Sonia Sotomayor and Nancy Drew

nancy-drew

This week, with Sonia Sotomayor still in the news (although the firestorm that greeted her nomination has gone into temporary remission), I thought I’d devote my posts to supreme court justices and literature. This was inspired in part by an excellent New York Times article over the weekend on Sotomayor and Clarence Thomas (in which I learned that Thomas was drawn to Richard Wright’s Native Son while in college), in part by a fascinating article from the new website doubleX on Sotomayor’s girlhood enthusiasm for Nancy Drew. Let me start with the Nancy Drew piece first.

Nancy Drew, of course, is the legendary girl sleuth dedicated to clearing up mysteries and keeping River Heights safe. The popular series, which was for girls what the Hardy Boys series was for boys, was created in 1930 by Edward Stratemeyer of the Stratemeyer Syndicate book packaging firm. It continues on today, although it has gone through a number of iterations and permutations. Carolyn Keene is a pseudonym for all Nancy Drew writers, just as Franklin W. Dixon is for Hardy Boy writers. According to Wikipedia, Sotomayor shares her love for the Nancy Drew series with Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and former justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush were also fans as girls.

To call the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series literature is stretching the definition of that word to the breaking point. They were written to a formula. And yet they are compelling stories for a certain age group. If we are to understand how stories help us negotiate our lives, they are worth looking at.

What does Sotomayor’s love of Nancy Drew say about her? Here’s what Meghan O’Rourke says in her doubleX article:


“Like Sotomayor, Nancy has a woman-as-pathbreaker angle to her story. The series was launched in the 1920s, in the age of the “New Woman,” as the first wave of feminism found its footing and its political energies helped women win the vote and enjoy new social freedoms. Nancy’s curiosity and fearlessness reflect those energies: At heart, she is a tomboy with an appetite for solitary pursuit of criminals—something like the young Sotomayor must have been as a prosecutor in New York.”

And later on in the article:

“Those who would paint Sotomayor as a prosecutor with “radical” leanings should take note: Nancy Drew’s quests reflect a faith in a clean-cut, traditional social order. Each book is essentially a variation on a theme. The sleuth comes across a scowling man or woman in the town of River Heights. She soon discovers a mystery (a lost will; a smuggler; a missing heiress), and sets out to put things to rights. In the end, whatever faint darkness troubled her idyllic suburban town is successfully expelled, and order and justice reign.”

This formula, by the way, is basic to the detective genre. Think of Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Whimsey or virtually any of what are called classic or soft-boiled detective stories. (Hard-boiled and noir detective stories, on the other hand, point to a far more disturbing reality.) As O’Rourke sees it, “The message . . . is confidence-inspiring: The world is rife with crooks, but it is negotiable, and fundamentally rational. Hard work pays off. The damned remain damned—unless they repent—and the wronged (long-lost maharajas’ sons, heirs to candlemakers’ fortunes) are restored to their rightful life at the intersection of High and Elm, among the rangy Colonials and the tall trees.”

O’Rourke makes a couple of other nice points. One is that both Nancy Drew and Sotomayor have a good mix of rationality and intuition, what O’Rourke describes as Sotomayor’s “intuitive mysticism.” She also points to the racial politics of the Nancy Drew mysteries, which used to be blatantly offensive, what with their stereotypes of blacks, Jews, gypsies, and others. Even though these were largely cleaned up in the 1950’s, in Sotomayor’s childhood there would still been a zenophobic element to the stories, in which dark strangers threaten white bread America

And this leads us to the question of how one uses stories and who is in control, the reader or the story. In a sense, we use stories to give us what we want and will sometimes embrace certain things and entirely ignore others. Sotomayor could have imagined herself as Nancy, imagined Nancy’s community as the New York projects in which she grew up, and imagined Nancy’s single parent (her father) and her own single parent (her mother). Literature works through symbolic language, and we can interpret symbols in a variety of different ways. That’s why stories travel so well across time and across cultures.

But stories can do damage as well. Few books have explored as well how minorities are victimized by prevailing images of beauty as Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, where a little African American girl dreams of looking like Shirley Temple. I became aware of the pressure exerted by prevailing white culture when, in 1961 (I was 10), my father was helping build up the library of Sewanee’s two-room African American school. (It was incorporated into the newly integrated Sewanee Public School two years later.) I remember seeing copies of the Dick, Jane and Sally readers in the school, which I had grown up with in my own school, and suddenly realizing that they described a world that was alien to these children. But I only realized that because we were bringing in readers that had pictures of African American families.

I later learned from African American science fiction writer Samuel Delaney just how important it is to have such images. Somewhere he writes about an Issac Asimov story (Asimov was his hero) in which Asimov casually mentions the dark complexion of one of the characters. Delaney says that a shock went through his system when he came across that detail, which most readers would have missed (it does not enter into the plot). He read the sentence over and over. Suddenly he felt there was a place for him in this world.

So young Sonia, growing up in a Puerto Rican New York community, fed by the American dream but surrounded by limiting perspectives of which she was barely aware, could read Nancy Drew and dream of setting the world right. And then, when she grew older and more ethnically aware, she could see that the mysteries that needed to be solved did not involve old clocks and velvet masks but prejudice and social inequity. Unlike Clarence Thomas (I’ll write on him tomorrow) she did not come out blaming affirmative action as the reason that the denizens of River Heights were not prepared to accept her into their world. Rather, she saw that work needed to be done to change their perspectives.

If she gets on the U.S. Supreme Court, I suspect she’ll work to broaden the world view of her fellow justices. She won’t (so her case history indicates) abandon the goal of bringing order to the world.  She won’t  recklessly overturning precedent. In fact, at the moment those who seem to be more willing to overturn precedent and disregard legislative action seem to be the court’s conservatives, Thomas in particular. I suspect that she’ll see it as one of her jobs to educate the court about a world that is very different from, say, that of Chief Justice John Roberts.

One final note on reading Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boy mysteries. The fact that the books are formulaic and not very deep (O’Rourke notes that Nancy appears to have no interest in self reflection) is no reason why young readers should not read them. According to reading specialist John Holt, the more we read (regardless of quality), the more we want to read, and books like these provide a bridge to much better books. When I was young I loved the Hardy Boys and the Narnia chronicles and Lord of the Rings and Huckleberry Finn. I didn’t distinguish between what was good and what wasn’t. And then, after a few years, I became a man and put away childish books. But my love of reading has Stratemeyer’s mysteries embedded deep in its foundation.

This entry was posted in Asimov (Isaac), Delaney (Samuel), Dixon (Franklin), Keene (Carolyn), Stratemeyer (Edward) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

2 Comments

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