Friday, April 10, 2009

The Stratemeyer Syndicate: How Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys Were Born

For much of the 20th century an incredible number of literary series for youngsters emerged from one source. The Stratemeyer Syndicate was a book packager responsible for the best known names in juvenile literature, including Tom Swift, the Bobbsey Twins, The Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew. Beyond being one of the most successful book packagers of all time, the Stratemeyer Syndicate was the first book packager whose target audience was children rather than adults.

The origins of the Stratemeyer Syndicate are to be found in writer Edward Stratemeyer. Edward Stratemeyer had been an editor for Street and Smith's Good News. He had already written full length novels when he met with his first big success. The Rover Boys series centred on Tom, Sam, and Dick Rover, students at a military boarding school. Tom, Sam, and Dick were adventurous and mischievous boys who found themselves at odds with criminals and even the authorities. The series was written entirely by Edward Stratemeyer under the pseudonym of "Arthur M. Winfield." Today the Rover Boys are largely forgotten, remembered perhaps only by animation buffs as the source material which Chuck Jones' classic Warner Brothers short "The Dover Boys at Pimento University" or "The Rivals of Roquefort Hall" parodied. In their day, however, they were enormously popular. Thirty Rover Boys books were published between 1899 and 1926. Even after the series had ended, the books remained in print for years. More importantly, they provided the blueprint for for every other Stratemeyer Syndicate series which followed.

Perhaps because of the success of the Rover Boys, Edward Stratemeyer realised that there was a huge demand for juvenile novels. To this end he formed the Stratemeyer Syndicate around 1905. The purpose of the Stratemeyer Syndicate was simply to mass produce books for children meant purely for entertainment. Stratemeyer would create a very rough outline for a novel, sometimes only a title, then hand it off to one of the Syndicate's writers to flesh out. All of the writers (including Stratemeyer himself) wrote under pen names and every one of them was expected to remain unknown as the writers of the books. Stratemeyer kept the copyright on all titles, while the writers were simply paid a flat fee.

The Stratemeyer Syndicate's initial successes would come technically before the Syndicate actually existed. The Rover Boys series had been around for six years when the Syndicate was formed. Stratemeyer's next successful series would be a year old when the Syndicate came about. It is thought that Edward Stratemeyer himself wrote the first Bobbsey Twins novel, under the pseudonym Laura Lee Hope, in 1904. The series was then taken over by Lillian Garis, the wife of Howard Roger Garis (more on him in a bit). Like many of Stratemeyer's writers, Mrs. Garis was a journalist, having worked for the Newark Evening News. She would write the next twenty four novels. The Bobbsey Twins followed the adventures of two sets of fraternal twins, an older pair Bert and Nan, and a younger pair Flossie and Freddie. The Bobbsey Twins would prove incredibly resilient through the years. Launched in 1904, the series would last until 1979 and a total of seventy two books. Indeed, the phrase "Bobbsey Twins" is to this day applied to two people who seem inseparable.

The books in the Stratemeyer Syndicate series were written and published according to certain guidelines. The chapters would end in the middle of situations, so as to keep the reader's interest. The books would all be around the same length. They would look as much like adult books of the time as possible. In the earlier days of the syndicate such characters as the Rover Boys and Tom Swift would be allowed to age and even marry. When Edward Stratemeyer figured out that sales dropped afterwards, he decided that his characters would never marry. In fact, it appears that they ceased ageing. The Bobbsey Twins were perpetually twelve and six. The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew were perpetually teenagers.

In the wake of the Rover Boys and the Bobbsey Twins, the Stratemeyer Syndicate came out with yet more series, such as Dave Fearless and The Great Marvel. None would see the success of either the Rover Boys or the Bobbsey Twins, at least until a character called Tom Swift came along. Tom Swift was created by Edward Stratemeyer and first appeared in 1910. Although he outlined the first few books, they were written by Howard R. Garis under the pen name Victor Appleton. If the name "Howard R. Garis" sounds familiar, it is perhaps because he also created Uncle Wiggily.

Tom Swift was a young inventor who used his ingenuity to get out of scrapes. Most of his adventures centred around some breakthrough in technology, and a good deal of them dealt with vehicles. The very first book was Tom Swift and His Motor Cycle, to be followed by such titles as Tom Swift and His Airship, Tom Swift and His Sky Racer, Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle, and so on. The series proved enormously successful, running forty titles until 1941. That would not be the end of the Tom Swift. In 1954 the Stratemeyer Syndicate began a new series, The New Tom Swift Jr. Adventures, in which Tom Swift was all grown up and his son has various adventures. The series would run for thirty three books, until 1971. A third Tom Swift series had a short run from 1981 to 1984. While the previous Tom Swift series took place in the present, this one was set in a futuristic world with Swift exploring the universe. The series had a loose connection with the others. This Tom Swift is said to be the son of the "great Tom Swift" and Swift Enterprises, Swift Sr.'s company in the previous series, plays a role. A third series ran briefly from 1991 to 1993, with Tom Swift set in the present again. A fourth series ran even more briefly, in a series of paperback published from 2006 to 2007. It is the only Tom Swift series which lasted less than ten volumes.

Although Tom Swift did not have the continuous publication history of either the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew, he would have a huge impact on American pop culture. The full name of the Taser, the electroshock weapon used by many police departments, is an acronym of Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle--a reference to the weapon Swift developed in the tenth book of the first series (here it must be pointed out that Tom's middle name is never mentioned in the series). In the Seventies computer engineer Lee Felsenstein, who played a pivotal role in the development of the home computer, was developing what he called "the Tom Swift Terminal," a means of turning an ordinary television screen into a computer terminal (it was never completed). Curiously, like most of Stratemeyer's characters, Tom Swift never made it to the big screen. He was teamed up with another Stratemeyer character, Linda Craig (a short lived series from the Sixties) in an unsold pilot titled The Tom Swift and Linda Craig Mystery Hour, which aired on July 3, 1983 on ABC.

Another early Stratemeyer series which would achieve some success was Bomba the Jungle Boy. The series centred on Bomba, a boy who grew up in the South American jungle. After the first ten books, the action was shifted to Africa, perhaps to take advantage of the success of the Tarzan movies. There were 20 volumes in all of Bomba the Jungle Boy, published from 1926 to 1938. The series would later provide the basis for the series of Bomba the Jungle Boy movies starring Johnny Sheffield (who had played Boy in the Tarzan movies). Starting with Bomba the Jungle Boy in 1949, Monogram would make twelve Bomba movies until 1955. From 1967 to 1968 DC Comics published seven issues of Bomba the Jungle Boy.

The Stratemeyer Syndicate published eighty one different series until 1930 alone. Such success did not go unnoticed, and a rather large movement against juvenile literary series arose. From the 1910s until World War I, The American Library Association, the American Bookseller's Association, various local PTAs, the Boy Scouts of America, and so on opposed the various books series as being poorly written and produced in assembly line fashion. It was not unusual for libraries to ban the books outright.

Such criticisms did not hinder the success of the Stratemeyer Syndicate and eventually they would subside. In fact, the Syndicate's greatest successes were yet to come. In 1926 Edward Stratemeyer created a series about two teenage brothers who were also amateur detectives. The Hardy Boys centred on Frank and Joe Hardy, sons of private eye Fenton Hardy, who spend their free time solving mysteries. The series was first published in 1927 with the title The Tower Treasure. Under the pen name Franklin W. Dixon, nineteen of the first twenty five Hardy Boys books were written by Leslie McFarlane. Leslie McFarlane was a Canadian newspaperman who took the job of writing The Hardy Boys Mysteries primarily for extra money. In addition to the Hardy Boys, McFarlane wrote other Stratemeyer series, as well as stories for the pulp magazines. Later he would become a writer for both CBC Radio and CBC Television, write novels under his own name, episodes of The U.S. Steel Hour and Playdate, and documentary films.

The Hardy Boys would prove wildly successful. The Hardy Boys Mysteries was the Stratemeyer Syndicate's longest running series, lasting until 2005 with 190 volumes published. From 1987 to 1998 it would run concurrent with another series, The Hardy Boys Casefiles. A new series, Hardy Boys: Undercover Brothers, would begin in 2005. From 1991 to 2007, Applewood Books published facsimile editions of the books in the original series. On television the Hardy Boys would appear in a series on The Mickey Mouse Club in the Fifties, an animated series on ABC Saturday morning from 1969 to 1971, The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries from 1977 to 1979, and a short lived Canadian series in 1995. Curiously, they never made it to the big screen, although they will in the comedy The Hardy Men (featuring Tom Cruise and Ben Stiller as the now grown up Hardys) to be released in 2010. There have also been comic books, games, and even video games based on the Hardy Boys.

The success of the Hardy Boys would lead to Edward Stratemeyer's most successful creation. Created by Edward Stratemeyer, Nancy Drew first appeared in 1930. She was a teenage girl with a penchant for solving mysteries, the daughter of attorney Carson Drew. She was usually assisted by her best friends, Bess Marvin and George Fayne (who is a girl, named after her grandfather). Nancy Drew was written under the pen name Carolyn Keene, although twenty three of the first twenty five books were written by Mildred Wirt Benson. Like many of Stratemeyer's writers, Wirt Benson was a journalist by trade. In fact, she worked in newspapers for 58 years and was still writing a weekly column at the age of 96 when she died. She was very much like Nancy Drew herself, an independent and strong willed woman who was a skilled xylophone player, diver, and aviator. In fact, she often came to heads with Edward Stratemeyer's daughter Harriet Stratemeyer Adams over the novels. It was not unusual for Wirt Benson to have Nancy ordering police officers and doctors around. Stratemeyer Adams insisted that Nancy be a bit more polite. Mildred Wirt Benson would go on to write the Penny Parker mystery novels under her own name, as well as the Mildred A. Wirt Mystery Stories.

Nancy Drew proved wildly successful, even more so than the Hardy Boys. The original Nancy Drew Mystery Stories lasted from 1930 to 2003 with 175 volumes. Another series, The The Nancy Drew Files, ran concurrent with the original from 1987 to 1997. A new series, Nancy Drew Girl Detective, was begun in 2004. Like The Hardy Boys Mysteries, Applewood Books would publish facsimiles of the original series. So successful was Nancy Drew that she did something few other Stratemeyer characters ever had. She made it to the big screen. Beginning with Nancy Drew: Detective (released in December 1938) and continuing until Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (released in November 1939), Bonita Granville starred as Nancy Drew in four movies. Some have criticised the films as not being true to the books, although Mildred Wirt Benson herself enjoyed the films. More recently, Nancy Drew appeared in the film of the same name released last year, starring Emma Roberts in the title role.

Nancy Drew would also make it to television. She appeared in The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries from 1977 to 1979. A new Canadian series, Nancy Drew and Daughter, was being made in 1989. It starred Margot Kidder as an adult Nancy Drew. Kidder was injured in the first episode and the series never came into being. In 1995 a Canadian series, Nancy Drew, lasted one season. ABC aired a telefilm starring Maggie Lawson (Juliet on Psych) as the title character. Nancy has also appeared in board games and computer games.

Unfortunately, Edward Stratemeyer would never see Nancy's success. He died twelve days after the publication of the first Nancy Drew novel. The Stratemeyer Syndicate was inherited by his daughters Harriet Stratemeyer and Edna Stratemeyer Squier. It was only after a few years that Edna Stratemeyer Squier sold her interest to Harriet Stratemeyer. With Harriet Stratemeyer Adams in charge, such new series as the Dana Girls, Kay Tracey, and Tom Swift Jr. were introduced. Harriet Stratemeyer Adams at one time took credit for writing the Nancy Drew Mysteries. While it is now known that she did not, she did apparently write some of the novels (as well as novels in The Hardy Boys Mysteries series) and provide outlines for many of the books.

It was Harriet Stratemeyer Adams who would oversee a project begun in 1959 to update the early novels in the Stratemeyer Syndicate series. The earliest novels contained obvious anachronisms such as references to horses and carriages and such terms as "roadster." More seriously, racial stereotypes and words that would be considered racial slurs today were also removed. In some instances, the novels were rewritten to such a point that they could hardly be considered the same book. There has always been some debate on the revisions among fans. Particularly among Nancy Drew fans, there are those who maintain that Nancy lost her independence, going from a strong willed young woman to something less.

The revisions were in part an effort to keep the Stratemeyer series up with the times. Indeed, the Stratemeyer Syndicate sometimes went with the times in creating new series. The popularity of science fiction on both television and motion picture screens in the Fifties may well have led to the creation of Tom Swift Jr. The Christopher Cool series featured a teenage secret agent, the Syndicate's attempt to capitalise on the spy craze of the Sixties. It was not a success, lasting only from 1967 to 1969.

For most of its history the Stratemeyer Syndicate had operated in relative secrecy, maintaining the illusion that The Hardy Boys Mysteries were indeed written by the non-existent Franklin W. Dixon and The Nancy Drew Mystery Stories were indeed written by the non-existent Carolyn Keene. From nearly the beginning their novels were published by Grosset & Dunlap. By 1980, however, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams had grown very unhappy with Grosset & Dunlap, in large part because the company had wholly ignored the 50th anniversary of the Hardy Boys in 1977. She then switched publishers to Simon and Schuster. In response Grosset & Dunlap sued both the Stratemeyer Syndicate and Simon and Schuster on grounds of "breach of contract, copyright infringement, and unfair competition." Harriet Stratemeyer Adams countersued, claiming Grosset & Dunlap's suit was frivolous and that she had written the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories herself and thus owned the rights to them. Ultimately, the lawsuit revealed the existence of the Stratemeyer Syndicate to the general public and its extensive use of ghostwriters (including the fact that Harriet Stratemeyer Adams had not written most of the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories). The court ultimately ruled that while Grosset & Dunlap could continue publishing the titles that they had published in the past, the Syndicate was free to take subsequent volumes elsewhere.

Harriet Stratemeyer Adams died in 1982. It was in 1987 that Simon and Schuster bought the Stratemeyer Syndicate from her heirs and renamed it Mega-Books. It would continue handling the publication of new volumes in the various Stratemeyer series. It is in this form that the Syndicate continues to this day.

In the end the Stratemeyer Syndicate would prove to be one of the most successful producers of juvenile literature in literary history. By 1926 a study conducted by the American Library Association revealed that 98% of all children considered a book produced by the Stratemeyer Syndicate to be their favourite. The Syndicate would publish over 1200 different books in 125 different series in its long history. Arguably, few book packagers would meet with this kind of success. The success the Syndicate had with the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew alone would make many other publishers envious. Their legacy continues even to this day, with each new Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew book. It will probably continue for a long time to come.

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