Shunning email, Lee and the Flynts exchanged hand-written letters until Lee's infirmities worsened, leading to her death in 2016. Their correspondence, along with Flynt's commentary, has been collected in "Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship With Harper Lee."
The slight, pleasurable book reveals details of Lee's reclusive life in her hometown of Monroeville, Ala,, the model for the Maycomb of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Go Set a Watchman." Until suffering a stroke, Lee also spent part of her life in New York City.
A shy woman who disliked contact with the public, Lee, known by her first name, Nelle, to her friends, developed a persona of the crotchety old lady with a heart of gold. Although she avoided many public events, the book shows that she had an active social life, attending a number of awards ceremonies in Alabama with Flynt's encouragement.
Her letters give chatty details of her daily life, with little insight into her authorship of the classic book frequently taught to high school and junior high students. Her vinegary side comes out in her condemnations of her biographer Charles Shields, who also cashed in on the Mockingbird motif with his book, "Mockingbrid, A Portrait of Harper Lee."
An admirable perseverance is shown in Lee's accounts of her struggles against increasing blindness and other health problems. She also details her engaged reading life. Shunning formal religion, she loves the Christian author C.S. Lewis.
The publication of the uneven "Go Set a Watchman," an early version of "To Kill a Mockingbird," raised questions about whether Lee's attorney took advantage of her in approving the book's publication. Flynt says he believes that Lee possessed full mental awareness in consenting to the book's release.
In another controversy, Lee gives Flynt convincing proof that she wrote "To Kill a Mockingbird" without any involvement of Truman Capote, her childhood friend and the model for the book's character Dill. Reading Lee's letters, I was struck by how much they sounded like the voice of Scout, the young girl who narrates "To Kill a Mockingbird.
Flynt also adds a comment that Lee should have received more credit for helping Capote with his groundbreaking nonfiction book "In Cold Blood."
Flynt in his letters reflects a type that once had prominence in Southern life: the progressive Protestant academic. The author of number of books on the history of Alabama and the editor of the online Encyclopedia of Alabama, the Baptist Flynt expresses liberal values that might surprise some readers. His efforts at humor grow tedious, especially his heavy-handed teasing of Lee. On the whole, his warm, learned voice shows an equanimity of spirit similar to that of Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird."
Before meeting Nelle, the Flynts were friends with her beloved sister, Louise, whose mental decline and death make up a poignant strand of the book. As Nelle's letters grew rarer, her sister Alice stepped up to write to the Flynts. Alice's letters are also included in the book, giving a fuller portrait of the three sisters and their progressive contributions to their native state. As with Flynt, the Lees' liberal values on race and education reflect a philosophy that once had power in Southern politics. Now, the old liberal Southern populism reels.
The book marks a final stage in literary culture, the correspondence between two close friends. Emails and text messages are unsuited to the extended reflections and permanence of the handwritten letter. In recent years, letters between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop and Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald have been published. along with similar collections. In the age of the tweet and email, the genre looks doomed.