Classics: Harriet the Spy (1964) by Louise Fitzhugh

Looking out for number one

by Gordon Campbell

There’s so much crap in children’s bookshops and children’s tolerance of what is put in front of them is so immense, it should not be abused. That’s why it seems worth singling out some of the enduringly good books that, thanks to librarians and online purchasing, are still available.

Ever since Harriet the Spy was published in 1964, the book has steadily grown in stature – to the point where one US critic has put it up alongside Charlotte’s Web and Where The Wild Things Are as one of the three masterpieces of postwar children’s literature. Well, it doesn’t need to be pushed quite that hard. Yet the recent death of J.D. Salinger has left me thinking of Harriet M. Welsch as a fitting foil for Holden Caulfield. Except they’d probably have hated each other.

The similarities run quite deep. Both Holden and Harriet are honest witnesses – spies, even – of a world whose imperfections they observe without much capacity for empathy, let alone tolerance. One sign of the subversive nature of Fitzhugh’s book is that it presents learning how to lie as being a necessary step in Harriet’s path to maturity. Back in 1964, that must have seemed an extraordinary moral for a children’s book – and to many parents, it still would be. Kids seemed to grasp it immediately, though. They know where the real power resides, and how adults usually react to negative judgements coming from a child.

Harriet is a bright, eleven year old only child. She pours her time and an enormous amount of her energy into writing a notebook full of observations about her friends and other children at school – not to mention the series of adults that she observes in a spying route she has constructed around town. Eventually, her notebook is discovered, her friends are left hurt and angry, and she becomes a social pariah at school – until a way is found to resolve the crisis, at least somewhat. Harriet doesn’t really change – she just adapts a bit and for now at least, the world gives her a little more room.

This could have so easily been a mediocre story. Certainly, the first few chapters take us where we feel we’ve been before. Oblivious parents, an old nanny dispensing wisdom, an eccentric and precocious child. Yet on a close reading – or re-reading – the book’s essential strangeness really kicks in. Everything, and every character avoids easy categorization. Yes, Ole Golly the nanny is full of wise quotes and homilies – but Harriet routinely misunderstands them and Ole Golly is either incapable of setting her right, or disinclined to make the effort. And what are to make of Ole Golly’s terrifyingly stupid mother? Or the toughlove that Ole Golly dispenses when she decides to marry, and leaves Harriet high and dry halfway through the book?

Harriet felt tears start in her eyes. Old Golly put her down sternly. ‘ None of that. Tears won’t bring me back. Remember that. Tears never bring anything back. Life is a struggle and a good spy gets in there and fights. Remember that. No nonsense.” And with that, she picked up her bags and was down the steps. A cab pulled up and Ole Golly was gone before Harriet could say a word

Yes, Harriet’s parents and their flaws do teeter on the verge of caricature. Lost in their martinis and their social round, they cart Harriet off to a psychiatrist when her life starts to fall apart – but as other critics have noted, Harriet also accepts them, and even seems at times to like and enjoy them. Your parents are your parents, right? Warts and all. In other words, the cartoonish qualities in the adults are consistent with an eleven year old’s fiercely egocentric observation of their lives. Among the other adults only Ole Golly’s boyfriend – and later, the multiple cat owning Mr.Withers – are viewed by Harriet with anything that resembles compassion.

Harriet herself is not immune to satirical caricature. She revels in her routines – the compulsive note-taking, her spying circuit, her daily tomato sandwich, the ritualistic way she drinks her cake and milk, the nightly routine of reading by flashlight etc. etc. All the more reason why, mid book she spirals into panic as she loses all of her psychological props, one after the other. She loses Ole Golly, her notebook, and then her friends. Obsessively, she resorts to writing: “I think I will write down everything, every single thing that happens to me…”Finally, when even writing is denied to her, Harriet becomes almost pathological :

I don’t feel like me at all. I don’t ever laugh or think anything funny. I just feel mean all over. I would like to hurt each one of them in a special way.

Which she then sets out to do. A typically tough letter from Ole Golly helps get her back on track. It contains the usual quotes – from John Keats this time – and Ole Golly’s peculiar brand of good advice. To whit – apologise if you hurt people, and lie at times to them (but never to yourself ) if it will make them feel better. The nanny’s warning footnote about the trap of nostalgia is, if anything, even more startling:

“Another thing: if you’re missing me, I want you to know I’m not missing you. Gone is gone. I never miss anything or anyone because it all becomes a lovely memory. I guard my memories and love them, but I don’t get in them and lie down. You can even make stories from yours, but remember they don’t come back. Just think how awful it would be if they did. You don’t need me now. You’re eleven years old, which is old enough to get busy at growing up to be the person you want to be.”

In an earlier scene – one absolutely central to the morality of the book – Ole Golly had tried to instruct Harriet (via a quote from Dostoievsky) about the process of coming to know the world and loving everything that is in it – and in reply, Harriet jumps up and down on the bed shrieking “I want to know everything, everything ! Everything in the world, everything.” It is a small masterpiece of misunderstanding – a call to empathy on one hand, a vision of complete control on the other – that is absolutely and amusingly true to both characters. Eventually, in a beautifully written finale, Harriet arrives at her own formulation of Ole Golly’s failed message :

She worked all day on her story, that is from ten in the morning until three in the afternoon. Then she got up, stretched, and feeling very virtuous, she took a walk by the river. There was a cold wind off the water, but the day was one of those bright, brilliant, shining days that made her feel the world was beautiful, would always be, would always sing, could hold no disappointments.

She skipped along the bank, stopping once to watch a tugboat, following an old woman all the way to the mayor’s house. She took a few notes, , concentrating on description, which she felt to be her weakest point…She sat there thinking, feeling very calm, happy and immensely pleased with her own mind.

It is then that Harriet sees in the distance her former friends, Sport and Janie – who had both been hurt by her notebook evaluations of them – coming towards her.

She looked at them each carefully in the longish time it took them to reach her. She made herself walk in Sport’s shoes, feeling the holes in his socks rub against his ankles. She pretended she had an itchy nose when Janie put one abstracted hand up to scratch. She felt what it would be like to have freckles and yellow hair like Janie, then funny ears and skinny shoulders like Sport.

When they reached her they just stood there in front of her, each looking in a different direction. The wind was terribly cold. Harriet looked at their feet. They looked at her feet. Then they looked at their own feet.

Well, thought Harriet. She opened her notebook very carefully, watching their eyes as she did. They watched her back. She wrote :

Ole Golly was right. Sometimes you have to lie.

She looked up at Sport and Janie. They didn’t look angry. They were just waiting for her to finish. She continued.

Now that things are back to normal, I can get some real work done.

She slammed the book and stood up, The three of them turned, and walked along the river.

Not for nothing, some feminist critics have compared Harriet’s personal and creative dilemma to those faced by another compulsive note-taker – Anna Wulf, the central character in Doris Lessing’s 1962 novel, The Golden Notebook.

So who was Louise Fitzhugh? Harriet the Spy was to be her only major book. Ten years after it was published, Fitzhugh died of a brain aneurysm, at the age of 46. Though born in Memphis Tennessee to a wealthy Southern family, she was buried in accord with her express wishes, north of the Mason-Dixon line.

During her childhood, her parents’ exceptionally bitter divorce had helped to propel her away from her Southern roots and she ended up living in her late teens, in New York City. A couple of inheritances helped her sustain a bohemian, bisexual lifestyle in Greenwich Village during the 1950s, and enabled her to pursue an artistic career, mainly as a painter and illustrator. There is a fascinating account of those years contained in this 1995 article from the Village Voice Literary Supplement.

As the VV article indicates, Fitzhugh’s first literary effort was a children’s book for adults called Suzuki Beane. This was a spoof of the children’s book Eloise and of her own beatnik milieu, co-written with a former lover and lifelong friend, Sandra Scoppettone. As has been widely noted, Fitzhugh seems to have borrowed elements of Harriet the Spy from the childhood experiences of another close friend, Marijane Meaker, who had done exactly the same sort of spying around her hometown when she had been eleven years old. (In the 1970s, Meaker turned her surname into the pseudonym M.E. Kerr, and wrote her own children’s best seller Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack.)

Even so, as the Voice article makes clear, Fitzhugh did bring a lot of herself to the tale :

In 1963, at 35, Fitzhugh began drafting Harriet the Spy. Her agent, Pat Myra, sent several pages of Harriet’s notebook entries to Ursula Nordstrom, a legendary editor at Harper & Row, who was so excited she called Fitzhugh in and made the highly unusual offer of a small advance. Nordstrom and her associate Charlotte Zolotow elicited Harriet the Spy by the Socratic method. “It was like playing charades ,” says Zolotow. “Every time, we asked a question a wonderful new chapter came in.” Why was Harriet so angry? “Louise said. ‘Like me, she had a nurse that she was very crazy about and then the nurse went away and I never heard from her again. “Why was she keeping a diary? “Louise said, ‘Well.that’s plain, because she wanted to be a writer.'”

In its time, Harriet the Spy was a groundbreaking book. Not entirely because of its startling morality, either – though that was part of it. The difficulty for many critics was that Harriet isn’t very nice – she is fierce, cruel when cornered, and for much of the book, pitiless about anyone who strays into range of her notebook. In one famous review in the influential Horn Book journal, Ruth Hill Viguers spoke for many when she complained :

The arrival of Harriet The Spy and fanfares and announcements of approval for its ‘realism’ makes me wonder again why that word is invariably applied to stories about disagreeable people and situations. Are there really no amiable children? No loyal friends? No parents who are fundamentally loving and understanding? I challenge the implication that New York City harbours only people who are abnormal, ill-adjusted and egocentric…Many adult readers appreciating the sophistication of the book will find it funny and penetrating. Children however, do not enjoy cynicism. I doubt its appeal to many of them.

Well, after three million copies sold worldwide later, that last sentence is plainly wrong. Viguers is wrong about the rest as well. Yet conversely, those who justly applaud the dawning of empathy in Harriet’s personality also run the risk of misrepresenting her. By book’s end, Harriet hasn’t changed all that much – and that too, is part of the book’s subversive power. In all likelihood, Harriet always will be an eccentric and formidable outsider, and someone that even her friends would be wise not to cross.

She is, in other words, probably the first modern feminist figure in children’s literature. Someone struggling to retain the integrity of her personal and creative life, while doing what she needs to do in deference to what she dimly understands to be the social rules. Yet happiest, most of the time, by herself. Harriet, you sense, always will be an outsider looking in. That’s her gift and her burden. Fitzhugh’s refusal to neatly resolve these dilemmas is a large part of why people love her book so wholeheartedly.

For this essay, Gordon Campbell drew on essays, reviews and interviews contained in volume 72 of the Children’s Literature Review and upon Karen Cook’s article about Louis Fitzhugh published in the Village Voice Literary Supplement, April 11, 1995