“Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee”
Author: Wayne Flynt
Price: $25.99 (Hardcover)
Because the author of “To Kill a Mockingbird” was, to say the least, a very private person, her millions of fans are perpetually thirsty for biographical information. They are understandably curious. What was she really like?
She refused interviews after about 1964, and lived in Manhattan, only moving back to Alabama when her health required her to.
Besides her family, Nelle Harper Lee had few close friends. Professor Wayne Flynt of Auburn and his wife, Dartie, were two of only a handful who, near the end, were given permission to visit Ms. Lee at The Meadows, the assisted living facility in Monroeville. Although word of mouth speaks of this volume as Lee’s letters, it is correctly labelled. In inter-chapters, Flynt tells the story of his developing friendship with Ms. Lee, including his many letters to her, and of course her letters, about 35 of them, mostly short, to him.
They met through Ms. Lee's sister Louise in Eufala, Alabama, in March of 1983, at a conference where they both spoke. Ms. Lee, extremely shy and nervous about public speaking, volunteered to speak only after she had heard Capote might be invited. She prevented that! After the speaking Ms. Lee signed the book of Sean Flynt, 14, Wayne’s son, but when Flynt, 52, asked for an autograph, “she replied icily, ‘I only sign for children.’”
No particular reason for this was given.
In 1992, nine years later, Flynt published a short piece explaining how reading “Mockingbird” in the late sixties had moved him to return to the state of Alabama, an idea he had rejected. Lee read the piece and wrote her first letter to him. There was an exchange in ’92-’93 and then none for 12 years, when the correspondence picked up again.
These are not deep or philosophical exchanges. They discuss mainly family matters, health matters, mutual friends such as Kathryn Tucker Windham, some favorite writers like C.S. Lewis, and the progress of Flynt’s thriving granddaughter, Harper.
Flynt at one point tells us Lee was wrongly thought of as opinionated: “far from the truth,” but elsewhere admits she was: “if you did not want to know her candid opinion of anything, better not to ask.”
For example, Ms. Lee does not like Texas. She writes: “I spent some time in Houston a few years ago and found it to be the punishment for a mis-spent life, exactly my idea of what hell is like.”
The release of the Philip Seymour Hoffmann film exacerbated an obsession with Capote; Lee insists he was incapable of telling the truth.
Flynt, who did not know Capote, avers that neither his biographer Gerald Clarke nor longtime friend and neighbor George Plimpton understood him properly. No details are given.
During years of visits to Monroeville, I was always impressed at what awe the townspeople felt for Ms. Lee. They were admiring and protective of her privacy. This affection was not reciprocated, however. Mincing no words, Flynt writes: “nothing better demonstrated Nelle’s lack of affection for her birthplace than her refusal to use her literary fame to promote the local economy, which faltered after the town’s major employer, ...Vanity Fair, moved its manufacturing overseas.”
Flynt does not go into Lee’s controversies and legal wranglings with the Monroe County Museum and the annual dramatization of “Mockingbird” presented at the courthouse, nor does he speculate on the circumstances surrounding the “discovery” and then the publication of the manuscript of “Go Set a Watchman.”
He does, however, express his gratitude to the Lee estate attorney, Tonja Carter, for “permission to reproduce these letters.”
Using the letters would have been impossible without that permission.
Harper Lee was an avid reader of history, mainly British, and an admirer of Flynt’s writings, especially his very fine “Alabama in the Twentieth Century.” Unlike most history professors, Flynt thought fiction provided a valuable alternate view of historical events and in his classes at Auburn usually assigned one appropriate novel. Students in a class in America between the wars, for example, might be required to read “The Grapes of Wrath.”
And, in the last chapter of “Alabama in the Twentieth Century,” he includes commentary on many Alabama writers with one page devoted to Lee and “Mockingbird.”
Lee appreciated the attention by a historian but still had no interest in being involved in literary conferences. When the “silly” Alabama Literary Symposium is on she flees to California or goes to “deep earth” in Monroeville.
She also had no use for literary biographers, especially of the living. Charles Shields is described as “the creep who has written my ‘biography.’”
Of Marja Mills’ memoir “The Mockingbird Next Door,” Flynt tells the reader he is dubious that Mills had the Lee sisters’ cooperation, but a relationship that lasted 18 months could hardly have been forced upon them.
Both Shields’ and Mills’ books are restrained and respectful; there are not even unfounded hypotheticals or malicious innuendos about Lee’s private life. Really: no harm, no foul.
To his credit, Flynt reminds Lee that if she will not cooperate and tells her friends not to cooperate, mistakes would be made, and they would stick at least for a while
Based on what she saw as misreadings of her book, Lee developed a low opinion of criticism and reviewing, but, Flynt tells us, “in my nearly eight decades on earth, I have not encountered a professor of literature who had read so widely, remembered characters, plots and settings so well, or was as capable of precisely quoting long passages from novels and poetry...”
I cannot refute this because I do not have a list of literature professors Flynt has chatted with, but I can doubt it.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.