Tom Swift and His Electronic Assembly Line

By Duffy, Dennis | Queen's Quarterly, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Tom Swift and His Electronic Assembly Line


Duffy, Dennis, Queen's Quarterly


DENNIS DUFFY teaches at the University of Toronto's Innis College.

For most of this century, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew have been role models for millions of youths all over the world, providing a thoroughly wholesome example for boys and girls. Paragons of clean living, self-discipline, and public service, the clever teen sleuths have foiled many a nefarious scheme over their long literary history. But little do Joe, Frank, and Nancy suspect that all along they have been mere pawns in a diabolical plot so enormous they could never have imagined its scope -- a plot that promises to ensnare millions of people over the course of the next hundred years.

WHAT we like to think of as popular narrative was invented around 1900, when Edward Stratemeyer (1862-1930) packaged himself as a writer. He had been hacking away at Street & Smith, which succeeded Beadle's as America's chief purveyor of dime novels. Over a century after he saw his chance and took it, a 1993 estimate of his Syndicate's aggregate sales came to 200 million copies. Stratemeyer left a million-dollar estate to his family, a profitable occupation for his two daughters (who extended and revised the Syndicate's holdings), and a template for the production of a new variety of popular narrative, which first conquered radio and later television: soap opera. (1) The husband-wife team of Frank (1882?-1966) and Anne Hummert (no dates available) followed Stratemeyer in rationalizing a mode of production that remains with us still, in the TV serials that form the bulk of today's daytime viewing.

Academics will tell you of the content of that phenomenon. Women's issues, the representations of sexuality and adolescence, domestic habits, gender implications, sex in operating-room greens: these form the stuff of discourse on soap opera. (2) But we have had enough of changing the world; perhaps the time has come to understand it. Stratemeyer's and the Hummerts' achievements are discussed in numerous monographs. No one seems, however, to have noticed the common pursuit linking these entrepreneurs, and the various media that they shaped. Similar modes of organization and production enabled two sets of entrepreneurs to initiate systems of control over significant portions of mass entertainment that are with us still today. How did they come to industrialize our dreams?

CANADIAN wordsmith Leslie McFarlane tells us what it was like to work for the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Spotting a "writers wanted" advertisement in 1926, he gambled a stamp and came to write a number of the Hardy Boys juvenile detective stories. With considerable ambivalence, Ghost of the Hardy Boys telescopes the author's career as a freelancer within his work for the Syndicate. Stratemeyer may be the man McFarlane loves to hate, but his strongest disgust is reserved for the post-Stratemeyer "updating" of the series. This step, now a permanent aspect of the series' production, he defines as a descent into vulgarity and illiteracy. He did not abandon the Syndicate until 1946, miffed by Stratemeyer's unwillingness to offer any commendation to his faithful employee. (3)

A second-generation German-American from New Jersey, Edward Stratemeyer had risen to a position in Street & Smith that offered him more responsibility than compensation: "a sort of editor-in-chief without title for the firm." (4) Pulp fiction made plenty of money for those who owned it. Writers came cheaply at Street & Smith; the young Theodore Dreiser performed his share of hack work there. Stratemeyer ground out eighteen Horatio Alger titles (as well as a number of Oliver Optics and Nick Carters) after the real Alger's death. Stratemeyer applied Alger's theme of the ascent from rags to riches to his own life. Shrewd, patriotic, secretive, leaving behind few public documents, Stratemeyer made a profitable business out of what could have been lifetime drudgery in the Street & Smith organization. …

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