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  • The Feminist Writer as Heroine in Harriet the Spy
  • Lissa Paul (bio)

1989 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Harriet the Spy. That would make Harriet thirty-six. Never mind. In the story she is forever eleven. The astonishing thing is that the book shows few signs of becoming dated. Although Harriet's parents don't exactly look like "baby boomers," Harriet herself still looks very much a "yuppie puppy." In my undergraduate children's literature classes, students are often surprised to find that the story is older than they are. But the book is always a winner, and 25 years on, it has achieved the status of an American classic along with Charlotte's Web and Where the Wild Things Are. So there is good reason to keep trying to account for its continuing success.

Reviews and articles that deal with Harriet the Spy are uninspiring. Many critics (see, for example, Stern; Molson; "Another Look"; Wolf; Egoff) desire to give it the equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, to sanctify it in spite of its questionable morality. What none of the critics recognize in Harriet the Spy is that very rare species, a successful female künstlerroman. A double feminist trick is in play. Fitzhugh tricks critics into a 'doublethink' where, in order to sanction the book, they have to make lying and gossip look like appropriate ways of getting along in society. And Harriet tricks her audience into accepting her notebook gossip (which made her a social outcast) as fiction (which makes her popular).

Many of the marks of the feminist writer are visible in Harriet: she prefers a small-scale form of writing (the private notebook); she juggles her role in society (her popularity with her classmates) with her role as a writer (which demands selfishness); she is concerned with being truthful, but ultimately discovers that that necessitates lying; and she finds that domestic gossip constitutes a valid form of fiction.

Harriet's success as a feminist writer is particularly remarkable because she knows no literary foremothers. Ole Golly is a reader, not a writer. She reads mostly nineteenth-century fiction by male writers, and it is clear even to Harriet that Ole Golly usually doesn't quite understand what [End Page 67] she reads. She quotes a lot, but can't explain the quotations. The only real writer in the book, Sport's father, is the antithesis of Harriet. Where Harriet is methodical and orderly, a creature of habit, Sport's father is disorderly (there is a gym sock lying in his bedroom, Harriet notices). Harriet likes her meals on time, Sport's father does not care what he eats, or when, and he often writes all night. Even though we never know what kinds of books Sport's father writes, we know about his domestic habits, and how they define his life as a writer.

Some of the differences between Harriet and Sport's father are characteristics of differences between male and female writers. In A New Mythos: The Novel of the Artist as Heroine 1877-1977, Grace Stewart points out that women embody "domesticity, selflessness, and the status quo" (12), and so are fundamentally at odds with the male myth of the artist who is essentially selfish and concerned with everything but domestic order and creature comforts. Harriet is, in fact, quite unlike what she imagines a writer to be. Even in the game of Town she makes up at the beginning of the book, the writer she creates is a man—one who spends his time in a bar.

That Harriet assigns the role of writer to a man is just a small example of the patriarchal conventions that inform her concept of what writing is. The hold-up, the chase scenes and the jolly, booming doctor delivering a baby, all belong to the genre of popular adventure. Her Town, at this stage, is sterile, like the garden of hibiscus blossoms Mary tries to "grow" at the beginning of The Secret Garden. Harriet, like Mary, doesn't yet understand the nature of her art—or the art of her nature. Only at the end of the book does Harriet begin to...


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