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Alabama People: A man of letters

Dr. Wayne Flynt, professor emeritus in the Department of History at Auburn University, is the author of 13 books, the most recent of which, Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee, chronicles 25 years of correspondence with the famed author of To Kill a Mockingbird. He disputes rumors that Lee suffered from Alzheimer’s in her later years and knew nothing of thepublication of the forerunner of TKAM, Go Set a Watchman, in 2015. He holds degrees from Howard College (now Samford University) and Florida State University, taught at Samford and joined the Auburn faculty in 1977 where he remained until his retirement in 2005. He is also the founding editor of the online Encyclopedia of Alabama. At 77, Flynt still writes and speaks to groups across the country, although his travel has been somewhat limited as he lovingly cares for Dartie, his wife of 56 years, who has Parkinson’s Disease. They have two sons who married two “brilliant” sisters, and three grandchildren. – Lenore Vickrey

What’s been the reaction to your latest book, “Mockingbird Songs”?

The reviews were probably the best I’ve ever had, certainly from the other side of the pond, from the London Times Literary Supplement and the Economist. And I’ve been really happy with the letters I’ve received. I always try to answer everyone’s letter. So many are not the traditional kind of letters we get about a book; they are long, thoughtful letters, handwritten on fine stationery, in many cases, with a fountain pen. Most are letters from people who always fantasized about what Nelle (Harper Lee’s first name, and what Flynt, her family and close friends called her) would be like. They say things like, “At last I understand her.” “She’s so funny, so satirical.” “She’s not politically correct.” Frankly, I wrote the book for that reason. There were so many false statements and conspiracy theories out there, and that Nelle was demented, none of which are true. All you have to do is read the pages from our journals to see how sharp she was, how funny she was and how delightful she was. In the end, it was her decision to have the book published. Journalists look for conspiracy theories. Historians look for the most plausible explanation.

Do you miss the classroom?

I miss it terribly. The only thing that makes it tolerable is that I have taught Sunday School ever since I was at Florida State. Now I teach the Pilgrim Sunday School class at Auburn First Baptist. I treat this very seriously in terms of preparation. There’s 107 in the class from agnostics, to Episcopalians, Catholics and traditional Baptists, libertarians, socialists, liberals, Nigerians, African Americans. We have a big poster on the wall, “We reserve the right to accept everyone”! Politically, it’s all across the landscape. I don’t talk politics. Bible study is still the core component. They minister to each other. It’s like a real New Testament church, as opposed to the politically charged.

Is there anything you don’t miss about the college classroom?

Grading papers, teaching students how to write. By the time I retired, even the honors students didn’t know how to write. Writing has become a lost art. I don’t know if it’s the computer, sound bites or social media, but there’s no such thing as a lyrical writer. I also don’t miss the politics of higher education. It’s just so bloody awful.

What writers do you read?

I came to Eudora Welty late. I like Flannery O’Connor. Obviously, I read Harper Lee. I didn’t read fiction at all until I came to Samford. I was 23 when I read To Kill a Mockingbird. All of a sudden I realized the power of fiction to change your life. Here was a deeply biblical woman with a deeply biblical message. It is a religious book, not about religion. Now I read To Kill a Mockingbird every year. I also read lots of theology, Buechner, Niebuhr; Thomas Wolfe, Peter Taylor, William Faulkner, all the major writers of Southern fiction.

Do you have any writing projects in the wings?

Yes, but I’ll probably never finish it. If we live long enough, it’ll be “Afternoons with Harper Lee,” based on Tuesdays with Morrie. It would not be a biography because I don’t think anyone will write that. She was too private of a person. We never probed and she never told. We had ten years of visits. We never recorded them, but Dartie has amazing recall, and we would sit in the parking lot and write notes after our visits with Nelle. We have 250 pages of notes from those visits.

The free online resource Encyclopedia of Alabama (encyclopediaofalabama.org) is something you were heavily involved with. You must be very proud of that.

It’s the most confounding event that I, as the least technologically advanced person, was asked to oversee a completely electronic encyclopedia! It was truly a collaborative effort (between Auburn, Alabama and many museums, agencies and other groups). We started with 500 articles and I edited every single one. Until I retired, I’d read every article. I wrote the overview, the article on To Kill a Mockingbird, the book that changed my life, and I got to write the sections on religion and Alabama Baptists. There are some advantages to being the boss! If I have one legacy to leave the state, I don’t know that I’m prouder of anything more than the Encyclopedia.