Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Solving the Crime of Modernity: Nancy Drew in 1930

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Solving the Crime of Modernity: Nancy Drew in 1930

Article excerpt

Edward Stratemeyer's Nancy Drew, with her titian blonde hair and sporty roadster, is often seen by critics as the apotheosis of modernity--she is quick-thinking, partial to new gadgets, ever on the move. In fact, modernity was perceived as a particular threat to adolescents in the 1930s, increasing pressures on an already vulnerable phase of life. I suggest in this essay that Stratemeyer's "breeder" set of Nancy Drew novels--the first three books in the series, published in 1930--presents the adolescent heroine caught between two worlds. Nancy Drew polices the borders of a middle class threatened by various aspects of modernity--new economic instabilities, the erosion of "older" orders and the replacement of certain kinds of labor (even fiction-writing) by new modes of mechanical reproduction. While she comes to represent a new kind of young adult hero, she achieves this in the shadow of some of modernity's most challenging issues.

The image of an idealized adolescent sleuth may have seemed ironic at first, given longstanding associations in the public imagination between adolescence and deviance. After all, connections between juveniles and crime had deep roots in American discourses of delinquency. In the middle of the nineteenth century, 15-year-old Jesse Pomeroy, the "Boy Fiend" from Chelsea, provoked a national debate over capital punishment, helping to focus attention on "youth" as a separate category in the public imagination while associating that new category with depravity (Savage 7-13). By the early twentieth century, concerns over delinquency were expanding into the middle classes. Adolescence--newly theorized as a distinct phase of life--was believed to provoke strange urges and compromising mood swings. Accounts of "flappers" and "pagan pleasure" rose to cult status with the publication of Walter Fabian's bestselling 1923 novel, Flaming Youth. Fabian sought young readers who were "restless, seductive, greedy, discontented, craving sensation, unrestrained, a little morbid, more than a little selfish, intelligent, uneducated, sybaritic, following blind instincts and perverse fancies" (qtd in Savage 203-04), The success of his call bolstered fears that the "modern" adolescent was dissipated and dangerous--hardly a candidate for fighting crime.

The years between ages fourteen and twenty-four came to be understood as a separate phase of life only gradually in the early years of the twentieth century. Psychologist and educator Stanley Hall is often credited with the invention of adolescence, as his massive two-volume study (1904) was the first to provide exhaustive data and commentary on what he called an "unprecedentedly critical decade of life" (467). Hall believed adolescence comprised a unique phase of human development. He argued passionately both for recognizing adolescence and for outlining its requisite disciplines, insisting that "youth can be wonderfully docile if approached aright" (19). To a great extent, Hall pathologized adolescence, defining it as a period of crisis and debilitation requiring careful supervision and management. Affiliating his work with social Darwinism, Hall used "genetic" psychology to argue that the adolescent--while not literally a barbarian--was only partly ascended up the scale to civilized adulthood (380). Hall's adolescent was always in or about to be in crisis, swinging between extremes of energy and lethargy, storm and stress. Hall saw adolescence as a dangerous passage, threatened by moral laxity, dissipation, sexual license, experimentation and lawlessness. Consequently, he believed it was critical to maintain discipline over every arena of adolescent life, from hygiene to exercise to academics to the proper (and supervised) "excitement" or stimulation of energies (465-67). If the "almost convulsive struggles" (572) of adolescence were to be harnessed, adolescents needed close supervision at every turn.

Hall's research on adolescents in the first decades of the twentieth century coincided with complex socioeconomic changes leading to the gradual recognition of teenagers as a distinct demographic group. …

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