ShareMonroeville styles itself “the Literary Capital of Alabama.” Though the town had once been segregated, with the usual suspicions and misunderstandings that arise from such forced separation, I found it to be a place of sunny streets and friendly people, and also—helpful to a visiting writer—a repository of long memories. The town boasts that it has produced two celebrated writers, who grew up as neighbors and friends, Truman Capote and Harper Lee. Their homes no longer stand, but other landmarks persist, those of Maycomb, the fictional setting of To Kill A Mockingbird. Still one of the novels most frequently taught in American high schools, Lee’s creation has sold more than 40 million copies and been translated into 40 languages.
Among the pamphlets and souvenirs sold at the grandly domed Old Courthouse Museum is Monroeville, The Search for Harper Lee’s Maycomb, an illustrated booklet that includes local history as well as images of the topography and architecture of the town that correspond to certain details in the novel. Harper Lee’s work, published when she was 34, is a mélange of personal reminiscence, fictional flourishes and verifiable events. The book contains two contrasting plots, one a children’s story, the tomboy Scout, her older brother Jem and their friend Dill, disturbed in their larks and pranks by an obscure house-bound neighbor, Boo Radley; and in the more portentous story line, Scout’s father’s combative involvement in the defense of Tom Robinson, the decent black man, who has been accused of rape.
What I remembered of my long-ago reading of the novel was the gusto of the children and their outdoor world, and the indoor narrative, the courtroom drama of a trumped-up charge of rape, a hideous miscarriage of justice and a racial murder. Rereading the novel recently, I realized I had forgotten how odd the book is, the wobbly construction, the arch language and shifting point of view, how atonal and forced it is at times, a youthful directness and clarity in some of the writing mingled with adult perceptions and arcane language. For example, Scout is in a classroom with a new teacher from North Alabama. “The class murmured apprehensively,” Scout tells us, “should she prove to harbor her share of the peculiarities indigenous to that region.” This is a tangled way for a 6-year-old to perceive a stranger, and this verbosity pervades the book.
I am now inclined to Flannery O’Connor’s view of it as “a child’s book,” but she meant it dismissively, while I tend to think that its appeal to youngsters (like that of Treasure Island and Tom Sawyer) may be its strength. A young reader easily identifies with the boisterous Scout and sees Atticus as the embodiment of paternal virtue. In spite of the lapses in narration, the book’s basic simplicity and moral certainties are perhaps the reason it has endured for more than 50 years as the tale of an injustice in a small Southern town. That it appeared, like a revelation, at the very moment the civil rights movement was becoming news for a nation wishing to understand, was also part of its success.
Monroeville had known a similar event, the 1934 trial of a black man, Walter Lett, accused of raping a white woman. The case was shaky, the woman unreliable, no hard evidence; yet Walter Lett was convicted and sentenced to death. Before he was electrocuted, calls for clemency proved successful; but by then Lett had been languishing on Death Row too long, within earshot of the screams of doomed men down the hall, and he was driven mad. He died in an Alabama hospital in 1937, when Harper Lee was old enough to be aware of it. Atticus Finch, an idealized version of A.C. Lee, Harper’s attorney father, defends the wrongly accused Tom Robinson, who is a tidier version of Walter Lett.
Never mind the contradictions and inconsistencies: Novels can hallow a place, cast a glow upon it and inspire bookish pilgrims—and there are always visitors, who’d read the book or seen the movie. Following the free guidebook Walk Monroeville, they stroll in the downtown historic district, admiring the Old Courthouse, the Old Jail, searching for Maycomb, the locations associated with the novel’s mythology, though they search in vain for locations of the movie, which was made in Hollywood. It is a testament to the spell cast by the novel, and perhaps to the popular film, that the monument at the center of town is not to a Monroeville citizen of great heart and noble achievement, nor a local hero or an iconic Confederate soldier, but to a fictional character, Atticus Finch. (Read more.)