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Who Remembers Nancy Drew?

By Judith Kaplan

In March, 2000 Judith Kaplan held a workshop on Nancy Drew stories, and shares with us her lecture notes

Who Remembers Nancy Drew?

What does the name Nancy Drew mean to you? What do you remember about her? What do you remember about the influence she had on your childhood? Who feels she had an influence on you beyond the fond memories of reading the series? Do you read female detective stories now?

I'd like to give you some of the insights I gained from reading about studies of the Nancy Drew "phenomenon". There was a lot of research done on popular culture but most of it was male oriented. This type of research included scholarly work on Superman, Batman, GI Joe etc. but little done on female oriented popular culture. Although most of us have fond Nancy Drew memories, very few studies about her were done until the mid 1970's when, in 1975, Bobbi Ann Mason published "The Girl Sleuth: On the trail of Nancy Drew, Judy Bolton and Cherry Ames." It was republished in 1995.

In the interim a lot of research was done. Research revealed that there was no Carolyn Keene (whom we all KNOW was the author!) If nothing else stays with you today, you should know this: there was NO Carolyn Keene. The author of the most (but not all) was one Mildred Benson Wirt. Uncovering her was a mystery very worthy of Nancy Drew herself! Nancy Drew books and Hardy Boys, Tom Swift and dozens of other series books were written to order based on a formula by Edward Stratemeyer and published by his Stratemeyer Syndicate.

Mildred wrote other series books under 12 different names. Series books she wrote in addition to Nancy Drew were: Flash Evans, Penny Nichols, Doris Force, Ruth Fielding, Kay Tracey, Dana Girls, Boy Scout Explorer, Honey Bunch, Dot & Dash, Madge Sterling, Brownie Scout, Mildred A Wirt, Dan Carter Cub Scout, Girl Scout, Penny Parker, Ruth Darrow Flying and Trailer Stories for Girls series.

Due to the renewed interest in her the University of Iowa sponsored a Nancy Drew Conference from April 16 to April 19 1993. The University of Iowa is where the archives of Mildred Wirt are housed and treasured. This first ever Nancy Drew Conference was attended by about 500 people, of which 15% were male. It generated much press and attention, because after all more than 80 million copies had sold from 1930 to 1993.

A book called "Rediscovering Nancy Drew" edited by Carolyn Steward Dyer and Nancy Tillman Romalov, reprint the papers that were presented at that conference. I found them incredibly interesting and thought provoking as I am sure many of you would too. These childhood books had a vast influence on me and on the people who attended the Conference. The papers presented covered a wide gamut. There was a paper: "Nancy Drew: A moment in Feminist History", by the well-know scholar Carolyn Heilbruner (who under the pseudonym Amanda Cross writes mysteries with a female heroine), many papers on the research into the "history of creating and publishing Nancy Drew" which included the history of Edward Statemeyer and Mildred Wirt Benson. Benson, as Mildred Augustine, received the first masters degree in journalism at the University of Iowa in 1927, now a very respected journalism school.

Another category analyzed the stereotypes that the Nancy Drew books had, including what we now call classism, sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, anti gypsies, and immigrants. They certainly did not depict or promote what we now call multiculturalism. They were of course a product of their times. It is important to note they over the years from 1930 to today the stories were rewritten and continually made to conform to their eras. The latest pictures of Nancy look more like Barbie than Nancy!

Most librarians of the time considered all series books bad, like comic books, and the librarians who didn't ban them at the least vociferously discouraged them. They were not "literature" and they kept children from reading "literature".

There was a section of papers on collecting and researching Nancy Drew. One phenomenon that impressed me from reading that section was that the men who started collecting and researching Nancy Drew, in addition to the pleasure derived from the treasure hunting of information, cultural and literary history etc., ascertained HOW to turn their hobby into a way for financial gain; they either began dealing in Nancy Drew books or writing Nancy Drew newsletters which they sold to subscribers. Meanwhile the women did it for the love of knowledge and spreading the word about their beloved heroine/role mode. They didn't do it for financial gain, although several have created academic careers based, at least in part, on their Nancy Drew research.

The last section was Transforming Nancy Drew. It included a discussion of Nancy Drew on film. Did you know there were 4 Nancy Drew films? They are: Nancy Drew Detective (1938), Nancy Drew Reporter (1938), Nancy Drew Troubleshooter (1939) and the second Nancy Drew book "The Hidden Staircase", written in 1930, was a Warner Brothers film in 1939. They all starred Bonita Granville, whom I remember had her own mystery series too. The 1939 film was so bad it was cited by then Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg as an example of why "block booking" by motion picture studios should be banned.

The last category of the papers presented at the conference concerned how Nancy Drew influenced the current crop of female Mystery writers. There are papers by Nancy Pickard and Linda Barnes who are currently successful writers of mysteries with female detectives as their heroines.

What do you remember of the character of Nancy Drew, how she handled problem solving and how she was a role model for you? I'd like to know whether/how you think she changed your life.

Lastly, if you want to continue the Nancy Drew heritage you may want to give some Nancy Drew books to your daughters, granddaughters and other young girls. They are still being published. Young girls still need the role model of the adventurous, self assured, intelligent, daring, girl/young woman that was so important to us as we grew up.

Article by Judith Kaplan

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