Revisiting Harriet the Spy Nearly a Half Century Later
I recently began rereading Harriet the Spy because I wondered if my nearly fifty-nine-year-old self would be as in love with the book as my nine-year-old self had been.
The first time I read Harriet the Spy, I was in the fourth grade. Originally published in 1964, by the time I read it five years later, it was out in paperback. I had come across it at a book store that was conveniently located next to a Baskin Robbins where my parents and I often went for a Saturday night ice cream cone and book browsing.
Part of what I loved about Harriet the Spy was that Harriet was an only child.
I was also an only child and in 1969, being an only child was not at all fashionable. Outside of a single half-cousin, I did not even know another only child. People did, however, often tell me I must be spoiled because I had my own room, and there was an assumption that I did not know how to “share.”
The other part of what I loved about Harriet was that she had a spy route. Like Harriet, I tended to be nosy. This was due in no small part to the fact that as an only children of that era, I often found myself surrounded by adults, and in that time the line between the world of the adult and the world of the child was much more sharply delineated. I often did not have other children with whom to play, so observing the lives of the adults around me was the most readily available entertainment.
The structure of the story of Harriet the Spy was something that went almost unnoticed by my nine-year-old self.
I say almost because at the time I had noticed that the story was composed of two books. It was only my second year of reading chapter books, and I was quite impressed that I was reading a tome about a girl spy that was so overflowing with intrigue that it needed two books to contain the story being told.
Nearly fifty years and a Master of Fine Arts in writing fiction later, I can see that Louise Fitzhugh broke Harriet the Spy into two books because it’s really two intimately entwined stories. The first, being the last few weeks of Harriet’s life with her nanny, Ole Golly, and the second being Harriet’s life after Ole Golly’s departure.
At the time that Harriet the Spy was published the book was controversial because the main character, while compelling, is not particularly well behaved or kind.
Coming in at number one on a list of “30 Banned Books That May Surprise You” that was compiled by the Christian Science Monitor the book is described as:
Louise Fitzhugh’s well-loved tale of a girl who spies on her friends and has to face the consequences was banned because it was said to set a bad example for children, supposedly encouraging them to spy, lie, and swear.
Were Harriet the Spy to be published today, I think the controversy would center more on the unending disparagement of people whom Harriet perceives to be fat, her nasty attitude toward those who are not wealthy, and the fact that the cast of characters is not terribly diverse.
Harriet and her friends, as seen through these same eyes fifty years later, are (with the exception of the character, Sport) spoiled and difficult children, but it’s not much of a surprise, because even the adults behave badly.
As my adult self reread Harriet the Spy, I found Harriet to be objectively unpleasant and judgmental as were her parents, and to a lesser, but still observable degree, Ole Golly.
Also, the world has changed. When I first read Harriet the Spy, I inhabited a world just as white as the world Harriet describes. But I lived in a small rural town in California. As an adult reader I’m left to wonder how New York City could have been depicted as being as so racially homogeneous and culturally bereft.
What did I fall in love with?
So Harriet the Spy is not an homage to the diversity of the world we live in, many of the characters are mean, unpleasant, self-satisfied, and a touch arrogant. What, exactly, is there to like?
As I reread Harriet the Spy within all that there were still moments that engaged me, and most of them centered around Harriet’s entries into the notebook she carries with her.
WHAT IS IT LIKE TO HAVE BROTHERS AND SISTERS? ONE THING, WHENEVER THEY YELLED IT WOULDN’T ALWAYS BE AT YOU. SOMETIMES IT WOULD BE AT YOUR BROTHER THEN YOU COULD LAUGH.
This one captured for me the dilemma of the only child. Yes, you have your own bedroom, but there is never anyone to distract your parents.
Another entry that resonated now, but would not have at the time was the following:
WHAT IS TOO OLD TO HAVE FUN? YOU CAN’T BE TOO OLD TO SPY EXCEPT IF YOU WERE FIFTY YOU MIGHT FALL OFF A FIRE ESCAPE, BUT YOU COULD SPY AROUND ON THE GROUND A LOT.
I don’t believe for a moment that Harriet had any insight into what being fifty is like, but I do believe that the author, Louise Fitzhugh did, and now that I am nine years on the other side of fifty, I can see the value of keeping your spying to ground level.
A half century later
As I read Harriet the Spy with nearly five decades between me and my initial reading, what I envy the most is what I envied so many years ago: Harriet’s ability to wander and explore as she pleases.
Harriet had the freedom to come and go after school, and used that time to spy on people and keep a notebook that nobody but she was allowed to read. She was able to wear jeans, and she had both her own agency and boundaries that others were expected to consider, so even though Harriet is not the most well-behaved or kindest child on the planet, the freedoms she embraces are still compelling fifty years later.