Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Monroeville, Alabama - Yesterday and Today

Courtesy Library of Congress.
There has been a lot of talk in the media about Harper Lee’s new/old book, Go Set a Watchman, since long before its publication on July 14. Is it unpolished? Is Atticus a racist? Was Lee in a fit state to authorize publication? Does it diminish To Kill a Mockingbird? (To see the MRL community’s thoughts on the novel, see our Goodreads review.) Instead of revisiting all of these ideas, I want to visit the town halfway between Mobile and Montgomery that served as the inspiration for Maycomb, the setting of both novels—little Monroeville, which was named the literary capital of Alabama in 1996. For another “visit” to Maycomb, please join us at the Main branch on Saturday, September 5 at 1:00 for a showing of the 1962 film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. 

The 1930s
While Maycomb could be any small rural town in the South (which is probably why it resonates with so many readers 55 years later), you can find its landmarks in Monroeville if you know where to look. Mark Childress, the author of Crazy in Alabama and a Monroeville native, says that Mockingbird was the first “grown-up book” he ever read. “Books had always been magical objects to me, but distant from my own experience. Authors were invisible wizards who swept me off to far places to work their spell on me. To Kill a Mockingbird was fiction, but it was real. It came from this place where I sat. It was a written by a lady my parents actually knew, a lady who had signed her name in this book I held in my hands. It told a story about a childhood lived on this very street, in these houses, in that schoolyard back yonder.”[1] Monroeville residents have always believed that Mockingbird is based on Lee’s experience. An older friend of the Childress family often pointed out Boo Radley’s home and the tree where he left trinkets for Scout and Jem as if he were a real man. In fact, when Lee was a child, a young man named Son Bowler broke some windows in the school, and his father made a deal with the authorities that he would keep his son out of trouble if they wouldn’t press charges. Son Bowler became a prisoner in his father’s house, eventually dying in his 30s of tuberculosis.

The old Monroe Country Courthouse.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Like Scout, Jem, and Dill, the children of Monroeville played on the red clay streets in the 1930s. One old-timer once recounted a story of Truman Capote (Lee’s inspiration for Dill) gathering up the boys playing ball on an abandoned lot and taking them to the drug store for milk shakes and sodas. He had the outing charged to his mother, who had left him with relatives while she was living in New Orleans. Capote apparently had quite a reputation for sass, though one would hope that young Lee, daughter of respected lawyer Amasa Coleman Lee (inspiration for Atticus Finch), was better behaved. When they weren’t playing in the streets or hanging out at the soda fountain, the children of Lee’s generation had one other great pastime: reading. I couldn’t write this better than Lee, who wrote a rare letter on the subject to Oprah in 2006:
“My sisters and brother, much older, read aloud to keep me from pestering them; my mother read me a story every day, usually a children’s classic; and my father read from the four newspapers he got through every evening. Then, of course, it was Uncle Wiggily at bedtime…Reading was an accomplishment I shared with several local contemporaries. Why this endemic precocity? Because in my hometown, a remote village in the early 1930s, youngsters had little to do but read. A movie? Not often – movies weren’t for small children. A park for games? Not a hope. We’re talking unpaved streets here, and the Depression. Books were scarce. There was nothing you could call a public library, we were a hundred miles away from a department store’s books section, so we children began to circulate reading material among ourselves until each child had read another’s entire stock.”[2]
Personally, I love this image.