“Harriet the Spy” by Louise Fitzhugh

When Central High presented the play version of Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, I really had no idea what to expect. I knew there was a book, and I had vague memories of a movie, but no experience with either.

Although really more of a middle school play that the director adapted for older actors, it was still an entertaining – and funny – production.

Afterward, I checked my kids’ bookshelf to locate a copy, thus proving again that my bibliophilia is really advantageous and not the hoarding my wife claims.

The book itself has a number of things going for it. With aspects both simple and complex, childish yet insightful, honest and deceptive, sympathetic and mean, hilarious and thought-provoking, it is a gaggle of contradictions, and therein lies its resonating strength.

It has aged well. Published in 1964, the lack of modern technology like cellphones or internet or color televisions is not a factor in the telling. Such things are absent but unnecessary to Fitzhugh’s story.

Other elements that are a product of their time – bridge clubs, a martini after work – these are easily accepted as concerns of people other than ourselves. Fantastical, perhaps, but probably popular in far off countries like New York City.

Capturing a Child’s Worldview

Harriet is eleven and is a compulsive journaler, recording her impressions about every situation and interaction. Not only does she chronicle her own inner dialogue with the manic intensity of a Natalie Goldberg devotee, she aspires to be a “spy” and learn other people’s secrets. She thinks of it as her job, and she garbs herself with spy gear and sets off on daily forays to eavesdrop. She watches a man who hordes cats, a family that owns a grocery store, a husband and wife whose existence focuses only on external affirmation, and – most criminally – a woman whose dumb waiter Harriet sneaks into as she pulleys herself up to the bedroom to eavesdrop on conversations.

Unlike the children in Stephen King’s IT, Fitzhugh’s children operate with worldviews that don’t quite make sense to adults. Harriet’s conception of spying is childishly innocent. She writes (in her characteristic all caps), “YOU CAN’T BE TOO OLD TO SPY EXCEPT IF YOU WERE FIFTY YOU MIGHT FALL OFF A FIRE ESCAPE, BUT YOU COULD SPY AROUND ON THE GROUND A LOT” (57). This reminded me of a trip to a grocery store or a feed store I took when I was six or so with my dad and a distant relative of my mom’s named Ronnie. As we drove in Ronnie’s big pickup truck along country roads, my stomach kept rumbling. Uncomfortable in the silence and very conscious of its growling, I told them, “I could never be a spy.”

“Why not?” my dad asked.

“Because my stomach growls too much.”

This is what I mean about a child’s perspective: an adult would never connect a rumbling tummy with being a failure as a spy. Harriet is believable exactly because she doesn’t interpret spying the way an adult would. If she did, if she had an adult’s understanding of espionage, of Tom Clancy or Ian Fleming novels, Harriet the Spy would have rung hollow.

As Harriet experiences difficulties at home and at school, she seeks to avoid her peers:

“Harriet was sick for three days. That is, she lay in bed for three days. Then her mother took her to see the kindly old family doctor. He used to be a kindly old family doctor who made house calls, but now he wouldn’t anymore. One day he had stamped his foot at Harriet’s mother and said, ‘I like my office and I’m going to stay in it. I pay so much for rent on this office that if I leave it for five minutes my child misses a year of school. I’m never coming out again.’ And from that moment on he didn’t. Harriet rather respected him for it, but his stethoscope was cold” (196).

This comparison between a stethoscope and Harriet’s respect for the authenticity and honesty of the doctor is another example of Fitzhugh’s ability to capture Harriet’s child-like worldview because the adult mind wouldn’t find these two concepts linked.

When Harriet’s friend Janie is introduced, the reader learns “Janie Gibbs was Harriet’s best friend besides Sport. She had a chemistry set and planned one day to blow up the world. Both Harriet and Sport had a great respect for Janie’s experiments, but they didn’t understand a word she said about them” (29). Janie’s aspirations don’t really make sense to an adult, who imagines in their fulfillment the destruction of everything and everyone. Her friends, however, are nonplussed, further recognition that the rules of the adult universe are not in effect in the friendships of sixth graders.

Harriet’s Journal Is Us

I try to avoid cover text if at all possible because cover text tends to get the book wrong, and Harriet the Spy is no exception. My copy explains, “Then one morning, Harriet’s life is turned upside down. Her classmates find her spy notebook and read it out loud! Harriet’s in big trouble. The other sixth-graders are stealing her tomato sandwiches, forming a spy-catcher club, and writing notes of their own—all about Harriet!” Exclamation! Shock! Surprise! Why book covers need to be written as though advertising monster truck shows is beyond me.

While it’s true that Harriet’s journal is read by her peers, and it’s true that Harriet’s life is turned upside down, it isn’t the notebook that sets off the cataclysm in Harriet’s life. Her classmates don’t even find the notebook until page 179 of a 298-page book. That means wholly two-thirds of the book goes by without this cover-text problem. Rather, the notebook is an additional link in a chain of events that starts to go out of control at the end of Part One when Harriet’s nanny, Ole Golly, leaves. Harriet’s world of predictable consistency is shattered; she goes through the kind of challenges that are recognizable to any of us on the outside looking at someone trying to cope with a vacuum in his or her life. She flails mentally, she reacts unpredictably, she hurts people she loves, she does things she knows are wrong or that she knows she shouldn’t do. “She wrote THEY PUT ME UP HERE IN THIS ROOM BECAUSE THEY THINK I’M A WITCH. Even as she did it she knew perfectly well that her parents thought nothing of the kind” (200). Harriet’s behavior is contradictory, even to herself. She makes a statement that she knows is untrue simply because she is feeling disagreeable and acts on her feelings.

For the reader, Harriet’s journal provides an insight into her personality and her struggles, but it also goes further by providing an insight into our own personalities. Harriet’s journal, for the purpose of this book, is really Harriet’s thoughts, which are unflattering, selfish, and mean – just like most of us much of the time. None of us are excoriated for our thoughts, our mental ephemera slipping through our consciousness daily, but if these thoughts were captured and shared, how proud would any of us be of what goes on in our heads?

The saying about how people behave when no one is looking comes to mind, especially after a conversation I had recently about people dumping their garbage in the country. Someone dumped a bunch of refuse on a country road rather than find a place to dispose of it, and this reminds me how often our own decisions are determined by our expectations of who is judging us, or more importantly, who isn’t.

The notebook and the drama of its contents force the reader to confront how his or her own thoughts are often nasty and unpleasant. We recognize that Harriet shouldn’t think some of the things that she does, but it’s only the hypocrites among us who judge her. For the rest, we read her thoughts with a reluctant recognition that the only difference between Harriet and ourselves is that Harriet has written down her thoughts, and those thoughts have been revealed to others.

Pinky Whitehead vs. Miss Whitehead

I’ve read it twice, and I still don’t see any reason to introduce confusion for the reader by having a child named Pinky Whitehead and a school dean named Miss Whitehead unless I’ve missed something subtle connecting the two. In this case, on page 31, we meet Pinky Whitehead on the first day of sixth grade. Harriet mentally recalls, “He lived on Eighty-eighth Street. He had a very beautiful mother, a father who worked on a magazine, and a baby sister three years old.”

After a full page of Pinky Whitehead, we arrive at, “Miss Angela Whitehead, the present dean, stood at the podium” (31-2). Harriet describes Miss Whitehead in her typical, ruthless manner: “MISS WHITEHEAD HAS BUCK TEETH, THIN HAIR, FEET LIKE SKIS, AND A VERY LONG HANGING STOMACH” (32).

To me, either there should be a reason for Pinky Whitehead and Miss Whitehead to share surnames, or there should be a moment’s recognition by Harriet about the improbability of two despicable people both with the same last name, especially encountered as they are in such close proximity to one another.

Quotable Moments

“Writer’s don’t care what they eat. They just care what you think of them” (49). This passage captures, almost as an aside, a facet of human nature that describes anyone who seeks affirmation from others. Some writers may be self-sustaining creators whose works are built for themselves, but at the heart of every desire to communicate with others is a desire to be understood. And most writers, by opening themselves through communication with others, are not interested in argument, in dispute; they are looking to open a dialogue or to persuade their readers. Either way, their goal is to find that affirmation or confirmation that their views have been understood or accepted. Fitzhugh may also be making a wry self-admission that the writing itself isn’t enough; it’s the reader and their responses which make the writing have value to the writer.

“She hated math. She hated math with every bone in her body. She spent so much time hating it that she never had time to do it. She didn’t understand it at all, not a word. She didn’t even understand anyone who did understand it. She always looked at them suspiciously. Did they have some part of the brain that she didn’t have? Was there a big hole missing in her head where all the math should be?” (139). I connected with Harriet in this passage. It reminded me of every math class after fifth grade. I hated math homework. I remember completing three or so problems on the nightly homework because the teacher gave us points for including our name and the date on the paper, then she would randomly grade three problems for a total of five points. I was generally guaranteed she would pick one of the first three problems, so if I did that much, I had a good chance of earning 60%. That’s not a passing grade, but if she was grading those problems for accuracy, anyway, I wasn’t likely to earn much higher as my computation skills were (are) terrible. Fortunately, the computer has given me a tool to make up for my math deficiencies by outsourcing the computation to a machine that only makes the mistakes I give it.

“She lay in the dark and stared at nothing. She didn’t blame her father for being angry. It was all so boring” (247). Again, Fitzhugh captures the inexplicable contradictions of the childish brain. I can’t tell you how many definitions for the word “boring” I’ve tried to interpret from middle schoolers who use it to describe anything they don’t want to do or anything they don’t agree with. This is exactly the way a sixth-grader would think. The situation, the conflict with her parents, isn’t “boring,” instead she’s inconvenienced, she’s annoyed, she wants avoidance, distraction, diversion, and somehow, these feelings get wrapped up into “boring,” which has become a giant negative-connotation soup for anything and everyone who doesn’t entertain her or do what she wants.

Fitzhugh’s Use of Adverbial Prepositional Phrases

Fitzhugh frequently employs the preposition “in” as part of an adverbial prepositional phrase to describe the manner of a character’s speech. This stylistic feature is something I find problematic in my young writers. Examples include, “She said in an angry way” or, “He said in a nervous way” or even more jarring to the ear (and brain), “She said in a laughing way.”

Because this practice is a matter of style, I’ve tried to explore the source of my aversion to this specific construction.

Adverbs themselves, fashioned as they often are from adjectives mingling with the polyamorous ly, are the bane of writers everywhere – at least, that is what we are led to believe by writers writing about writing. An honest writer won’t prohibit adverbs outright, but will certainly offer warnings against their use. Strunk and White, in The Elements of Style (my copy is the Fourth Edition, but there are many others published to the great satisfaction of the estates of both Strunk and White) offer the advice “Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs” (71). (Aside: for an alternate perspective and an excoriation of Strunk and White’s rule, see The Blowing of Strunk and White’s Rules Off at Language Log; my interpretation here is that Pullum takes the advice to its most absurd extreme rather than recognizing what Strunk and White point out in the same paragraph, that “it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give good writing its toughness and color” [72].)

Stephen King, in On Writing, discusses his aversion to adverbs. “The adverb is not your friend” (117), he explains. This doesn’t mean we should always avoid the company of adverbs everywhere; rather, King recommends that we should invite them sparingly to our parties, and then with purpose. King then points out that writers should be on the lookout for adverbs used for dialogue attribution. He gives examples to help clarify what he means on page 119:

“Put it down,” she shouted.

“Put it down,” she shouted menacingly.

The former, he tells us, is always stronger than the latter.

One of several sources that discuss Elmore Leonard’s rules for writing can be found at Language Log, Avoiding Rape and Adverbs. Leonard similarly offers rule #4: “Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’…”

I offer all of these points knowing that the specific stylistic construction I am referring to is not an adverb, but instead an adverbial prepositional phrase, and while none of these sources directly address the use of adverbial prepositional phrases, only adverbs, they do offer consistent repudiation of adverbs used in dialogue tags.

Which brings us to Fitzhugh’s writing. As I read, I kept stumbling over the preposition “in” used in adverbial prepositional phrases to modify dialogue tags. It happened so frequently that I decided to go back and identify each instance of these distracting prepositional phrases to better understand why they struck me as dissonant or inefficient.

There is a distinct formula and cadence to this style of adverbial prepositional phrase:

“Quotation” verbed the subject in a modifier(s) way/voice/manner/tone.

In the majority of instances, Fitzhugh begins the sentence with a quotation, follows the quote with the verb, comes next to the subject and finally, at the close of the sentence, indicates the manner of the speaking. Less frequently, she begins the sentence with a subject + action verb and then modifies the verb with the adverbial prepositional phrase.

Without using any software, I counted 24 instances of adverbial prepositional phrases in Harriet the Spy:

  • 18 used the pattern “in a modifier way.”
  • 3 used the pattern “in a modifier voice.”
  • 2 used the pattern “in a modifier manner.”
  • 1 used the pattern “in a modifier tone.”

So what is it about this construction?

In the first place, it requires more space to do the same job, so:

“I don’t know,” said Ole Golly in a musing way (22) could also be written by revising the participle musing into a verb: “I don’t know,” Ole Golly mused. In this example, the seven words are reduced to only three.

Or,

Janie looked at her in the strangest way (176) could be rewritten, Janie looked at her strangely, reducing the initial eight words to only five; however, the transformation appears to have changed the meaning for me, and I’m not convinced I prefer the revised version to the original.

Fitzhugh uses this pattern with frequency. There are pockets within the book where multiple adverbial prepositional phrases are located close to one another, so, for example, between 101 and 103 there are four; between pages 170 and 176 there are also four. One by itself in a novel may not be obvious or recognizable, but four within three or four pages becomes visible to the eye and ear.

The following are all the adverbial prepositional phrases I found during a second read of Harriet the Spy:

  1. ‘“I don’t know,’ said Ole Golly in a musing way” (22).
  2. “The maid was humming ‘Miss Am-er-i-ker, look at hewr, Miss Am-er-i-ker’ in a tuneless sort of way” (43).
  3. “‘Well,’ said Ole Golly in a friendly manner” (91).
  4. “…‘You’re stuck with me,’ said the cook in a grumpy way” (92).
  5. “‘NO,’ said Harriet in an exasperated way” (101).
  6. “‘I just wondered,’ said Mrs. Welsch in a bemused voice” (101).
  7. “‘Good Lord, you’re not half ready,’ he said in a very irritated way” (102).
  8. “Then in a rather stiff, formal way he said, ‘Good night, Harriet…” (103).
  9. “‘Who’s that?’ she said in a very unconcerned way” (112).
  10. “Harriet heard Ole Golly say, ‘Oh, no,’ in an astonished voice, then she slipped off the cart” (120).
  11. “‘Miss Golly . . .’ Mr. Welsch said this in a terrible voice as he headed for the door with Harriet in his arms” (122).
  12. “‘Mrs. Welsch—’ Mr. Waldenstein was smiling in a terribly ingratiating manner” (127).
  13. “He said this a warm, soft way, and then they all stood looking at Mrs. Welsch” (128).
  14. “‘Bridge,’ said Harriet in a disgusted way” (137).
  15. “She looked around in a delighted way” (153).
  16. “Harriet remembered it from last year as a long wait with your feet hurting while a terribly flustered Miss Dodge measured you in a sweaty way and, likely as not, stuck you full of pins” (155).
  17. “Her parents kissed her good night in a rather melancholy way and went out” (170).
  18. “Then, when she breathed in a very labored way and said, ‘Don’t mind me’ they really stared” (171).
  19. “Janie looked at her in the strangest way” (176).
  20. “She saw Janie looking at her in a terribly irritated way a few minutes later, but that might have been because Harriet had almost rolled into the lab table” (176).
  21. “And she got up and marched off in as dignified a way as possible under the circumstances” (183).
  22. “At any rate, suddenly she laughed in a rather spooky way, and as she did she backed away” (205).
  23. “He was telling everyone what to do in a very irritated way” (212).
  24. “Actually, what she said was, ‘You don’t have a father, do you, Rachel?’ in a fairly conversational tone” (242).

I am unable to conclude for certain whether Fitzhugh’s use of the adverbial prepositional phrase was purposeful or unintentional. Given the other qualities of her writing that I appreciate, I lean toward purposeful, as she not only captured of childhood’s nuances in her characters, but she could have intended to further reinforce those qualities by constructing adverbial prepositional phrases that mirror the kind of writing created by young writers. Or, it could simply be the case that this construction does not strike others with the same dissonance that it strikes me.

Sources:

  • Fitzhugh, Louise. Harriet the Spy. Delacorte Press, 2002.
  • King, Stephen. On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft. Pocket Books, 2002.
  • Liberman, Mark, and Geoffrey K. Pullum. Far from the Madding Gerund and Other Dispatches from Language Log. William, James & Co., 2006. (Note, I just linked to the actual Language Log entries rather than the pages of the book, but I read and noted these comments in the book first.)
  • Strunk, William, and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. Fourth ed., Allyn and Bacon, 2000.

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