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“Afternoons with Harper Lee” By: Wayne Flynt


“Afternoons with Harper Lee”

Author: Wayne Flynt

Publisher: NewSouth Books



Pages: 240

Price: $25.95 (Cloth)

Historian Tells of Long Friendship with State’s Most Famous Author

We are warned: one should not ever call Nelle Harper Lee a recluse. During her many years in New York City—58 years—she went to Mets games, strolled through museums, walked in the streets and parks, ate in her favorite restaurants, the Plaza Hotel and the Russian Tea Room. The big city gave her the anonymity she craved.

Flynt describes her rather as “entirely comfortable in her own skin. She only occasionally paid attention to how she dressed, wore little if any makeup, did not consider herself pretty.”

It was only after she had had a stroke in March of 2007, at age 81, that she reluctantly returned to Alabama, first to a rehab center in Birmingham for six months and then back to Monroeville.

Flynt tells us Lee’s favorite Bible book was “Exodus” because “they leave.”

Wayne Flynt and his wife, Dartie, had met Lee many years earlier and had become good friends with Lee’s sisters, Alice, the lawyer, and Louise, who lived in Eufaula. At a “History and Heritage” festival in Eufaula, in 1983, Lee was, so to speak “tricked” into speaking by the threat that Truman Capote might be invited if she refused. The friendship with Capote was long over.

From that time, for 20 years the Flynts were friends with Alice in Monroeville and Louise in Eufaula and visited them often.

Lee can in many ways be understood as a modest person. For example: whenever the Flynts brought up “Mockingbird”’s latest award or distinction, she would say: “But all I did was write a book!” According to Louise, however, Nelle did believe for years that the Flynts’ friendships were their way “of

finding out about her and their family.” Louise insisted, quite rightly, that she was perfectly free to talk about her parents if she wanted to: “Well, they were my parents too!”

The Flynts began their afternoons with Lee while she was still at Lakeshore in Birmingham. They continued for the next 10 years, 64 visits in all.

We can trust the accounts because both Wayne and Dartie Flynt went right home and wrote in their journals each time, even cross-checking. Dartie even scolded Wayne “You have accurately recorded what she meant but not what she said.”

Besides this attention to detail, the conversations were somewhat planned out. Not scripted, exactly, but the subjects often prepared.

The Flynts would find a news item about “Mockingbird” to discuss or a particular southeast Alabama historical event, or an amusing anecdote about their granddaughter, Harper Flynt. These visits resemble Boswell more than Mitch Albom’s conversations with Morrie.

There would be no probing or impertinent questions, and therefore there are virtually no revelations.

There is no mention of sex or romance, only a couple of miniscule mentions of Lee’s drinking and an amusing and odd account of gambling.

Harper Lee enjoyed gambling. At first Alice and then attorney Tonja Carter would provide the cash-money—a few hundred. Lee lost it all quickly on slot machines. But it was a pleasure and she had few. And with an income of a million a year, the few hundred hardly mattered.

We learn the inside story of the never-published Alexander city murder story, “The Reverend.” Apparently, Alice casually loaned the manuscript to a grad student and it never came back.

There is also information on the manuscript of “Go Set a Watchman” and that drama. Yes, it seems Lee wanted it published, and Flynt carefully explains that, although foul-tempered, cynical,

opinionated, irascible, deaf and relatively feeble at 88, with failing memory, Lee was not a victim of elder abuse or suffering unduly from dementia.

Whatever evaluations one might make from this account, it seems to me we should, as interested book lovers, be a little grateful. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were accounts of 64 afternoons with Jane Austen or Emily Dickinson?

Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.