Monday, August 12, 2013

Harriet the Spy as Social Satire

***Warning: contains spoilers***

Harriet the Spy is one of those books you should read twice: once as a child, and again as an adult. As a kid, you'll laugh out loud at Harriet's escapades and maybe learn a valuable lesson about kindness. As an adult you'll appreciate the hilarious social satire of 1960s Manhattan.

Harriet's parents are wealthy New York socialites with the world at their feet. Her father "works for television" (we're never told how). When Harriet asks what her mother does, the mother says she does "many unappreciated things," among them being packed in mud for beauty treatments. Harriet is raised by her nurse, Ole Golly, and fed by the cook. Her parents are minimally involved in her life, and yet they are shocked when their darling daughter turns out to be amoral. Rather than taking a moment of serious introspection, they sent Harriet to a psychologist, who informs them that nothing is psychologically wrong.

Her parents are not the only adults with priority issues. One of the couples on Harriet's spy route is a materialistic husband and wife whose only hobby is accumulating extravagant purchases to show off to their acquaintances. Between expenditures, the couple sits idly on their couch without a word to say to each other. While this portrayal is far less subtle than the picture of Harriet's parents, it drives home the point about materialism and shallow values.

In fact, the only characters who escape this problem are poor, eccentric, or both. Harriet is inspired by a poor Italian family who owns a grocery store. They are a large, argumentative immigrant family, Catholic in an era of WASPS, but they pull together and care for one another in adversity. Another sympathetic character on the spy route is a cat-loving bachelor who creates sculptures in his home and struggles to feed both himself and the cats. After his multiple cats are taken from him by the city for violating health codes, he wastes away in mourning until he finds a kitten. In a rare moment of humanity, Harriet is moved to tears by the sight; she writes in her journal that "There are as many ways of living as there are people."

In spite of the satire, Fitzhugh resists the urge to create mere caricatures. The parents are very flawed, but they still love their daughter. The wonderful Ole Golly is no saint; she sees the deep flaws in Harriet but responds in enigmas that fail to penetrate. Harriet herself is a delightful mix; at times I wanted to slap her, but in the end she learned what it means to empathize:

She looked at them each carefully in the longish time it took them to reach her. She made herself walk in Sport’s shoes, feeling the holes in his socks rub against his ankles. She pretended she had an itchy nose when Janie put one abstracted hand up to scratch. She felt what it would be like to have freckles and yellow hair like Janie, then funny ears and skinny shoulders like Sport. 

The author Louise Fitzhugh knew firsthand what it is to live on society's fringes. Her background of divorce and parental neglect makes Harriet's look like a model of stability, which adds poignancy to Harriet's obsession with consistency (for instance, she will only eat tomato sandwiches for lunch, much to the cook's chagrin). Although Fitzhugh herself was a liberal bohemian, her books delight in poking holes in the agnostic sophistication of New York's elite.

Those who reveled in the satirical aspects of Harriet should read the odd but brilliant sequel, The Long Secret. But more on that another day.

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