Since 1930 Nancy Drew has installed herself in the wayward hearts of young girls, heedless of the Depression, four wars (not counting the present one), civil rights, feminism, Gerald Ford and drugs, sex and rock and roll. Preternaturally bold, she takes action without suffering consequences: no mean feat to devoted girl readers sneaking, late at night, a few minutes more with the blue-eyed snoop. Journalist and poet Melanie Rehak was one of these girls, as she tells us in the opening pages of her jaunty Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her. Pretending to be afraid of the dark so her parents would keep the hall light burning, Rehak gobbled page after page of Nancy’s travails. And she was not alone. Andrea Dworkin once said she feasted on Nancy Drew, and Rehak delivers encomiums from Beverly Sills, Barbara Walters and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Nancy, declares Rehak, is “as much a part of the idea of American girlhood as slumber parties, homework, and bubble gum.”
As a girl, I was lukewarm about Nancy–though I liked her roadster–and so I asked around. “I adored Nancy Drew,” said novelist Lily Tuck, “and I remember my English teacher telling me in fifth grade that if I read another Nancy Drew mystery instead of–what? I don’t remember–Shakespeare, there would be another murder and no mystery to solve.” Biographer Benita Eisler recalled that Nancy’s appeal was that any white, vaguely middle-class girl could identify with her not impossible brilliance–that, and the fact that she had no mother to thwart her (her mother had died when Nancy was 3). “The ‘crimes’ she solved were never threatening–neither violent nor sexual–always of a ‘white-collar’ character–fraud, financial chicanery–nothing really dangerous,” said Eisler, whose daughter also read the series.
The central mystery of Nancy Drew isn’t any of her capers: It’s her enduring popularity. In 2002 150,000 copies of The Secret of the Old Clock, her debut, flew off shelves, and Simon & Schuster is celebrating her seventy-fifth birthday this year by launching all-new stories with an updated, cell phone-toting Nancy, the fifteenth of which is due out in January. As many as thirty years ago novelist Bobbie Ann Mason, another Drew enthusiast, undertook her own investigation into Nancy’s allure in the delightful Girl Sleuth: A Feminist Guide (still in print). Mason argued that Nancy represents a fading aristocracy whose property she defends but whose values she shrugs off. Rebellious adolescent and social maven, she is a paradox: “The girl sleuth is in pursuit of the very world–the happy ending, the mystery solved, the symbolic wedding–she seeks to escape.” If Nancy were to grow up, says Mason, she would have to turn into Mrs. Bobbsey, a dull woman, as reliable as plumbing.
Perhaps so. But Rehak is far less concerned with Nancy as cultural symbol than with Nancy as commodity created by the modern women who molded her in their image. For Nancy Drew had two mommies–and one inseminator. The latter, Edward Stratemeyer, was the powerhouse behind what became known as the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which produced beloved series such as Tom Swift. Born in 1862, the son of a middle-class German immigrant, Stratemeyer had been a scribbler since boyhood. He was working in his father’s tobacco store and selling Horatio Alger-inspired tales to the penny dreadfuls until his “Victor Horton’s Idea” was bought by Golden Days, a respectable boys’ magazine, when he was 26. He then went to work for Street & Smith, a New York publisher that churned out dime novels and formula fiction (under pseudonyms); according to Rehak, Stratemeyer produced as many as forty-two dime novels in less than two years.
In 1899 Stratemeyer unveiled his Rover Boys Series for Young Americans: tales of the middle-class Dick, Tom and Sam at a military academy. Though today it sounds rather unpromising, a reporter of the time claimed that “The Rover Boys broke out upon the country like measles.” Stratemeyer followed his Rover Boys with his bouncy Bobbsey Twins, launched under the pen name Laura Lee Hope. Hugely successful and bubbling with ideas, he decided it would be more efficient–and more lucrative–to provide outlines for his various series to a growing stable of authors who would write them under pre-established, trademarked pseudonyms. “We do not ask for what is commonly called ‘fine writing,’ (usually another name for what is tedious and cumbersome),” Stratemeyer told a prospective employee, “but want something full of ‘ginger’ and action.” He also mandated no deaths and no kissing–and what children wanted most: no finger-wagging. The Stratemeyer Syndicate was thus born in 1905, the literary equivalent, as Rehak points out, of Ford’s assembly line.