Not Only Nancy Drew

August 1, 2002

 

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Not Only Nancy Drew

Teacher-san: Crutcher in the center of class
Teacher-san: Crutcher in the center of class

When Mildred Wirt Benson died in May at ninety-six, she left behind millions of fans and one of the most enduring characters in American literature: teen detective Nancy Drew. Benson--as "Carolyn Keene"--wrote the first twenty-three of the thirty original stories about the brave detective with the golden hair, beloved by girls with a thirst for adventure.

Aside from the popular Nancy Drew series, books for girls are often overlooked by libraries, tossed out when it comes time to weed the stacks of unwanted material. But not at Duke, which holds one of the nation's top collections of girls' literature, from Victorian etiquette manuals to Trixie Belden mysteries to a feminist press' story about a little girl and her toolbox.

The Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History and Culture, in Duke's Special Collections Library, holds thousands of titles in girls' literature. Amy Leigh, archivist at the center, calls these books "fugitive literature"--precisely the kind of works not usually taken seriously in academic libraries. "We really felt there was a need for a research collection on the subject," Leigh says. So, about four years ago, the library began collecting girls' literature, building on a number of Victorian girls' books already in the library.

The collection is used nationally by researchers, not just in literature, but sociology, anthropology, history, gender studies, and the social sciences, Leigh says. A local middle-school teacher even brings her writing classes to the center to inspire her students with their own writing.

"If women are trivialized in larger histories, then girls are extremely trivialized," says Duke graduate student Jessica Blaustein, who has used the collection in teaching courses on girls' culture. "When you're writing about girls and trying to understand how girls live and have lived, this literature is very important."

Girls' literature has long been "prescriptive"--seeking to instruct young women in proper behavior, both inside and outside the home. Some works are overt in that intention: The Young Lady's Book: A Manual of Elegant Recreations, Exercises, and Pursuits is illustrated with elaborate engravings and has chapters on "Moral Deportment." It advises girls that virtue is more important than accomplishments.

Some are more subtle. The 1941 Tomboy tells the story of Gabby, who, after resisting her parents' efforts to make her act like a lady, realizes in the end that "it is better and even more fun not to be a tomboy." Other stories appeal to girls' love of adventure and freedom, but ultimately reinforce the message that a girl's place is in the home. Girls who have professional aspirations also are steered into appropriate professions, such as nursing, with such series as Cherry Ames, Nurse.

The library's collection also includes books from Lollipop Power, Inc., a feminist press in Chapel Hill that specializes in nonsexist, nonracist children's literature. Its stories feature girls who break out of the traditional mold, such as the girl in the 1972 book Exactly Like Me, who refuses to say she wants to be a teacher, stewardess, or nurse; or In Christina's Toolbox, which shows an African-American girl fixing her bike and building a birdfeeder.

"A huge part of being a girl is being told how to live," says Blaustein. "Even if they didn't abide by those prescriptions, it's important to understand the role that prescriptions played in girls' lives."

The Sallie Bingham Center acquires, preserves, and makes available published and unpublished materials that reflect the public and private lives of women. It includes the papers of feminist Kate Millett and novelist Anne Tyler '61, as well as Civil War diaries and the Sarah Dyer 'Zine Collection, which contains more than 1,000 self-published works by women and girls.