Sport

Sport tells the story of Harriet’s friend Simon Rocque (Sport to his friends). When we last saw Sport, in Harriet the Spy, he was living with his impoverished, impractical, writer father and his mother was nowhere to be seen. Sport took care of the household, cooking and cleaning for them both. In Sport, we find that Sport’s mother is returning to the scene. Her father is dying, and she has discovered that, under the terms of her father’s will, she will inherit twice as much money if she has custody of her son. Sport has no intention of going to live with his mother, but goes to visit his dying grandfather in his mansion and agrees to visit his mother from time to time. Meanwhile, his father has found a woman he wants to marry. Taking advantage of this, Sport’s mother offers to look after Sport while his father and new stepmother take a honeymoon. But in fact she kidnaps him and hides him in the Plaza Hotel, hiring private detectives to make sure he can’t leave his room, and arranging with the hotel not to allow outgoing calls, hoping she can force Sport’s father to give her custody. One of Sport’s school friends is a busboy at the Plaza Hotel, and eventually he finds Sport and smuggles him out in a room service cart. Several other near escapes later, and Sport is reunited with his father and stepmother.

This book took a tortuous road to publication. She submitted the manuscript to Nordstrom in 1966, who sent it back for significant revision. Fitzhugh took it badly (Nordstorm, 215). She seems to have stopped work on the book and turned to other projects, perhaps intending to return to it later. One critic believes that “Fitzhugh was so upset by her editors’ criticisms that she abruptly ended her relationship with Harper & Row” (Cook), but this cannot be true. Fitzhugh withdrew the manuscript from consideration (Wolf, 115) but continued to have a working relationship with Harper & Row, later working with them on Bang Bang You’re Dead in 1968 and ’69 (Nordstrom, 251). (footnote)

It may be that Fitzhugh, though prickly in her response to Nordstrom’s criticism, became convinced that the manuscript was so faulty that it was not worth fixing up, and simply moved on to other projects. Virginia L. Wolf makes several excellent points about the failings of Sport:

[T]he plot does not require Sport to grow as do the protagonists of Fitzhugh’s other novels [... The] melodramatic characters and lurid events are entertaining and satisfying, but they are mostly without psychological depth. They appeal to the heart and not to the head. We feel sorry for and proud of Sport; we hate and dismiss his mother. We never think about why either of them is the way they are. (117)

Other critics have pointed out that what appeals to children in the book is precisely its lack of subtlety: it is a farce, and the pacing and plot are enough to keep readers entertained (Nodelman). Nonetheless, it is odd to find it among Fitzhugh’s writings, and different enough from the rest of her body of work that at least one friend told Wolf that she wasn’t sure it was Fitzhugh’s work at all. (Wolf, 115)

The manuscript was found among Fitzhugh’s papers after her death and published in 1979 by Delacorte. In this sense, it belongs not only to the category of “Harriet” books but also to the category of posthumous books, considered here. Like those books, its publication appears to be primarily a business consideration rather than an artistic one, and probably not one Fitzhugh herself would have made. Given that she submitted the manuscript in 1966, then did nothing with it in the eight years before she died, instead illustrating Bang Bang You’re Dead and writing Nobody’s Family is Going to Change, it seems likely that this manuscript was entirely abandoned.

Sources:

Nordstrom, Ursula. Dear Genius: the Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. Collected and edited by Leonard S. Marcus. (New York: HarperCollins, 1998).

Wolf, Virginia L. Louise Fitzhugh. (New York: Twayne, 1991).

Nodelman, Perry. “Louise Fitzhugh.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 52: American Writers for Children Since 1960: Fiction. (Detroit: Gale, 1986): 133-142.

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