Book Review: Mockingbird Songs

June 23, 2017

“My aunt is Harper Lee.”

 

My children’s existences hinge on those five simple words, for that was the very effective pickup line their father used to attract me the day we met.

 

He sprung that line on the right college freshman. Even then, if asked to name my favorite novel, I would have answered To Kill a Mockingbird. Favorite author? Harper Lee.

 

But what did I really know about the reclusive writer from L. A. (Lower Alabama) who penned one of the most revered novels of recent times? For that matter, what did, or what does, anybody know?

 

Perhaps Wayne Flynt, Professor Emeritus in the history department at Auburn University and the author of Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee, comes closer to knowing her than anyone outside the Lee family. [Editor's note: Wayne Flynt is the winner of the Woodward Franklin award, presented by the Fellowship of Southern Writers, and will be a guest writer at this year's SouthWord on November 3 and 4.]

 

 

Comparing Nelle Harper Lee to the mockingbirds of the novel’s title, Flynt opines that she was “complicated and independent,” a woman who “spent much of her life eluding people who wanted to capture and cage her.”

 

His short work includes a collection of letters between Flynt and each of the three Lee sisters along with helpful background and commentary upon those letters. In the introduction, he writes: “The public image of Nelle as a private woman—opinionated, uncommunicative, cool if not cold insofar as relationships are concerned—is far from the truth. She was in fact empathetic, warm, nonjudgmental, and a wonderful conversationalist, often going out of her way to answer letters to children, teachers, and fans . . . .”

 

Flynt is a scholar of Southern history, politics, and religion who wrote the highly regarded Alabama in the 20th Century. His area of specialty is 1930s-era Alabama, the precise setting of To Kill a Mockingbird.

 

Nonetheless, he didn’t set out to meet Nelle Harper Lee, whose “solo” masterpiece took the nation by storm in the early 1960s, setting the stage for one of the greatest “books into film” movies of all times, a classic starring Hollywood legend Gregory Peck. Flynt actually stumbled into a friendship with the Monroeville native by means of a long association with one of her two older sisters, Louise Lee Conner, who spent her adult married life in the bucolic antebellum town of Eufaula.

 

Dr. Flynt would be the first to admit that his initial encounter with Harper Lee in the flesh was less than satisfactory, reflecting the common perceptions of her adoring public, that she was “cool if not cold” when solicited about her book. He recalls that following a rare public appearance by the novelist in Eufaula, Alabama, in 1983, Flynt’s 14-year-old son Sean was one of the fortunate young folks in the audience to receive her autograph.

 

But, he adds, “When I asked Miss Lee to sign our book as well, she replied icily, ‘I only sign for children.’ That was our first, not very promising, exchange.”

 

My own first encounter with Harper Lee was quite similar. About a year into my marriage, my husband and I found ourselves living in Washington, D. C. where we were invited by other Alabama cousins to have a picnic lunch with the author, known affectionately among her closest kin as “Aunt Dody.” (Harper Lee was related to everyone in attendance that day through her sister, Louise, who was my husband’s grandmother’s sister-in-law and a much beloved member of the entire Conner clan.)

 

On that sweltering summer day, sitting on a picnic blanket beside the dowdily-dressed and unassuming literary icon, I tried my best to entice her to talk about her novel. She wouldn’t take the bait. And like countless others, I experienced Harper Lee to be “cool if not cold insofar as relationships are concerned.” Still, that didn’t deter me in the long run from continuing to idolize her and wanting to understand—on some deep and personal level—just what made her tick. Just why did she write this novel? What events from her own childhood motivated her to take on this particular tale?

 

That curiosity carried into my graduate school experience a decade or so later, when I asked my major professor to allow me to focus my master’s thesis on the “one book” Southern writer.

 

My request was denied. There just wasn’t enough scholarship available on her or her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, I was told. Twenty years later, I would come to appreciate that assessment, and I’m sure Harper Lee, were she still with us, would as well.

 

There’s no doubt that Harper Lee was, to a large extent, an enigma, and yet it could also be argued she was an enigma of her own making. Questions about Lee and her work have circulated for decades. Among them, devotees have been eager to know whether the few “biographies” that were actually written about her are accurate, were sanctioned, and are still relevant? Others want to know the truth about Truman Capote’s role in her life. Did indeed the eccentric transplanted Southerner, a fixture of the New York literary scene in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, write To Kill a Mockingbird, as he later claimed? And perhaps the question of most recent interest, was Harper Lee of “sound mind” when she consented to have her “second” novel, Go Set a Watchman, published in July of 2014?

 

Thankfully, Wayne Flynt’s Mockingbird Songs is able to able to piece together many of the puzzle pieces that formed the author’s life.

 

For example, with respect to the question of biography and scholarship, we see how vehemently Harper Lee reviled any attempts to have a biography published during her lifetime. The letters from her to Dr. Flynt clearly reveal her ultimate disdain for those who tried, in effect, “to capture and cage her.”

 

In one letter to Wayne, Nelle reveals a conversation she had with biographer Ann Waldron, who was on the verge of writing a biography of Mississippi writer Eudora Welty. Lee recalls: “She {Waldron} had hit upon Welty. ‘But she’s still living,’ I protested. ‘You can’t.’ I apprised her of my views on biographies of the living to no avail. She would do it anyway . . . . When it came out, I didn’t read it – I did not then & never will approve of full-scale bios of the living.”

 

It is not surprising, then, that Harper Lee was nothing short of livid when Charles Shield’s unauthorized Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee was first published in January 2006.

 

“The creep who has written my ‘biography’ sent me the page proofs and a letter of thumb-your-nose blandness. His descriptions – indeed his information, I guess – of our family & life are bizarre to say the least . . . .”

 

Lee expressed similar disdain for Marja Mills’ account of her life as recorded in The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee. Mills actually lived next door to Alice Lee, Nelle’s beloved oldest sister, however briefly, in an attempt, Nelle believes, to gain content for an “unauthorized book.”

 

With respect to Truman Capote, her childhood playmate whom most believe was the inspiration for the character Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee has equally “not so kind” words. While it is indisputable that Lee spent many years helping Capote with the research for his non-fiction crime novel In Cold Blood, it’s been less clear what, if any, influence Capote had on Mockingbird.

 

“In his last years when every negative aspect of his character—and there were many—ran out of control, Truman did, I’m told, claim to have written most of TKAM!” Lee told Wayne in a letter dated March 10, 2006. His motive, she believed, was jealousy.

 

“I don’t know if you understood this about him {Capote}, but his compulsive lying was like this: if you said, ‘Did you know JFK was shot?’ He’d easily answer, ‘Yes, I was driving the car he was riding in.’”

 

“It all comes down to one thing,” she continued. “I was his oldest friend and I did something Truman could not forgive: I wrote a novel that sold . . . .  Not only sold but was still selling in his last years.”

 

The letters contained in Mockingbird Songs bear out much of Flynt’s initial argument: that Harper Lee could, indeed, be warm, loving, and empathetic and that she was a gifted and spirited communicator.

By allowing her letters to speak for themselves, Flynt is able to reveal to her adoring public many of her inner thoughts, and readers of this short book should find many of their questions answered.

 

They should also not be surprised to discover the following: “She was not one to excuse misstatements of fact, suffer fools gladly, silently dismiss literary misquotations, or allow anyone to invade her space without invitation.”

 

Fortunately for many of her devoted fans, Wayne Flynt was granted an invitation, and by extension, so were we.

 

Wayne Flynt is a Professor Emeritus in the Department of History at Auburn University and the author of over ten books on Southern history and culture, including Alabama in the Twentieth Century. He will be a guest writer at this year's SouthWord on November 3 and 4, More information can be found at www.southernlitalliance.org.

 

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