When a 50-something interviews a 30-something about Nancy Drew, you’d be surprised how much they have to discuss. I, the 50-something, read all the Nancy Drew books – the ones with the royal blue cover – and nearly all the Hardy Boys books, too (I had a boy supplier in my third grade class). Melanie Rehak, the 30-something and author of "Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her," also read Nancy Drew books when she was growing up, in her case, a mix of her mother’s storehouse and the revised and the newly published versions released in the 1970s.
Rehak reread all the Nancy Drew books as part of her research for her new book, which she will discuss Tuesday, October 25, at the Princeton University Store. Despite the melodramatic plots, with Nancy regularly getting knocked out and tied up, Rehak says "one of big surprises of writing the book was to discover how much I really liked the Nancy Drew books."
Remembering Nancy as "this power girl who knew how to do everything and got out of every sticky situation," Rehak found that Nancy was more complicated than that. "From the books in the 1930s to 1950s, there were many moments when Nancy, trapped in a situation, has a second of self-doubt or is a little frightened, and has to talk herself through the situation."
Somehow it wasn’t too big a surprise for me to learn that Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, Jr. (which my husband read), and even the Bobbsey Twins series came out of a single company, the Stratemeyer Syndicate. (The clue was the
look-alike size, format, and narrative structure.) The syndicate’s founder, Edward Stratemeyer, was, first of all, says Rehak, a brilliant storyteller. "He had gift not only for characters but also for seeing inside the child’s mind and understanding what children wanted in their books."
But Stratemeyer was also an astute businessman, who developed something along the lines of a story factory. Stratemeyer would create a set of characters to populate a series, then write plot guides. These he would farm out to a stable of ghostwriters, who used the outlines to write the books. Stratemeyer himself would edit their manuscripts, and each series was published under a pseudonym, for example, Carolyn Keene for the Nancy Drew series. The publisher for the original books was Grosset & Dunlap.
Stratemeyer’s formula called for stopping action in each chapter at a cliffhanger, often mid-page, to veritably push the reader through the book, causing the classic children’s syndrome, reading under the covers with a flashlight. In fact, a reviewer told Rehak that when she had gotten out her old Nancy Drew books, she was surprised to find herself tearing through them because she had to know what would happen in the next chapter. To supplement the creativity, both Stratemeyer and his daughter, Harriet (who with her sister, Edna, took over the business after her father’s death), were big fans of research; they would clip news and historical items that they could weave into plots to give them more complexity.
The Nancy Drew persona was born in 1930. Stratemeyer developed the broad outlines of the plots and handed them over to Iowa journalist Mildred Wirt, who created a Nancy Drew who was much like Wirt herself – tough, persistent, true to herself, and a real stickler for honesty and integrity. Wirt, for example, argued continually with Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, by mail, over changes she suggested in the Nancy character. As for sticking to her word, Wirt was unwilling for decades to break the confidentiality agreement about her role in the writing of the Stratemeyer books, even after 1953, when Adams instituted a new policy of using in-house writers – never even informing Wirt that she would no longer be writing for Stratemeyer. And not even after Adams first declared herself "Carolyn Keene."
In the original Nancy Drew books, published between 1930 and 1953 – all but three were written by Wirt – Nancy "started out as a little brasher, bolder character that reflected who Mildred was," says Rehak. If Nancy thought the police were doing something wrong, for example, she would stand up to them. These original Nancy Drew books, says Rehak, were also "very atmospheric, with rainstorms, wonderful descriptive writing, great language, and plot points really drawn out."
After Adams became the prime mover in the business, she began pushing for a softer, gentler Nancy. As much formed by her upbringing as by her Midwestern colleague, "she revised Nancy to be more like he was," Rehak says. Adams’s vision of Nancy was more genteel – with Nancy being kinder to Hannah Gruen, the housekeeper; having more of a tendency to giggle; and being a bit meeker, "although certainly not a weak character."
Ironically, Rehak admires the way Adams was able to overcome her upper-middle class upbringing in her own life, even as it infected Nancy’s development as a character. Although Adams was educated at Wellesley College, "she certainly was not destined to ever even have a job, much less to go into business," says Rehak. But her father’s death turned out to be a great opportunity, and Adams took advantage of it.
Although her husband supported her decision to work, and she was motivated to continue her beloved father’s legacy, Adams also "saw her chance," says Rehak. "She had wanted to work after graduation but wasn’t allowed to." In a letter to a college friend she wrote: "Though it is pleasant to feel that one’s life is beginning at 40, nevertheless it is regrettable to realize that one missed so much from 14 to 40. All we can say is that we are glad we are not going to miss it entirely."
Rehak says that "in Mildred and Harriet we see the two sides of the prefeminist problem." Wirt, on the one hand, had been brought up to think she could do whatever she wanted, but she didn’t have the means. Adams’s upbringing, on the other hand, precluded her from earning a living. But both managed to overcome their backgrounds. "Both were very determined," Rehak says, "which is a quality I admire and many Nancy Drew readers admire."
Rehak grew up in Manhattan in the 1970s and, like Mildred Wirt, knew from childhood that she would be a writer. Her first love was poetry, in which she earned an MFA from Boston University; she is now gathering her own work into a book. Professionally, she works as a journalist, and while she was looking for a book project, she happened to hear Mildred Wirt’s obituary on National Public Radio in June, 2002. Her interest was piqued, and she visited the University of Iowa to have a look at Wirt’s papers. Those archives included many stories about when Adams went public as Carolyn Keene, and she knew she had the nugget for her book – the tensions between these two strong women and the fictional character they created together.
Rehak’s research was mostly archival, although she did interview Wirt’s daughter; her niece, who lives in the house in Ladora, Iowa, where Mildred was born; and a later partner in the Stratemeyer Syndicate. She also spent weeks at the New York Public Library, where 370 boxes about the syndicate hold, among other things, most of the letters between Adams and her sister Edna, Mildred, and Grosset & Dunlap. She did additional research at Wellesley College and the University of Iowa.
In 1958, as book publishing was growing more sophisticated, television more prominent, and social consciousness more developed, Grosset & Dunlap instituted a massive revision of the series. One problem they wanted to correct was the "ugly racial language, and a simplistic description of good versus evil," says Rehak, "where the bad guys were always foreign or another ethnic background." The books were also judged too long and were shortened to better compete with TV. But Rehak thinks the revisions were not a match for Wirt’s originals.
Rehak attributes Nancy’s original popularity to being the first girl character of her time. "Because of that, she was burned into the female American imagination, and she became a book that people passed on to their kids." She says there’s also simply something about Nancy that girls identify with – they either want to be like her or to have a friend like her. The qualities they admire? "She is smart, brave, independent, and doesn’t rely on her boyfriend for help."
Rehak believes that Nancy is also appealing because she is not a typical adolescent. All the things girls have to deal with when they hit puberty – the newly-awakened desires and the confusion about boys, parents, and authority – don’t happen to Nancy. "As false as that is, it makes her very attractive to girls. Before puberty, the world is so clear," she says, "and everything makes sense at the end.
"Of course, her adventures are fictitious but the larger picture of her life as an intrepid young woman is very appealing," says Rehak. She even got a second life in the 1960s with feminists who "remembered her as their first inspiration."
As a veteran of the 1960s, I was interested in what Rehak wrote about the backlash to the early feminists who procured the right to vote: "As flappers descended upon the country with their spangles and cigarettes, they seemed to wipe out all of the struggles and high-minded activism that had brought them into being." Rehak observes that during the last century this cycle has kept repeating itself. After World War II, when women had joined the work force in record numbers, came the 1950s, when many women returned to the home.
Rehak believes it’s also happening now, with fierce arguments about women staying at home versus working. She cites a recent article about Ivy-educated women who decide they are not going to work but rather stay home and raise their children. She assigns some blame to what she calls a "societal panic" that people are not raising their children properly. "At the moment, especially in New York, people are obsessed with their children’s development, being with them all the time, and despising their own mothers because they left them behind at six months and went on vacation."
Pregnant with her first child, these issues are very much on Rehak’s mind. From what she observes, these problems have "a lot to do with the culture of work and what we expect from men." She says her own husband is helpful and a wonderful cook, adding, "It amazes me that there are still men who think it’s not their job or who work 18 hours a day."
Rehak fully intends to keep on working and is right now "sniffing around" for her next book. She concludes, "I can’t imagine (a) not writing and (b) not working. For whatever reason, for me it is very satisfying."
"Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Woman Who Wrote Her, Tuesday, October 25, 7 p.m., Princeton University Store, 36 University Place. Melanie Rehak reads from and signs her new book. Free. 609-921-8500.