When the Writing Takes Over the Writer

Louise Fitzhugh, author of Harriet the Spy, and the poet James Merrill were joined by friendship, craft, and graphomania: the compulsion to write.

Louise Fitzhugh—author of Harriet the Spy—and James Merrill—the poet—were joined by friendship, craft, and graphomania: the compulsion to write.

Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh’s iconic 1964 novel, appears to be a book with an aspiring writer as its protagonist, but the writer is the vehicle for the actual main character: her notebook. Harriet’s notebook acts like the broom in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” Goethe’s fable (made famous by Mickey Mouse in Walt Disney’s Fantasia). The apprentice animates his broom to do his dirty work, but then he can’t turn off the spell. Like the apprentice’s broom, the notebook initially seems to be Harriet’s helper, a dutiful work of magic under the author’s control that helps the writer learn lots of titillating secrets—yet the book soon dominates, the process itself becoming the story, the tool overtaking its master. At its core, then, Fitzhugh’s classic isn’t a novel about a budding writer—it’s about the act of writing. And writing, for Harriet, goes far beyond a benign act of recording or expressing her feelings. More than that: Harriet the Spy is a compelling case study of graphomania.

Graphomania, or the compulsion to write, might seem like a boon for an aspiring author. Incredibly prolific writers like Joyce Carol Oates (whose Twitter production alone is staggering, not to mention that she also publishes titles under the pseudonyms Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly) and Walter Mosley (whose dozens of titles include The Graphomaniac’s Primer: A Semi-Surrealist Memoir) use their hypergraphic tendencies to fuel productivity. More often, however, graphomania dissolves into logorrhea and incoherent nonsense. Harriet’s notebook walks that fine line. It is at once her trusted confidante and her traitor: the very thing she loves the most also becomes her downfall. Harriet’s graphomania is inextricably braided with secrecy: secrets only come to life on the page, and that’s where they need to stay to remain safe.

Sometimes You Have to Lie, Leslie Brody’s excellent new biography of Fitzhugh, reveals its subject’s genius not only as a writer of children’s literature but as an artist. Fitzhugh is primarily remembered as the creator of Harriet, the (in Fitzhugh’s words) “nasty little girl” of the Harriet the Spy novels—but, as Brody documents, Fitzhugh’s work is about far more than that. The later Harriet novels delve into racial inequity and social justice, with Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change focusing on a Black family in Harriet’s Upper East Side neighborhood.

Even though Harriet is outspoken, and though Fitzhugh’s work pushes boundaries, during Fitzhugh’s lifetime, she kept her own personal life closely under wraps. Although Harriet the Spy became a phenomenon and Harriet one of most iconic and beloved characters of children’s literature, her author remained deeply elusive to the reading public.

Much of the secrecy was due to her sexuality; as Brody notes, exposure of a children’s book writer as a lesbian was still publicly unacceptable long after Stonewall. Yet Fitzhugh, Brody reveals, was at the center of a vibrant literary and artistic circle. One of the more surprising revelations in Sometimes You Have to Lie is the relationship between Fitzhugh and her first faculty adviser at Bard, the poet James Merrill. Indeed, Merrill’s the person to whom Fitzhugh originally described Harriet as the “nasty little girl who keeps a notebook on all her friends.”

Merrill and Fitzhugh are also connected through their graphomania, and through a key object—Harriet’s notebook, Merrill’s Ouija board—that allows them to both unlock secrets and keep them safe.


The YA Resistance

By Catherine Keyser

Fitzhugh was born in Memphis and raised in her millionaire grandparents’ mansion. Her father and grandparents lavished attention, money, and servants on their precocious, dainty-looking girl (Fitzhugh was four feet eleven inches fully grown). They told her that her mother was dead—but that was a lie. In reality, her parents had had a scandalous divorce when Fitzhugh was a baby, with her mother losing all custody. Eventually, Fitzhugh realized that the strange woman who occasionally lurked around the mansion was her mother. So Fitzhugh learned that adults lied, and extravagant attention was never to be trusted.

Harriet’s notebook’s entries, always in all-capital block letters, enter the novel like voices from beyond. At first, Harriet is at the center of every act of writing, and before we get a direct quote from the book, we see Harriet in action: “Harriet wrote in her notebook”; “She sat on some steps and took out her book”; “When she recovered herself she grabbed her notebook.” The observations shift from snarky photographic records of daily life to interior monologue. Harriet watches a self-satisfied wealthy couple who appear to sit around all day smirking and declaring in smug, if doth-protest-too-much, tones how glad they are not to have children. “IF THEY HAD A BABY IT WOULD LAUGH IN ITS HEAD ALL THE TIME AT THEM,” she writes, “SO IT’S A GOOD THING THEY DON’T. I’M GLAD I’M NOT PERFECT—I’D BE BORED TO DEATH.”

Children’s writing by adult authors often seems squelched: either drowning in squishy-cute whimsy or a drolly robotic Dick-and-Jane autotune. Harriet’s notebook, however, comes to life as its power grows. The observations veer from wildly mundane (“MISS WHITEHEAD’S FEET LOOK LARGER THIS YEAR”) to weirdly associative (“I HAVE HEARD THAT PIGEONS MAKE PEOPLE GET CANCER”) to just plain mean (“IF MARION HAWTHORNE DOESN’T WATCH OUT SHE’S GOING TO GROW UP INTO A LADY HITLER”). But all of them share one trait: they have a clear, sharp voice, distinct from both Harriet’s and the narrator’s.

To really possess the reader, sometimes you have to be possessed to the point of losing control.

In the first half of the novel, the reader only gets to read the notebook filtered through Harriet’s perspective: that is, we only get to see her words as Harriet’s writing them down. But that all changes when Harriet loses the notebook, and Fitzhugh does her big reveal. Harriet doesn’t possess the notebook: the notebook possesses her. In the novel’s climactic setup, Harriet and her classmates play a version of tag where the person who’s “it” has to knock all the schoolbooks off the others. Once she’s been tagged, Harriet realizes her notebook’s gone missing. She flies into a panic, screeching as she races back to rejoin the group—but, of course, they’ve already found the damning journal. As soon as the notebook’s out of Harriet’s hands, Fitzhugh abruptly packs Harriet home and to bed, even though it’s the middle of the afternoon. Harriet is a marionette, and, without the notebook to pull her strings, she collapses into an inert bundle of limbs and joints. Having dispatched Harriet, Fitzhugh swings her full spotlight onto the students reading the notebook. The students only want to read about themselves, and the notebook provides for them, readily yielding up gold nuggets. For the first time, we get to read what’s in the notebook without actually seeing Harriet in scribende flagrante.

At this point, the notebook takes over. She graphomaniacally records every detail as though it won’t exist unless she writes it. “THEY ARE OUT TO GET ME,” we read in the notebook. “THE WHOLE ROOM IS FILLED WITH MEAN EYES.” Harriet pours herself more and more into the notebook, and the notebook absorbs her. “During math class she wrote all the time,” Fitzhugh reports. “The next day was even worse. She didn’t even make any pretense of doing her work. She just wrote all the time.” Harriet’s harried parents send her to a therapist—and just as the tag game is the eerily perfect excuse to get the notebook out of Harriet’s hands, the therapy session is crafted to target her craving. When the therapist brings out his notepad, every synapse in Harriet’s body starts twitching. He gives her a notebook, and she lights up, spending the rest of the session scribbling.


In the novel’s grand finale, a classmate spills blue ink all over Harriet. Lady Harriet Macbeth scrubs and scrubs, staining her bathtub blue in her effort to wash away the sins. The only thing that can reverse the notebook’s power is writing. Harriet publishes a retraction in the student newspaper, which appears in the notebook’s all-caps style, denouncing the writings in the notebook as “UNFAIR STATEMENTS” and “LIES,” and offering the class a “GENERAL APOLOGY.” The retraction works: Harriet’s friends return to her, and she’s able to rejoin sixth-grade society.

But truth isn’t the ultimate goal: writing itself is. Harriet’s notebook has the last word: “SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO LIE,” declares the notebook. In order to keep writing—in order to keep the story going—Harriet had to pretend to be reformed. “NOW THAT THINGS ARE BACK TO NORMAL,” she writes, “I CAN GET SOME REAL WORK DONE.”


Queer Your Own Adventure

By Alexandra Valint

Harriet the Spy is also beloved as a novel celebrating queerness, from Harriet’s unisex uniform—blue jeans, hoodie, tool belt—to her disgust for stereotypical gender roles. In most young adult books, the novel’s twist would be to turn away from the notebook, the protagonist giving up childish things as she grows up. After chasing each other in tag, Sport and Harriet would have fallen down on some grass patch far away from the gang, breathless, and their hands would have touched as they suddenly lurched at each other for a kiss. But Harriet the Spy isn’t about prepubescent hormones, and, anyway, neither Sport nor Harriet have shown any sexual interest in anyone, let alone each other.

Fitzhugh’s refusal to bring Sport and Harriet together as a couple has a sharp analog in her own life: her relationship with the poet James Merrill. The “bright, funny, tiny tomboy from Memphis,” as Merrill described her in his memoir, A Different Person, immediately impressed him with her perfect villanelles. They grew close through tutorials, went out dancing, and, one night, they tumbled into Merrill’s bed. “She began undressing me,” Merrill wrote, but Fitzhugh quickly stopped and fled. Merrill, who was gay, hoped that Fitzhugh might be his “cure” and pursued her. In A Different Person, Merrill wrote that he “slipped pleading messages into her campus mailbox, brought prophylactics, sought to waylay her on the paths between dormitory and classroom”—to no avail. (Merrill was all of 22 at the time, which doesn’t make his actions less creepy.) Fitzhugh changed her major from literature to psychology and was very clear with Merrill that she had no intention of sleeping with him. She had come out as a lesbian, and she definitely wasn’t interested in any “cure.” Soon, Merrill accepted his own sexuality and stopped trying to pursue Fitzhugh. While they did reconnect and “even went to bed one sunny, tipsy dusk,” as Merrill put it, nothing happened—they were both set in their ways, and “made do with a lifelong friendship.”

On the page, the friendship comes through in the profound artistic connection between this odd couple: Harriet’s notebook and Merrill’s Ouija board. For both Fitzhugh and Merrill, writing also lets the master overtake the tool, reversing the magic and regaining authority. In The Long Secret, Fitzhugh’s sequel to Harriet the Spy, Harriet has two notebooks going: one for spying and one for writing stories and poems. Notebooks frame not only how she experiences the world, but how she experiences herself. They also provide a balance: notebooks are what allows her to sift through the world and create her own order out of chaos. The Long Secret has a beautiful digression on how Harriet makes a poem, scouring the alphabet for words that rhyme. She is in control of the writing, creating out of words; as she scrolls through the alphabet, the spell is in her own hands again. Merrill, similarly, writes several volumes of poems alongside The Changing Light at Sandover that have nothing to do with the Ouija board: though voices from beyond might inspire him, he manages the inspiration.

The unlikely friendship between Fitzhugh and Merrill played a relatively minor role in both their lives, but it reveals a major connection in their work: the “sorcerer’s apprentice” mode of writing. Even for these two masters, to really possess the reader, sometimes you have to be possessed to the point of losing control.


This article was commissioned by Leah Price. icon

Featured image: Detail of the book cover of Harriet the Spy (Yearling, 2001)