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Girl Sleuth: Identity Crisis

No doubt some scholar has written a learned paper analyzing the significance of motherlessness in the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mystery series. Isn't it curious that, in both cases, the loss of a mother in early childhood makes the heroes of these books not only more self reliant than most youngsters but also closer to their admiring fathers? Whatever the "explanation," it doesn't lie in the biographies of the people who dreamed up and wrote the books. Edward Stratemeyer (1862-1930) was the youngest child in a large, comfortable family; his father had married his brother's widow and proceeded to have three children of his own. Stratemeyer's career as a writer of popular fiction took off without a hitch, and he soon had more work than he could handle. In 1903, he set up the Stratemeyer Syndicate. This formidable-sounding organization consisted simply of Stratemeyer himself, an administrative secretary, and a fluid stable of ghostwriters. The Syndicate sold series books - the Rover Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift - to publishers; the genius of the system was that the pseudonyms attached to each series were not attached to any particular writers. Stratemeyer concocted brief outlines for his books and paid $125 for each manuscript. Needless to say, the Syndicate held all the rights, and the ghostwriters were advised not to think of themselves as authors. They might say that they were "doing work for the Stratemeyer Syndicate," but no more. A self-assured and imposing man, Stratemeyer had little trouble maintaining his regime, and when he died rather suddenly of pneumonia, at the age of 67, he was a very prosperous man.

He was also someone who had not given much thought to succession. He had taken on no junior partners - no one to take his place. The Syndicate was inherited by his two grown daughters, Harriet and Edna. Harriet (1892-1982), a Wellesley graduate ('14), was the mother of four children, married to a childhood sweetheart. Edna, who hadn't gone to college, lived - take note - at home with her ailing mother. After quietly seeking a purchaser for the Syndicate, they did what they could to keep it going - moving, for example, its office from Madison Square to a building in East Orange, New Jersey, convenient to their homes - and were somewhat surprised to make a success of it. From the start, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams took charge, but her sister did not fade into silent partnership until 1942, and together they rode out the Depression - which, it must be acknowledged, affected neither one materially. It would seem that the Stratemeyer girls were motivated more by filial piety and fiscal responsibility than by a real need for money when they stepped into their father's shoes. These were shoes, however, that not even Harriet would ever really fill.

At the time of his death, Edward Stratemeyer had just launched the Nancy Drew Mystery Story series, and earmarked the ghostwriting for one Mildred Augustine Wirt (1905-2002), a graduate of the University of Iowa's recently established school of journalism who lived in Toledo, where she worked at the Toledo Times and Blade. The daughter of a prosperous small-town doctor, Mildred was a champion swan-diver and avid journalist as an undergraduate at Iowa. Like Nancy, she graduated early from high school; unlike Nancy, she graduated early from college, too. She connected with the Syndicate by responding to one of its ads, and by 1929 had so impressed Stratemeyer that he handed her the "scenarios" of the first the Nancy Drew stories as soon as their publisher-to-be, Grosset and Dunlap, greenlighted the project. If you are an American woman, the chances are that you've read the first in the series, The Secret of the Old Clock. Let it be said for the record that while the plot of the novel was conceived - formulaically, of course; what was new about Nancy Drew was Nancy herself - by Edward Stratemeyer, the book that you read was written by Mildred Augustine Wirt. "Carolyn Keene," the ostensible author, never existed.

What interested me about Girl Sleuth was not the reasons for Nancy's continued popularity among young readers, or the ways in which the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories have been tweaked over the decades to jibe with the times. What interested me was the dissonance between the brisk allure of Nancy Drew, an attractive but not beautiful sixteen year-old with all the worldly independence of an Emma Woodhouse - and also with Emma's complete lack of plans for the long-term future - and the "moral clarity" of her solutions to the mysteries into which she was repeatedly drawn, on the one hand, and the complete muddle of credit and identity in which she was born anew in book after book. What would Nancy have made of The Mystery of the Ghostwritten Mysteries? Not much, I'm sure. You can argue that there never was a Carolyn Keene, but that's hardly more satisfactory than the only alternative, which is to claim that there were two Carolyn Keenes. Put very simply, Harriet and Edna lacked the business sense that had enabled their father to deal with writers. Although both were bright women, and notwithstanding Harriet's undergraduate experience as a reporter, they clearly lacked a nuts and bolts command of business. After Edna's withdrawal from active participation in the Syndicate's day-to-day, the sisters would bicker for the rest of the younger one's life over accountings. That Harriet did as well as she did testifies to rich native ability. But having been sheltered from commerce by their somewhat preening, upwardly mobile father stood the women in poor stead when it came to dealing with their talented and creative employees. As a result, "Carolyn Keene" was treated to two waves of obituary tribute, first in 1982 and again four years ago.

Because the relationship between Harriet Stratemeyer Adams and - as she eventually became - Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson was a muddle from the ground up, I am not going to attempt a summary here. It's enough to say that Harriet and Mildred were exceptional but very different women who were limited by the second-class opportunities with which the women of their time were presented. Harriet, allowed to follow her own lead, might have achieved something more remarkable and less embarrassing than the claim to be Carolyn Keene - a claim, that even though she could back up once she replaced Mildred with herself as the actual writer of the Nancy Drews, remains fundamentally bogus. As for Mildred, there could never have been any question of holding her back, but, equal rights advocate though she was, she retained an ingrown respect for employers and, one suspects, for strong men that prevented her from openly defying Harriet on the authorship issue until the question went to court in 1980 - and even then, Mildred was a witness, not a litigant.

Melanie Rehak's wonderful book has one of the happiest non-fiction endings that I've come across in a long time. Mildred Benson died with her boots on. On 29 May 2002, she handed in her column at the Toledo Blade, went home, went to the hospital, and died.

In the end, her past with the Stratemeyer Syndicate became a burden, but Mildred never forgot why she had started writing children's books in the first place. Her final column, posthumously published, was about her love of reading and her admiration of public libraries, the very institutions that had both provided her with the detail and atmosphere that made many of her books so magical and provided so many young readers the chance to read them.

Girl Sleuth is bigger than the sum of its parts.


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That was a fascinating post, RJ. I preferred the Enid Blyton series of adventures as a child; while the Hardy Boys were great and I read them all, and proudly displayed them in my room, the allure of Europe and the occasional goings-on in some unnamed court (Ruritania?) made me prefer them.

I, too, loved Enid Blyton (and dreamed of midnight feasts... and I wonder if in some small way, I went to Bryn Mawr because I thought it would be slightly like Mallory Towers). But I also loved Nancy Drew. This weekend, I almost bought a set of postcards which were reproductions of the book covers.

In children's literature, characters have to get out from under the thumb of parents, by one means or another, to act autonomously and find scope for adventure. So parents in children's stories often do a disappearing act when the story at hand mirrors the psychological work of confronting the world without a parent/protector/adventure snuffer.

Nancy Drew didn't have a mother to rope her into being a conventional girl.

The Hardy boys didn't have a mother from whom it was necessary to distance themselves in order to be boys.

These are broad strokes, I know. I haven't read these stories since I was about nine or ten ;->.

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