Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Hardy Boys and the Case of the Arrogant Critic

I mentioned in an earlier post that I used to be a grad student in literature. Part of why I chose to abort my professor goal had to do with the feeling that I was becoming a self-righteous intellectual. Whether I was reading a novel for fun or watching a play at Stratford, I felt that I, the scholar, had to identify everything that was “problematic” and condemn it. Let’s see what that looks like in a sample book by a Canadian author.

The Tower Treasure (1927) is the first novel in the immensely popular Hardy Boys series. Leslie McFarlane, a Canadian, was the first author to ghost write under the pseudonym Franklin W. Dixon. Frank and Joe Hardy are the teenage sons of a middle-class, suburb-dwelling family in Bayport, a modestly sized city of 50,000. Aside from the crimes that drive the plot, the world of the books is basically a wholesome place where things are “swell” and “good night!” is an acceptable exclamation. The boys’ detective work fits around classes, church, baseball practice, and family meals.

An especially problematic feature of the story is the class values that operate in the background. When a package of jewels disappears from the mansion of a reclusive millionaire, the father of the boys’ friend Slim Robinson is the prime suspect. Mr. Robinson loses his job, and Slim, the A-student and aspiring engineer, is forced to drop out of school to get a job. Now here’s the thing: the family also has to move into the poor neighborhood of Bayport. The story describes their fallen state in one scene when Frank goes to visit his pal:
When they came to the street where the Robinsons had moved they found that it was an even poorer thoroughfare than they had expected. There were small houses badly in need of paint and repairs. Shabbily dressed children were playing in the roadway.

The Robinson’s misery is complete. The father is unemployed, their son has lost his future, and they have nameless street urchins for neighbors. To be identified among the poor is the worst possible condition, and the Hardys must solve the mystery to clear Mr. Robinson’s name and restore the family to the middle class.

What else is problematic in this story? Gender. Mrs. Hardy’s role in the story is limited to enabling the boys’ adventure, mainly by packing them lunches as they go off sleuthing. For example, “When [she] heard the boys’ plan, she thought it an excellent one and immediately offered to make some sandwiches for them. By the time they were ready to leave she had two small boxes packed with a hearty picnic lunch” (157). The mother has her own car, but doesn’t seem to need it; she never leaves home. The only exception is the final scene when all the characters gather at the house of Mr. Millionaire to celebrate the solved case (and I’m not sure why, but I pictured her wearing oven mitts).

Leslie McFarlane
 Now what do critics do with all of this? Here’s what I would say: “Aha! I knew it, you backward, middle-class, patriarchal so-and-so! (to borrow an expletive from Joe Hardy) “I see your ideology of class and gender oppression, and I censure it!” This is the spirit of judgment and condemnation that just stinks from a mile away. It’s the petty mindset that claims moral high ground and elevates one’s self above the author. Yes, The Tower Treasure perpetuates a vision of the middle class that alienates the lower class and limits women. But (and I say this to myself) let’s not go the extra step of using a children’s story to inflate our moral ego.

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