Love all God's creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf,
every ray of God's light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love
everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. . . . And you will come at
last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.
These words from Dostoyevsky are what Ole Golly passes on to eleven-year-old Harriet M.
Welsch. Ole Golly is the tough and literate nanny who, unfortunately for Harriet,
disappears mid-story. And although spunky, sad, bright Harriet is not going to live up to
any such saintly standard in the near future, she does make a start. She makes a harrowing
Sixth grade Harriet is a complex number. She's going to be a writer. Her writing is her
WORK (she uses caps); everything else is something else.
Harriet writes incessantly and compulsively--fourteen journals since she was eight.
She's a Spy, and her material is other people, everyone else. Harriet goes to great
lengths to capture her quarry. She trespasses into the house of hypochondriacal Mrs.
Plumber by way of the dumb waiter. She lurks and sidles and sneaks. And then she writes
and writes and writes.
All these bold letter notations of Harriet's make for a subtle problem.
Although Harriet certainly does write up a storm, although she does see a great deal,
although clearly she tells straight truths about matters regarding which adults would be
more circumspect--although all that's true--nonetheless, the voluminous writings are, in
every way, childish. They are often superficial, focussed on the pimples or the fat or the
purple socks of her teachers and her classmates. The scribblings drift into randomness.
They are certainly seldom wise, insightful or subtle. However, they do, periodically,
tell the hard truth--that is their strength.
And this essential naivete and frequent lack of insight or self-awareness in Harriet's
journal has a clear artistic effect, for it makes Fitzhughes's creation considerably more
subtle, and, therefore, much more interesting.
Were Harriet merely a truth-telling Demosthenes, an infant philosopher, a wise child,
the book would lack entirely the dimension of Harriet's own shortcomings and her downright
disagreeableness. And the reader would have a story on one level rather than on two. The
actual story, though, works in two directions. Harriet's world in a brownstone on New
York's upper East side is materially secure. The Welsches have a cook, and Ole Golly, the
nanny. And by their conversation, we learn of the big business workaday preoccupation of
the father and the shallow time-frittering, hair dresser afternoons of Mother. But for
Harriet, nobody has time. Or rather, nobody takes the time--except Ole Golly, whose
departure dooms Harriet to a world either actually hostile, or so perceived by Harriet
(and it's this ambiguity that is the novel's strength).
And in Harriet's The Gregory School, there's a gulf between the other children and
Harriet as well. At book's start, we see Harriet with her best friend, Sport. But not much
later, Harriet has alienated him too. She didn't do so to hurt him. She didn't even intend
Sport to know that in her notebook she had written him off. But when the other children,
childishly provoked by Harriet's seemingly self-sufficient scribbling, steal her notebook
and read aloud what Harriet has been saying and thinking of them all--Sport included--her
isolation is made virtually total.
Harriet rebels then. She throws tantrums. She fights physically. She refuses to go to
school. And at one point, like Melville's Bartleby, she simply says NO!--NO to everything,
to parents, school, the universe. Simply, NO!
That is the nadir of her career in this story.
Then, perhaps in the nick of time, she gets the letter she had longed for, a wise and
understanding, but also not unambiguous, communication from now married Ole Golly, who
tells Harriet to "get cracking" writing stories, to tell the truth in her
notebooks--but if those notebooks are ever read by someone else (precisely what had
- You have to apologize
- You have to lie."But to yourself," says Golly, "you must always tell the
We're half made to think that Golly's letter and pertinent advice were a fortunate
accident just when Harriet has been cast out for not having done what Golly now
recommends. On the other hand, it seems to me there is reason to think at least possibly
the preoccupied parents had, for once, done something sensible for their lonely
daughter--had, perhaps, a hand in the arrival of the timely letter.
The letter is the turning point. Harriet can take just so much of nothing to do, no
place to go. And as she returns to school, and her teetering fortunes take a turn toward
the tolerable, Harriet follows, precisely, the advice of Ole Golly. She doesn't do this
clearly, simply, directly, but in muddled and erratic manner--as we all do in real life.
At book's end Harriet has started to transform her notes into stories. She walks to the
river. Her old friends, Sport and Janie appear. Harriet looks at them and tries truly to
focus on someone else, she empathizes, she thinks how they feel. She closes her notebook,
and the three walk off together.
At the end, we ask "What of Harriet? Is there hope for her?" The answer: as a
writer, perhaps. "As a fully realized human being, loved and loving?" I don't
know! Only with a great, great deal of luck. That's, I think, the truth.
Harriet the Spy (1964) is considered by many as a landmark book. As Anne Scott MacLeod,
in her splendid book, American Childhood (1994) has pointed out, in the first portion of
this century, the American "family story" had a "coherent and remarkably
consistent view of the place of childhood in family and community." (198) In the
books of such as Elizabeth Enright, Eleanor Estes, and Rachel Field children were
integrated into family and community.
Families, and children within families secure in their roles, and they played their
customary roles without friction. But Harriet, says MacLeod--say most writers on the
subject--"was the breach and after Fitzhugh came the Deluge." (199)
And thereafter, children's books were written less for the 8-12 year-olds, but rather
for the 12-14 youngsters. And in that deluge of the early y.a's, as we know them, came
increasingly confrontational books--Paul Zindel's The Pig Man (1968), Robert Cormier's The
Chocolate War (1974), and all those uncomfortable, thought-provoking, often challenging
books of the 1970's.
It may be a little excessive to draw the line as firmly in the sand at Harriet as some
are wont to do. In Sweden, Astrid Lindgren's gift to children was Pippi Longstocking
(1945). Just the year before Harriet, Maurice Sendak had caused a wild rumpus in libraries
as well as nurseries with manic Max--as much a creature in possession of his own
imagination as was Harriet--notwithstanding the soup that was still hot. And although not
for children, still--closely related, and assiduously read by American youth--Salinger's
lost and compulsive loner, Holden Caulfield, had impressed his solitude on the imagination
of the country in 1951.
Still, Harriet--love-longing, neglected, offensive, rude, bright, imaginative,
"real" Harriet--was a relatively tough challenge to readerly somnolence in 1946.
You couldn't sum her up or encapsulate her. You couldn't put her down. Except for Ruth
Hill Viguers, in a negative review in The Horn Book (XLI , 74-75.) And children in
the United States formed Harriet the Spy fan clubs.
Today, with drive-by shootings and little girls bearing babies, we cast a nostalgic eye
at our innocence lost--at the story of a girl with two not very sensitive parents, who
takes out her rages by scribbling compulsively, with only a damn.