The Perils of Re-reading a Book You Loved as a Child
My re-reading of Harriet the Spy did not go as planned.
I had finally realized a childhood dream, and I thought that if I re-read the book I would be able to draw the lines connecting who I was in the fourth grade to who I am now.
It was going to be sunshine and roses and unicorns, with a rainbow thrown in.
After making my way through Book One, I had thought that I would breeze right though Books Two and Three, but I didn’t. There were long passages I had glossed over in my nine-year-old rush to find out what happened, and this time I read everything.
I found there were large swaths of the text my nine-year-old self had deemed unimportant or insufficiently relevant, and she had glossed right over them. My fifty-nine year-old self read every word only to find that at her best, Harriet was rude and insensitive. Even more distressing was the fact that ultimately, her bad behaviors were not punished, they were rewarded.
At the time of its publication, the book was panned for its “realism,” and if by “realism” you mean not-so-good people get rewarded for questionable and bad behaviors, then it was realistic.
Harriet’s behavior and attitudes
While Harriet does, at times, cling to rudimentary social graces, her main downfall is that she is pathologically honest.
This is not to say she tells the truth, but in her collection of notebooks where she faithfully and furiously transcribes the “truth” of how she feels about other people in ALL CAPS, she is honest.
Harriet is also unkind. And judgmental. And mean. She completely lacks empathy, and she has a particular animosity toward those whom she perceives as beneath her.
One of the characters who is the object of much of Harriet’s scorn is the Welsch family’s long suffering cook with-no-name, so beneath the people she serves that despite being in their home every day and preparing all their meals, she is simply referred to as “the cook.”
But a huge helping of Harriet’s malevolence is reserved for Franca Dei Santi, one of the people Harriet spies on. Of Ms. Dei Santi, Harriet writes:
FRANCA DEI SANTI HAS ONE OF THE DUMBEST FACES YOU COULD EVER HOPE TO SEE.…SHE IS ABOUT OUR AGE AND GOES TO A PUBLIC SCHOOL WHERE SHE IS ALWAYS FLUNKING THINGS LIKE SHOP THAT WE DON’T HAVE HERE. ANYWAY IT WON’T DO FRANCA A BIT OF GOOD BECAUSE SHE WON’T EVER LEARN ANYTHING ANYWAY.
To make all this ugliness a bit more shocking, Harriet is allowed to publish it in the school newspaper of which she has just been named editor because she is so smart, and the child psychiatrist her parents consulted with recommended it.
But Harriet’s eagle-eyed nastiness is not limited to the working class. About Sport, one of her closest friends from school, she writes:
SOMETIMES I CAN’T STAND SPORT. WITH HIS WORRYING ALL THE TIME AND FUSSING OVER HIS FATHER, SOMETIMES HE IS LIKE A LITTLE OLD WOMAN.
Not only does Harriet disparage a good friend, she throws in a touch of misogyny directed at that paragon of annoyance “the little old woman.”
Authorial intrusion and other problems
One of the problems with the story is that there are no likable characters. You don’t root for Harriet because she is good; you root for her because she is a tad less hateful than some of the other characters. (Note: some, not all).
And I suppose it could be argued that Harriet is just a child, but the voice behind Harriet, Louise Fitzhugh, was not.
As a nine-year-old, I experienced Harriet as smart. As a fifty-nine year-old, I experienced Harriet as a smart ass. As a nine-year-old, I didn’t notice the author. As a fifty-nine year-old I found the author’s many intrusions into the story ham-fisted and distracting.
Harriet is eleven in 1964, which would place her birth somewhere around 1953. Firmly in the middle of what was the post-World-War II baby boom.
Louise Fitzhugh was born in 1928 and her childhood and teenage years spanned the depression and World War II.
As a reader, I believe the many references to Nazis like this passage from Harriet’s notebook:
IF MARION HAWTHORNE DOESN’T WATCH OUT SHE’S GOING TO GROW UP INTO A LADY HITLER.
are, in fact, Louise Fitzhugh speaking directly the reader, and the authorial intrusion detracts from an already problematic text.
The same is true for the multiple references to “Dostoievsky.” There is not one point in the book where Harriet is shown reading anything other than her own notes. A cranky middle-aged reading of Harriet the Spy reveals that the only thing Harriet likes to read are her own thoughts.
So is there anything left to like?
When I finished re-reading Harriet the Spy, I had still enjoyed the suspense, if not the conclusion — was Harriet going to get in trouble for being mean? No — as well as the fact that Harriet had what seemed to me (then and now) astonishing freedom. She didn’t have to make her breakfast or fix her own lunch, she had no chores, she could wander about the neighborhood at will, and she never had to think about anyone but Harriet M. Welsch.
Despite what now seem to me to be obvious flaws, what I did like about the story was this:
Harriet knew who she was and was true to herself.
In 1969 when I first read Harriet the Spy, the only other heroine I had encountered who had the same self assurance was Nancy Drew. Another thing I liked:
Harriet hardly had to answer to anyone.
Harriet gets to do as she pleases. When I was nine, I had dreams that one day my life would be like that. Now that I am fifty-nine, I know that life doesn’t work that way, no matter how young or how old you are, but it was a nice fantasy while it lasted.
Another thing I liked:
Harriet could go where she pleased and have adventures of her choosing.
Harriet has a spy route that her parents are completely unaware of. She is allowed to feign illness and stay at home whenever things at school get difficult. At no point does Harriet have to face the consequences of her misbehaviors.
Looking toward the future
The character of Harriet is, in ways, a harbinger of things to come.
Her mean-spirited comments are a look into the future of the troll culture that now surrounds us where the highest ideal is speaking one’s own truth, never mind who gets hurt in the process. Her faux apology to the people she hurt is made only to manipulate and improve her social standing, and she remains unaware that she has done anything for which a genuine apology is required.
Since I first read Harriet the Spy, I have had three children of my own (now grown) and worked as a classroom teacher. As a result of those experiences I have come to think that good children’s literature gives its readers ideals to aspire to, strategies for over coming hardships, and a protagonist who can connect to the reader to his or her better self.
I loved Harriet the Spy when I first read it in 1969, but because of this re-reading, it will no longer be my go-to gift book for readers the age I was when I read it.
In the fifty years that have passed since I first read Harriet the Spy, the world and I have changed a lot.
Harriet M. Welsch, however, has not.
Harriet is a literary character who rather than transcending the time in which her story was written is stuck in a narrative amber.