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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, July 12, 2017 1:00 am

Revealing remembrance of revered writer Lee


Nelle Harper Lee wrote a novel published in the early 1960s. Her next novel was published more than 50 years later. She had no use for email, Facebook and Twitter and only used a cellphone to call people because she didn't understand how to use it for anything else.

So it shouldn't be surprising that the author of “To Kill a Mockingbird” built her friendship with Alabama historian Wayne Flynt over a period of years and maintained it with an exchange of long, detailed letters.

Flynt's “Mockingbird Songs” is a testament to their friendship and to the value of patient cultivation of friendships, loyalty and the value of skilled letter writing. She wrote to Wayne that “you are surely one of the era's foremost practitioners of a moribund art,” saying his letters “should be kept forever.”

Flynt got to know Lee's sisters and began to become more acquainted with Lee, who went by her first name of Nelle. Gradually, Flynt and his wife, Dartie, developed a friendship with the author after a newspaper column he wrote about the Lee family – and his admiration for “To Kill a Mockingbird” – caught her attention.

After their first exchange of letters, Flynt was out of touch with her for a dozen years. He let her know after he renewed their communications that one of his granddaughters was named Harper in her honor – and that delighted the author. Their friendship grew as they began corresponding regularly and found many common interests, especially Alabama history and literature. Lee adopted Flynt's family as her own.

She had a stroke in 2007 and moved to an assisted-living facility in Monroe-ville, her hometown. Her letters grew shorter and more infrequent. Flynt and his wife kept in close contact, however, writing her letters and visiting.

Flynt spoke of the accomplishment of Lee's signature book, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” at the presentation of a lifetime achievement award, and again at her eulogy.

“One of the fine moments of irony is that a novel written by a woman from Monroeville has become the primary literary instrument worldwide for teaching values of racial justice and tolerance for people different from ourselves,” he said. He had agreed not to write about Lee while she was still alive. She died in 2016.

Flynt, a professor emeritus of history at Auburn University, and his wife were there for Lee at three critical times of her life, Flynt wrote – when her sister Louise slipped into dementia, when Nelle suffered a stroke and when she was forced to give up her second home in New York City and move back to Monroeville, which she had left 65 years earlier.

As Flynt put it: “Perhaps we three met in the twilight of our lives and just needed each other.”


Will Lester, who has written politics and features during his career at The Associated Press, is now an editor in the AP's Washington Bureau.