- Writing and Rewriting Nancy Drew, Girl Detective
Girl Sleuth, the first book by Brooklyn critic and poet Melanie Rehak, makes an outstanding contribution to the field of children's literature and culture and to Nancy Drew studies more specifically. The book's unique methodological approach offers a new take on a popular-culture phenomenon that has already been widely studied: the "secret" of the ever-popular Nancy Drew and the contested authorship behind the pseudonym Carolyn Keene. Calling this narrative a "mystery story," the "long-buried secret behind the identity of Carolyn Keene" (ix), is somewhat of a stretch, since the identities of the early ghostwriters employed by Edward Stratemeyer (1862–1930) and later by his daughter, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams (1892–1982), have been carefully documented in the earlier work of Carol Billman, John F. Dizer, Deidre Johnson, and Karen Plunkett-Powell. But Rehak's book, which is accessible to both academic and non-academic audiences, breathes new life into her topic thanks to meticulous research in the Stratemeyer Syndicate Records at the New York Public Library, which have been open to researchers only since 1993 (Marilyn S. Greenwald's recent biography of Leslie McFarlane, another Syndicate writer, also draws wisely and well from this archival collection). More concerned with the series' cultural production than with the individual books themselves, Rehak's study gives equal weight to the lives and contributions of Stratemeyer, Adams, and Mildred A. Wirt Benson (1905–2002), the initial ghostwriter whose work on twenty-three of the first thirty volumes is largely responsible for Nancy Drew's ongoing appeal and popularity; in this sense, the book reads well as a biography of Carolyn Keene.
Among the strengths of Rehak's volume are a lively prose style and a demonstrated ability to weave a wide range of secondary materials—including unpublished archival documents, interviews, periodical pieces, and scholarly criticism—into her discussion. Placing the story of Carolyn Keene within the larger context of the history of periodical literature, the public library, the automobile, women's suffrage and gradual access to higher education, and the ongoing demonization of series books for children, Rehak highlights the historical, cultural, and [End Page 230] economic factors under which Nancy Drew was created, circulated, and then received by a predominantly young and female audience during periods of significant social change. As Rehak notes, "She remains as much a part of the idea of American girlhood as slumber parties, homework, and bubble gum" (xiii). Implicit in this remark is an indication of the specific version of this American girlhood to which Nancy has always belonged and toward which the books themselves have ostensibly been targeted: a white, middle-class, "innocent" girlhood. Part of Nancy Drew's wide appeal, then, is that she is both conservative and revolutionary, genteel and modern, feminist and antifeminist, in periods of both progress and regression.
The first several chapters focus on Stratemeyer himself, the early years of the Stratemeyer Syndicate (which he founded in 1905), and the respective childhoods and formal educations of Adams and Benson. Having chapters alternate between Adams and Benson could prove distracting and difficult to follow, but Rehak achieves the contrast remarkably well, offering equal space to Adams's and Benson's proprietary claims to the character (although Rehak does refer to Benson early on as "Nancy Drew's original author" [xvi], undercutting to some extent her more nuanced consideration of the collaborative effort that went into all books in the series). What helps this contrast along is the fact that, as Rehak acknowledges, Adams and Benson had much in common despite differences in upbringing, age, and political stance: calling them both "ahead of their times," Rehak notes that "they were pioneers during periods of both great progress and great regression for women in this country" (xvii). Further, as Rehak's volume demonstrates, Nancy Drew herself would play a central role in both the progress and the regression that both women experienced throughout their lives.
One of my favorite aspects of Rehak's study is her ability to use archival materials to draw new connections...