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The "Hardy Brats" and Their Foolhardy Creator

From: Children's Literature
Volume 34, 2006
pp. 239-245 | 10.1353/chl.2006.0014

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Children's Literature 34 (2006) 239-245

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The "Hardy Brats" and Their Foolhardy Creator

The Secret of the Hardy Boys: Leslie McFarlane and the Stratemeyer Syndicate, by Marilyn S. Greenwald. Athens: Ohio UP, 2004.
Right from the beginning I tried to avoid any association of my name with the Hardy Boys, but in spite of everything it seems to have pursued me ever since people discovered that I did write the books.
—Leslie McFarlane (qtd. in Palmer 7)

Although The Secret of the Hardy Boys promises a study of the relationship between a book packager of popular fiction for children and one of its key ghostwriters, Marilyn S. Greenwald's book delivers much more. Drawing on its subject's correspondence and diaries as well as on interviews with surviving friends and family members, and numerous published sources, this biography of Leslie McFarlane (1902–1977) sets out to demonstrate the wide range of accomplishments of a prolific professional writer whose career extended to serial fiction, radio and television scripts, journalism, and films but who is best remembered today for ghostwriting, under the pseudonym Franklin W. Dixon, twenty-one of the first twenty-six Hardy Boys mysteries between 1927 and 1947. It may seem ironic to center a biography of McFarlane on a writing project that he undertook with much reluctance and kept secret for most of his life, but this focus demonstrates that a popular writer's most dubious output may, in the long run, unexpectedly prove to be the element needed to prevent that writer from fading into obscurity.

Among the book's strengths are a lively prose style and a demonstrated ability to compose a coherent narrative from numerous discrepant sources. Greenwald, a professor of journalism at Ohio University, draws from a range of secondary materials, including several past key studies by Carol Billman and Deidre Johnson as well as McFarlane's own 1976 memoir Ghost of the Hardy Boys. While the repetition of information found in these materials may seem unnecessary to seasoned Stratemeyer scholars and readers, the fact that most of these studies have not recently been widely available makes this repetition worthwhile for those new to the topic. Moreover, Greenwald's [End Page 239] book accesses a unique resource not available at the time of publication of these earlier studies—the archival materials that form the Stratemeyer Syndicate Records at the New York Public Library, a collection donated in 1993 by Simon & Schuster, which acquired the Syndicate in 1984.1 The new information mined from this resource includes quotations from back-and-forth correspondence between McFarlane and several people involved at the Syndicate, extracts from the original series proposal to Grosset & Dunlap and the original series bible (including initial descriptions of recurring characters), as well as titles and brief synopses of four additional titles that were proposed as "breeder" volumes but never written (52–6).

McFarlane saw the books he wrote for the Stratemeyer Syndicate as hack work necessary to finance more "serious" projects, occasionally expressing in private his ambivalence and frustration over writing volume after volume about the "Hardy brats"; consequently, Greenwald's biography does not center wholly on this project but instead encompasses McFarlane's wider career as well as his relationships with wives, children and stepchildren, parents, siblings, and colleagues, making its title suggest a narrower scope than it offers. In particular, the book fleshes out the history of American periodical and pulp fiction for children from the mid-nineteenth century onward in order to contextualize the workings of the Stratemeyer Syndicate that led to the creation of the Hardy Boys. As the volume demonstrates, books such as those produced by the Stratemeyer Syndicate have always been a source of tension for parents and librarians, who have attempted to ban such books due to their apparent lack of literary quality, and a source of pleasure for young readers, who are attracted to the repetition of familiar characters and motifs as well as to the promise of "cheap thrills" that will eventually lead to narrative closure. This history is also necessary for scholars of...