“Afternoons with Harper Lee” (NewSouth Books, 2022) by Wayne Flynt
Among the millions of documents preserved in the Birmingham Public Library Archives, there is a brief, handwritten letter from Harper Lee to a fellow writer. In the letter, Lee explains that she cannot read a book that has been sent to her and lists a variety of ailments that have made reading difficult. “As Gilda Radner would say.” Lee writes, “It’s always something.”
This is one of the items that archives staff regularly bring out to show visitors, although it is wasted on 21st century college and high school students, who rarely have a clue who Gilda Radner was or that she was one of the comic geniuses of the last century.
But what makes this letter intriguing is that it tells us something about the life and tastes of a widely beloved but intensely private author. Like many people, Harper Lee watched Saturday Night Live and quoted lines from the show.
Small nuggets like this are at the heart of Wayne Flynt’s new book, “Afternoons with Harper Lee.” Flynt, a professor of history at Auburn University, and his wife Dartie, befriended Lee after a stroke forced her to leave New York and return to her hometown in Monroeville. Dartie Flynt, who has since died, was battling Parkinson’s Disease and Flynt believes this is what most attracted Lee, who was struggling with the aftereffects of her stroke, to the friendship. Both women were in fights that they could not hope to win.
During their 64 afternoon visits, Lee and the Flynts shared their love of literature, especially the novelist Jane Austin, and a fascination with Alabama history and their families’ places in that history. Lee loved travel but no longer could due to her health concerns. So, the Flynts recounted their trips to her, sometimes describing places, such as London and Chawton, England, Jane Austin’s childhood home, that Lee had visited years before. They brought her tea and souvenirs.
In “Afternoons with Harper Lee,” Flynt chronicles the history of the Lee family. When asked why one of her ancestors survived the Battle of Gettysburg while many in his unit were killed, Lee replied, “I guess he could run faster.”
Flynt explores the real-life inspirations for Lee’s characters in “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the circumstances surrounding the publication of Lee’s first, and decidedly inferior, novel “Go Set a Watchman.” This first book, Flynt writes, is more blunt in its denunciation of racism than is Mockingbird. Lee, living in New York, was responding to civil rights protests and racial violence occurring in her native South. “But rage,” Flynt writes, “is rarely the midwife of great literature.” And ultimately, Watchman is a writer’s first novel, and those are often bad.
As Flynt describes her, Lee was a deliberately rough character. She dressed for comfort, not style, was dismissive of religious beliefs, although she enjoyed the Bible as literature, and “flaunted her smoking, drinking, ribald sense of humor, and … her astounding mastery of profanity.” But Lee was also capable of empathy and kindness, although always on her own terms.
We learn from Flynt that Lee was an avid University of Alabama football fan. After Auburn defeated Alabama in a 2013 game now known as the “Kick Six,” Flynt drove to Monroeville to see Lee and gloat.
When Flynt and his wife entered the nursing facility, armed with the zingers Flynt had rehearsed in the car, they found Harper Lee waiting for them in the lobby, dressed in Crimson Tide gear. Before Flynt could launch even the first dig, she broke into a loud and sustained performance of an old Alabama football cheer and spoiled any fun that Flynt had hoped to enjoy. In this scene Lee and Flynt illustrate a fact of life in our state – Alabama fans are poor losers, and Auburn fans are poor winners.
“Afternoons with Harper Lee” is part biography and part memoir of a friendship, recounted in the meandering style of Southern storytelling. As Kathryn Tucker Windham, the Alabama writer and friend of Harper Lee, once said, “I am a Southerner. I digress.”
Harper Lee was not a recluse or a misanthrope. But she was intensely private and uncomfortable with her fame. In life, her friends guarded her privacy and helped protect her from overly ardent fans. Like William Faulkner, Lee could be impatient and rude with people she considered sycophants. In death, one of her friends has opened a small crack in the door to share with us slivers of her life and mind. Wayne Flynt is offering readers a gift, as Harper Lee almost surely knew he would.
About Reading Birmingham: James L. Baggett, a Birmingham archivist, has assisted with research on many of the 450 books about Birmingham and Alabama since 1970. He reviews new publications and older titles that address the city and state for BirminghamWatch. He has authored or edited five books on Birmingham and Alabama history. Baggett received the Alabama Library Association’s 2019 Eminent Librarian Award. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.