Origin Stories: Harriet the Spy

Little lies that make people feel better are not bad, like thanking someone for a meal they made even if you hated it, or telling a sick person they look better when they don’t, or someone with a hideous new hat that it’s lovely. Remember that writing is to put love in the world, not to use against your friends. But to yourself you must tell the truth.” –Ole Golly, Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh

Harriet M. Welsch is a grade-A jerk. She’s snobbish and cruel and selfish and bossy and mean. And I love her for it.

See (before we get into plot summaries), I love books with child protagonists who are jerks. You know why? Because, generally speaking, children are jerks, at least some of the time.

It’s not always their fault – after all, they’re still learning to be human beings, and we as adults are notoriously bad at being (consistently) positive examples of good human beings. The point is, if I am reading a book where there is a child protagonist who is absolutely never heartless or rude or cruel at all, I will probably not like that book. I much prefer books like Harriet the Spy, where Harriet is a very mean little girl who learns to become less of a jerk over the course of the story.

Oh, hey, plot summary. Harriet M. Welsch is a smart, rich, white girl (I know, right?) who, because she is bored and clever and observant, likes to spy on her neighbors. She writes her observations in all caps (which is one of the delights of the book – rather like my high school lit crush Owen Meany, Harriet’s voice when writing is immediately screamed into the reader’s mind) in a secret notebook, which was always a black-and-white composition notebook. Now you know why I 1) always had a secret notebook/blog 2) love black-and-white composition notebooks more than I really should given that I rarely end up filling them.

So anyway, Harriet’s nanny, Ole Golly, decides to get married and leave her, and Harriet loses her notebook, and her best friends (Sport and Janie, who are awesomesauce) find it. And then all hell breaks loose, because Harriet wrote every thought in her head and every mean observation in that notebook. And we all know what happens when other people hear the mean things we think about them, right? Even our best friends?

So the story is basically about Harriet learning to be empathetic, and learning to lie to keep her friends. It would be easy to rail about how Harriet should be free to express herself, how she shouldn’t have to stifle her creativity to bow to the culture she is oppressed by, etc. etc. But that’s not the point. Her observations aren’t wrong, and they aren’t bad. What gets treated as bad within the novel, in the end, was her refusal to apologize (as well as her carelessness in letting her inner thoughts be found by the absolute worst people). Harriet would not, did not say she was sorry for being mean. Add that to the way, as the novel ends, Harriet begins to write more positive observations – no less cutting, no less clever or true, just less cruel – and I reach the decision that, for me, this novel is about the ways we all have to compromise, at least a little, to be a part of human society.

No, you don’t (and Harriet doesn’t) have to lose your independence or your uniqueness or your talent. You don’t have to hide your light under a bushel or play stupid. Harriet at the end of the book is no less funny or clear-eyed or clever than she was at the beginning of the book. Harriet is still a spy, still writes the truth in her notebook, still thinks too much and sees things other people ignore.

What you (what Harriet, and all of us) do have to do, or try to, anyway, is not be a merciless jerk about it. You can be brilliant and witty and observant without being cruel. You can be brave and daring without putting others at risk. You can think mean things about others if you really want to, but you don’t have to share them.

This may be a controversial opinion, and it feels a little odd to me to consider my parents’ words, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all,” but I really don’t read Harriet the Spy as a “be nice or shut up” story. Instead, as in the Ole Golly quote above, I read it a a story about figuring out when to tell the truth and when to lie to protect the feelings of others.

The point of being in society, in human company and culture, is to work together to create a place we can all live in relative safety. We are supposed to give up certain freedoms – we aren’t supposed to murder each other, or steal from each other. We’re also, if you accept the theme of Harriet the Spy, not supposed to be cruel to other people if we can help it. We can be truthful without being mean, and that’s what Harriet really learns in this book: to tell the truth, but tell it kindly and without malice.

A few months ago, I started actively trying to be a more positive person. I cut out activities that were causing me to behave and think negatively, I cut out people who inspired only negative emotions, and I started engaging more with people and activities that inspired positive emotions. Part of this project was to stop actively thinking and saying cruel or mean or negative things about myself and others. And while I wasn’t thinking consciously of Harriet M. Welsch when I started it, I was thinking of her when my cruel brain was screaming, “BUT IT’S THE TRUTH!” when I tried to be kind. I was thinking of her when I wrote up blog post after blog post and deleted them because they were full of snideness and hatred and insults. I was thinking of her when, for the first time in a long time, I was able to critique something without resorting to petty jabs or sarcasm or self-deprecation.

I’ve since ceased the active parts of my positivity project (keeping some practices and scaling back others), but the lesson remains. It’s not quite the same lesson Emily Dickinson tried to teach us (“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant”“”), but it’s the lesson Harriet learns: tell the truth to yourself, always, and be kind to others. Be honest without being cruel. Use your words to create good in the world, not to tear others down. That’s what Harriet learned, and that’s what I learned from Harriet.

Thanks for reading this entry in the Origin Stories series! Some friends and I will be writing many entries like this in the coming weeks: looking at old favorites with fresh eyes, seeing how they shaped or changed us, understanding what made us love them then and what we love about them now, working through the issues that have arisen with the work as we’ve become more aware of the world.

If you’d like to submit an Origin Story of your own, please leave a comment on this post! We’d love to have your voice.

Origin Stories is an ongoing series over at Sara P’s blog, The World is Yours, where she is accepting submissions for further entries in this series. 

By Sara

23, Oklahoma, happily married white cisgender woman. BS in Language Arts Education, working on my MLIS with a focus on teen services. I want to be Donna Noble and/or Minerva McGonagall when I grow up.

One reply on “Origin Stories: Harriet the Spy”

I love this post.  And I loved Harriet the Spy when I was a kid.  I’ve never really thought about why, but I guess Harriet and I (and you) shared the same challenge of being critical of others, and feeling like it’s necessary to document or comment with our critique.  I am still not great at keeping my opinion to myself, but I’m probably better than I was when I was 10.  I have kept a journal or blog with some regularity since I was 8.  If you went back through all of them, I think an overwhelming theme would be complaints about and criticisms of other people.  Some of whom have read what I said about them.  Hmm. Something to ponder. Maybe I need to start my own positivity project.

Leave a Reply