In researching for this piece, I discovered that Louise Fitzhugh (1928-1974), the author of two of my favourite childhood books, was a lesbian. The two books, Harriet the Spy (1964) and its sequel, The Long Secret (1965) are peopled by strongly drawn eccentric characters. Few of the figures in her novels are simply ‘eccentrics’, but most are ‘eccentric characters,’ that is, not people living in their own private world (‘eccentrics’) but rather people whose eccentricity is played out in public, adding to the gaiety of the nation. Another word for such ‘eccentric characters,’ at least in the period of which Fitzhugh writes, is ‘native New Yorkers.’ Much of the genius of Harriet the Spy lies in its realistic capture of a certain Manhattan milieu, in the early 1960s, when eccentricity was still recognizable as such, and high rents had not driven the odd balls from the city. Although it depicts the wealthy ‘Upper East side,’ the world of Harriet the Spy was directly recognizable to myself and to my contemporaries at P.S. 41, on the opposite side of Manhattan, as our own. The oddest characters on whom Harriet spies, like Harrison Withers with his 26 cats, are the kind of person one could see through a skylight, making Victorian bird cages, in this city, in 1967.
Since I want to say that the glory of Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret is their realism, we need to get the notebook out of the way. Harriet has been told by her nurse, Ole Golly, that if she wants to be a writer, she must observe and write down her observations. Harriet takes this advice literally, carrying a black and white A4 notebook in which she describes her reactions to everything she sees at home and at school. Harriet also operates a spy route, in which she follows the routines of half a dozen victims, such as Harrison Withers, and the Italian Dei Santi family, who run a delicatessen which is regularly plundered for provender by their delivery boy, Joe Curry.
He was always eating. It was strange the Dei Santis made any money at all the way Little Joe ate. Harriet peeked in. He was sitting there now, when he should have been working, eating a pound of cheese. Next to him, waiting to be consumed, sat two cucumbers, three tomatoes, a loaf of bread, a custard pie, three quarts of milk, a meatball sandwich about two feet long, two jars – one of pickles, one of mayonnaise – four apples, and a large salami. Harriet’s eyes widened and she wrote: WHEN I LOOK AT HIM I COULD EAT A THOUSAND TOMATO SANDWICHES.
Many of us read Harriet the Spy at a time when we didn’t really know what fiction is. Fiction is a narrative enacted in an imaginative world in which one can, for instance, carry around an A4 notebook and write in it. Reader, this is not possible, and I know because I tried it, as did many of my contemporaries. Enthralled with Harriet, we tried to become note-book writers like her. It cannot be done. One cannot carry on with daily life while writing down one’s observations of ones friends, family, teachers, and spy-victims in an A4 notebook. One’s interlocutors, and school teachers, and friends, simply get in the way of it. We tried, and it doesn’t work. Louise Fitzhugh, with her genius for exaggerated realism, makes it look possible. But it’s not. Today, of course, the obvious parallel to the notebook is the smartphone which possesses nearly every one. But a phone is a quarter the size of Harriet’s notebook, and you don’t need a pen to write in it. Harriet the Spy captivated us in a way that made eight year old girls want to emulate the heroine. But that’s not exactly how fiction works. The only way in is through the author’s imagination, and the key to the door of Louise Fitzhugh’s imagination went up in smoke when she was done with these stories, as do the keys to all the fictive worlds of every author in history.
It’s obvious even to an eight year old that Harriet is the hinge of it all. In studying for this piece, I read that when Louise Fitzhugh first took her jottings to a publisher, all she had to show the editors at Harpers were the contents of the spy’s ‘notebook,’ and those fine ladies made Fitzhugh turn the notebook’s majuscules into a story.
The story of Harriet the Spy tells how our heroine has two best friends, Sport, whom she intends to marry when they grow up, and Janey, who intends to blow up the world. Ole Golly is her nurse. This lady quotes Dostoyevsky and Kierkegaard, but seems to have a perfect understanding of children. She is the true authority figure for Harriet in this book: both her parents seem loving but uncomprehending. The parents are distant in the way that the parents of that generation in fact were. The crisis is precipitated by two events. Ole Golly departs to marry a delivery man, Mr. Waldstein. Harriet is thus caught rudderless at her moment of trial, when her notebook is lost during a ‘tag’ type game at school, and read by her school acquaintances, enemies, and best friends. They gang up against her. Harriet learns that they have a secret plan:
A PLAN. THIS IS SERIOUS. THEY MEAN BUSINESS. IT MEANS THEY HAVE BEEN TALKING AMONG THEMSELVES. ARE THEY GOING TO KILL ME? IS THIS MY LAST VIEW OF CARL SCHURZ PARK? WILL THERE BE NOTHING LEFT HERE TOMORROW ON THIS BENCH? WILL ANYONE REMEMBER HARRIET M. WELSCH? She rose stiffly and walked slowly to school. Everything looked very green and holy in that sad light before a rain. Even the Good Humor man on the corner, the one with the ridiculous nose, looked sad and moody. He took out a large blue handkerchief and blew his nose. It was somehow so touching that Harriet had to look away.”
This is the nadir of Harriet’s fortunes. The book uses comical exaggeration but it touchingly depicts the loneliness to which a writer is exposed when she tells the truth in a hurtful way.
Only an idiot would not guess the secret of The Long Secret, and one would have to confess that it is only at our most recent re-reading of the novel that it struck us how obvious it is who is leaving ‘notes’ around the upstate New York summer resort of Water Mill. The identity of the Bible-quoting note leaver is not just obvious but blindingly so. The twin heroines of the book are Harriet, again, who spends the book trying to discover the identity of the hard-hitting note leaver, and Beth Ellen, the blushing, shy ‘Mouse.’ Beth Ellen has lived with her grandmother ever since the disappearance of, first her father, and then later her jet-setting mother. The re-emergence of the stunningly beautiful Zeeney, along with Wallace, her new husband, whose vocabulary consists of the words ‘hup, hup, hup’, forms the center-piece of the book. Beth Ellen learns that she has the courage to fight for her true identity.
The girls are now twelve, and they learn about how their bodies work. The last time I spoke about The Long Secret in public was in 1969 when I delivered a book report on it to a class. I had skipped three grades during the school-teacher strikes of the previous years, and now found myself a nine year old, surrounded by young teenagers. Not for the last time, my lecture evoked unintended hilarity in its audience. That evening, in the car with my parents, I told them what happened, and the mystery of the other children in my class breaking into uncontrolled laughter when explained to them, ‘she gets this thing called menstruation…’ My father explained to me what that meant as he drove us through the Lincoln tunnel.
When I looked for the books in Barnes and Nobles to write up this second report on them, perhaps in memory of that experience, I looked in ‘Young Adults’. But they are still, rightly, classified as children’s books. They are not about the teenager’s world, but the child’s world, the world in which, for that generation at least, adults were omnipotent and yet foolish and outlandish aliens.
The ostensibly ‘pious’ character of the notes spurs Harriet to question her parents about God, prayer, and faith. She learns from her father that he does not pray, but figures one should ‘never laugh at anyone’s religion, because whether you take it seriously or not, they do.’ Next, Harriet interrogates Beth Ellen.
‘What does it feel like when you believe in God?’ asked Harriet into the darkness. ‘I don’t know,’ said Beth Ellen. I’ve never really thought about it, she said to herself. ‘Oh, Beth Ellen, what a funny mouse you are,’ said Harriet with rather kind disgust. She turned over noisily in bed to indicate that the conversation was ended and she would soon be fast asleep. Beth Ellen began to think about the beginning of the world, the beginning of time. Who started it all anyway? She let her mind creep back to the cave men. A cave. At the end of the cave, God. She was falling asleep. Right before she fell asleep she turned a corner in the long winding path of the cave and came to the end. At the end there was a clay shelf. Spread on the shelf was a fur blanket and on the fur was a tiger, a huge tiger who said not a word but stared at her. God? Then who made the blanket?
Even before I knew what menstruation is, that struck me as a somewhat unsatisfactory question.
Of course, what Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret have in common is the theme of truth telling. Both the spy Harriet and the note-leaver use language to tell the blunt truth. And yet both of them are misusing language, because they are using it in the service of anger. ‘Truth’ can be too blunt an instrument for the exposition of moral character.
These books both delighted me as a child. Later, when I was really too old for it, in 1974, just before she died, Fitzhugh published another novel, Our Family is Never Going to Change. It’s about the ambitions of the children of a middle class African American family. As I recall it, the boy wants to be a dancer, which could not be further from his parents’ dreams for him, and the girl aspires to be a lawyer. I remember this book as being on the moralistic side. It seems that Fitzhugh left her original publisher, Harper, and was never able to recapture the editing and ‘nursing’ she had received from them, with Random House and other houses. I may some day read Sport, another companion which Fitzhugh wrote to Harriet the Spy, but then again I may not. Fitzhugh probably lost the key after The Long Secret was published.
Fitzhugh also wrote a novel about a relationship between two girls, which was lost and never published. I’m glad she did not live to write the kind of books she might write today. That’s because I think that self-censorship belongs to great imaginative creativity. When authors feel free to expose the ‘whole blunt truth’ they write less well than authors who express the truth in more guarded ways. What is fiction if not a means of telling the truth in a roundabout way?
Fitzhugh’s characters inhabit a fictional world, but at least two of them get hurt because they tell the truth, as they see it, about real life situations. Language is powerful in fiction, and even more so in relation to reality. Censorship by external authorities is problematic, and raises the question, ‘who guards the guards?’ But the habit of self-censorship often makes for better writing, and better thinking, whether the subject is sex or the Pope. The habit of self-censorship in speech and in writing reminds us of our obligation to use language with due reverence.
—Grumpy is a professor of theology in the Midwest.