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'Harriet the Spy' Predicted Our Surveillance State

A cold war children's book is surprisingly prescient


Harriet the Spy turns 50 this year—the book, that is; the child was eleven in Louise Fitzhugh’s novel in 1964, and she remains eleven, eternally stalking the streets around her home on East 87th Street in Manhattan. Louise Fitzhugh grew up in Tennessee, but found her adult home in New York, where she conjured this spiky, idiosyncratic dispatch from the complex brain of a smart and peculiar urban child, which is also a dispatch from a child’s version of the great game of espionage, as played at the height of the Cold War.

“Spy” is not a particularly friendly word—and never was. Louise Fitzhugh’s novel came out in 1964, four years after U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down in his U-2 spy plane, one year after Soviet British spy Kim Philby’s defection to Moscow. Real spies were in the news, and they were part of what made the Cold War world so full of danger and uncertainty. Harriet was not the most famous literary spy of 1964; John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold sat on top of The New York Times bestseller list for most of the year. On the cover of my battered paperback copy of Harriet from the late 1960s, there’s a tagline, “The Zany Adventures of a Child Spy,” which reads like a slightly off-key attempt to attach happy good humor to a frightening word.

And although the novel is not particularly concerned with politics, Harriet is a Cold War child, an eleven-year-old protagonist who writes matter-of-factly in her notebook, “in Washington they’ve already got a little tube with a spoonful of something in it that will blow up the whole world, maybe the whole universe.” 1964, after all, was the year that Johnson defeated Goldwater with the help of a TV ad featuring a little girl and a mushroom cloud.

Many of us who grew up wanting to be writers have found touchstones in Harriet and her notebook. But spying is not just a metaphor for observing and reporting and writing. Yes, she uses her notebook to catalogue public appearances and render private judgments (“I don’t think I’d like to live where any of these people live or do the things they do. … I bet that lady with the cross-eye looks in the mirror and just feels terrible”), but Harriet doesn’t stop at noting down the details of people on the subway. Harriet is a spy, and she views her “work,” her life assignment, as something much more transgressive. She wants secrets.

“I know all about you,” Harriet tells her family’s cook. “I know you live with your sister in Brooklyn and that she might get married and you wish you had a car and you have a son that’s no good and drinks.” When the cook tells her that listening at doors is bad manners, Harriet comes back with the words of her nurse, Ole Golly, which sound less like letters to a young writer and more like international relations game theory: “Ole Golly says find out everything you can cause life is hard enough even if you know a lot.”

Beleaguered by the social storms of sixth grade on the Upper East Side, Harriet dreams of a future in international espionage: “When I am big I will be a spy. I will go to one country and I will find out its secrets and then I will go to another country and tell them and then find out their secrets and I will go back to the first one and rat on the second and I will go to the second and rat on the first.” She wants to be a writer and also a spy; her plan, her hope, her ambition, is to bring the two together: "When I grow up I'm going to find out everything about everybody and put it all in a book. The book is going to be called SECRETS by Harriet M. Welsch. I will also have photographs in it and maybe some medical charts if I can get them."

But in her childish rehearsal for that future, Harriet is peculiarly prescient; she is spying on domestic lives and private selves, not on public figures and official transactions. And in hiding in a dumbwaiter to hunt the hidden shadows of the personal, which might have seemed a childish (if not zany) poor relation of Cold War international intrigue, Harriet actually foreshadows the high-tech anxieties of 50 years later. We worry that we are being watched, recorded, carefully noted and preserved in our most personal moments. Note, also, that there is no patriotism in her ambition, and not even any sense of political intrigue. Her allegiance is to the overarching importance of secrets.

Harriet reads today like a low-tech avatar of twenty-first-century spying; she was after the kind of personal data that has come to represent our increasing vulnerability and our decreasing privacy. She was the kind of spy who wants your medical charts, your luncheonette conversations, the details of what you buy at the grocery store. Her version of the great game may have been limited by a child’s circumscribed reach—but that makes it resonate even more loudly as we find our private moments and our domestic behaviors newly susceptible to observation and exploitation.

Being observed by strangers—and in some sense recorded—is not benign. Harriet the Spy is about privacy and the violation of privacy—even though Harriet was spying in a world that was technologically more primitive than our own. As I reread the book today, I am much more conscious that conversations can be overheard and taped and emails intercepted—by private industry, by government, or just by busybody bystanders. As a child, I felt that the crucial violation of the novel took place when her classmates read Harriet’s sacred notebook; as an adult, I feel a little more sympathy for those who had been observed. Yes, it was Harriet’s property, and Harriet’s sentences, and any writer would cringe at the idea of unfriendly hands and unfriendly eyes on the notes that are not for publication—but they weren’t just Harriet’s secrets in there.

The intellectual effort that Harriet put into spying, the obsessive curiosity and the personal attention and the risk-taking, brilliantly explored the complexities of the idea of privacy, even in the breach; the black and white notebook full of handwritten observations was an icon of personal property, as well as a record of invasions, and the idea of others opening and reading that notebook was charged with the power of personal violation. I used to think I fell in love with spying when I read Harriet—but I have come to realize that what I really fell in love with was the precious fragile notion of privacy. 

Image via shutterstock.