May 1, 2017

New book about Harper Lee includes letters and anecdotes about Truman Capote, Atticus Finch, and more


In Mockingbird Songs, Harper Lee’s friend expresses his belief that she was happy to see Go Set A Watchman published.

Historian and author Wayne Flynt first met Harper Lee in 1983, when she bluntly refused to sign his copy of To Kill A Mockingbird. (“I only sign for children,” she told him.) Their relationship would improve over the next twenty-five years, though, and on May 2, Flynt will publish  Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship With Harper Lee.

Writing at the New York Times, Jennifer Crossley Howard spoke to Flynt about the book and his relationship with Lee. Of her famous friendship with Truman Capote, she wrote in a letter to Flynt:

“I don’t know if you understood this about him,” she wrote, “but his compulsive lying was like this: if you said, ‘Did you know JFK was shot?’ He’d easily answer, ‘Yes, I was driving the car he was riding in.’”

Ms. Lee wrote that Mr. Capote’s drinking and misery soured their friendship. Jealousy ended it.

“I was his oldest friend, and I did something Truman could not forgive: I wrote a novel that sold,” she wrote. “He nursed his envy for more than 20 years.”

Lee is portrayed as an enthusiastic reader, and Flynt cites her praise of C.S. Lewis, Frank McCourt, William Faulkner, and Eudora Welty, who she apparently referred to as “my goddess.”

Perhaps of most interest to people who were upset by the publication of Go Set A Watchman, Flynt offers something of a rebuttal to the notion Lee would not have approved of the book’s publication, with its unflattering portrayal of the hero of To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus Finch:

Ms. Lee said she was content with “Mockingbird,” though, despite its popularity, she saw its shortcomings.

“I wonder what their reaction would have been if TKAM had been complex, sour, unsentimental, racially unpaternalistic because Atticus was a bastard,” she wrote to Mr. Flynt on July 31, 2006.

He didn’t know it then, but she actually had written such a book. It was called “Go Set a Watchman,” and it depicted Atticus as a racist, not a hero, and it had been a first draft that was ultimately rewritten and became “Mockingbird.”

“Watchman” resurfaced and was published in 2015 amid concerns that Ms. Lee, old and infirm, may not have fully participated in the decision to publish a long forgotten and flawed first novel (which has now sold more than three million copies, according to HarperCollins). But Mr. Flynt was adamant at the time that she had welcomed the publication.

Now, looking back, Ms. Lee’s 2006 letter to him gives us some sense of just why.

Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.