Afternoons with Harper Lee
© 2022 Wayne Flynt
Recently I had the pleasure of listening to historian Dr. Wayne Flynt speak at my local library, drawing from his new book, Afternoons with Harper Lee. As with Mockingbird Songs, a collection of letters exchanged between himself and the famed author, this memoir grows out of Flynt’s and his wife Dartie’s long friendship with the Monroeville native. Afternoons takes its name from the Flynts’ afternoon visits with Lee in the care center she lived the last years of her life in following a stroke in her adopted city of New York. The memoir combines a personable Harper Lee biography with a messy account of the Flynt-Lee friendship, along with musings on the meaning of To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman. Although I’ve been dubious about Watchman since its release and have never read it because of my suspicions that its publication was done over the head of its declining author, Flynt’s conversations with Lee here indicate that she’d finished it in 1957, but that it simply hadn’t been published. Even more interestingly, she penned a third work, a true crime piece about a Baptist preacher who was popularly regarded as a serial killer who’d only escaped justice through voodoo until he met a vigilante gunman. The manuscript, never submitted for publication because of fear of legal suits, was lost over the years. Go Set a Watchman, Flynt suggests, depicted Lee’s own youthful innocence dying. Atticus Finch was the unparalleled hero of Mockingbird, but in Watchman the young adult Scout has to witness her father making compromises to prevent worse evils. While Flynt’s lecture suggested Lee had come to terms with this, in the book itself she comes off as more permanently disaffected about her father, and bitter about the South and Monroeville in general. Flynt reiterates although Lee often presented herself as a cantankerous recluse, she was warm and funny to those she admitted into her trust. She made for difficult company as a reader, but I was drawn to this out of interest in what it might reveal about Watchman and her friendship with the legendary oral historian Kathryn Tucker Windham. The book delivers substance about the former but only a brief mention of the latter.
“Lee’s own youthful innocence dying”
That’s pretty sad if true. 😦 I know they can be described in the prequel/sequel framing, but I wonder if Watchman and Mockingbird might be better thought of as “alternate versions” of the same story. They can certainly exist in the same chronology, but the optimism vs pessimism difference makes them feel really different (I finished Watchman in tears). Do you think you might read it now?
I’m a third of the way through! Despite knowing there’s a section I’m going to actively dislike (when the 20-something Scout starts berating her father in language that would make a sailor blush), it’s just too interesting now that I know that Lee was aware of the book’s publication and didn’t try to stop it, even if she didn’t initiate it. There’s such dramatic potential in having a good man like Atticus confront the turbulence of the civil rights era — wanting to do right, but also wanting to keep the peace. There’s a little of that in the Selma papers in ’65 — announcements to both the Klan and the NAACP that they should go away and stop making the town their platform for theatrics. 55 years onward we remain a stage for politicians who invariably come to have their photos taken at the bridge, but who forget about the city’s dire material needs (aging infrastructure created for a larger city not being adequately maintained by a cratered tax base, for one) and do little to nothing for its rejuvenation.
SNCC, rather, not the NAACP.