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.

The 1960s and Beyond

The Monroeville public library, once the LaSalle Hotel.
Courtesy Library of Congress.
As a young woman, Lee left Monroeville for New York, where she wrote her famous novel. Local schools banned To Kill a Mockingbird almost as soon as it came out in 1960. Despite the fact that it was penned by a hometown girl, not many people in pre-Civil Rights era Monroeville were in a hurry to purchase the novel. “Folks didn’t take much notice until the movie came out,” according to Monroe Journal columnist George T. Jones.[3] (That sounds like modern consumers to me!) Filmmakers thought to shoot Mockingbird on location in Monroeville but ultimately decided not to. The Romanesque 1903 courthouse with its distinctive white bell tower was still in use at the time of filming, but they replicated it closely. (Of course, based on the courtroom dramas I’ve seen, most Southern courtrooms are fairly similar. Would I be able to tell the difference between To Kill a Mockingbird’s small Alabama courtroom in a 1962 film about a 1930s trial and Inherit the Wind’s small Tennessee courtroom in a 1960 film about the 1925 Scopes trial? Somehow I doubt it.) I’ve never been to Monroeville, but from what I’ve read, it seems the 1960s filmmakers truly captured its essence. Gregory Peck also visited Monroeville in 1962 to prepare for his role as Atticus Finch. He stayed in the LaSalle hotel, which interestingly enough is now the town’s library. The librarian, Bunny Hines Noble, belongs to the family that once owned the land the building occupies. The book and film quickly established themselves as part of the town’s identity. When a new courthouse was built in the 1960s, the old one was slated for demolition, but passionate citizens stepped in to save this unexpectedly beloved symbol of a fictional fight against racism. Whether the citizenry of Monroeville was naturally more liberal than their neighbors or whether they were embracing the ideals of native daughter Lee, accounts suggest that Civil Rights era Monroeville had a less violent experience and “a better record than many neighboring communities. Desegregation went smoothly here and the town fathers chose not to fight voter registration. Blacks and whites working together thwarted the Ku Klux Klan when the group threatened black schoolchildren marching in a Christmas parade. Eventually the Klan gave up on efforts to organize in the county.”[4]

The new Monroe County courthouse, built in
the 1960s. Courtesy Library of Congress.
Before, during, and after the Civil Rights movement, black/white relations were still far from a fairy tale. Many readers believe that the 1934 Walter Lett trial in Monroeville was a partial model for the Tom Robinson trial in Mockingbird’s Maycomb. Lett was accused of raping a white woman and was sentenced to death, despite shaky evidence, an unreliable accuser, and no hard evidence. Unlike the fictional Robinson case, calls for clemency were successful and Lett avoided the death penalty. However, after so much time on death row he succumbed to insanity and died in a hospital in 1937. Harper Lee was 11 at the time of Lett’s death. Sadly, history repeated itself in 1986 when Walter McMillian, the black owner of a land-clearing business, was accused of murdering Ronda Morrison, a white 18-year-old clerk at Jackson Cleaners. Hindsight paints the arrest and conviction as a judicial farce. Witnesses put McMillian far away from the scene of the murder, which happened at the cleaners near the courthouse one Saturday morning. The police pressured other witnesses to testify against McMillian, and they later recanted. The prosecution hid evidence, including the fact that witnesses saw Morrison alive after the alleged time of the murder. McMillian’s attorney was Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery.  He believes that McMillian was targeted because the police were desperate for an arrest after a long investigation, and McMillian was having an affair with a
Monument to Atticus Finch in downtown
Monroeville erected by the Alabama Bar
Association. Courtesy Library of Congress.
white woman, just as the fictional Tom Robinson had the nerve to feel sorry for a white woman. The jury sentenced McMillian to life in prison after only three-day trial, though the judge overruled their recommendation and changed the penalty to death. Unlike the trial in Mockingbird, justice prevailed and McMillian’s conviction was overturned in 1993 after he spent five years on death row. “The wheels of justice grind slowly, with paper shuffling and appeals. Little drama, much persistence. In the town with a memorial to Atticus Finch, not Bryan Stevenson.”[5] (The Alabama Bar Association erected a monument to Atticus Finch in 1997 as “first commemorative legal milestone in the state’s judicial history.”[6]) After his exoneration, McMillian returned to Monroeville, saying he wasn’t bitter and had forgiven those who had wronged him. He lived there until his death in 2013.

Modern Monroeville

Downtown Monroeville.
Courtesy Library of Congress.
What is the Monroeville of today like? The streets are paved, the downtown is decaying, a Walmart and fast food restaurants have put most of the local eateries and other stores out of business. Where redbuds, magnolias, and Bradford pears flower, the “real” Boo Radley oak has been uprooted. Lee’s childhood home on South Alabama Avenue, once the town’s main residential street, was torn down and is now the location of Mel’s Dairy Dream. The Faulk house next door, where Truman Capote spent his summers, was lost in fire. All that remains is the stone wall between the two properties and a commemorative marker. The tree-lined road is no more; it is now lined with restaurants, motels, and auto stores. Monroeville has been a manufacturing hub since the 1930s, but now there is 20% unemployment in the region and 29% of the town’s residents live in poverty. Vanity Fair Mills once employed up to 2500 people but has since closed its Monroeville operation and outsourced. Georgia Pacific also closed its plywood plant due to falling demand, though they still have three paper mills in the area. Paper processing is one of the most odoriferous industries there is—I can only imagine the smell that must blanket the town.

All that remains of the Faulk home, where Truman
Capote spent summers. Courtesy Library of Congress.
Still, travel writer Paul Theroux “found it to be a place of sunny streets and friendly people” (6200 and falling, according to the Census Bureau’s Community Fact Finder). A local told Theroux where the blacks live, where the inbred whites live, and what parts of town to avoid. Visiting one area, another local told him, “You best go away, mister—this is a bad neighborhood.” Is this self-awareness or poor self-esteem? Either way, there seems to be a divide in local feeling toward the town. Another resident told Theroux, “This is a wonderful town. Talk nice about Monroeville.”[7] Most journalists who visit the area tend to characterize the residents as hardworking and hospitable, if impoverished. They’re also big churchgoers. “Monroeville, tucked away 30 miles off exit 93 of I-65 in southwest Alabama, is Bible Belt country through and through. There are 7,000 people and 28 churches; heads bow in grace before meals, and the defining question is, ‘What church do you belong to?’”[8] Monroeville’s first citizen, Miss Nelle Harper Lee, attends the First United Methodist Church, in case you’re wondering. The town is the kind of place where everyone knows your name, particularly if your name is Lee. (As an aside, Miss Nelle used Harper, her middle name, as her pen name so that Yankees didn’t run “Nelle Lee” into “Nellie.”) Though she once split her time between her hometown and New York, Lee is now a full time resident of Monroeville, and its residents are protective of her. They also avoid
First United Methodist Church, where Harper Lee
attends. Courtesy Library of Congress.
talking about Lee to outsiders as much as possible, fearful of upsetting or offending the notoriously private author. Local shop Beehive Coffee & Books didn’t stock the Lee biography by Marja Mills because they knew she wouldn’t like it. Lee’s sister and dear Alice also spent her life in Monroeville, where she practiced law past the age of 100 in a business suit and tennis shoes. (She died last year at 103.) Nelle, now 89, enjoys playing slots at Wind Creek Casino 40 miles south of town. I get a kick out of picturing the unmarried elderly sisters together. Little wonder that journalists continue to pry with such colorful characters about!

“All anyone wants to talk about is Nelle [Harper Lee] and Truman [Capote],” resident Jennings Carter, who is also Capote’s first cousin, told one writer. “There’s more here than that…I don’t mean to sound like the Chamber of Commerce, but we have a good strip of farmland, cattle, and timber.”[9]

The Mockingbird Economy

A mural downtown depicting the streets of 1935.
Courtesy Library of Congress.
Still, with the decline in manufacturing and Monroeville’s distinction as the literary capital of Alabama, Mockingbird tourism looms in the modern economy. In fact, literary pilgrimages to the town began as early as 1960, when the novel was first published. Today the original courthouse, saved from demolition in the 1960s, is home to the Monroe County Heritage Museum, which draws over 30,000 visitors a year—more than four times the town’s population.  The 1962 film plays on a continuous loop in the second story courtroom, and visitors can see the same lawyers’ tables, arched windows, balcony, and other features reflected in the room around them. The museum sells many books, including an illustrated local history called Monroeville, The Search for Harper Lee’s Maycomb, which points out Maycomb landmarks in Monroeville. They also sell Walk Monroeville for those interested in self-guided walking tours, though the Chamber of Commerce does a guided walking tour every Saturday in the spring. The town’s logo features a mockingbird, businesses like the Mockingbird Inn and Radley’s Fountain Grille flourish, and outdoor murals depict the streets of 1935, all thanks to tourist dollars. One tourist draw is an amateur theatrical version of To Kill a Mockingbird put on by the townspeople—bankers, middle school students, city councilmen, funeral directors, and others depict Lee’s characters. The opening backdrop is three small houses right outside the courthouse, after which the action moves into the historic courthouse. According to Alabaman writer Albert Murray, it has become “a part of the town ritual, like the religious underpinnings of Mardi Gras. With the whole town crowded around the actual courthouse, it’s part of a central, civic education – what Monroeville aspires to be.”[10] In actuality, it might just be white Monroeville crowded around the courthouse. Despite always having one black man in the cast to play Tom Robinson (county commissioner Charles McCorvey, in 2006), a local man told Theroux that only a handful of blacks will be in the
Atticus and Scout in one of the annual play's
outdoor scenes. Courtesy Library of Congress.
audience, preferring the present to reliving those dark days. Another resident who has never seen the play is Harper Lee herself, who dislikes anything that trades on her novel’s fame. In fact, she once sued the Monroe County Heritage Museum for using her name and Mockingbird without proper trademark compensation; the case has been settled. She was also upset when the museum started selling an unauthorized Calpurnia’s Cookbook, which the museum then withdrew without legal action. The town is teeming with Mockingbird-related tourist destinations and baubles, which led writer Charles Leerhsen to observe, “To spend an hour in Monroeville, Alabama is to know why Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, ranks as one of the crankiest writers on the planet…Life can’t be easy when everything you hate about success stands between you and the Piggly Wiggly.”[11]

Going Home to Maycomb

While Lee might sometimes feel frustrated by her town, her town continues to revere her. The Ol’ Curiosities and Book Shoppe started selling Go Set a Watchman at midnight on its release date. Proprietor Spencer Madrie hung vintage lights, hired an Atticus impersonator, and otherwise created a memorable night for fans. The store provided a bin where customers could drop notes to Lee that would be delivered to her; Madrie sounded confident that Lee loves to read such notes. Books sold in the shop were embossed by hand saying they were from Monroeville, and devotees flocked from all over the United States and the world to get these special copies and be part of the festivities. On the morning of July 14, a marathon reading of the new book started at 7:00 a.m. in the historic courthouse. While there has been much heated debate regarding To Kill a Mockingbird versus Go Set a Watchman, most critics seem to agree that the Southern pastoral setting of Maycomb shines in both. “The evocation of Maycomb, with which the new book begins, and which recurs through its pages, is often magically alive. There is a little set piece about the arrival of a train at a flag stop that makes one feel nostalgic for one’s Southern childhood even if one never had a Southern childhood.”[12] Even Jean Louise Finch appears nostalgic for her own Southern childhood in Watchman, and I personally believe Lee must have felt that way herself to write as she did about her fictionalized Monroeville. There is a suggestion of this sentiment in her last full interview with WQXR in 1964, when she said, “I would like to be the chronicler of something that I think is going down the drain very swiftly, and that is small-town, middle-class, Southern life. There is something universal in it. There’s something to lament when it goes in its passing.”[13]

A mural downtown depicting a scene from TKAM.
Courtesy Library of Congress.
There’s little doubt that Lee accomplished that in just one novel—and now two. Countless readers from generation to generation have visited Maycomb without leaving home, and now they visit Monroeville as well. Despite the changes to modern society, including Monroeville’s own streets, there is something timeless about Lee’s chronicle of life in Maycomb. I enjoy seeing places I’ve read about and reading about places I’ve visited, so I can see the appeal of Mockingbird tourism for enthusiasts. After all, polls frequently show that To Kill a Mockingbird is second only to the Bible in the hearts of those surveyed. If I start writing about why that is, I’m at risk of doing what I said I wouldn’t do—analyzing the novels, rather than exploring the real and imaginary towns. So I’ll close with Lee’s thoughts from a 1961 Life magazine interview: “I’m not like Thomas Wolfe. I can go home again.”[14] As our frequent rereading of her first novel and modern Monroeville’s tourism industry show, we can all go home with her.

by Kristin Noell

  1.  Childress, Mark. 1997. "Looking for Harper Lee." Southern Living, 05, 148-150.
  2. Gopnik, Adam. 2015. "Sweet Home Alabama." The New Yorker, Jul 27, 66.
  3. Hoffman, Roy. 1998. "Long Lives the Mockingbird." New York Times Book Review, Aug 09, 31.
  4. How Harper Lee Went from Wannabe Writer to the Jane Austen of Alabama. 2015. Washington, D.C.: National Public Radio.
  5. In Monroeville, Ala., the Shock and Disillusion of Watchman. 2015. Washington, D.C.: National Public Radio.
  6. Lee, Harper. 2006. "A Letter from Harper Lee." O : The Oprah Magazine, 07, 151-153,18.
  7. Leerhsen, Charles. 2010. "Novel Achievement." Smithsonian, 06, 82-91.
  8. 'Mockingbird' Eases Hard Times in Lee's Hometown 2010. Washington, D.C.: National Public Radio.
  9. Monroeville, Alabama – Home of Author Harper Lee. 1996. Washington, D.C.: National Public Radio.
  10. Newman, Cathy. 2006. "Zip USA: Monroeville, Alabama." National Geographic, 01, 114-117,120-122.
  11. Nickell, Kelly. 2001. "Harper Lee's Monroeville, Ala." Writer's Digest, 01, 49.
  12. Residents of Harper Lee's Hometown Celebrate Go Set A Watchman. 2015. Washington, D.C.: National Public Radio.
  13. Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. 2014. New York: Spiegel & Grau.
  14. Theroux, Paul. 2015. "Return of the Mockingbird." Smithsonian, Jul, 38-49,126.
  15. A Town Divided Over the Next Chapter of an Iconic Harper Lee Book. 2015. Washington, D.C.: National Public Radio.
  16. Weber, Kevin. 2014. “Walter McMillian.” National Registry of Exonerations. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Law School. Accessed August 8, 2015.
  17. Wilson, Mike. 2010. "Monroeville's Mockingbird." Southern Living, 07, 78-82.

[1] Childress, 148-149.
[2] Lee, 151.
[3] Newman.
[4] Monroeville, Alabama – Home of Author Harper Lee.
[5] Theroux, 44.
[6] Nickell, 49.
[7] Theroux, 40, 45.
[8] Newman.
[9] Newman.
[10] Hoffman, 31.
[11] Leehrsen, 82.
[12] Gopnik, 66.
[13] “How Harper Lee Went from Wannabe Writer to the Jane Austen of Alabama.”
[14] Leerhsen.

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