Relatable-yet-superhuman, Nancy Drew has been an enduring cultural icon, debuting in 1930 and starring in hundreds of books along with films, television series, and video games. When I was introduced to Nancy in 1998, I devoured every volume of the yellow-spined mystery series that I could get my hands on. The heroine is a spunky, prodigious girl detective who solves hundreds of cases, succeeding when lawmen cannot. Nancy is sarcastic, confident, and an ace at evading the many criminals who tail her powder blue Mustang convertible during high-speed chases. In the early 20th century, the Nancy Drew series was lauded as presenting “an amazing alternative to the career choice of secretary and milliner that other children’s books provided” (Paretsky, 1991, p. 9). The syndication of the ‘Nancy Drew’ archetype created a significant blueprint for modern American girl and womanhood – one that helped inspire a model of empowered womanhood that dominates 20th and 21st century American life with a Who’s Who of public figures including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonya Sotomayor, Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton, Diane Sawyer, Laura Bush, Barbara Walters, Nancy Pelosi, and Sandra Day O’Connor (Murphy, 2009; Shipman & Rucci, 2009) citing her as an inspiration. Viewing Nancy with an intersectional lens complicates this narrative: aspirational, independent, but never rebellious, Nancy Drew is a thoroughly modern product, created through a fine-tuned capitalist production and distribution model. Her actions and beliefs reflect both traditional middle-class values and the expanding role of American youth and women in the wake of the Progressive Era. The books affirm WASP superiority and the original editions, revised in the 60s, are rife with racial stereotypes. A contemporary reader could easily dismiss Nancy Drew as an upper-middle-class ‘white savior.’
Nine years after women won the vote, and after Hardy Boys’ success with readers across genders, publisher Edward Stratemeyer created Nancy Drew: a brave, beautiful detective character, suspended between girlhood and womanhood. Following the blueprints created by female leaders of the Progressive-era, the girl sleuth was imbued with a prolific capacity to empathize with and aid the less. Stratemeyer hired Mildred Wirt Benson, a young Midwestern journalist, to write the first four installments of the series under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene. Wirt Benson developed Nancy’s character into the ultimate modern, clever, compassionate woman who embodied the democratic, good-neighbor ethos promoted by Progressive-era social crusader Jane Addams and her cohort.
To flesh out Nancy’s world, River Heights, USA, Wirt Benson created her father, Carson, a successful and virtuous attorney. Motherless, Nancy is nurtured by Hannah Gruen, the family’s housekeeper. Nancy’s boyfriend, Ned Nickerson, is a football-playing fraternity brother; presented by the novels as a paragon of WASP manliness. Her two best friends are “plump” Bess Marvin, a character primarily concerned with romance and food, and “boyish” George Frayne, whose ambiguous queerness is all-but-confirmed through her plainness and athletic ability. Of the characters, Nancy, with her extraordinary abilities, is the only one that readers aspire to emulate. No one wants to grow up to be a “Bess” or a “George” – generations of women have grown up wanting to be Nancy Drew. She is an exceptional representative of her gender; “You are the first girl to get the best of me,” “growled” someone brought to justice; “I never saw a girl, or anybody, man or woman, to equal you,” praised Chief McGinnis of the River Heights Police Department (Keene, 1932, p. 206-208).
As a ghostwriter, Wirt Benson was unknown until the late twentieth century. Readers have since noted similarities between the author and her star character, “Both flew airplanes… both were avid golfers and adventurers; both went on archaeological digs; both were independent; and neither put up with hypocritical people,” writes a columnist in a 1998 issue of People magazine (Houtchens, 1999, p. 104). Working closely from Stratemeyer’s blueprint, but integrating her experiences as an independent, undomesticated member of the first post-Suffrage generation, Mildred Wirt Benson wrote books 1-7, 11-25, and 30 (Fisher, 2010). Through her cleverness, deep concern for the less fortunate, and pleasant affect, Nancy Drew showed that girls could independently and effectively solve social problems that traditionally fell upon grown men.
Privilege and mobility allow Nancy to ‘stumble,’ by chance, in and out of mysteries. Nancy’s material wealth is critical: her convertible transports her around the greater River Heights area, and she strikes deals with shopkeepers, obtaining clues in exchange for purchasing items (Keene, 1962, p. 140). She maintains vital connections to middle-class men, especially through her roles as a devoted girlfriend and ‘daddy’s girl’. Through the social network of Ned’s fraternity, she connects with the postmaster’s son, who helps her capture a mail thief (Keene, 1962, p. 93-96). With seemingly no obligations, Nancy’s thirst for adventure, or even simple boredom, compel her to ‘take on’ the mysterious circumstances of others. She happens upon capers, serving the cause of truth and justice whenever a need arises, for seemingly no reason other than that she’s Nancy Drew. Each book reminds readers that Nancy is an amateur sleuth and does not accept payment for her services, though her father chides her for taking on “thankless tasks,” and notes that while they both work in service of justice, only he receives monetary compensation (Keene, 1932, p. 49). Nancy’s motivations are unclear; she is simply willing and able to right wrongs, stop injustice, and be a neighbor to those who are down on their luck.
Nancy’s volunteerism is a reflection of the beliefs and actions of prominent white progressive-era women like Jane Addams who believed that democracy could only be practiced and maintained through individuals’ sacrifice of time, energy, and resources in the service of solving problems, even those not of their own making (Hanagan, p. 348). Awakened by the poverty and social disorganization they witnessed upon “friendly visits,” Addams and her collaborators the Abbott Sisters “chose to live and work among the poor as neighbors, seeking to bring their education and goodwill to bear on the social problems” (Franklin, 1986, p. 508). Jane Addams, Edith and Grace Abbott, and Sophonisba Breckenridge were a group “for whom to see a need was to start immediately to try to find a way to meet it” (Wright, 1954, p. 44). Like Nancy, Edith and Grace Abbott, who lived at Hull House and laid the foundation for the profession of social work at the University of Chicago, were born to a successful lawyer father (their mother was a suffragist), and took it upon themselves to “help immigrants help themselves” (Golus, 2008). Like the Abbott sisters, and many women concerned with social reform during the Progressive Era, Nancy focuses more on her career than her participation in the domestic sphere; Ned, Nancy’s boyfriend, brings up the idea of marriage several times throughout the series, but Nancy makes it clear she is in no hurry to give up her independence and mobility to the institution of the family (Paretsky, 1991). Unlike Addams, who actively practiced solidarity with oppressed peoples by living and working with immigrants and poor people, Nancy maintains a comfortable distance in River Heights with her adoring father and ever vigilant housekeeper who watches after her.
Though she likes solving one-off problems, Nancy is uncompelled to question the dominant social structures and blissfully reproduces the social order. She spends her leisure time with peers of the same station, and draws conclusions about strangers based on her shallow perceptions of their appearance and status. At one point, her friends acknowledge that if there were no “queer folks or bad ones” in the world, Nancy would have no raison d’être (Keene, 1932, p. 73). This queerness and badness is racially coded; in the 20th century, many non-WASP Americans (Irish, Eastern-Europeans, Italians, Jews) were seen as ‘not white’ or ‘not quite white’ by the ruling class. Both Nancy’s ‘clients’ and the villains who wrong them are racially distanced from the sleuth’s blue-blooded background. The people Nancy chooses to help are often single parents, kind proprietors of failing businesses, immigrants, and the elderly. As a beautiful young white savior, Nancy implicitly deserves her blue Mustang, “generous clothing allowance,” and freedom from both wage and domestic labor because she is doing good. This phenomenon was described by Teju Cole as, “The White Savior Industrial Complex,” which, he writes, “is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege” (Cole, 2012). Through each brush with danger and encounter with the oppressed, Nancy earns her otherwise cushy lifestyle.
Just as the earliest children’s stories were instructive, Nancy Drew books incorporate lessons about survival, social order, and modernity. Danger lurks within the idyllic River Heights, along with immigrants, poverty, and other ugly byproducts of industrialization, yet Nancy remains endlessly cool. Amy Boesky writes that, “Nancy is already established as a paragon of self-discipline, free of bodily needs, mood swings, lapses of judgment, or emotional outbursts—a secret agent of the adult world” (Boesky, 2010, p. 190). She has a seemingly endless set of special skills and talents, and employs them as needed. Frequently knocked unconscious, drugged with chloroform, tied up and gagged by assailants, Nancy leans on her judo training and uncanny ability to release her own wrists from rope bindings. After one such attack, Bess asks Nancy, “are you even worried?” Nancy responds that she is, but that she is more concerned for the safety of a wrongly accused victim whose name she is trying to clear (Keene, 1962, p. 106).
A modern and adventurous woman, Nancy associates with immigrants and the poor, but judges them instantly, relying upon outward appearances to deduce guilt and social order. In The Clue in The Diary, the seventh and final contiguous installment produced by Wirt Benson, Nancy sees a house engulfed in flames and feels sorry for the presumably lovely family who lived there, because such a beautiful country house must have kindly owners (Keene, 1962, p. 2, 16). When she first sees a figure fleeing the scene, she thinks, “His actions [are] those of a guilty person, but… he doesn’t look like a criminal” (Keene, 1962, p. 7). The pervasive belief in Nancy’s society is that poverty has distinct, unattractive physical markers, but Nancy tries to look past them and help those who have suffered discrimination. After meeting a working-class single father, Nancy muses he looks “as though he could not have harmed anyone in his life” (Keene, 1962, p. 98). Nancy and her friends take interest in a young girl named Honey because the child is poor, but beautiful. In an effort led by Bess, Nancy’s most materialistic friend, the girls purchase new clothes and shoes for Honey, erasing her outward poverty to reflect her quality as a person.
The racial and class-based privilege which remains embedded in classic Nancy Drew stories is but a remnant of the original content; the first 34 installments were heavily revised to remove overt racism, classism, and antisemitism after the Stratemeyer Syndicate received complaints about the use of dialect by “negro” and “colored” characters in positions of servitude. While visiting her boyfriend at college, Nancy helps plan a fraternity party where guests dress as, “pirates and Indians galore, fat men, Siamese twins, bandits and black-face characters” (Keene, 1932, p. 189). Villains in the original manuscripts were consistently given darker complexions and racially marked physical features; in the 1932 edition of Nancy’s Mysterious Letter, Nancy asks a young boy who witnessed a robbery if the perpetrator had “a long pointed nose…sharper and longer than most men’s,” suggesting Jewishness (Keene, 1932, p. 60). A revised version makes no mention of the villian’s nose, and instead highlights his eyes (“cold as steel”) and his generally untrustworthy demeanor (Keene, 1995, p. 29). The race of the Drews’ faithful housekeeper, Hannah Gruen, was also changed from black to white, and she maintains a more intimate connection to Nancy in the revised editions, kissing her on the cheek at times (Keene, 1995, p. 52). Across editions, Hannah Gruen is consistently referenced by her full name, distancing the lower-status employee from true family and friends (Ingall, 2013).
The series’ mass-appeal captured readers from a range of class backgrounds. The first three volumes, which debuted together, were immediately profitable, even though they hit shelves during some of the grimmest months of the Great Depression. The series’ popularity was sustained for decades; my great-aunt saved her allowance in the late 1950s to purchase the books from Woolworth’s Department Store, and remembers that girls wanted to have the whole set, especially the first four installments, so that they could lend them to friends. The books were banned and discouraged by librarians, who refused to stock the ‘low-quality’ syndicated fiction (Fisher, 2010). The absence of the books from libraries, coupled with the Syndicate’s mass-production model and low price point, led to surging distribution. The series was declared “the greatest phenomenon among all the fifty-centers” by Fortune Magazine (Boesky, 2010, p. 189). Through his spunky, progressive girl-detective, and the stable of ghostwriters who churned out her stories, Ed Stratemeyer became the wealthy hero of his own story. “As oil had its Rockefeller, literature had its Stratemeyer,” his Fortune obituary noted (Greenwald, 2004, p. 6).
Though Nancy’s feminist credibility has been criticized and debated by contemporary readers, her influence as a figure of contradictory femininity and social participation is undeniable. ‘Woke’ young adult readers today might see through this and compare the character to Instagram’s ‘White Savior Barbie’ or millennial ‘voluntourists’. Like the doll on Instagram, Nancy is perfectly dressed and unsoiled from her contact with the dirty underbelly of her social world. When she returns to her peers, her brushes with danger provide juicy fodder for cocktail parties. Maintaining a careful balance between independent action and traditional family values, Nancy Drew is a well-calibrated ambassador of modern white womanhood, in all its contradictions. The Nancy Drew Mystery Series has been cited as a beloved and formative influence by liberal women who have gone on to seek truth, power, and justice, while keeping within the frameworks of a system plagued by mass-incarceration, systemic racism, and state violence.
Frozen in age and reinvented over time, Nancy’s true adulthood is in the careers of the “do-gooder” women she has inspired. As her father slyly “warns” her, “You’ll be a lawyer someday and find yourself a Congresswoman, if you don’t watch out” (Keene, 1932, p. 36). Nancy Drew was created to bring in profit, and became a set of contradictions and possibilities, ready to lead young readers bravely and safely through a scary world using her progressive-era moxie and traditional, white, middle-class values. Polite and well-mannered, Nancy Drew is something more attractive than a cop, but she subtly polices society by drawing the lines between good and evil and adjudicating the nuanced injustices that occur between her marginalized neighbors.
Kirsten Ginzky is an artist and activist in Chicago. She is Communications and Outreach Manager at the University of Chicago Pozen Family Center for Human Rights. You can find her on twitter at @kginzzz.
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