The Tragic Misfit Behind “Harriet the Spy”

There is a certain alchemy by which canonical characters, especially the figures of children’s literature, come to exist outside of history. Stripped of their initial contexts, and cleansed of any outdated particularities, they seem to endure in an eternal present tense. Take, for instance, the nineteen-sixties’ most iconic underage sleuth, Harriet M. Welsch, a.k.a. Harriet…

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There is a certain alchemy by which canonical characters, especially the figures of children’s literature, come to exist outside of history. Stripped of their initial contexts, and cleansed of any outdated particularities, they seem to endure in an eternal present tense. Take, for instance, the nineteen-sixties’ most iconic underage sleuth, Harriet M. Welsch, a.k.a. Harriet the Spy. In 1996, Nickelodeon transported her out of the mid-century, with a goofy live-action film starring Michelle Trachtenberg. Animation lends itself more readily to the blurring of time periods than live action does, and a new cartoon Apple TV+ adaptation, starring Beanie Feldstein, could be set at any point in the past half century. (There are no cell phones, but Harriet’s prep-school class is multiracial, and any dated features of the source material have been excised.) As the rebellious tomboy is revived for an audience unlikely to see her as especially gender-bending, it’s easy to lose sight of what she meant in her own time. That’s a story that can be filled in with a look at the life of her creator.

In “Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy,” published last year, the biographer Leslie Brody argues that Fitzhugh put forward “an entirely new and radically different version of the American girl.” Harriet is an intrepid eleven-year-old spy who lives on Manhattan’s Upper East Side with her parents and her beloved nanny, Ole Golly. She carries around a composition notebook filled with brutal observations about her classmates and neighbors, many of whom she follows on her “spy route.” Peering into windows and crawling into dumbwaiters, she tails her subjects: the bickering family in charge of the local grocery store, the dedicated birdcage builder who spoils his cats, the widow who believes that lying in bed is the secret of life. In her bluejeans, old sneakers, and fake glasses, Harriet takes after her inventor, characterized by the poet James Merrill as a “bright, funny, tiny tomboy.” At four feet eleven, Fitzhugh was sometimes mistaken for a child, and she dressed in boys’ or men’s clothing throughout her life. A typical outfit, Brody reports, was a Brooks Brothers suit with combat boots and a cape.

Like Harriet, Fitzhugh came from wealth. Her father was the scion of a prominent Memphis family, her mother a dancer with dashed Broadway dreams. The pair met on a boat from New York to England, in 1926, and jumped into a catastrophic marriage that imploded while Louise was still a baby. Awarded sole custody, her father pretended her mother was dead. Louise didn’t learn the full story until a teen-age summer job at the Memphis Commercial Appeal allowed her to go sleuthing in the paper’s archive, where she discovered a trove of reports on the nasty divorce proceedings.

By then, Fitzhugh was already a misfit in Memphis. She once refused to don anything fancier than Bermuda shorts for a country-club dance—“I’m not going to join those menstruating minstrels,” she told her date—and her first serious love affair was with another girl about her age. For the rest of her life, she would have relationships with women and seemingly unconsummated flings with men, including a quickly annulled marriage at the age of nineteen. That year, she escaped the South for good, enrolling at Bard College to study painting and poetry. In college, Fitzhugh transmuted her dysfunctional upbringing into comic material, which she recounted in the harsh, outlandish style that Harriet would later use to depict the adults around her. Fitzhugh regaled friends with stories of her cruel father, her violent mother, and her grandmother who threw money out the window for the birds while eager servants waited below.

Bard was also where she met Merrill, an established poet who, though only two years her senior, was made her adviser. He was gay and she a lesbian, but Merrill was smitten. “I slipped pleading messages into her campus mailbox, bought prophylactics, sought to waylay her on the paths between dormitory and classroom,” he recalled, in his memoir. Fitzhugh was unmoved. When her grandmother died, leaving her an inheritance, she left Bard without a degree and moved into an apartment in the Village. “So much for heterosexuality,” Merrill opined. The two remained close until Fitzhugh’s death, and their correspondence—the only one she seems to have maintained—provides a backbone for Brody’s biography.

In the Greenwich Village of the fifties, Brody asserts, Fitzhugh “felt a safety in numbers against the judgment of the world.” The consummate bohemian, she wrote psychoanalytic poetry, frequented gay bars, and was introduced through the literary theorist Kenneth Burke, whose daughter she dated, to a social scene that included Djuna Barnes, Berenice Abbott, and Marianne Moore. She befriended Lorraine Hansberry and had a “one-night stand” with the critic and notorious ladies’ man Anatole Broyard. (“I wanted a meal and all I got was a ham sandwich,” he said afterward.) Mostly, she painted—portraits, nudes, city scenes—and exhibited her work alongside Jacob Lawrence, Ad Reinhardt, and Louise Nevelson.

Far from a career shift, Fitzhugh’s foray into children’s literature was an attempt to subsidize her art. She and a friend, Sandra Scoppettone, had noted the success of the “Eloise” series, which follows a six-year-old inhabitant of the Plaza, and decided to produce a parody, “Suzuki Beane,” about a beatnik girl growing up on Bleecker Street. Fitzhugh did the illustrations, and Scoppettone wrote the text, which contains a brief satire of Merrill. Soon, Fitzhugh had managed to interest the legendary Harper & Row editor Ursula Nordstrom—who worked with Maurice Sendak, E. B. White, and the creators of “Goodnight Moon” and “Curious George”—in a book about a mischievous little girl who keeps a notebook on her friends. “Harriet the Spy” was published in October of 1964, when its author was thirty-six. Amid concerns that the book would prove a bad influence (“dangerous in a child’s hand,” per one librarian), it earned an enthusiastic review from Gloria Vanderbilt in the Times and sold around 2.5 million copies in its first five years.

Though Fitzhugh continued to view her writing as less serious than her painting, her politics bled increasingly into her literary output. “The Long Secret,” the second installment in the “Harriet” series, features what is likely the first frank discussion of menstruation in a book for children. Fitzhugh began an additional sequel in which Harriet becomes infatuated with a Black boy named Willie, but she abandoned the draft and transplanted Willie into her final novel, “Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change,” which was posthumously adapted for television and Broadway. She also reunited with Scoppettone to publish an anti-Vietnam War picture book, “Bang Bang You’re Dead,” and wrote and subsequently lost an autobiographical manuscript that might have been the first lesbian love story for a young-adult audience.

Around the same time, Fitzhugh underwent a marked physical and psychological decline. After a series of difficult breakups, quarrels with publishers, and alcohol-related health problems, she retreated to Bridgewater, Connecticut, with a girlfriend who doubled as a caretaker. Friends described Fitzhugh’s appearance and manner as changed. A young editor told an interviewer that by the time he met her, in 1973, she was “a sort of semi-invalid—very frail, withdrawn, interior, drawn in on herself, not comfortable in the world.” A negative first review for “Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change” (“One feels the clock in the author’s house stopped years ago.”) drove Fitzhugh to a night of hard drinking that landed her in the hospital, where she died, of an aneurysm. She was forty-six.

Brody’s project is to rescue Fitzhugh from the morass of kid lit and memorialize her as an unsung queer, feminist exemplar—a significant figure of the second wave. As Brody notes, Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” appeared in 1963, the year that “Harriet” was devised, and Fitzhugh’s first readers were “coming of age in a time when children were taught, in Friedan’s words, ‘To pity the neurotic, unfeminine, unhappy women who wanted to be poets or physicists or presidents.’ ” Given that context, Brody argues, “Harriet” was subversive. It’s a convincing thesis, but, in the process of substantiating it, Brody sometimes strains to render Fitzhugh accessible to contemporary feminists—comparing Harriet to 2016’s “nasty woman” meme, for instance, or eliding details that might complicate the picture. She cites Carolyn Heilbrun, a “feminist scholar” who praised Fitzhugh’s work in the Times because it “allows its children, though they are girls, to know that work one really likes to do ranks alongside love as life’s great experience.” Yet, in the same review, and outside Brody’s quotation marks, Heilbrun also attributed to Fitzhugh’s characters “that galloping irrationality which so markedly characterizes the sex.” Heilbrun’s feminism, as the omission shows, was not the feminism of 2021—and neither was Fitzhugh’s. Like any set of ideas, it was historically specific, marked with the preoccupations and resentments of its time.

In Fitzhugh’s moral scheme, as in Friedan’s, work was at the center of a life well lived. Everyone is ripe for Harriet’s mockery, but real scorn is reserved for those who fail to devote themselves to a vocation. “HALF OF THEM DON’T EVEN HAVE A PROFESSION,” Harriet, who considers espionage her calling, writes of her sixth-grade cohort. When her mother accuses her of “playing” with her notebook, Harriet snaps, “Who says I’m playing? I’m WORKING!” Mrs. Welsch tries to clarify that schoolwork, not spying, is Harriet’s work. “Just like your father works at the office, you work at school,” she explains. “What do you do?” is Harriet’s retort.

Harriet’s mother is a housewife, a woman who employs a cook and a live-in nanny, freeing her up for pastimes like bridge. Mr. Welsch comes home from the office expecting a sympathetic ear, “peace and quiet and a martini” in their town house, and a lively social calendar outside it. Their bourgeois arrangement is unconsidered and automatic, and Harriet is expected to replicate it. Her friend Janie also has a “profession”—she’s a scientist—and their parents have conspired to send them to dancing school to cure them of the affliction. “I think you have to find out you’re girls,” Janie’s mother reproaches the duo. But how to conform to gender norms is one of the few things that Harriet is not interested in “finding out.” She resists going to dancing school and spurns traditionally female activities. When she spies on the group of girls that her schoolhouse archnemesis has assembled for tea and bridge, she relishes the feeling of individuation. “She thought to herself, I’m glad my life is different,” Fitzhugh writes. “I bet they’ll be doing that the rest of their lives—and she felt rather sorry for them for a moment.”

Harriet and Fitzhugh’s feminism is an anti-bridge ideology: a feminism that not only asks women to pursue careers but actively sneers at conventional femininity and those who conform to it. Of course, the option to eschew bridge and tea parties was open only to women for whom the luxury of idle pastimes was already available—the women of Harriet and Fitzhugh’s socioeconomic status. Fitzhugh is hardly blind to the classed dimension of the world she depicts, and Harriet’s dawning awareness of wealth is one of the book’s subjects. But, for Fitzhugh, even the most menial work provides meaning and purpose, and money serves as a dangerous deterrent. One of the adults most admired in the book has renounced his material wealth to run deliveries for a grocery store. “I saw that life was going to be dust if I kept it up, always dust, nothing more,” he explains to Harriet and Ole Golly. “I have myself now.”

If “Harriet” represents an intervention in the pedagogy of gender or class, it is also an attempt—largely overlooked by Brody—to piece together the existential puzzle of what makes a life, somehow, more than “dust.” In spying on the denizens of the Upper East Side, what Harriet is really doing is muddling through the problem of consciousness. “I WONDER WHAT IT WOULD BE LIKE TO BE A TABLE OR A CHAIR OR A BATHTUB OR ANOTHER PERSON,” she writes in her notebook. The central question of “Harriet the Spy” is no less ambitious than how to account for human difference: What makes one person dream of becoming a writer and another a physicist, one fall in love and another favor the company of cats? “OLE GOLLY SAYS THERE IS AS MANY WAYS TO LIVE AS THERE ARE PEOPLE ON THE EARTH AND I SHOULDN’T GO ROUND WITH BLINDERS BUT SHOULD SEE EVERY WAY I CAN,” Harriet writes. When she types up a short story, near the end of the novel, the “GOOD MORAL” she selects is “THAT SOME PEOPLE ARE ONE WAY AND SOME PEOPLE ARE ANOTHER AND THAT’S THAT.”

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