So many people in this country, and around the world, know about Harper Lee and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But one person in Alabama knows her perhaps better than anyone else.
Wayne Flynt knew the renowned author on a deep and personal level. He is professor emeritus in the Department of History at Auburn University and author of 13 books. Flynt is one of the most recognized scholars of Southern history.
In his latest book, “Mockingbird Songs,” Flynt recounts his friendship with the famed author that lasted decades. The correspondence between the two during this time is published in the book. These letters offer a fascinating look into the mind and heart of an author who changed the world with one book.
Originally, racism drove Flynt away from Alabama, but the publication of “To Kill a Mockingbird” implored him to come back in the mid-1960s. In his 2011 memoir, “Keeping the Faith,” Flynt wrote, “I had read … ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ and concluded that if Monroe County, Alabama, could produce a novelist as gifted and tolerant as she, there must be hope for the future.”
Soon after he moved back to Alabama, Flynt met the three sisters, Louise, Alice and Nelle Harper Lee, and a relationship of mutual respect and admiration began.
“My relationship with Harper Lee really started through her sister Louise Connor. Nelle had read my books and other works and had said she would treasure my friendship,” Flynt said. “That turned into a long and great relationship I treasure to this day.”
The letters between Flynt and Lee are insightful and humorous. They swapped stories and opinions about their families, books, social values and even things they were anxious or excited about. Lee’s letters began with “Dear Dr. Flynt,” but as the years passed, exchanges like “Dear friend” and closings like “I love you, Nelle” became more prevalent. Flynt was touched by much of Lee’s character, but mostly he was touched with her kindness.
“Harper Lee was amazingly kind. Every week she would get a big bundle of letters from young students from across the country who were reading ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ She would get these big boxes of letters and would write letters back to the teachers. Hundreds and hundreds of handwritten letters scattered across the state that we will probably never see because they are so treasured by the teachers who have them,” Flynt said.
In “Mockingbird Songs,” Flynt begins:
“How does one chronicle a friendship? How does one remember the twists and turns, accidental meetings, serendipitous events, shared interests and habits of the heart? How does a relationship progress from “Dear Mr. Flynt” / “Dear Ms. Lee” to “Dear Wayne” / “Dear Nelle” to “Beloved Professor” / “Dear Madam Famous Author” to “Dear Ones” / “Dear Prime Suspect”? How does mutual respect morph into formal acquaintance, warm friendship and finally love?”
In the letters in “Mockingbird Songs,” Flynt shows us the way Lee went about her life and the lives of the people close to her. The two began corresponding in 1992 – when Lee was 66 and Flynt was 52. Many of the letters show the humorous side of Lee, unfamiliar to many.
“I think what I miss most about her is her wordplay. She loved to play with words. She would quote a passage from Shakespeare and would always lean her upper body forward and look at me and say, ‘Which play did I memorize that from, Wayne?’ As if she couldn’t remember, but of course she had the entire play memorized,” Flynt said. “She was the funniest person I have ever been around. I don’t mean funny in the sense of telling jokes; she never told jokes. I don’t think I can recall her ever telling one joke. I mean funny in the sense of sarcastic, always finding an alternative way of coming at a problem.”
One of the key elements of Flynt’s friendship with Lee was his refusal to treat her like an unapproachable titan of literature. He treated her with respect, but the two sparred back and forth with whimsy and pretended insults. He recounts a story with Lee near the end of her life.
“The last time I saw her before she died, we had taken her Mardi Gras beads from an earlier trip to New Orleans. I saw her later on wearing them and I said, ‘Hey, Nelle, you know what? Why don’t you go pack your suitcase and you, my wife and I will drive down to New Orleans for Mardi Gras and you can go on Bourbon Street, get rip-roaring drunk and dance naked in the street,’” Flynt said. “To which she replied, ‘When I die and get to heaven, I’m not going to let you in!’ That was our last meeting, our last meeting. I miss the humor, I miss the sardonic, wonderful word play.”
The letters in “Mockingbird Songs” render a true and insightful look at the humility, the kindness, the humor and the heartfelt caring of Lee.
Flynt summed up his friendship with Lee with this simple final quote:
“Like an older sister where you come home from a long time away, and you pick up right where you left off the last time. You walk in the door and she makes some insult, you insult her back and then the wordplay begins. I really miss that.”