Friday, February 20, 2015

Guest Post: The Stratemeyer Syndicate: How One Organization Shaped 20th Century Children's Literature

Hello Vintage Novels readers! This week I'm pleased to present guest poster Bessie Blue of Vintage Book Life with an article on the fascinating--and for a long time, top-secret--Stratemeyer Syndicate. Having enjoyed the odd Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys book in my younger days, it's a real pleasure to host Bessie Blue with some background details.

If you read Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, or the Bobbsey Twins as a child—or as an adult—you may be vaguely aware that these series were penned by ghostwriters. But the truth is much more intriguing.

These series, and more than one hundred others, were created by a secretive organization called the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Founded by Edward Stratemeyer at the turn of the 20th century, the Syndicate was neither a book publishing nor a packaging firm as it was sometimes referred to. It was instead the brains behind the thousands of children's books that would become the most-read kids' novels of the twentieth century. In fact, more than five million copies of Stratemeyer novels were sold between 1899 and 1926.

In the Victorian Era, children's books were frequently imbued with moral values. An example of this is the still-popular novel “What Katy Did” by Susan Coolidge. It features a tomboyish girl who learns to be a woman after becoming temporarily handicapped.

Edward Stratemeyer realized there was a big market for children's books without moral lessons. His first try at filling this demand was with The Rover Boys, in 1899. The series was incredibly popular, and in 1906, the Stratemeyer Syndicate was formed. But Stratemeyer also discovered that he sold better under a pseudonym, and he began to write his Rover Boy books under the pen name 'Arthur M. Winfield.' He also branched out into other series such as The Bobbsey Twins and Tom Swift, using other names like Laura Lee Hope and Victor Appleton, respectively, and teaming up with other publishers. His theory was that since readers believed they were buying different series written by different authors and published by different firms, he could produce more without overloading the market.

However, Stratemeyer soon found he could not continue alone to juggle the writing of so many series to fulfill readers' demand. At this point, he began to hire ghostwriters. Hundreds of men and women soon began working on outlines that Stratemeyer—and his two daughters, Harriet and Edna—were writing. They were each payed a fixed sum that equalled about three months' of a newspaper journalist's wages. Meanwhile, Stratemeyer earned the massive ongoing royalties from each novel.

While Stratemeyer published different series in different firms—such as Grosset and Dunlap and Cupples and Leon—he also promoted reader loyalty by using pen names throughout decades-long series (for instance, the aforementioned Rover Boys lasted twenty-seven years, without counting other Rover Boy-inspired series such as The Putnam Hall Cadets.) Plus, he used those same pen names in other series, so that readers who were a fan of one series would buy another that the same, fictional author had written. For example, Laura Lee Hope, the pseudonym behind The Bobbsey Twins, also supposedly wrote The Outdoor Girls, The Moving Picture Girls, The Make Believe Stories, Six Little Bunkers, Bunny Brown, and The Blythe Girls. It's easy to see why this pseudonym was kept for the six series, as their readers were all either young children or girls.

Stratemeyer didn't just create publishing guidelines—his keen business acumen also played into the writing of the more than one hundred series he was responsible for. By seeing what worked in his novels and what didn't, he created rules that can seem odd to us today but that had a real business impact on the Syndicate series.

For instance, when sales dropped after popular Nancy Drew forerunner Ruth Fielding (1913-1934) grew up and married, Stratemeyer created a new rule indicating that protagonists couldn't marry. Similarly, in the first Bobbsey Twins books, Nan, Bert, Freddie, and Flossie were a year older in every installation. Stratemeyer realized they would soon age out of the books, and this led to a new rule: protagonists couldn't age. These commercial guidelines were what kept Nancy Drew eternally eighteen and romantic subplots in the books always underdeveloped.

Stratemeyer made use of a number of other business tricks in his books: he encouraged writers to recap previous novels in successive ones as a form of marketing, and to use cliffhangers at the end of every page and chapter. Novels felt formulaic, with an information-giving title (Ruth Fielding at Silver Ranch tells you it's going to be a location-oriented story, while Nancy Drew and the Mystery of the Old Clock tells you it's a mystery story.) The predictable plot and likable protagonist also play into the comfortable nature of the series.

Speaking of mystery stories, that's another thing that the Stratemeyer Syndicate pioneered. Initially the Syndicate focused on location and character-driven adventures that were often solved by the end of the chapter. Bullies were a popular theme, and there was always a book or two in popular series such as The Rover Boys, Ruth Fielding and The Bobbsey Twins in which the protagonists went to school. In the early twentieth century, 'the modern school-story' had been popularized by Angela Brazil, in contrast to the sombre Victorian school-story as represented by 'Tom Brown's Schooldays.'

While the Syndicate rode the school-story fad initially, it abandoned it for a new trend: the mystery story. This was popularized in the late 1920s and early 1930s, with new series like Nancy Drew, while mysteries were incorporated into old series like Ruth Fielding and The Bobbsey Twins. Today, the mystery trend might be what the Syndicate series are most remembered for.

In 1930, Stratemeyer died, and the organization was passed onto his daughter, Harriet. She continued to oversee the Syndicate for fifty-two years, revising and republishing old and outdated series to make them more modern. In the 1970s, she decided to republish Nancy Drew in paperback. However, her decision had a fatal consequence: one of the Syndicate's publishing houses, Grosset and Dunlap, took them to trial, citing breach of contract, and exposed them to the world.

Until then, the Stratemeyer Syndicate had done everything it could to remain as secretive as possible. Again, this was important because to avoid market overload, readers could not know the real source of different series.

During the trial, one of Nancy Drew's ghostwriters testified: Mildred Wirt Benson, who is now perhaps the most famous of Syndicate writers. In her lifetime she wrote hundred of books, and once said her favorite was Penny Parker, a series about a newspaper girl sleuth. (Sounds familiar.)

Apart from Benson, hundred of others contributed to the Syndicate series, and while they were paid very little initially, Stratemeyer gave them part of the series' royalties in his books. So the ghostwriters' stories had a happy ending, after all.

Many novels by the Stratemeyer series are in the public domain and can be read online. You can read The Rover Boys series here and Ruth Fielding here.

Bessie Blue is a lover of old books who writes at Vintage Book Life.


Rachel Heffington said...

This is an utterly fascinating article! I had known about the ghost-writers for the Bobbsey Twins, Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew but knew neither how widespread it was, nor that it was meant to be kept a secret! What an intriguing thing! I feel like Dorothy Sayers could have done a novel with a plot like the Syndicate.

Suzannah said...

Yes, it's very MURDER MUST ADVERTISE, isn't it? You'll have to try to fit it into one of your Vivi & Farnham mysteries. :D

Joseph Jalsevac said...

Wow, thank you Suzannah and Bessie Blue for this post. I feel like an idiot, but this post was a major revelation for me. I just had NO idea. Together with C.S. Lewis' essay 'On Three Ways of Writing for Children', this post has really clarified and solidified some ideas in my head about the nature of good literature, for children and otherwise.

My head was buzzing with thoughts after reading this, and I wish I could write them all down, but they are half formed and I need to do a lot more thinking and study about this. Suffice it to say I think conservative Christians really lack a mature understanding of what makes good literature, in part because I think people in general really don't understand what the purpose of art is! We think of art as a an essentially meaningless source of emotional pleasure that can be rendered harmless by the careful weeding out of immorality, or made wholesome and meaningful by the insertion of moral lessons, when, in fact, art is something much deeper and more significant than that. It is a form of spiritual exercise that shapes and directs our desires.
But this is a half-baked thought yet. When I've figured it all out I will send you a copy of the book I will write. I just need to get a doctorate or something first...
I was a reading addict in my youth, thanks largely to books like the Hardy Boys. The influence of this Stratemeyer Syndicate amazes me. As the sexual revolutionist Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has."

Joseph Jalsevac said...

I found a very interesting article (through the Wikipedia page of the Syndicate) written in 1914 by the chief librarian of the boy's scouts. To my modern ears he sounds comically alarmist and hyperbolic, yet, I can't help but wonder if, like so many strident moral alarmists of the period, he wasn't in fact right. The article is entitled 'Blowing Out the Boy's Brains', and you certainly couldn't charge him with having understated his point.

Chesterton and Buchan both took an indulgent view of 'penny dreadfuls'. But they could afford to. They had been challenged intellectually as children and were capable of reading and enjoying the best that literature had to offer. Children raised on cheap literature are denied the opportunity to develop their minds and imaginations to the degree that Chesterton and Belloc enjoyed. When those two writers tried to write their own dime novels, they ended up writing enduring classics of popular Christian literature. They had too much talent and virtue to take advantage of their readers baser passions and desires.

Here is the link.

Suzannah said...

Well, this certainly seems to have given you a major lightbulb moment, Joseph!

I have to say, though, I think Chesterton's indulgent view of penny dreadfuls was based on his horror of highbrow lit fic of the DH Lawrence sort. The "higher culture" of his time was rapidly descending into the gutter, so he was pleased to see that the pulps were still clinging to some sort of decency.

As a fan of penny dreadfuls ancient and modern I shudder to think what would happen if that was all I ever read--but I don't think the solution is so much to avoid them as to "enjoy as part of a balanced diet".

Joseph Jalsevac said...

Yes, I'm sure that the penny dreadfuls were less likely to warp the soul than heartless 'highbrow' literature. Balance is indeed the key. I suppose that is what disturbs me about Stratemeyer's methods - not only his, but Apple's, and McDonald's, and Kellog's, and Hollywood, and most modern chains and companies who have developed or follow modern business methods based on limitless expansion. He was deliberately cultivating narrow obsessions, or addictions, in his young and impressionable audience for the sake of milking them for money. Addiction and dependency is the triumph of the modern business model, and it seems that Stratemeyer was especially adept at creating it in an area of life especially dear to me.


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