My Harper Lee pilgrimage: Visiting Monroeville, in search of “Mockingbird’s” essence

Visit Harper Lee’s hometown and «Mockingbird» is just described as «the book,» but its author is even more magical Margaret Eby

Topics: Books , harper lee , to kill a mockingbird , Go Set a Watchman , Editor’s Picks , Truman Capote , Monroeville , Gregory Peck , Entertainment News

(Credit: AP/Rob Carr/Salon)

The drive through the rural Alabama roads toward the sleepy town of Monroeville, the hometown of Harper Lee and the inspiration for her most famous creation, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is a quiet one. No interstates come near that hilly patch of rural southwest Alabama. If you’re hoping to get gas, grab a Twinkie, or go to the bathroom, you had better stop off in Selma on your way, because the approach to Monroeville didn’t have so much as a run-down Chevron to offer. For miles around, there were little more than pastures full of cows, great gleaming catfish ponds, abandoned gas stations, and hulking, mute crosses. The AM radio stations offered only crackling static, interrupted by snippets of sermon. I had set out for Monroeville at a predawn hour, and as I drove, trails of dusty pink began to streak through the gray winter sky. As I wound farther south down the country roads, Spanish moss began gathering on the trees and hawks glared down from telephone wires. My traveling companion was a dear friend of mine named Sarah, a whip-smart Alabamian with close ties in Monroeville; as we drove we gossiped about Alabama politics and the newest construction projects in Birmingham. I asked Sarah to come along for company because she knew the little town backward and forward, and because she had talked about paying a visit to her family friends down there the last time we spoke. One of those friends was Harper Lee.

The visit I made was months before the bombshell news that, fifty-five years after “To Kill a Mockingbird” appeared, Lee was publishing a sequel of sorts to her bestseller. The new book, called “Go Set a Watchman,” had been written before “Mockingbird” but deals with the same characters. With the announcement, reporters descended on quiet Monroeville, and my trip, though I didn’t know it at the time, was in the calm before this storm.

But I didn’t meet Harper Lee in Monroeville. Of course I didn’t: She was, and is, famously averse to inquiries from the press, flatly turning away journalists who fly from New York or Los Angeles to knock on her door just as surely as those who drive down from Birmingham or up from Mobile. She stopped giving interviews about fifty years ago, and speaks to reporters rarely and briefly, maintaining a tightlipped-ness that would have inspired the envy of Calvin Coolidge. A rejection slip from Lee may be as much a point of pride for reporters as those from The Paris Review and The New Yorker are for fiction writers.

Lee is vigilant about her privacy. Her image in the media is that of a shadowy recluse, the J. D. Salinger of southwest Alabama. In fact, Lee is just quiet. She has a reputation for being generous and friendly to the few whom she takes under her wing, far from the cantankerous spirit that many a rebuffed reporter has painted of her in the press. Her celebrity combined with her talent for keeping out of the papers has infused her appearances with an extra element of magic.

But even though I knew how unlikely it would be to meet Lee, I still half expected for her to show up, maybe drinking coffee at a booth in the local McDonald’s or taking a walk through the square. She seems to have a sense of whimsy about revealing her presence, like a local god or mythical sprite. Lee has been known to eschew formal, celebrity-filled engagements but show up at a library’s summer reading program festival or a local high school production of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Lee might appear at a symposium for writers or at your Easter dinner table, invited by a friend of a friend. Local authors who sent copies of their novels to Lee’s house in blind hope have sometimes gotten handwritten notes of encouragement. My father, a doctor at the University of Alabama for many years, once received a signed copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird” from a grateful patient who was one of Lee’s Monroeville neighbors. Growing up two hundred miles away in Birmingham, I was always aware that Lee had not only touched all of our lives with her writing, she could show up in person when you least expect it.

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Lee had suffered a stroke in 2007, which meant that she was less mobile than before. Previously, she had split the year between living in New York City and Monroeville. Sarah had sometimes squired Lee around New York in those years, and it always gave me great pleasure to imagine her and Lee flying under the radar somewhere on the Upper West Side, ordering a cup of coffee from a bodega, traipsing through Central Park, or window-shopping along Fifth Avenue just under the noses of the journalists who would write perennial think pieces about Lee’s disappearance from public life. In New York, Lee sometimes attended dinner parties for stray Alabamians and friends. One of the times I missed meeting her was there, at a potluck supper hosted by an acquaintance. By all accounts she was sharp-witted and sweet-toothed, unpretentious and welcoming to fellow Southern stragglers who by stroke of luck had been seated next to her.

Lee’s declining health had confined her recent activities to Monroeville more or less, though she still appeared at the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony, posing for pictures next to George W. Bush, the Texan commander-in-chief towering over her slight frame. In recent years, reports had drifted up from Monroeville that Lee was becoming increasingly withdrawn and wary. She had stopped signing copies of her book, once such a common occurrence that, as a schoolchild on a field trip to Monroeville, I remember a teacher submitting a list of names to one of Lee’s friends for her to inscribe copies of Mockingbird.

She had even landed in the news for filing a suit against the Monroe County Heritage Museum, demanding they cease selling souvenirs based on “Mockingbird.” The museum, the most prominent feature of the tiny town of Monroeville, is essentially a monument to Lee and her book. The courtroom of the museum hosted regular re-creations of the famous scene in “Mockingbird” where Atticus Finch addresses the jury over the fate of Tom Robinson.

The case settled out of court, but some Monroeville citizens commented to the press that the case felt like an attack on the hometown that had nourished and celebrated her fiction. It was, in fact, the result of a long-simmering tension between Lee and her hometown’s efforts to either celebrate or capitalize on her fame, depending on one’s point of view. Monroeville, in the meantime, was changing. Lingerie company Vanity Fair, which had opened operations near Monroeville in the 1930s and been the major employer in the area for years, had only a handful of its once robust workforce. The nearby paper mill shut down in 2009, laying off all of its employees, the machinery sold for scrap. Once the manufacturers fled, Monroeville doubled down on its fame as the “Literary Capital of Alabama,” drawing about 20,000 tourists a year to a city that, by the last census count, has only around 6,500 residents. As New York City has the Village, Monroeville has the Book.

Yet Monroeville residents are fiercely and famously protective of Lee. More than one out-of-towner from a well-respected news outlet has been unwittingly guided right past Lee as she sat at a corner table. Only a few Monroeville natives seem to be outside of an unspoken policy of silence, and they pop up over and over again in Lee-related articles: George Thomas Jones, who once worked as a caddy for Lee’s father, is one, and Reverend Thomas Butts, the pastor of the Methodist church in Monroeville, is another. A highly vaunted “interview” with the Daily Mail on the fiftieth anniversary of “Mockingbird” consisted of Lee thanking the reporter and saying, “We are just going to feed the ducks but call me the next time you are here. We have a lot of history here. You will enjoy it.” Translated from Southern politesse, that gracious dismissal might be rendered as “Don’t let the door hit you on your way out.”

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The centerpiece of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is the lone architectural landmark of Monroeville: the county courthouse. The courthouse square sits at the center of town and is really the only way that you would know that you had entered Monroeville. The opening pages of “Mockingbird” describe Monroeville’s downtown, loosely disguised as the hamlet of Maycomb, as it was in the 1930s:

In rainy weather the streets grew to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square . . . bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and talcum.

By the time “Mockingbird” came out, the court square had lost some of the leaky-molasses pace that Lee described in her book. Gone were the mules, and even the live oaks. When art director Henry Bumstead, tasked with adapting the quiet town of Maycomb to the screen for the film version of “Mockingbird,” came to Monroeville in 1962, his crew found the square too modernized to use for their exterior shots. No mules, no Hoover carts. (They ended up re-creating much of Monroeville on a back lot in Hollywood, including a painstaking replica of the inside of the courthouse.)

Today, the square is the liveliest place in town. Monroeville remains, as Lee wrote about Maycomb, “an island in a patchwork sea of cotton fields and timberland,” a government town in the countryside of southwest Alabama prevented from much growth by its location far away from the closest ports. Around the courthouse, a perimeter of faded brick buildings keep guard. Chipped, faded signs advertise long out-of-business dry-goods companies, but the occupants of the buildings are mostly banks, county offices, and boutiques specializing in monogrammed canvas totes and college football team–themed hair ribbons. The corner hardware store, now out of business, was once the town’s all-purpose shopping stop; couples would register for their weddings there. Outside the store stood large birdhouses painted with references to “Mockingbird” and the square; nearby is Radley’s Fountain Grill, named after Lee’s fictional shut-in, Boo, and the Maycomb Mall. The offices of Barnett, Bugg, Lee & Carter, where Harper Lee’s father, Amasa Coleman Lee, and sister Alice Finch Lee both practiced, is a block away.

The museum itself is a small one, mostly run by volunteers. Three years after the publication of “Mockingbird,” county employees moved out of the building and into the offices scattered around the square. In 1968, still riding the wave of Lee’s publication fame, the courthouse reopened as a local attraction.

The first floor has the gift shop and a small exhibit about the history of Monroeville, which began, like so many Alabama towns, as an agricultural crossroads for exporters of timber and cotton. One room is devoted to a re-creation of a country lawyer’s office, a nod to Lee’s description of the nook Atticus Finch worked out of in the courthouse early in his career, though the room is crowded with leather-bound books—a far cry from Lee’s description of a room that only contained “a hat rack, a spittoon, a checkerboard, and an unsullied Code of Alabama.”

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Lee’s father, who went by A. C., was the model for the determined Atticus Finch and his virtuous if doomed quest to defend a black man from an unfair verdict in Depression-era Alabama. The match between Atticus and A.C. is, of course, not exact, but Lee noted in a 1962 interview with The New York Herald Tribune that they are alike “in character and—the South has a good word for this—in ‘disposition.’” Like Atticus, A. C. was a well-respected presence in his small town. Along with his legal work, A. C. Lee was an editor of the Monroe Journal and a member of the Alabama House of Representatives.

“It is and it isn’t autobiographical,” Lee told the Tribune about her book. “For instance, there is not an incident in it that is factual. The trial, and the rape charge that brings on the trial, is made up out of a composite of such cases and charges. . . . What I did present as exactly as I could were the clime and tone, as I remember, of the town in which I lived. From childhood on, I did sit in the courtroom watching my father argue cases and talk to juries.”

The courtroom, without doubt, is the centerpiece of the museum. A fair chunk of the $2.5 million that was poured into renovating the courthouse, correcting the “sagging” part of Lee’s description, was used to shine up the old courtroom, preserving the setting of the fictional trial in “Mockingbird.” The film version of the book had re-created the airy room exactly, a detail that Monroeville residents often recount with pride. Its on-camera doppelgänger and the carefully preserved 1930s details—hard, pewlike wooden benches, tin jugs balanced on the tables once occupied by the plaintiff and opposing counsel, a wide balcony encircling half the room—conspire to give the room the quality of a film set. In fact, it is a set of sorts. The courtroom’s main role in Monroeville life is as the fulcrum of the annual “To Kill a Mockingbird” play, one of the town’s major yearly tourist attractions. The court scene is often reenacted here for tour groups, with sullen-looking middle-schoolers acting as the jurors. The play migrates from inside the courthouse to the open square, where a row of re-created shotgun shacks acts as a stand-in for the street where Scout Finch and Boo Radley live.

“The Play” is as ubiquitous a term in Monroeville as “the Book.” In the weeks leading up to the six-week series of performances, it is the main focus of the town. The cast is made up of local volunteers, many of whom have returned to play their roles for years. In recent years, the production values of the play have escalated, as has the attention paid to the players. The outdoor cottages, once working sets taken down after the play’s run, are now permanent fixtures. The play traveled to Hong Kong in 2012 as part of a cultural exchange. Nelle Harper Lee has reportedly never come to see it.

On the day Sarah and I visited, the courtroom was being used as an auditorium for a heritage festival. Women in richly patterned head wraps watched children doing a dance routine in front of the judge’s bench. On the balcony, where Sarah and I ascended to observe the proceedings, groups of grade-school children craned their necks over the r…