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Harriet the Spy: Milestone, Masterpiece?

From: Children's Literature
Volume 4, 1975
pp. 120-126 | 10.1353/chl.0.0700

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Ten years after the publication of Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy, there remains considerable uneasiness about the novel's status as literature. Ms. Fitzhugh, who was also the author of a sequel, The Long Secret (Harper, 1965), and the co-author with Sandra Scoppettone of Suzuki Beane (Doubleday, 1961) and Bang, Bang, You're Dead (Harper, 1969), died on November 19, 1974. On the publication of HARRIET, she was called "one of the brightest talents of 1964"1 Several short reviews praised the novel for its vigor and originality.2 On the other hand, in the most extensive review which the book received, Ruth Hill Viguers objected strongly to its "disagreeable people and situations" and questioned its "realism" and its suitability for children.3

Today, now that many books are even more overt and harsh in their criticism of contemporary society, such objections are less common.4 To my knowledge, critics have only briefly and rarely mentioned the novel in recent years. The only prize it has ever received is the Sequoyah Award in 1967, given by the children of Oklahoma. It has been a perennial bestseller for both Harper and Dell. It would seem that the novel survives principally because children are devoted to it. The Arbuthnot Anthology does recognize the novel as a milestone of children's literature, praising it as "contemporaneous" and implying that it is a forerunner of those more recent novels valuable for their immediate social relevance.5 However, since no book ever survives for very long on the basis of its contemporaneousness, such praise is at best a dubious honor.

The novel can be read as social criticism. It is, on one level, an illuminating portrait of contemporary, urban, American life. Harriet's parents are so caught up in their own lives that they do not get to know their own daughter until she is eleven years old. The Robinsons sit in stony silence when alone together and come alive only when they have a chance to display their latest acquisition to a visitor. The Dei Santi family's preoccupation with their store prevents their understanding of one of their sons. The rich divorcee Agatha Plummer retreats to her bed in order to get attention. Harrison Withers lives alone in two rooms with his bird cages and his twenty some cats, trying to outwit the Health Department. The image which arises is one of a fast-paced, materialistic, complex society in which individuals are isolated in their own private worlds.

This isolation results in a failure of communication and consequently in a scarcity of meaningful human relationships. It results in a misunderstanding of unique individuals such as Harrison Withers and Harriet while it encourages conformity. Harriet's world is full of people who have no real understanding of their own special interests or abilities. This is especially evident of her classmates. Pinky Whitehead is a nonentity. Marion Hawthorne and Rachel Hennessey merely ape their mothers. In Harriet's words, "THEY ARE JUST BATS. HALF OF THEM DON'T EVEN HAVE A PROFESSION."6 Living by means of pretense, the people of Harriet's world are afraid to hear or to seek the truth.

To read the novel as social criticism, however, is to see it in only one dimension. To read it as simply a socially relevant message is to ignore its structure. In its form, the novel is reminiscent of many contemporary adult novels which are constructed on the premise that reality is inevitably a matter of individual perception.7 In such novels, our experience of the fictive world is structured by the point of view from which the novel is told. Perceiving, thinking, and feeling as one character does, we learn more about him or her than we do about the world which he or she describes. In other words, limiting us to Harriet's point of view, Harriet the Spy is fundamentally a thorough characterization of Harriet.8 The enveloping point of view is, for the most part, third person, telling us what Harriet feels and thinks but emphasizing what she does, sees, and hears. The notebook entries, which are in the first person, record her actual language and reveal...

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