'Mockingbird Songs' documents a warm friendship with the elusive Harper Lee

Wayne Flynt has collected his correspondence with Harper Lee. Perhaps the quality of Lee that will hit readers most is her humor.

Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee By Wayne Flynt HarperCollins 240 pp.

As a scholar of history, religion, and politics in the South, Wayne Flynt is a unique voice in our culture. The retired professor of history (from Auburn University) is also a Baptist minister who garnered attention in the most recent national election cycle by denouncing mainstream Evangelicalism for its support of the “materialism, hedonism and narcissism” of President Trump.

But what he may be most known for now is his correspondence with fellow Alabaman Nelle Harper Lee. In Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee, Flynt has collected his correspondence with the famous writer and tells the stories of their friendship. 

Flynt and Lee’s correspondence began in 1992, and lasted until 2016. Their relationship had a rocky start, beginning when Lee “icily” refused to sign a book for Flynt, telling him “I only sign for children.” But Lee apparently came to love Flynt, partly through his public writings and speaking, and her effusive correspondence with the historian ended only as age began to take its toll on her.

Flynt’s small collection of letters here provides a glimpse of Nelle Harper Lee in her last years, and a taste of the candor, affection, and humor she revealed to those she loved and trusted. 

Perhaps the quality of Nelle Harper Lee that hits readers of this collection immediately and full force is her humor. The woman was funny. And this comes through in the very first letter in Flynt’s collection, which, with apologies to all readers in the Lone Star State, begins, “There are no chic people in Texas.” And continues to espouse that Texas has “No past, no future, just NOW in all its tastelessness.”

Confronting her stubborn irony in these letters feels like being in the presence of a precocious and intimidatingly-candid elderly aunt. (We all have one, whether we are from the South or from Mars.) In these glimpses it is easy to see the creator of Scout and Jem and to remember that "To Kill A Mockingbird," which certainly illuminated the tragedies of racism in the South, also contained plenty of humor. (Remember Miss Maudie Atkinson? “With a click of her tongue, she thrust out her bridgework, a gesture of cordiality that cemented our friendship.”)

In Lee’s letters, she comes across as someone who has taken measure of the world – whether it’s Texas, or Monroeville, or the fictional Maycomb – and in any case found it lacking. 

Flynt’s own understanding and admiration for the novel and the themes it evokes is both spiritual and scholarly. One recent talk Flynt has delivered is entitled, “What Harper Lee and Southern Small Towns can Teach the World About Race Theology, History, Literature, Race and Community.” To which one can only say: Bring it on.

And this collection ends with a reprinting of an address entitled “Atticus’s Vision of Ourselves.” Flynt delivered the speech to an audience in 2006 at an awards ceremony for Lee, and he read it again 10 years later at her eulogy, knowing her preference, even in her death, for the attention to be placed on her writing rather than on herself. 

The address will make you want to go immediately and dust off your old copy of "To Kill a Mockingbird" to rediscover the life lessons, the tragedies, and the humor and how they apply to our current world. 

Flynt’s lesson is as simple as Sunday school and just as pointed: The novel, he says, “demands that we look for the villain” neither in the past, nor in openly hostile individuals or in bygone institutions, but rather “that we look for the villain in ourselves.”

“What happened in Maycomb did happen everywhere,” Flynt writes. “To Jews in Prague; to homosexuals in Berlin; to Gypsies in Romania, Pentecostals in Russia, Muslims in Serbia. And it happened to Okies and Arkies in California’s Imperial Valley in the 1930’s, to Appalachian whites in Detroit in the 1940s, and to people from Birmingham moving to New York City and Los Angeles in the 1960s. … because the story is a story of the human experience, not just the story of what happened in Maycomb, Alabama.”

This collection would benefit from having more of Flynt’s own analysis – its mixture of spirit and scholarship – informing the letters, which are instead introduced largely with anecdotes about the two families, the Flynts and the Lees. He is clearly someone who understands Southern history, Lee’s place in it, and the valuable backstory of her famous novel, which still sells hundreds of thousands of copies every year and is one of the most frequently-taught works of literature in American schools. 

Flynt may be as equipped as anyone alive to tell us why that is and to preach at us, with the reminder that seeing our humanity, or as Atticus Finch would put it, to crawl into someone’s skin “and walk around in it,” is the best hope for our future.  

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