Harriet the Spy was published in 1964. That was the year I read it twelve times. That was the year our school bookstore kept running out of green composition notebooks, and the cafeteria was plagued with requests for tomato sandwiches. A memorable year for many of us.
Now, sixteen years later, I take a closer look at the text as well as a first look at some of the many reviews. Apprehensive about my thirteenth reading (what if I didn’t like it anymore!) I tried the reviews first: Library Journal, The New York Times Book Review, The Junior Bookshelf, Childhood Education, The Christian Science Monitor, and a few others. Gloria Vanderbilt in the Times told me the plot, essentially; so did The Junior Bookshelf; and Ellen Rudin in Library Journal raved about the book, saying that “Harriet is one of the meatiest heroines in modern juvenile fiction” and that the novel is a “tour de force” and “bursts with life.” So far, so good. I remember the plot vividly and have never doubted or questioned Harriet’s realness or life.
Hoping for more than a plot synopsis I turned to The Horn Book — to Ruth Hill Viguers’s article.
The arrival of Harriet the Spy with fanfare 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 harbors 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.
None of the reviewers, I thought, closing the book after my next reading, truly looked at what Louise Fitzhugh had so brilliantly done. Louise Fitzhugh was talking about the balance of life. And this balance, and loss of balance, is all seen through Harriet. In a sense Harriet is within us all: that feistiness, fire, honesty, quickness to judge, quickness to be hurt, softness, loudness, and loneliness. Ruth Hill Viguers missed the essence of the book. She missed its humor, richness, and texture.
Time has shown that Harriet the Spy is still read, still loved by children. It appears that children have not found Harriet disagreeable, abnormal, ill-adjusted, or egocentric, as Mrs. Viguers suggested. Harriet is a real child, living in a real world. And that is not easy.
Harriet M. Welsch lives in New York City — a city of little order. She is an only child. Her parents, though well-meaning, have little time for her. They also have little understanding of her. Very little. But in contrast to her inept parents there is Ole Golly — the wise, wonderful nurse. It is Ole Golly who understands her, inside and out. It is Ole Golly who loves her as a person in her own right.
Harriet is going to be a famous writer, who knows everything about everything. She has been keeping a notebook since she was eight. Now she is eleven. She spies for practice, in order to write down her observations.
Harriet has found a rhythm in life she can move to. The unconscious rhythm of a child. This is not abnormal: It is basic, fundamental for every human being. For years Harriet’s routine has been the same — her reading in bed with a flashlight until Ole Golly takes it away, her daily tomato sandwiches, her spying, her writing. These activities are her very breath of life.
In the first half of the novel everything goes according to plan for Harriet. She rides with the tide. She spies and writes and eats tomato sandwiches. There are no conflicts. She writes exactly what she sees, without censoring anything:
MISS WHITEHEAD’S FEET LOOK LARGER THIS YEAR. MISS WHITEHEAD HAS BUCK TEETH.
TODAY A NEW BOY ARRIVED. HE IS SO DULL NO ONE CAN REMEMBER HIS NAME.
And without her knowing it, or even thinking about it, some of her perceptions are brilliant. The inherent brilliance of a child.
I THINK THAT LOOKING AT MRS. GOLLY MUST MAKE OLE GOLLY SAD. MY MOTHER ISN’T AS SMART AS OLE GOLLY BUT SHE’S NOT AS DUMB AS MRS. GOLLY. I WOULDN’T LIKE TO HAVE A DUMB MOTHER. IT MUST MAKE YOU FEEL VERY UNPOPULAR.
Feel is the important word here. It doesn’t make you unpopular; it makes you feel unpopular. These flickers of brilliance come naturally to Harriet.
The first major shift in her pattern comes when Ole Golly leaves. The break is difficult for Harriet, but not unbearable, and she compensates by writing more. Ole Golly says, “Life is a struggle, and a good spy gets in there and fights.” Harriet does. Her ability to feel more deeply is reflected in her writing.
I WILL NEVER FORGET THAT FACE AS LONG AS I LIVE. [She is writing of Harrison Withers, a regular member of her spy route.] DOES EVERYBODY LOOK THAT WAY WHEN THEY HAVE LOST SOMETHING? I DON’T MEAN LIKE LOSING A FLASHLIGHT. I MEAN DO PEOPLE LOOK LIKE THAT WHEN THEY HAVE LOST?
With Ole Golly gone, everything feels more intensified, but life is endurable, and Harriet is able to maintain some kind of order. Some kind of balance.
But when her friends steal her notebook, invade it, and turn against her, she loses her balance completely. The tide changes, and Harriet is caught in the current. It is now that she becomes obsessed and that her writing becomes obsessive. “I THINK I WILL WRITE DOWN EVERYTHING, EVERY SINGLE THING THAT HAPPENS TO ME.” She is in a state of panic. Proportion is distorted: Focus is lost. All she has is her writing. It becomes a means of getting back at the world, of alleviating her anger. Now writing has taken on a new dimension. It is something she is conscious of, something to be thought about. Her whole world has been shaken up, turned upside down, and rattled like a snow-scene paperweight. Everything is whirling chaotically.
In school all she can do is write. She neither listens in class nor does her homework. And when she is forbidden to take her composition book to school, she goes numb. Freezes. Her world becomes void of all meaning. Void of all order. “Everything bored her. She found that when she didn’t have a notebook it was hard for her to think. The thoughts came slowly, as though they had to squeeze through a tiny door to get to her, whereas when she wrote, they flowed out faster than she could put them down.”
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.
And she does, too. Robbed of her very breath, she becomes that someone else. For the first time she is deliberately mean. Caught in the struggle, she doesn’t know what to do. But Ole Golly comes through. In a letter she tells Harriet that she must do two things: Apologize and lie. “Little lies that make people feel better are not bad.”
By listening to Ole Golly, by reflecting upon the situation herself, and ultimately by lying, Harriet moves from innocence to experience. In accepting this adult logic and in making it her own, she becomes more adult. There is order in her life again, a new balance. “NOW THAT THINGS ARE BACK TO NORMAL I CAN GET SOME REAL WORK DONE.” In the struggle, Harriet has changed. One knows her writing, also, will change. It will be realized, deeper, and more reflective. “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 has gone beyond Harriet M. Welsch and into the “shoes” of others, a major step in becoming an adult. A major step in becoming a writer.
Through Harriet one sees the process of life, the human struggle. From unawareness to awareness — from order to chaos to new order. Louise Fitzhugh wrote a remarkable book.
From the August 1980 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.