Friday, August 19, 2005

Re-visiting Literary Loves, Part II: The Hardy Boys

In the late-80s, early-90s I seemed to regularly encounter articles comparing and contrasting the two generations of Hardy Boys. Let's call them the "Blue" generation (mine), and the "Brown" generation (my father's), after the color of their binding. When everything was tallied up, it seems the Brown generation was the better written product (indeed, the Blue generation was the result of a publishing policy ominously dubbed "The Great Purge"), and pleas were made to get this generation back in print and on bookshelves.

In 1991 this request was granted. Applewood Books, a reprint house, faithfully recreated the original editions, right down to the ad copy in the final pages (although if you do a little "Hardy Boys" web-surfing, you'll come across some mildly amusing bitching over Applewood's cover "medallion", which proclaims, "THE ORIGINALS JUST AS YOU REMEMBER THEM" - a little detail that obviously wasn't on the originals). I worked in the sort of bookstore where these editions were an appropriate item, so I ordered them and gave them a close look.

First of all, these are handsome and sturdy books. I have a copy of the re-issued The Tower Treasure. Fourteen years later, there are plenty of other hardcovers on my shelf with yellowing pages and cracking spines (British books seem especially prone to deterioration), but none of that for this baby. The pages are still white, the binding glue still malleable.

Impressive, but how does it read? Well, here's where things get dicey. The Brown generation employs language that, while frequently quaint, accurately sums up the scene. Contrast Brown:

While there was a certain resemblance between the two lads, chiefly in the firm yet good-humored expression of their mouths, in some respects they differed greatly in appearance. While Frank was dark, with straight, black hair and brown eyes, his brother was pink-cheeked, with fair, curly hair and blue eyes.

- with Blue:

Even though one boy was dark and the other fair, there was a marked resemblance between the two brothers. Eighteen-year-old Frank was tall and dark. Joe, a year younger, was blond with blue eyes.

Gee - hack writers really were better in the old days! Still, neither of these Tower Treasures amounted to a pleasant "blast from the past" for me. The Blue version clipped along, where the Brown version meandered and tried my patience. The Brown version also had too much "good natured yokelry" for my taste: Bayport's police are painted as impossibly inept, even corrupt; farmers are physically slow and dim-witted; townsfolk are prone to behavior that's frankly paranoid. It's "only a story", of course, and not to be confused with reality. But it is a little disappointing to have to finally resort to the Brits (once again) as the final word in children's lit.

I parked the books, and thought nothing of it, until earlier this summer when I saw (remaindered) The House On The Point: A Tribute To Franklin W. Dixon And The Hardy Boys, by Benjamin Hoff. Again, I faced a smashing product design that harkened back to a previous publishing era. And so I dished the five bucks, curious to see what the author of The Tao of Pooh had to say about The Hardy Boys.

First impression: this Hoff guy takes his Hardy Boys incredibly seriously. In his preface, Hoff talks about how "Franklin W. Dixon" transported him from the turgid confines of his sickly youth into a world of adventure, whose only required passport was rational inquiry. Fair enough. But then Hoff recounts the disappointment he felt when as an adult he read the reprinted adventures of his youth. The prose was bad, the mysteries were "solved" not by deductive reasoning but by freakish coincidences, and characters with obvious potential were left untouched and undeveloped.

At this point, my inclination would be to remark on the nature of memory, and perhaps try to chart how these slight entertainments were eventually credited with ingraining a faith in my ability to reason my way through dark and dangerous territory - what accounts for this transformation? Hoff's approach is different. The disparity between his Platonic ideal of The Hardy Boys and their real, imperfect manifestation is so great and so personally troubling, he re-fashions The House on the Cliff into the story he wants to remember.

Hoff's Hardy Boys' adventure is a spritely read, and I suppose a measurable improvement on the original. Something about Hoff's stated intention, though, really bugs me. With this one book, he's hoping to sound a clarion call to writers of youth fiction everywhere. It's meant to be an evangelical tract, calling hacks back to the faith, to craft for today's children a few of Orwell's famous "good bad books".

A worthy enterprise, certainly. But I think his attempt to enlist the Hardy Boys dooms it to failure. The fatal problem is, I have my own image of the Hardy Boys. They're adrift in the same brackish waters of WASPish nostalgia as Fun With Dick & Jane, Leave It To Beaver, and Lost In Space: the nuclear family as adventure outfit, led forward by the children, catered to by the mother, corrected by the father. Problems arise when I revisit these entertainments, because there exist disparities between how I remember them and how they actually are, as well as how they compare to the reality of their day and mine. That disparity brings the ideal into sharp relief; attempting to adjust that disparity is an invitation to trouble, not just because everyone's nostalgic ideal is to some degree unique, but because nostalgia usually highlights the moral flaws of the person who holds it.

If you're going to unfurl your nostalgia for the rest of the world to behold, prepare for laughter. Better yet, start laughing yourself. What we have here is less a Platonic standard than it is a well-wrought piece of fanfic. When taken on those terms, its addition to the ouevre is quite welcome - especially at the remaindered price.


DarkoV said...

Fabulous piece of analysis & writing. And here I'd thought you were comfortably sitting on your laurels.
One jag, "attempting to adjust that disparity is an invitation to trouble, not just because everyone's nostalgic ideal is to some degree unique, but because nostalgia usually highlights the moral flaws of the person who holds it." hit especially hard. I'm not sure if one's moral flaws are necessarily highlighted by nostalgia as much as one's favorite year or age is. Perhaps it's not so much that one wishes things were like the old days (or better in the old days). I've concluded that the view from back then was the height of one's optimism, when all was possible and when the world eagerly waited for your participation. Years soon pointed out limitations.

Whisky Prajer said...

Hmm. Maybe I am being unduly harsh. I'm as nostalgic as the next person, of course - in fact I've often wondered if my generation (X) wasn't, as film-maker Guy Madden once said, "born nostalgic." I've got to say, however, that nothing creeps me out faster than watching the nostalgic impulse in others, especially if it's tied in any way to religion. Bono's spittle-laden response to media-hype of the 60s comes to mind (and I am profoundly disinclined to give that man any more airtime than he already has): "Ya glorify the past while the future dries up." That's one nasty scenario, but there are worse, as historians of the Weimar Republic are quick to point out. Which is why I'm prone to jumping on the soapbox when the spectre of nostalgia makes its gaudy appearance.

Of course, the truth of nostalgia is, things really were better when we were young - because we were young. You get to a certain age, and you eventually realize the road you're on has only one direction, and it ain't exactly cause for hope. Still, your response to that realization is probably one of the better indicators of your true moral fibre. I'm pretty sure I read that in a Hardy Boys book, somewhere....