and resurgent charac-ters—a young reader knows the enjoyment of books possessed. "My book and heart shall never part," instructs the old New England Primer, suggesting the gift nature of literature. Favorite books—selected, savored, preserved—reflect more than commodity choices; they are magical and mysterious in their own right and meaning. Since most young readers, such as myself, found these books apart from libraries, received them from the self-accumulating littleness of allowance, and enjoyed the pleasure of their perpetuity on our shelves, they became relational objects, transitional objects that mark our own passages, that linger in our storied rooms. Series books are property, dearly bought. While my own Nancy Drew collection is dispersed, I remember the spacious act of collecting, where there is always room for one more, and the search is always on. When what is collected is a story, it matters even more in the formation of our own sense of mission, in the story we make of the story of our life. Through this fabulous landscape of stories, readers give themselves what Margaret Meek calls "private lessons" (7). We learn these lessons by texts sweetly devoured. Nancy was my alter ego, a kind of sage older sister, book-smart and streetsmart, and very much the missionary (however chairbound) I yearned to be. I wove Nancy Drew into my Calvinist teachings of original sin and sacrifice, into my middleclass virtues of altruism toward the underprivileged. I learned her lessons well in terms of social work, cultural work, heroics.
What are some of those lessons? In abstract terms, I envision a benign, ever-mysterious universe, governed by a moral code and relational ethic, providing premature certainties for the most optimistic projections of the self in the imagination. In more impish words, this translates to an immense "Yes": I could be Nancy Drew, girl detective, and I could be a writer. Both partake of mystery, of great adventure, of a certain virtue. What is projected is indeed "a sensational design," a vision of that probable flame of hope for order, of the understanding of the self that comes from language. Nancy Drew's serial fiction as essence of heroic possibilities glints around us, then and now, brilliant shards. Nancy Drew's tales offer the adventure and resolution that a lived life often denies a young reader, seeking something in books, rounded and right. The derring-do of Nancy Drew is my looking-glass.
Additional coverage of Keene is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 4; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 27, 56; Contemporary Canadian Authors, Vol. 1; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; and Something about the Author, Vols. 65, 100.
Appleyard, J. A. Becoming a Reader: The Experience of Fiction from Childhood to Adulthood. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991.
Felder, Deborah. "Nancy Drew: Then and Now." Publishers Weekly 30 May 1986: 30-34.
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957.
Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1982.
Heilbrun, Carolyn. Writing a Woman's Life. New York: Ballantine, 1988.
Keene, Carolyn. The Bungalow Mystery. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1930.
――――――. The Clue in the Diary. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1932.
――――――. The Clue in the Crumbling Wall. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1945.
――――――. The Ghost of Blackwood Hall. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1948.
――――――. The Mystery of the Ivory Charm. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1936.
――――――. The Secret of the Old Clock. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1930.
――――――. The Sign of the Twisted Candles. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1933.
Lurie, Alison. Don't Tell the Grownups: Subversive Children's Literature. Boston: Little, Brown, 1990.
Meek, Margaret. How Texts Teach What Readers Learn. South Woodchester, England: The Thimble Press, 1988.
Miller, Nancy. Subject to Change: Reading Feminist Writing. New York: Columbia UP, 1989.
"No Gore, Please—They're British." New York Times Book Review 9 October 1988: 1, 18-20.
Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1984.
Reddy, Maureen. Sisters in Crime. New York: Continuum, 1988.
Rediscovering Nancy Drew. Ed. Carolyn Stewart Dyer and Nancy Tillman Romalov. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1995.
Showalter, Elaine. A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1977.
Sutton-Smith, Brian. The Folkstories of Children. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1981.
Todorov, Tzvetan. The Poetics of Prose. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977.
Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790–1860. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.
Tucker, Nicholas. The Child and the Book: A Psychological and Literary Exploration. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981.
Wardetsky, Kristin. "The Structure and Interpretation of Fairy Tales Composed by Children." Journal of American Folklore 103 (1990): 157-76.
Boone, Troy. "The Juvenile Detective and Social Class: Mark Twain, Scouting for Girls, and the Nancy Drew Mysteries." In Mystery in Children's Literature: From the Rational to the Supernatural, edited by Adrienne E. Gavin and Christopher Routledge, pp. 46-63. Basingstroke, England: Palgrave, 2001.
Offers a genealogical evolution of juvenile detectives from Mark Twain to Nancy Drew.
Christian-Smith, Linda K. "More Than Crime on Her Mind: Nancy Drew as Woman Hero." In A Necessary Fantasy?: The Heroic Figure in Children's Popular Culture, edited by Dudley Jones and Tony Watkins, pp. 87-110. New York, N.Y.: Garland Publishing, Inc., 2000.
Critical appraisal of Nancy Drew that, in part, focuses on her ability to appeal to a wide variety of readers.
Inness, Sherrie A. Nancy Drew and Company: Culture, Gender, and Girls' Series. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1997, 193 p.
Series of nine essays concerned with Nancy Drew's impact on children's literature.
Johnson, Deidre. "Nancy Drew—A Modern Elsie Dins-more?" Lion and the Unicorn 18, no. 1 (June 1994): 13-24.
Suggests that the Nancy Drew series is a contemporary adaptation of Martha Finley's nineteenth-century "Elsie" series.
MacLeod, Anne Scott. "Nancy Drew and Her Rivals: No Contest." In American Childhood: Essays on Children's Literature of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century, pp. 30-48. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1994.
Examines the popularity of the Nancy Drew series and how similar competing series never received the same critical or popular acclaim.
Mason, Bobbie Ann. "Nancy Drew: The Once and Future Prom Queen." In The Girl Sleuth, pp. 48-75. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1975.
Critical exploration of the Nancy Drew phenomenon.
Plunkett-Powell, Karen. The Nancy Drew Scrapbook. New York, N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 1993, 179 p.
Series of short articles concerned with the impact of the Nancy Drew series on books, film, and popular culture.
Reid-Walsh, Jacqueline, and Claudia Mitchell. "The Case of the Whistle-Blowing Girls: Nancy Drew and Her Readers." Textual Studies in Canada, nos. 13-14 (summer 2001): 15-23.
Utilizes interviews with juvenile readers to determine how two different age groups—teens and preteens—approach the Nancy Drew series.