A Role Model for the 1960’s: “Harriet the Spy”

If you were a girl in the 1960’s, you were nine or ten when you read Harriet the Spy. The cover art was irresistible: a bespectacled girl in a hooded sweatshirt and jeans strolls through a run-down New York neighborhood carrying a notebook, with a flashlight hooked to her belt. You didn’t wonder why the gear: it seemed natural, especially for Harriet, an aspiring writer who spied on people and took notes. And when her writing got her into trouble, we empathized.

I read Harriet several times as a child – probably the last time was in seventh grade. Many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers have cited it as a major influence. In Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, a book about a reading one book a day for a year, Nina Sankovitch mentions that she so identified with Harriet that she insisted on carrying a notebook and a flashlight. Mystery writer Cara Black also read Harriet. “Of course, I ate tomato sandwiches and wanted to be a spy. They wouldn’t take me. So I turned to writing.” And Jonathan Franzen wrote a blurb on the cover of the anniversary edition (see picture at top of page).

Why am I thinking about Harriet the Spy? My husband alerted me to a review in The New York Review of Books of a new biography by Leslie Brody, Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy.

Knowing absolutely nothing about Fitzhugh, I have read the opening chapters with fascination. Fitzhugh was primarily an artist,which makes sense, since her bold, witty illustrations are as important as the text. Her humorous depictions of the characters’ self-absorption and androgynous style underscored the growing resistance to traditional femininity. So many of us identified with Harriet, partly because of the freedom of her clothes. It was the boys’ sneakers we especially liked.

Illustration of Harriet by Louise Fitzhugh

Fitzhugh, raised in the South by wealthy parents, escaped from Memphis when she and her girlfriend Amelia hatched a plan to attend Bard College. She became an artist in New York, with varying degrees of success. In the photos, we see an impossibly tiny Louise who looks like a little boy. Though Fitzhugh was a known lesbian artist, her sexuality was kept under wraps in terms of author information available to the public: it would have ruined her children’s writing career to be known as gay.

Louise Fitzhugh and photographer Gina Jackson, about 1952.

I have always understood that Harriet the Spy is a classic, frequently compared to The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird. And so I was astonished to learn that some reviewers disliked it when it was published in 1964.

Brody writes:

Some children’s books critics simply couldn’t get over how “nasty” they thought she was, and what “a horrid example” she set. … When Harriet says, “I’ll be damned if I’ll go to dancing school,” she sends up a howl as staggering – in its way – as Allen Ginsberg’s poem by the same name.

Brody, a witty, compassionate writer, places Fitzhugh’s life and quirky work in the context of her times. She points out that Fitzhugh and Betty Friedan were writing breakthrough books the same year. Women’s lives were changing.

Long live Louise Fitzhugh’s books! By the way, she also wrote two sequels to Harriet the Spy, The Long Secret and Sport. Harriet is the best of them, if I remember correctly, but perhaps the others are worth a second look. I lost my copies long, long ago.