The Knotty Nostalgia of the Hardy Boys Series

Why one writer still reads the wildly popular books with a mixture of love and disappointment, 60 years after they were revised to remove racist content

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Before Harry Potter and his friends bewitched my boyhood, I was enchanted by a different set of adventures: those of the teenage sleuths Frank and Joe Hardy, more famously known as the Hardy Boys. And why wouldn’t I be? Their namesake books, which were written by Franklin W. Dixon and debuted in 1927, feature suspenseful titles such as What Happened at Midnight, Footprints Under the Window, and The Haunted Fort, which are brought to life with vibrant cover art and dramatic frontispieces. Within the slight volumes themselves, the young detectives, who are often joined by their friends, solve mysteries in the fictional town of Bayport. As a 7-year-old, I felt the books extended an invitation, a promise: You, too, can save the day.

But as I continued to read the series through middle school and into high school, I began to notice that the beloved franchise’s world—where black characters are a rarity and obviously gay characters are nonexistent—wasn’t much like the one I lived in. Not every book can represent every reader’s personal experience, of course. But beyond the fun exploits, the enduring appeal of the Hardy Boys series, and the reason it has sold more than 70 million copies, stem from its broad relatability. That is, the books take seriously the fact that growing up often means having boundless curiosity, challenging authority, and wrestling with questions of good versus evil.

At the same time, the Americana of the Hardy Boys is lily-white, and various racial stereotypes permeate the series’ earlier volumes. I noticed these more racist elements in the versions I read as a kid—even though my copies reflected the substantial changes made by the books’ packager starting in 1959, partly to address some of the more offensive language and story lines. Yet I still cherish the stories; it’s a thrill for me to revisit the books now, 60 years after their big makeover. Rereading the Hardy Boys series has been an opportunity to untangle my nostalgia around the sleuths, who inadvertently helped me understand my identity through a fictional world not exactly built with boys like me in mind.

Fittingly, the origin of the Hardy Boys franchise was veiled in its own kind of mystery for decades. In particular, there was never a Franklin W. Dixon. That’s the collective pseudonym of the stable of ghostwriters assembled by the publishing tycoon Edward Stratemeyer to crank out Hardy Boys books for his Stratemeyer Syndicate, as his book-packaging empire was called; he expected these writers not to divulge their real identities publicly. (The company also launched other popular children’s series, including Nancy Drew.)

Of the Dixon writers, the most influential is the first one, Leslie McFarlane, who wrote many of the series’ earlier volumes, beginning with the 1927 release and continuing into the ’40s. As the Ohio University journalism professor Marilyn S. Greenwald writes in her 2004 book, The Secret of the Hardy Boys: Leslie McFarlane and the Stratemeyer Syndicate, the indefatigable attachment that many people have to the books arises from McFarlane’s “mastery of narrative” and “the ability of the books to engage the senses, and the quirks that made the characters sympathetic and not wooden.”

That world-building is crucial. Take Frank and Joe’s friend, Chet Morton. One of the books’ most memorable characters, Chet has several distinguishing qualities: his skittishness, his where-does-it-all-go appetite, his playfulness, his sensitivity. These quirks—some of which American society tends to view as “effeminate”—offer up a more expansive vision of boyhood, one at odds with the traditional masculine ideal that prizes traits such as athleticism, unfeelingness, hard-nosed machismo, and, generally, being a man’s man (all to the detriment of boys as they grow up). “There was humor, there was friendship,” Greenwald told me in an interview, referring to the affable Chet. And in that way, she added, “there was a very minor subversive aspect to the books.” Think of it like this: While the franchise is named after the Hardys, it’s Chet who gives the books heart—and who gave my scrawny, closeted adolescent self a different boyishness to embrace. For instance, though I couldn’t put my finger on it when I was younger, there was always something delightfully transgressive about the fact that Chet’s car, depicted in the books as the “pride” of his life, is named The Queen. These days, I like to imagine that detail as a winking inside joke with the observant queer reader.

And yet, in part because of the obvious care with which characters such as Chet are presented, as a kid, I was startled by the books’ handling of characters who aren’t white—and who are frequently clumped together using overly broad, loaded terms such as natives and Indians. Consider Volume 12, Footprints Under the Window (one of the books revised in 1965), in which the Hardys and Chet travel to a cluster of fictional islands off the coast of South America to investigate a spy ring. The story, as the teaser page puts it, involves “a cruel dictator” and “a grisly discovery deep in the jungle.” At one point, the boys chase some thieves who’ve stolen a woman’s luggage into the jungle, but they escape. Who are these criminals? “Later, the boys and police officers spoke with the victims of the robbery, a middle-aged American couple named Griffin. Mr. Griffin could not add much to the thieves’ description, except that he judged them to be natives.”

More than merely revealing Mr. Griffin’s views, the line underscores how the book as a whole didn’t bother with defining these native characters beyond stereotypes. Most are never referred to by name in the story, since they serve as scene-setting props to help capture the dangers of the jungle. The next book, The Mark on the Door (revised in 1967), also has its cringeworthy moments as it follows the Hardys to a crime-addled Mexico to look into a cult of largely unnamed “renegade Indians.”

Even these revised books are improvements on the originals in terms of how they portray marginalized groups. For instance, the 1935 version of The Hidden Harbor Mystery has as its archvillain a thickly accented black American man named Luke Jones, who’s the leader of a gang of troublemaking young black men. (A typical line from Jones: “Luke Jones don’t stand for no nonsense from white folks! Ah pays mah fare, an’ Ah puts mah shoes where Ah please.”) The 1961 iteration of the book, for its part, totally jettisons Jones’s character, and the characters who were initially black are made less racially distinct. I remember thinking, when I first learned about these changes as a young adult, that it would have been better to simply give the black characters more dimension than attempt to blot them out. (Notably, the three aforementioned books have such brazen racist stereotyping compared with the other volumes that some critics question whether McFarlane actually wrote them, or whether they were the work of other ghostwriters.)

Still, while the Stratemeyer Syndicate scrubbed up a good chunk of the text when it began its 14-year revision process in 1959—a praiseworthy, intensive task—some of the original subtext lingered, at least for me. More specifically, I still had to contend with the way the books informed how I viewed myself, the kinds of messages I was internalizing. As I got older, snacking on Hardy Boys books increasingly involved a tricky negotiation. On the one hand, there was my enthusiastic identification with the series—with its refreshingly irreverent messaging about boyhood—and on the other, a sense of dis-identification—with its subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle denigration of people beyond the provincial world of the Hardys, who themselves arguably embody the ideals of mid-century white America.

Which isn’t to say that the books ought to be expunged from school libraries or disavowed by educators and parents. After all, the texts do have a lot of redeeming educational value. In addition to illuminating the key beats of a great story—well-defined characters, drama, a compelling narrative arc—they recognize kids’ intelligence, employing elevated language that stretches their vocabulary. (Chet, for instance, always drives a jalopy, a word that was lost on me as a preteen; other advanced words I learned include careening and impetuous.)

The Hardy Boys also offer a critical lesson on the importance of reappraisal—on how, with hindsight, it’s possible to see the cultural blind spots in art. In time, as I read more broadly and deeply, I learned to hold the books up to the light and separate out their derisions and elisions, their racist caricatures and sexist tropes (female characters, such as Laura Hardy, the boys’ mother, are often reduced to overly doting, self-effacing bit players). I still sometimes read the stories today, and even listen to them on audiobook, pulled in by the potency of childhood attachments and the illusion of justice—the knowledge that the Hardys will always bust the baddies—stitched into the stories. But now I approach the books a little bit more as historical documents, at once valuing and rolling my eyes at the parts that haven’t aged quite like I have.

In a sense, the importance of having some critical distance is one of the morals of the franchise. In our interview, Greenwald told me that McFarlane, who died in 1977, cared tremendously about “good-natured mocking” and about getting kids into the habit of questioning things such as authority and power. “The Hardy Boys, in some ways, were smarter than some of the adults,” she said. “The law enforcement, they were bumbling, they couldn’t solve a case, yet the Hardy Boys could.” McFarlane believed in nourishing kids with, as he writes in his autobiography, “a little shot of healthy skepticism.” While people like me may not meaningfully figure into the Hardy Boys’ literary land, I can still appreciate one of their central tenets: that people should never stop scrutinizing the world around them, including as it’s reflected in their books.