Welcome to the Nancy Drew Digital Project, a class experiment in mapping fiction. This website, along with its interactive map, was created in the Fall of 2013 as a collaboration between American Studies 365: Women in Detective Fiction and the Digital Innovation Lab. The project make’s use of DH Press, a free digital humanities tool developed by the Digital Innovation Lab. Please note that this is a project in progress.
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Project Overview by Dr. Michelle Robinson
Nancy Drew has always appeared on the syllabus for my course “Women and Detective Fiction, from Violet Strange to Veronica Mars.” Since a number of scholars including Ilana Nash and Michael Cornelius have thoroughly explored the history of the series, its prominent themes and representational tendencies, as well as reader responses to these works, I have typically assigned scholarly articles on Nancy Drew and devoted class time to examining various editions of the series, instructing students to investigate the books as material culture, to analyze changes in production values, book design and representations of its famous protagonist over time. However, collaboration with Dr. Pamella Lach, the Manager of the Digital Innovation Lab at UNC-Chapel Hill, made it possible to devise a project that would examine these works in an entirely different way.
A close examination of the Nancy Drew series offered students an excellent opportunity to catalogue generic elements, chart narrative structures and seek out variations in what is often referred to as children’s “formula fiction.” (In genre studies speak, I hoped to employ what Rick Altman calls a semantic/syntactic approach to investigating genre texts.) The Nancy Drew series presented itself as accessible literary material for data collection, principally because these books are relatively short and feature almost excessively coherent mystery plots with a recurring set of characters and without significant character development. Texts in this series are easy (and cheap!) to acquire. Moreover, most students in the course were familiar with the popular icon Nancy Drew. To enliven this enterprise, however, I selected books 57-85 as the focus of our investigation. These works, I thought, promised more internal variety since they were written at the end of and after the long career of Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, heir to Nancy’s creator Edward Stratemeyer of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, and its most prominent ghost writer. Adams supervised the Nancy Drew series for nearly four decades, and famously re-wrote much of the series in the 1950s to purge its blatant racism. In doing so, Adams put her personal stamp on the “Carolyn Keene” of earlier years (including ghost writers Mildred Wirt Benson and Walter Karig), but by the late 1970s, Adams’ career had approached its end. By 1979 and throughout the 1980s, when the Nancy Drew series appeared first under the paperback “Wanderer” imprint and then under the “Aladdin” imprint, a number of new ghost writers contributed to the outlines, writing, and editorial process. This variety of contributors yielded an oxymoron: a heterogeneous set of formula texts that we were anxious to investigate.
Initially the objectives of our collaborative enterprise included reading scholarly articles on the Nancy Drew Series, developing and undertaking a data collection process, leveraging digital humanities tools to analyze that data and, as a culminating activity, writing collaborative research papers that would allow students to closely explore certain facets of the data set. This set of objectives proved over-ambitious, however, so we turned our attention more closely to background research and the work of data collection. After reading and discussing “Radical Notions: Nancy Drew and Her Readers, 1930-1949,” a chapter from Ilana Nash’s excellent study American Sweethearts: Teenage Girls in Twentieth-Century Popular Culture (Bloomington: Indiana U Press, 2006), we worked together to create an annotated bibliography, which offered students some sense of the scope of existing scholarly research on Nancy Drew. Next, each student selected a different book from the series to use in the data collection process. After submitting data to Dr. Lach and exploring the visualizations she made available, students worked together to compose research proposals for more clearly defined projects that would draw heavily on the existing data. They also developed suggestions for future data collection endeavors.