Sunday, May 4, 2014

MONROEVILLE, ALABAMA: THE COURTHOUSE AND HARPER LEE

The 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning book To Kill a Mockingbird has been on my Top Ten Books list ever since I read it in my high school English class. I reread it once every five to ten years, and I've seen the 1962 movie about as many times as I've read the book, and so visiting Harper Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, was the equivalent of visiting Mecca.

As we drove in to town, it was pretty easy to tell we were in the right place. There was that mural of a mockingbird on the Lee Motor Co. building:
. . . a cute birdhouse/mailbox with a mockingbird and the words "Literary Capital of Alabama" painted on it:
. . . a mural of Scout, Jem, and Dill hiding behind a tree:
. . . Radley's Fountain Grille ("Where Friends Meet"):
. . . and Mockingbird Inn & Suites:
We were definitely in the right place.
Most of the tourism in town centers around the old courthouse, made famous by the 1962 movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird. It is now the Monroe County Museum.

(*Note: I'm just going to get it over with and say here that Harper Lee sued the museum last year for selling souvenirs using her name and the title of her book without compensating her. The case was settled in February 2014 for an undisclosed sum, but the idea of illegal profiteering does cast a bit of a shadow on the place. Okay, that's all I'm going to say about that.)

Built in 1904, this was just a beautiful old courthouse until Harper Lee wrote her book about a mythical Alabama town named Maycomb that had people and buildings in it just like the ones in Monroeville.  And then a few years later Gregory Peck came rolling into town to prepare for his role in the movie, which made all the ladies swoon and elevated the courthouse to Bonafide Tourist Spot status.

The movie was filmed in the back lot of Universal Studios, but the sets were modeled after Monroeville. The interior of this courthouse was almost perfectly reproduced on a Hollywood sound stage.
The birdhouse near the main entrance is one of twenty-five birdhouses along the county's "Birdhouse Trail." Each is created by a local artisan. The Courthouse birdhouse (I love how that sounds) is adorned with the original cover illustration of the book on one side, the clock tower of the courthouse on front,
. . . Boo Radley's tree on back:
. . . and, of course, the famous title:
On the other side of the courthouse is this sweet monument to "Atticus Finch: Lawyer - Hero" put up by the Alabama State Bar.  It may just be the only time I've seen the words "lawyer" and "hero" linked with a hyphen.
Nice. After visitors read these words, they can sit on these beautiful redwood benches and reflect on their love for lawyers.
Inside the front door, the room facing the street is a reproduction of a law office, and my husband was happy to take his customary place behind the desk. (However, if this were his office, I'm afraid that beautiful hardwood floor would be completely covered by files.)
Hey! Another typewriter just like the one in Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald's home, except theirs was an Underwood.

We headed next for the courtroom itself, which was in use until 1969. We were lucky to have the room all to ourselves for about ten minutes before a tour arrived.

Harper Lee herself noted the importance of this room in her life:


 It wasn't hard at all to picture Mayella Ewell in the witness chair being questioned by Atticus:

Two famous books on the judge's table
I could hear Atticus telling the jury all about Tom Robinson:



And when I looked up at the balcony, I could see Jem, Scout, and Dill in the balcony, just after Reverend Sykes says, "Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passin'."


It really was an eerie feeling to walk into the pages of one of my favorite books:

It's a absolute must-do for any Mockingbird fan.

In 1991, the first production of To Kill a Mockingbird was staged at the courthouse, and it is now an annual event. Running two weeks, it stars an all volunteer cast and sells out every performance. The play starts on the courthouse lawn, then moves inside for Act II. Some year I'm going to have to go.

The other rooms in the building are full of photos and accompanying text that tell the story of the book and the movie:



I didn't know that Harper Lee went to law school:


Harper Lee's description of meeting Gregory Peck is really fun:
Lee reading from her book to school children in Mobile before the movie premiere. The actors who portrayed Scout and Jem are on her immediate right.

Since the 1960s, Lee has made very few public appearances, but she did write a letter to Oprah Winfrey in 2006:

And she accepted the Medal of Freedom from President George Bush in 2007:
One other display that I enjoyed was just outside the gift shop--a piece of the tree where Boo Radley left gifts for the children. Yeah, I know it's a fictional tree, but there is a piece of it in the Courthouse. I'm sure it's from the real tree.

At the base of the tree are the very things that Boo left there for the children:
"Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives."      ~Scout, To Kill a Mockingbird

READING: 
I guess this one is a no-brainer. Monroeville won't mean much to someone who hasn't read To Kill a Mockingbird.  Incredibly, the book still sells a million copies a year. Join the masses and read it, listen to the audio version (there is a new version coming out in July 2014 with Sissy Spacek as the narrator), and watch the movie.

The 50th anniversary of the publication of the book was in 2011, and that year a lot of things were written about the timelessness of the story. One of the best articles is this one on npr.org. It points out that when the book was topping the 1960 bestseller lists, sit-ins were being staged at lunch counters all over the South and the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. It took a lot of courage to tell this story, and I have to think it had an impact on the way people thought of the movement.




Five or six years ago, my son gave me a copy of this book. Harper Lee guarded her privacy very carefully all her life and never cooperated in the writing of her biography, but I think Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles Shields is still a pretty fair portrayal of the reclusive author. Shields interviewed dozens of people who knew Lee and her family, and he discusses her childhood, her family, the events and people who influenced her story, and the years before and after the publishing of the book. (I have to confess, I love the inscription in the front of the book as much as I love the book.)


It sounds very unoriginal to say that To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books, but I know that I'm not alone in my love for it. Published in 2010 for the 50th anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird's publicationScout, Atticus &Boo: A Celebration of Fifty Years of To Kill a Mockingbird by Mary McDonagh Murphy is a compilation of interviews with famous people whose lives have been touched--like mine--by this book. Some of my favorites are the musings of Rick Bragg, Tom Brokaw, Wally Lamb, and Oprah Winfrey.

(Side note: A few years ago Real Simple magazine had a reader response question: Who is your favorite fictional character? I emailed them my answer, and it was published in the January 2010 edition: 
"Atticus Finch from Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird has to be one of the greatest fictional characters of all time. He is how I have always pictured my own father, who was killed in an accident when I was four: quiet, unassuming, almost backward, but unusually intelligent and defined by his love for his family and his strong moral convictions. This is how my father has been described to me and is what every man--and woman--should be.")

Besides interviews with celebrities and authors, the book includes interviews with Mary Badham, the actress who played Scout in the movie version, with Harper Lee's older sister Alice Finch Lee, and with other residents who lived in Monroeville at the time the book was written.

Here is a sample from the interview with writer Scott Turow:
"One reason the book endures is because of what I've referred to as wingspan. It can still be read by thirteen-year-olds. It can be read by blue-haired ladies and men with callused hands. It's not a hard book to read. It's a very graceful book. I think, a really moving book, and it also tells a tale that we know is still true. We may live eventually in a world where that kind of race prejudice is unimaginable, and people may read this story in three hundred years and go, 'So what was the big deal?' But the fact of the matter is, in today's America, it still speaks a fundamental truth."

And finally, the much bally-hooed first/second book of Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman. I have to say that I enjoyed it tremendously. While it didn't have the emotional depth for me that Mockingbird does, it has its own message that I think is just as relevant to today's issues. As I read, I found myself becoming very invested in the characters and events. A side issue that I particularly enjoyed was Lee's analysis of what it means to be from a small town. I could related to that. My one criticism would be the book's need for some significant editing. I read that it was only "lightly edited," and it needed much more than that, from correcting punctuation to paring down wordy passages. It was also very interesting on an academic level to see the origins of a character and how the author added depth in revision. I get tired of the reviews that essentially say "I can't accept who Atticus has become."  Who he is "become" is the Atticus of Mockingbird!

3 comments:

  1. How can you not love this book? It's one of those rare books that was made into a movie as interesting and memorable as the book.

    Love the Sam inscription.

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  2. I loved Monroeville. It is nice to have a lawyer that can be looked up to. And don't forget that where Harper Lee used to live is a drive-in that sells breaded liver and gizzards. How can you beat that?

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  3. Loved all the posing in the courthouse and in the lawyer's office, and glad you were able to finally stand in that place that triggers such affection. A lovely post!

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