It’s a classic Southern tradition: sipping iced tea or lemonade on the porch and sharing stories until the sun goes down.
But what if those conversations weren’t with your auntie or a treasured grandparent, but with the mind behind “To Kill a Mockingbird”?
That’s where Dr. Wayne Flynt found himself 64 times over the course of a decade. It led to his latest book, “Afternoons with Harper Lee.”
Flynt didn’t think he’d ever get to meet the infamously private author, let alone develop a deep friendship with Nelle Harper Lee. In fact, after his first interaction with her, he thought the two may never talk again.
As a professor at Auburn University in Alabama, Flynt knew one of Lee’s sisters, Alice Finch Lee, well; he coordinated with her often in the development of “History and Heritage” programs. Alice was considered an astute historian of southwest Alabama.
The programs hosted panels and educational events about Alabama’s history. One of these panels was supposed to host another famed southern novelist: Truman Capote. But Capote struggled with addiction and substance abuse issues at the time, so Lee’s sister proposed bringing Harper as an alternative.
“We were all sort of in an ethereal realm when she showed up,” Flynt said. “And she offered these very romantic early versions of Alabama history.”
But as a professional historian with more than a dozen books published on the history of the state — including multiple Pulitzer Prize nominations — Flynt founds himself disagreeing with some of Lee’s romanticized interpretations. Regardless, Flynt remained a fan. When the program ended, he asked to have his copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird” signed.
“Absolutely not,” Lee told him. “I only sign for children.” It was clear to Flynt that Harper Lee read the disagreement on his face throughout the program.
Decades later, after Lee suffered a stroke and found herself alone and in declining health, Flynt visited her to help provide some company. He and his wife brought books on tape to her hospital room and exchanged stories. They fawned over the prose of Jane Austen, C.S. Lewis and Eudora Welty.
“She was just absolutely charming,” Flynt recalls.
That charm led him to lift the mask of the woman he got to know over the decades to come. Flynt previously published a book on his friendship with Lee in 2017 entitled “Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee,” about their written communications between 1992 and her death in 2016. Through their enduring correspondence, the Lees and the Flynts became completely immersed in each other’s lives.
At 2 p.m. on Saturday, March 18, Flynt will visit McIntyre’s Books in Fearrington Village to discuss his newest book.
The following conversation with Dr. Flynt has been edited for clarity and brevity.
At this point, many of us know Harper Lee the author. What made her unique as a person?
As guarded and private as she was to the public, she was open and intimate in those close moments. She would tell stories without boundaries that were incredibly revealing about the woman she was. She was just a brilliant storyteller and our afternoons together felt almost magical.
I feel blessed that I got to see the real human being of Harper Lee: a Southern woman, not just some marble statue of who people thought she was. Story by story you begin to reconstruct a life — the anguish of writing, her secret famous friendships.
Of course, “To Kill a Mockingbird” is probably one of the most famous literary works in the world, but she always told me, “All I did was write a book.” And that’s true, but much like her story, what I try to do in this book is embed her story within the larger story of Alabama, the South and ultimately the country’s story.
What were her personal relationships with others like, given her private nature?
She was often intimidated by people of status, even though that’s constantly who she found herself around. She was best friends with Capote and had a fondness for Lady Bird Johnson — the first lady during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration. Those are just two examples of her significant batch of prominent friends. But she always claimed to be intimidated by their level of genius. She had almost an impostor syndrome about not matching their standards of brilliance.
The sort of overwhelming popularity of her work is something she never dreamed of and never wanted, really. It consumed her. She never quite came to terms with fame, and she hated the ways it intruded on her life.
Because people love her book, and because the book has such profound meaning to different generations, people have this parasocial relationship with her. They think they know her as a person, but all they know is her work. And that made her into a private person.
What did you learn about yourself from your conversations with Harper Lee?
I tried to present the authentic woman, not a saint or marble lady, or some deeply insecure person. I’m a garrulous person and I never quite understood the importance of not saying anything until I spoke to her.
What I learned is that people who listen are better off because they are processing a lot of different things at once from different folks. People who are talking are either projecting or protecting themselves — she taught me to talk less, listen more.
If I tell a story, then you tell a story, then me, then you over and over we are explaining who we are through our stories — that’s as Southern as it gets.
I’ve been a historian for many years and doing that you often stick to the facts, find historical documents to back up your facts, etc. Harper Lee didn’t do any of that in her tellings of the past. She always told me the problem with historians is you ruin a good story by trying to find all the facts. Her history came from oral narratives — she got her history not from books, but from living.
How do you see her story fitting in with the larger story of the South?
Southerners will let you know who they are if you’ll just be quiet. That’s who Nelle was, too.
In writing “To Kill a Mockingbird” she wrote something universal — it’s become an anthem for people all over the world. The story is not about a town called Maycomb, it’s about all the ways private people get dismissed and are misrepresented. Everyone is Boo Radley and she gave them a voice.
The South lives through her because she just wants to drift in the background, process and observe. The same way Boo Radley is misunderstood, retreats to the background but finds a way to survive, so does the South. A lot of literary scholars and such believe Harper Lee is Scout Finch, but I firmly believe she is Boo Radley.