Nancy Drew and the Case of the Politically Incorrect Children’s Books
The young sleuth’s early mysteries were racist and anti-Semitic. Can problematic vintage texts still be valuable for kids?
When I was 10, I loved the The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries on TV. My first seditious Jewish act was playing hooky from a Holocaust memorial service, pretending to be sick so I could stay home and watch a rerun (a rerun!) of an episode in which Shaun Cassidy’s shirt was unbuttoned.
But I turned up my nose at the Hardy Boys books. I was a Nancy Drew girl, all the way. In print, when not being played by the floppy-haired 1970s equivalent of One Direction, the Hardy Boys were boring as Weetabix. They were upright Boy Scouts, doing what boys were supposed to do. Nancy, on the other hand, was singular. If Harry Potter was The Boy Who Lived, Nancy was The Girl Who Dared. She was brave, rash, fierce. She had a snazzy car. She solved crimes that flummoxed the cops, snuck around in old abandoned houses, got locked in closets by bad guys … and she always kept her cool. Her mom had died when she was little, but her dad adored and trusted her and gave her free rein to save others. She was in charge, not her boyfriend, Ned Nickerson. She was beautiful, but she wasn’t an object. She was a doer.
Little did I know Nancy Drew had such a troubled past.
More than 200 million Nancy Drew books have been sold in the United States since their debut in 1930. Nancy has starred in numerous movies and updated reboots, graphic novels, and electronic games. Earlier this year, when Ruth Bader Ginsberg was asked who her heroes were, she said, “I suppose mine was Nancy Drew, because she was a girl who was out there doing her work and dominating her boyfriend.” (Back in 2010, she said more seriously, “I think that most girls who grew up when I did were very fond of the Nancy Drew series. Not because they were well-written—they weren’t—but because this was a girl who was an adventurer, who could think for herself, who was the dominant person in her relationship with her young boyfriend. So, the Nancy Drew series made girls feel good, that they could be achievers and they didn’t have to take a back seat or be wallflowers.”)
As author Melanie Rehak explains in her delightful history of Nancy, Girl Sleuth, Nancy was really the creation of two women: Harriet Adams and Mildred A. Wirt Benson. Adams was the daughter of Edward Stratemeyer, a publisher of dime novels who saw an opening in the market back in 1929 for a daring teenage girl detective. He wrote outlines for the first four books, which were farmed out to Benson, a journalist for the Toledo Blade. (Benson died in 2002, and her daughter and heir died earlier this year. Last week in Toledo there was an auction of Benson’s typewriters, awards, and the wooden desk upon which she wrote 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew books. One of the typewriters went for $825, and the desk went for $525.)
Adams and her sister Edna took over running the syndicate after their father died, with Harriet increasingly doing the bulk of the editing. She was a proper wealthy lady, whose father wasn’t crazy about the idea of her employment, but Harriet loved Nancy and came to view her as her creation and even her daughter. Benson, on the other hand, was far less hoity-toity. She was a working girl from a grittier background, a former competitive diver, lifetime newspaper writer, and airplane pilot. (In 1970, when Benson was 65, she was still doing an aviation column for a Toledo paper called “Happy Landings.”) As Rehak puts it, “Nancy Drew was just a sideshow in Mildred’s life, unlike Harriet’s.”
Although they were mold-breakers in some ways, Adams and Benson, born in the 1890s, were also products of their time. And that meant the early books were rife with casual racism and prejudice. Nancy Drew criminals in the first books were almost invariably darker-complexioned and lower class. As independent Nancy Drew scholar Jennifer Fisher points out, facial features in the original Nancy Drew books were a surefire indicator of dastardliness: “A large or hooked nose,” “bushy or coarse stiff hair,” and “sallow skin” all indicated villainy.
Stereotypes abounded. In the 1930 version of The Secret of the Old Clock, there’s a lazy “Negro caretaker” with “a certain alcoholic glitter in his eyes” whose shirking of duty sets the stage for a robbery. When he realizes his employers’ house has been plundered on his watch, he asks Nancy, “Say, white, gu’l, you tell me wheah all dis heah fu’niture is at?” All his speech is in cringe-inducing dialect: “‘At’s right! Blame me! I ain’t s’posed to be no standin’ ahmy—I’s just a plain culled man with a wife and seven chillum a-dependin’ on me!”
There were two early books with arguably negative depictions of Jews. One is The Hidden Staircase, whose villain, Nathan Gombet, is “miserly” and possessed of “shifty eyes” and a “hook nose.” Gombet (later changed to Gomber) was originally described in ways very much matching the stereotype of the Jew: “He was unusually tall and thin with spindling legs which gave the appearance of a towering scarecrow. The illusion was heightened by his clothing, which was ill-fitting and several seasons out of style. Nancy could not help but notice several grease spots on his coat. However, it was not the man’s clothing or miserly appearance which repulsed her, but rather his unpleasant face. He had sharp, piercing eyes which seemed to bore into her.” Gombet tries to swindle some nice old ladies out of their home (and kidnaps Nancy’s dad for good measure). Fortunately, Nancy foils his evil plans.
In The Clue of the Broken Locket, Nancy tangles with the Blairs, a tacky, self-absorbed, new-money couple who have changed their name from Sellerstein. They want to adopt two babies so they can make them go into showbiz and make a lot of money off them. According to one blogger’s entertaining synopsis, “Nancy does not like the Blairs because Kitty is overly rouged (read: whore) and Johnny is swarthy (read: criminal).” Also, the Blairs are slow to respond when the babies cry, because all they care about is ungapatchket clothing and going out and being fabulous. Nancy knows that the children will be better off with their real parents, so she figures out who they are and reunites them, and it’s all good. Which makes no sense, but Nancy knows best.
A Talmudic problem: Abraham lived before the law was given, so how can his actions be used to interpret the law?