Thursday, December 24, 2020

"An elaborate secret life was a necessity" for the author of Harriet the Spy

From a review of a new biography about Louise Fitzhugh:

Published in 1964, Harriet the Spy followed the adventures of Harriet M. Welsch, a little girl who enjoys a carefree life of snooping on her Manhattan neighbors and eating bland sandwiches until, one day, the jig is up, and the notebook she’s been writing her astute but cruel observations in is discovered by her classmates and friends.


For all its professed innocence, “librarians, teachers, and members of parents’ associations, who considered themselves protectors of children’s welfare and arbiters of moral instruction” sensed something off about the novel. Namely, Harriet does not grow or change or realize she has been harsh in her assessment of friends and family. She simply becomes more duplicitous 


It turns out that Fitzhugh intimately knew the dangers of having your cover blown. As a lesbian writing children’s literature in the aftermath of the McCarthy era, she guarded her privacy by necessity. Despite her book’s extraordinary success, Fitzhugh gave no interviews, did no readings at children’s bookstores, and generally refused to participate in Harper’s publicity campaign. 


When Fitzhugh tried to follow up Harriet the Spy with a novel that centered on a lesbian relationship, her agent (who herself was bisexual) was said to be “quite terrified” by the material and worried about the public’s reaction, given her client’s reputation as an author of books for children. The manuscript, titled Mimi, never made it to publication.