Book shows personal side of ‘Mockingbird’ author Harper Lee


By JAY REEVES, Associated Press

HOMEWOOD, Ala. (AP) – To the world, Harper Lee was aloof beyond recognition, an obsessively private person who spent most of her life avoiding the public eye, despite writing one of the best-selling books of all time, “To Kill a mockingbird.” For Wayne Flynt, the Alabama-born author was his girlfriend, Nelle.

Flynt, a longtime Southern historian who became close friends with Nelle Harper Lee late in life, has written his second book about the author, Afternoons with Harper Lee, which was released Thursday, with Flynt picking up copies at a bookstore autographed in a suburb of Birmingham.

Based on Flynt’s notes from dozens of visits to Lee over a decade before her death in 2016, the book is like sitting on a porch and recounting stories about Lee’s childhood and family in rural Alabama, her later life in New York, and everything in between Listen. This includes the time, according to Flynt, when a grandfather who fought for the Confederacy survived the Battle of Gettysburg despite suffering heavy casualties for his unit in Alabama.

“I said to her, ‘You know, the half-fifteenth of Alabama was either killed or wounded or captured, and he escaped? Is this just luck or God’s providence? What on earth is that?’” Flynt said in an interview with The Associated Press.

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“And she said, ‘No, it’s not the providence of God. He could run fast.’”

The public perception of Lee as a recluse is misguided, said Flynt, a former history professor at Auburn University. No, she hasn’t given media interviews and has been adept at maintaining her privacy, but she’s also been warm and friendly with friends, which included a former first lady, Lady Bird Johnson, Flynt said. And Lee was “deeply religious” in a way that many people aren’t, he said.

“It’s an attempt to tell the story of the authentic woman, not the marble lady,” Flynt said.

The book also pays homage to Flynt’s late wife Dartie, who died in 2020. Lee, who suffered a stroke in 2007, seemed to identify with the physical difficulties of Dartie Flynt, who had Parkinson’s disease, Flynt said.

“I think she tolerated me because she loved Dartie,” he said.

Born in 1926, when the South was still racially segregated by law, Lee was raised in the southern Alabama city of Monroeville, the daughter of a lawyer who served as a model for Attorney Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a racial story , Injustice and the Law in the Jim Crow Era. The town itself became Maycomb, the setting of the book.

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Lee’s well-known desire for privacy, which prefers soccer, softball, golf and books to small-town social affairs or college sororities, may stem in part from a sense of being different from others who grew up around her in the South, Flynt said.

“I think she lived in a world where she felt like she wasn’t like other girls,” he said.

A childhood friend of fellow writer Truman Capote, Lee was rarely heard in public after her partially autobiographical Mockingbird won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize and became a hit film. She mostly lived in an apartment in Manhattan, where it was easier to fit in than at home, until the stroke left her partially paralyzed.

Flynt and his late wife knew Lee’s two sisters, and they became close with the author after she returned to Alabama for good after her stroke. They visited her at a rehabilitation center in Birmingham and then at an assisted living home in Monroeville, where she spent years before her death. Lee died just a few months after the publication of her novel Go Set a Watchman, which was actually an early version of Mockingbird.

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The book doesn’t delve into the most private aspects of Lee’s life; Flynt said they just don’t discuss such things. But it tells of her worsening isolation through deafness and blindness towards the end of her life; her love of gambling; the excitement of Watchman; and her authorship of an unpublished manuscript about a bizarre murder case in central Alabama.

Lee was steeped in literature and religion, Flynt said. She prefers the King James Version of the Bible to all others because of its lyrical language, he said, and her favorite authors included Jane Austen and CS Lewis.

“When she died, on her ottoman in her small two rooms, was the complete anthology of all CS Lewis books. It must have weighed 50 pounds,” he said.

Afternoons With Harper Lee is a sequel to Flynt’s Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee. While the first book was based on letters between the two, the new book is more meandering and talkative than the first in the Southern storytelling tradition.

“The letters are lifeless compared to the stories,” he said.



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