Nancy Drew and Book History 103: Some Speculations on Kelsey McKinney’s Mystery

51fumcek9jl-_sx314_bo1204203200_Kelsey McKinney wrote a fabulous piece that’s on right now (via Lenny) about the one and only–or rather, many and proliferating–Nancy Drew(s). Her first-person story of encountering one Nancy Drew in a 1930s edition of The Hidden Staircase and then revised, toned-down Drew in a later edition (my guess is this 2007 version, based on the cover description) is illuminating and, for me, completely relatable: when I picked up a copy of Ramona the Pest a few years ago, I was very displeased to find the illustrations updated to give Ramona and Beezus big eyes and shiny hair.




Left: 1968, Louis Darling. I particularly enjoy the untied shoelaces.
Right: mid-2000s, Tracy Dockeray. With butterflies as stars and doe-eyes added, because….who knows why.
(Note: the illustrations were updated again in 2013 by Jacqueline Rogers.)


So, though my personal affinity for Nancy Drew was never more than casual: I get it.

A few things I want to point out about the article, though. One, in trying to make sense of the tonal shift in Nancy Drew’s character, McKinney throws out some pretty broad generalizations about cultural shifts in particular decades. Two, I want to make some tweaks to the narrative she presents of Nancy Drew’s evolution. Of the 1930s Nancy Drew, McKinney writes:

Wirt was writing just on the heels of the Roaring 20s, and she invented a heroine to match. Wirt’s Nancy Drew was assertive, aggressive, and willing to contradict any adult who kept her from solving mysteries. Through the character, Wirt was doing what all young American women in the 1930s were trying to do: bridge Victorian and modern sensibilities about what a girl (and a woman) could be. In her books, Nancy drove a car; she existed in a public sphere. Women in the First World War had directed movies, flown airplanes, and been newspaper reporters. Nancy Drew, a self-sufficient girl detective, was a book those modern women could buy proudly for their daughters.

Of the late-1950s revision, she writes:

But if Wirt wrote a Nancy Drew of and for the women of the 1930s, Adams wrote her Nancy for the 1950s, when post-war American culture encouraged docility, sweetness, and deference. When Nancy Drew debuted in 1930, 46 percent of US college students were women. By the time she was rewritten in 1959, women made up only 38 percent of college students. The post-war prosperity sent the 1950s woman out of the office place and back into domesticity, and Nancy Drew went with her.

To the first point: McKinney isn’t wrong. Studies show that post-WWII American culture had a sort of obsession with normalizing heterosexual nuclear families with women as homemakers. But I want to add some context to her statistics here a bit. The G. I. Bill had a tremendous impact on those college attendance statistics; because of it, young men who would have been unable to afford college in decades past enrolled—-but there was no complementary measure for the women who were their peers on the lower socio-economic rungs. While this, plus the unprecedented single-family home loans offered to veterans through the bill, did result in women being herded into homes as wives and mothers, many of them were women who would have otherwise been occupying low-wage jobs in other, richer people’s homes, not the high-powered careers that seem to be implied here. Further, studies have also shown that the backlash to the attempts to quash the Rosie the Riveter mentality exploited by the federal government during wartime was pretty swift; after all, 1959 only barely precedes the rise in a mainstream, middle-class narrative of second-wave feminism (Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique came out four short years later).

To the second point: true, Nancy Drew was indeed a Stratemeyer creation, and as was often his practice for the series he published, he hired a ghostwriter to turn his basic idea and outlines into full stories. However, Stratemeyer died soon after Nancy Drew when on the market in 1930, which means that Harriet Adams had creative control over the character not only in 1959, but for almost her entire existence. A shift in power from Wirt to Adams can’t be the culprit here, because that’s just not how Wirt’s employment as a ghostwriter worked.

My best guess is that the rewrite of Nancy has to do with what was happening in American publishing in general. 1930 was indeed right on the heels of the roaring 20s, but it was also right on the heels of a renaissance in American publishing unlike any other since the Civil War. After 150 years of industry dominance by a handful of family-owned houses (think Harper and Brothers), the mid-1920s and years directly following saw an explosion in new startups headed by young college graduates–and though these were often officially headed by young men, the crucial roles played by women in these startups were something of an open secret (think Viking, Random House). These houses sought to take chances on new, modern writers: female protagonists who drove cars and “exist[ed] in the public sphere” were practically their mascot.

Stratemeyer, meanwhile, was an independent, genre-specific publisher, who operated on the fringes of this movement, but his Nancy Drew fit right in—-it’s little wonder that Grosset and Dunlap leaped at a partnership with his syndicate to distribute her books.

By 1959, this period of high innovation in the large publishers was coming to a close. The industry was starting to condense into fewer, larger companies as publishing houses began to acquire one another. Meanwhile, however, mass-market paperbacks were on the rise—-and these publishers (like Gold Medal), used a development process much more similar to Stratemeyer’s than the prestigious presses of the 1920s: outline some stories, find some writers to work under pseudonyms, and churn them out, assembly-line style. Thus, in 1959, the market was far more saturated with ghostwritten, assembly-line books than it had been in 1930—-and mystery books in particular. (Indeed, by 1970, Adams sought to move Nancy Drew herself to paperback format).

So when Adams was tasked with updating the Nancy Drew series, it was within this new publishing climate—-which meant that, along with excising the racism and outdated idioms, Adams would need to create a protagonist that represented high-school-agers in the late 1950s and early 1960s in order to continue to have a niche (thus the prom date as the main occupation and detective work on the side, instead of being hired as a detective by an adult woman).

For me, the shame isn’t that publishers in 1959 realized that the Nancy Drew books would be better if they were less racist. It’s more that they have tried to pretend that the 1959 Drew is the only one that exists. The earlier versions aren’t valued in the way they should be—-as artifacts key to the development of a cultural icon. Like the 1968 version of Ramona the Pest, the 1930s Nancy Drew has been effectively thrown out, and you’ll only find her in used book sales.


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