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