MONROEVILLE, ALABAMA—Sightings of Harper Lee who has given this Alabama town worldwide recognition are rare in the place she made famous.
But her imprint is everywhere from a decorated mailbox on one corner proclaiming Monroeville the literary capital of Alabama to a mural on the other side of the street of a giant serene mockingbird looking down at visitors.
A clock chimes and the sound is a reminder that time has changed. On the main street is Beehive Coffee and Books, a locally owned bookstore that opened up just a few years ago. But some things remain the same. Among the bushes in the old courthouse that is now a museum dedicated to Harper Lee and Truman Capote, on a faded sign, bold black letters warn us not to break the pale camellias in the public square, despite the temptation, as Scout had, to pluck the occasional one.
A thousand colours in a parched landscape come to life from pages of a book.
Lee’s one and only novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, is not set in Monroeville but in the fictional community of Maycomb that bears more than a resemblance to this southern Alabama town which is home to 7,000 residents. Every year, 30,000 tourists visit Monroeville to retrace the steps of Scout, Jem, Dill and Atticus Finch.
In 2010, the town celebrated the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication on July 8th. Some of the visitors have been particularly notable.A crew from BBC spent weeks preparing a documentary and reporters arrived hoping to speak to Lee, who has become in recent decades, as reclusive as the late J.D. Salinger.
Lee, now 84, and known by her first name Nelle, did not make a public appearance in the town she made famous, a town she describes with its dusty streets, where black dogs suffered in the summer time and children wore shoes only on Sundays.
In Lee’s recollection of the town she was born in, the traditional form of greeting was “Hey” and the response back was “Hey yourself.”
That remains true to this day and Sandy Smith, executive director with the Chamber of Commerce greets visitors with a cheerful “Hey” at the chamber’s office inside a former bank complete with an imposing vault.
“The people who live in Monroeville love their town, we’re proud of this place, proud of our history,” says Smith. The town began with one store in 1822 and its early survival depended on the 400 small farms around Monroe County.
Agriculture still surrounds Monroeville, which is an hour and a half drive from the state capital of Montgomery, with peanuts, cotton and watermelon farmed in the region. Soybeans for deer, says one sign on the way into town. Another points to the direction of the Woodmen of the World lodge.
Far from the major highways of Alabama and down gravelly back roads, Monroeville was an isolated pocket of the south during Lee’s childhood. Most residents have some connection to Lee or her next door neighbour, Truman Capote, the inspiration for the character Dill.
Capote, who spent summers in Monroeville with his relatives, and Lee, lived right next to each other on the main residential street. Both their childhood homes are now gone. Where Lee lived is an ice cream shack and next door, bricks still remain but there’s little else of Capote’s home after a fire destroyed the residence in 1940, long before the childhood friends became world famous writers.
Just a short walk where Lee and Capote lived is the main hub of Monroeville, three acres that had been designated as a public square in the 1830s. Aside from the modern cars, it looks much the same today as it did in the 1930s when the book was set.
Both Capote and Lee wrote in their books and short stories about the town’s clock tower on top of the courthouse that still chimes and marks time for Monroeville residents.
In the public square, thousands of tourists flock each May to watch an outdoor play of To Kill A Mockingbird. The play has travelled all over the world including one stop in Tel Aviv where the final acts were delayed because the jury, played by the audience, refused to return a guilty verdict for Tom Robinson, the falsely accused rapist defended by Atticus Finch.
The character, inspired by Lee’s lawyer father A.C. Lee, has been portrayed by Harvey Gaston, for the past five years. Gaston is the town’s banker in real life, but during the period when the play is on, is known to everyone as simply Atticus. Before every performance, Gaston sits on a bench in the square and listens for the town clock to chime as he prepares to become Atticus.
Gaston, tall, dark-haired and wearing suspenders, has the quiet contemplation of the character and says even though he’s lived in Monroeville most of his life, playing such a famous person in literature has changed his outlook.
“When I was asked to do it, all I thought was this may be interesting, I’ve never acted before. But now I see how people respond to it, the words Atticus Finch says, and when I’m playing the character, it makes me remember how people were treated once,” says Gaston, over lunch at the Radley Fountain Grille where the specialty is the buttery BLT Supreme, named by tourists one of the 100 dishes to eat in Alabama.
“It becomes more than just a play then. For me and for all the people who love the book.”
The former courthouse has been preserved as a museum for the book and the courtroom looks exactly like the set from the 1962 movie starring Gregory Peck.
Stephanie Rogers, with the museum in the old Courthouse, and a relative of Lee’s, says she remembers one visitor weeping when she saw the courtroom. The visitor was Mary Badham, the actor who played Scout in the movie.
A more frequent sighting around Monroeville is Lee’s older sister, known as Miss Alice, who is still a practising lawyer at age 98 and helps field and decline interview requests that come from all over the world. Hundreds of pieces of fan mail arrive in Monroeville every year for Lee.
A writer from the Daily Mail in London approached Lee this month with a box of chocolates and got just a few words after promising not to ask about the book.
“We’re just going to feed the ducks,” Lee told the reporter. “We have a lot of history here. You will enjoy it.”
This is a town that needs To Kill a Mockingbird but isn’t willing to exploit one of its own in order to bring in more tourists.
“Even the children are very respectful of Miss Lee,” says Sharon Owens, an art instructor who takes kids to draw the courthouse and mockingbirds in Monroeville.
“She’s done so much for our town that the least we can do in return is give her her privacy.”
Places to stay in Monroeville: Holiday Inn Express (1 251-743-3333), Days Inn (1-251-743-3297) and Best Western (1 251-575-9999).
Directions to Monroeville: Monroeville is centrally located in southwest Alabama, 85 miles north of Mobile and 95 miles south of Montgomery. Driving time from Mobile to Monroeville is 1 ½ hours; from Montgomery, allow 2 hours.
Montgomery Regional Airport has daily flights from Atlanta, GA.
Additional visitor information is available on the Chamber of Commerce webpage at www.monroecountyal.com and through Tourism Alabama http://www.800alabama.com/.