Renowned Alabama historian Dr. Wayne Flynt has chronicled and penned a marvelous book appropriately entitled Afternoons with Harper Lee. This gem is published by New South Books with editing by Randall Williams. It is receiving worldwide acclaim. If you are a fan of Harper Lee and her novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, it is a great read. Nelle Harper Lee was born in Monroeville in 1926 and died in Monroeville ninety years later in 2016. It was fitting that Dr. Wayne Flynt would give her eulogy. Her book, To Kill A Mockingbird, is one of the five most bought and read books in the history of the world. It is second to only to the Bible in most countries. In secular Great Britain, it surpasses the Bible and is number one.
Dr. Wayne Flynt is probably the most significant and accomplished historian on Alabama history in my lifetime. He taught history to over 60,000 undergraduate and graduate students at Auburn University for over 28 years. He was beloved, and he loves Auburn. He is very proud of his 43 car tag, as he often told Nelle’s accomplished sister Alice.
Dr. Flynt taught history at Samford University for 12 years before beginning his 28 years at Auburn University. During his illustrious career of 40 years, he authored 14 books, all centered around southern politics, history, and southern culture. He is very proud of his heritage of being the son of a sharecropper and growing up in the Appalachian culture of rural Calhoun County.
It is so poetic that the most renowned southern Alabama historian of this century would write the most revealing and detailed history of Alabama’s and arguably the world’s most famous author of this century. He tells Nelle Harper Lee’s story explicitly and with authenticity.
Dr. Flynt and his beloved wife, Dorothy “Dartie,” of 60 years, became Harper Lee’s best friends in the twilight of her life. Wayne and Dartie Flynt journeyed from Auburn to Monroeville and spent 64 afternoons over 12 years visiting and chronicling Harper Lee’s life story as she lived in a modest retirement home in Monroeville even though the royalties from the book were over a million dollars a year.
The book is part memoir and part biography. It truly tells the intimate story of legendary author Harper Lee. It encompasses her life and intertwines it with Alabama history. It is like we Alabamians like to say, “they were sitting on a big front porch swapping life stories.” Flynt and Lee were both southern storytellers. They were often joined by Nelle Harper Lee’s two sisters, Alice Lee and Louise Lee Conner.
Alice Lee was ten years older than Nelle and was famous in her own right. She was one of the first female lawyers in Alabama. She was one of Monroeville’s most prominent lawyers for close to 80 years. She practiced law until she was over 100 years old, and was a leader in the Alabama Methodist Church.
Louise Conner introduced the Flynt’s to Nelle Harper. They met at a History and Heritage Festival in Eufaula in 1983.
Nelle Harper Lee was the classic recluse. She was very private and very secretive; she liked to drink and curse and speak her mind. She never married and never really dated. She wore frumpy, dowdy, non-stylish clothing and disdained being around people and speaking in public.
She lived most of her life in her modest apartment in New York City. She lived there mostly from ages 23-81, 58 years, with only brief journeys home to Monroeville, Alabama, by train as she did not fly. New York City gave her the anonymity she desired.
The book tells of her celebrity and meeting other famous people who desired to meet her, including Presidents Lyndon Johnson, George Bush and Barack Obama. She especially liked Lady Bird Johnson who also had Alabama roots.
She adored Gregory Peck, who was the star of the movie To Kill A Mockingbird. He won an Oscar and every award imaginable for his role as Atticus Finch in the movie.
Only after a stroke in 2007 at 81 did Nelle Harper Lee return home to Monroeville.
Dr. Flynt is also an accomplished ordained Baptist preacher. He is a true kind-hearted gentleman, who speaks kindly of everyone in his book. He and Dartie grew to love the foul tempered eccentric, cynical, opinionated, irascible, uninhibited, very private and reclusive author. He discerns and captures her true humility. She really felt and often said, modestly, “But all I did was write a book.” She wrote a pretty good one, and so did Flynt.
See you next week.