My re-read of *Harriet the Spy*, by Louise Fitzhugh (spoilers)

by on July 10, 2014 at 2:02 am in Books, Education, History, Philosophy | Permalink

1. From 1964: “Eleven-year-old Harriet M. Welsch is obnoxious. She dresses like a boy, throws temper tantrums, swears at her parents and thinks terribly unkind thoughts. She refuses to eat anything but tomato sandwiches for lunch. She even invents her own middle initial.”

2. She also keeps a notebook, spies on everyone, and writes down the truth about them.  Her notebook is made public and she is disgraced, until making a comeback as the elected editor of the school newspaper (though see below).  At the end she learns that some lying is necessary.

3. One message of this book is that writers, and journalists in particular, are neurotics.  And liars.  A more core message is that heroines are allowed to be nasty and tell the truth.  Harriet throws a pencil in the face of Beth Ellen.  Compare this with the goody two-shoes Nancy Drew.

3b. “Harriet…Are you still writing down mean things about people?” “No. I am writing my memoirs.”  When I first read this book at age ten or so, I didn’t get the jokes.  Note also the phallic wurst joke on p.105.  Food/sex references run throughout, and there is a running contrast between Harriet’s duty to be an onion (hard, gets cut down the middle) with her desire to instead do nothing but munch on tomato sandwiches.

4. The opening of the book makes Harriet sound like an macroeconomist: “Harriet was trying to explain to Sport how to play Town.  “See, first you make up the name of the town.  Then you write down the names of all the people who live in it.  You can’t have too many or it gets too hard.””

5. Harriet the infovore announces her intention to know “everything in the world, everything, everything.”

6. On p.278 author Fitzhugh indicates to us that she is not herself telling us the entire truth about growing up.  It is yet more brutal than this book is allowed to let on.  After that page, everything which happens in the text is a lie, designed to make the casual reader feel better and to sell more copies.  Harriet is not in fact voted editor of the school newspaper and not allowed to publish her critical rants to general acclaim with only a few retractions.  This is a Straussian text and it makes fun of the reader’s willingness to believe in happy endings.  The opening “make believe” scene mirrors these later deceptions.

7. This short essay compares Harriet to To Kill a Mockingbird.  Other commentators stress that Louise Fitzhugh, the author, was a lesbian and perhaps Harriet is a budding lesbian too (she dresses like a boy and has a tomboyish haircut).  I view Sport’s father, who is obsessed with getting a $$ advance for his book, as the stand-in character for Fitzhugh (start at p.260 and see also p.52 on the obsession with writing and money).  Luxury is portrayed as corrupting and leading to indolence, so becoming a successful writer is a self-destructive process, noting that Fitzhugh herself stagnated after this hugely successful book.

8. In this book parents are typically indifferent, brutally indifferent I would say, toward their children.

9. In the movie version “…Harriet competes against Marion Hawthorne to see who has a better blog.”

10. This is a deep work, rich in jokes, and more than worthy of its iconic status.  I am very glad to have reread it.

Here is my previous post on Catcher in the Rye.

dirk July 10, 2014 at 2:28 am

Tyler, do you believe the finale of Breaking Bad was a dream sequence after WW died in the cold, as some notable commentators argued? Point 6 sounds like you might fall into that camp.

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The Other Jim July 10, 2014 at 9:28 am

While that would have been a better ending, Vince Gilligan says it is false.

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Roy July 10, 2014 at 12:28 pm

What does he know?

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Luis Pedro Coelho July 11, 2014 at 4:19 am

+1

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Ray Lopez July 10, 2014 at 3:15 am

Duality in art is common. I find that today’s cartoons are also written with two audiences in mind: the kids who enjoy the fast paced action, and adults who have to sit through them, and hence are sometimes given secret adult themes to ponder. Same with some of the Disney animated movies. Same in the 1950s: June Cleaver is the Beaver’s mom. Same in the 60s: Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds = LSD. Same in Tntoretto”s Last Supper, note Jesus, who ordinarily is bathed in light, is in the dark. Same with the works by El Greco. And so on. In fact, it’s well known in any cinematic production you must, like often in a complicated chess position, ‘maintain the tension’ by having good and bad stuff happen at the same time. All good is boring, as is all bad. But if you try an un-happy ending in Bollywood, I’ve read the poor slum dwellers will burn down the cinema.

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Willitts July 10, 2014 at 3:16 am

My wife and both my daughters read this and watched the film. I didn’t.

I’m beginning to understand some feminine inside giggles.

Rosie O’Donnel was in the movie. Things are beginning to make sense.

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andrew' July 10, 2014 at 4:44 am

Is it impossible to write an unequivocally good book for kids? Journalists are liars? Well, they are but they shouldn’t be. And indifferent is the only thing I’ll never be towards my kids. Incredibly proud? Yes. Disappointed, sure. Resentful, on occasion. Defeated? Almost always. Indifferent? Inconceivable.

I remember assigned reading some cockamamie “children’s” book in 3rd or 4th grade that some jackass offered the heroine candy to touch his junk. Thanks for that you horrible people.

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brotio July 12, 2014 at 9:08 pm

Robert A Heinlein wrote some wonderful ‘juveniles’ books. “Podkayne of Mars”, “Red Planet” and “The Star Beast” being a few.

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Hoover July 10, 2014 at 6:10 am

#4 made me laugh.

The rest are also amusing.

On the topic of re-reads, I would be very glad if you reported on a re-read of Winnie the Pooh.

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Ted Craig July 10, 2014 at 6:19 am

9. No, not at all. That’s the made-for-TV sequel. The actual theatrical film is quite good, actually very sophisticated, and features Eartha Kitt and Rosie O’Donnell. I highly recommend it.

Also, if you’re doing a YA thing this summer, check out Lizzie Skurnick’s book/website Shelf-Discovery. Here’s her piece on one of the sequels, “The Long Secret” http://jezebel.com/362472/the-long-secret-csi-puberty.

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dearieme July 10, 2014 at 6:41 am

Any child who likes tomato sandwiches must have a father who grows his own. Is this deduction correct?

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andrew' July 10, 2014 at 8:34 am

No child worth their salt would ever give a father that satisfaction.

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Steve-O July 10, 2014 at 12:13 pm

I have a feeling this is sexual innuendo I don’t get. What am I missing with the onion versus tomato thing?

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dearieme July 10, 2014 at 4:02 pm

Onions don’t have pips.

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