The case of the serial role model Scholars, girls hail Nancy Drew

April 19, 1993|By New York Times News Service

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- For many young women, the age between braces and a retainer, before the freckles fade, is a moment when life's possibilities are illuminated in the darkness by a flashlight on a printed page.

Nancy Drew, the teen-age heroine of more than 100 books read by girls since 1930, has shaped the imagination of generations of women.

"What matters in the books "is not her sex appeal but how tough and smart and adventurous she is," said Catharine R. Stimpson, a professor at Rutgers University who studies women, culture and society. "It means something that mothers and aunts give the books to their nieces and daughters. She's a legacy -- a spiritual treasure passed on."

At a juncture in which questions about the erosion of self-confidence in girls are the subject of national study and debate, about 450 scholars, collectors and fans -- including many mother-daughter duos -- descended upon the University of Iowa for the first Nancy Drew Conference over the weekend to look for clues in a hidden, cobwebby corner of the culture, in a largely unsung heroine of popular literature.

They came to contemplate such subjects as "Nancy Drew in the 1990s: A Feminist Update" and "The Crack in the Old Canon: The Nancy Drew Novels as Subversive Reading." And they came to pay homage to Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson, the original writer of the series, who, like the numerous other authors who contributed to the series, worked anonymously under the nom de plume Carolyn Keene.

At times, the weekend resembled a rather academic support group. "While much attention is paid to the fantasies, experiences and popular culture of boys and men, little has been devoted to comparable elements in the lives of girls and women," said Carolyn Stewart Dyer, an associate professor and coordinator of the Nancy Drew Project. The idea of exploring Nancy Drew as a role model would have been unlikely five years ago, she added.

In the Nancy Drew books, girls find a roadster-driving heroine who uses her wit and ideas to survive an attack with a hairbrush, being wrapped in a sheet and drugged with a sleeping potion ("The Sign of the Twisted Candle"). She escapes unscathed after being locked at night in a slimy cistern ("The Password to Larkspur Lane"). Her motives are unceasingly altruistic. As Claire Victoria Folkins, a fifth grader from North Liberty, Iowa, who was a winner of a Nancy Drew writing contest for schoolchildren, put it: "Only Nancy, a candy-striper at her local hospital, would take the time to welcome a patient suffering from amnesia into her own home."

"She was adventuresome, independent and free-spirited," said Judith Weaver, 52, a foreign service officer who was weaned on Nancy Drew and flew in from Washington. "I like to think she promoted those same qualities in me."

In Hollywood and on television, not to mention literature, heroines of that ilk are rare. "Nancy didn't get knocked around for being smart," noted Professor Stimpson.

In 1930 -- about 80 million copies ago -- Mrs. Benson, who was born in Ladora, about 40 miles west of here, wrote "The Secret of the Old Clock," the first Nancy Drew mystery story. This weekend, the Universi

ty's School of Journalism and Mass Communication awarded the 87-year-old author, who was the first woman to receive a master's degree from the school and is now a columnist for the Toledo Blade, entry into their Hall of Fame.

The 16-year-old character Mrs. Benson created 63 years ago for The Stratemeyer Syndicate, the publisher that also churned out the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins and Tom Swift series, was a young woman with a spirit not unlike that of Mrs. Benson herself. Among other things, the author is an accomplished aviatrix who doesn't bat an eyelash at doing loops.

The books have been continually updated since 1959, when Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, a daughter of Edward Stratemeyer, the syndicate's founder, who until recently was widely given credit as the original Carolyn Keene, revised them to reflect more contemporary attitudes toward ethnic groups. She also changed Nancy's age to 18, so that the heroine would legally be able to drive in every state. Critics of the revised books say that in the process, Mrs. Adams also muzzled much of Nancy's original gumption.

There are now four different brands of Nancy Drew: hardback reproductions of the original first three volumes, published by Applewood Books of New Bedford, Mass.; hardbacks containing Mrs. Adams' revisions, published by Grosset & Dunlap; and two series from Simon & Schuster: the continuing Nancy Drew Mystery Stories and The Nancy Drew Files, for older readers 12 to 13 years old.

Millie purists tend to look askance upon the Files series, in which fleeting pecks bestowed on Nancy by her steady, Ned Nickerson, give way to lingering embraces in a Jacuzzi.

Nancy's changes have not gone unnoticed among the Nancy Drew scholars. Ann E. Preston, an assistant professor at North Dakota State University, has gone so far as to do a statistical analysis of "correlation coeffecients" between the old and new books. Among her findings is an increase in "narcissism," including more references to hair, clothing and Bess' weight problem.

Mrs. Benson said she was paid about $125 -- "plus Christmas bonuses" -- to write each Nancy book. She signed a release, as did most serial writers, and has never received royalties. She typed the books on an old Underwood, which she recently sent to the Smithsonian.

"I liked the character from the very beginning," she said. "Today that kind of woman is common, but then it was a new concept. Though not to me. Because I always thought that's how girls should be."

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