Letter Puts End to Persistent 'Mockingbird' Rumor

New evidence may end the decades-old speculation that Truman Capote — not Harper Lee — wrote the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Dr. Wayne Flynt, retired professor of history from Auburn University discusses the basis for the persistent rumor and explains why it is indeed false.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

In the decades since Harper Lee published TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD in 1960, her novel has been shadowed by a persistent rumor. The speculation has been that Lee's long time friend Truman Capote either wrote or heavily edited the book, which would go on to be a bestseller and win the Pulitzer Prize.

Well, now a letter from Truman Capote to his aunt, dated July 9, 1959, should help put that rumor to rest. Joining us to talk about it is Wayne Flynt. He is a retired history professor at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama. And he has researched the writings of both Harper Lee and Truman Capote. Welcome.

WAYNE FLYNT: Thank you.

BLOCK: Let's talk first about this letter from Truman Capote. It's now been made public. It was, as I understand it, given to a museum from a cousin of Mr. Capote. What does it say and how does it help quash this rumor?

FLYNT: Essentially, it says that a year before the novel was published in July of 1960, that Capote had seen the novel, had read much of the book, and liked it very much, and commented that she has great talent. And nowhere in the letter does he claim any involvement whatsoever in the book.

BLOCK: And by saying that he's seen it would appear to put some distance at least with it?

FLYNT: That's correct. That's correct.

BLOCK: How did this rumor get started in the first place?

FLYNT: Well, some claim Pearl Belle, who is a literary critic and editor in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has actually claimed that Capote implied to her that he had written the book or had a good deal to do with the writing of the book. I think probably the rumor results from the fact that TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is the only published book that Harper Lee ever did.

BLOCK: Yeah, that that would fuel it. In other words, she was one and done, and if she were such a great writer, why wouldn't she keep writing great books?

FLYNT: Exactly. Which basically judges her by the standards of our own culture, which is once you've got a taste of fame and fortune, why in the world wouldn't you continue it?

BLOCK: If you look closely at TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and the writing of Truman Capote, do you see anyway that Truman Capote could have written TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD?

FLYNT: No. The voice of the characters in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is a totally different literary voice. Some have claimed that he's so brilliant that he could have simply assumed the voice of his good friend Harper Lee. I don't believe that for a minute. Writers simply don't assume another voice, another persona, another kind of literary style.

Hers is very much the same style as her writing in the Crimson White eight years before this book is published.

BLOCK: Wayne Flynt, have you met Harper Lee yourself?

FLYNT: Yes.

BLOCK: And you've talked to her about this?

FLYNT: Yes.

BLOCK: Can you tell us anything that she might have told you, without violating the confidence?

FLYNT: Not really, because she's such a private person. And I think to ask her the question would be to do the very thing that so many people have done, which is to interrupt her privacy. And I think that she understands this as part of hype that goes along with the mythology of Truman Capote and Harper Lee. They're both a part of mythology.

BLOCK: Do you really think this letter from Truman Capote alluding to a book from Harper Lee that he has seen and that he thinks is quite good, do you think that will actually kill the rumor that he actually wrote the book?

FLYNT: I think it will go along way towards that, although I think the most convincing evidence is really inferential evidence. Here's a person who was known for his enormous ego and for his banter and for his self-promotion. Here's a man who wanted desperately to win the National Book Award and wanted desperately to win the Pulitzer Prize and never won either one of them. And to assume, as jealous as he was of Harper Lee's success, he would not have claimed credit for this if he in fact done it, is simply too much for me to believe. So I don't know that we needed this letter, but I suppose it does put to rest some of the naysayers out there and some of the people who have claimed that she really is not a great literary talent.

BLOCK: Well, Wayne Flynt, good to talk to you. Thanks so much.

FLYNT: Thank you.

BLOCK: Wayne Flynt is a retired Professor of History at Auburn University in Alabama. The film CAPOTE about Truman Capote and Harper Lee is expected to pick up at least one gold statue at Sunday's Academy Awards.

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