Monroeville: Alabama’s Literary Home

First published in Southern Destinations

It’s easy to spot the visitors to Monroeville. They’re the ones walking slowly along the tree-shaded streets with a map of the town in hand, peering closely at each house, gazing up at the Courthouse’s cupola, and glancing furtively at the people they pass – just in case any of them look like Gregory Peck.

Monroeville, you see, is the home of Harper Lee, who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. The story is set in Maycomb, Alabama, a fictionalized version of Monroeville in the 1930s.

Like many small towns in the South, Monroeville hasn’t changed much since the Depression days of Harper Lee’s childhood. Entering the literary time warp is as easy as using the self-guided walking tour that winds through the heart of the town. Williams Drug Store, The First National Bank, and the building that housed the 1930s jail and the offices of Harper Lee’s father (an attorney upon whom the character of Atticus Finch is based) still stand.

While Harper Lee still lives in town, don’t expect to run into her on the street and get her autograph. She’s a very private person who shuns publicity. Unfortunately, paying homage by visiting her childhood haunts is not an option, either. Mel’s Dairy Dream now occupies the site of Lee’s childhood home. There’s nothing left of the Faulk house, either. That was next door to the Lee place and was the boyhood home of another of Monroeville’s literary headliners – Truman Capote. In To Kill A Mockingbird, he shows up as Dill, the friend of the narrator, Scout, and her brother, Jem. In real life, Harper Lee and Truman Capote played together and spent hours in the backyard treehouse of Lee’s home, writing stories based on the people in their town.

For many decades, Monroeville wasn’t sure how to react to To Kill A Mockingbird. A tale of Southern racial conditions in the thirties, it centers on the trial of a black man accused of assaulting a white woman. Even though the evidence proves he could not have committed the crime, he’s found guilty and is shot while “trying to escape.”

The spotlight shown on the town when the novel was made into a movie. Gregory Peck visited while researching the role of Atticus Finch, the white lawyer who defies the entrenched bigotry of the town by representing the black defendant. The attention the movie brought to the town was tinged with discomfort. The implication was that the events could have happened in Monroeville.

Perhaps embarrassed at first, the town now embraces the story. The most telling demonstration of Monroeville’s pride in the overriding message of To Kill A Mockingbird is its annual staging of a play based on the book each May. Local residents play all of the roles, many of them returning every year to recreate their performances. It’s become so popular that all 1999 performances sold out the first day tickets went on sale.

Kathy McCoy, who wrote and directs the play explains, “People have come to realize that To Kill A Mockingbird is a great treasure. It is truly universal, a message of tolerance and compassion. They are proud to be part of one of the world’s most influential books.”

An interactive performance, the audience moves with the scenes. Some of it is staged on the grounds outside the courthouse, while the pivotal scenes of the trial are staged in the courtroom. Members of the audience are chosen to act as the jury. In keeping with the times, only adult white males serve on the jury, and their instructions by the stage director are clear: they must find the defendant, Tom Robinson, guilty. This is Alabama in 1935, not the real world at the start of the second Millennium.

The message of To Kill A Mockingbird reaches far beyond Monroeville and the rest of Alabama. It’s a cautionary tale of attitudes and their consequences and of the courage needed to confront them. So important is the story that the cast of local amateurs – an appraiser, a schoolteacher, county commissioner and, yes, even a lawyer or two – was invited to Jerusalem in 1998 to perform the play as part of the Jerusalem 2000 celebration. (The ‘jurors’ – 12 Israeli men – wanted to acquit Robinson, despite the script.) An invitation to present the play in England the next year followed. That invitation was reciprocated by an invitation for the British to visit in early 2000 and stage Oliver! in Monroeville.

Taking advantage of its literary pedigree, Monroeville hosts the annual Alabama Writer’s Symposium each spring. Established Alabama writers, poets, and literary scholars from schools around the state spend a weekend exploring the influence that Alabama’s people, places and culture have on the works of Alabama’s authors.

Don’t be mislead into thinking that the only way to pass time in Monroeville is to curl up with a book or sit down in front of a keyboard. The state’s Literary Capital offers a lot of history and events.

Rikard’s Mill is an operating water-powered grist mill that ground its first corn in 1845. The site has expanded and is now an open-air museum, with a blacksmith shop, nature trail, a barn housing farm equipment from the 1800s and 1900s, and a cane syrup mill.

The Monroe County Heritage Museum in the Old Courthouse stages exhibits of rotating collections of artifacts and relics from Monroe County and Alabama’s past. The museum celebrated the opening of the River Heritage Museum at the Claiborne Lock and Dam in July.

Housed in an disused Corps of Engineers building, it displays Native American artifacts and an exhibit about steamboating.

True appreciation of Southern culture and tradition means – among other things – bluegrass and barbecue. Both are celebrated at the annual Folk Fest and King BBQ Cookoff, held annually on the fourth Saturday in September. It’s the kind of music and the kind of food that Scout, Jem and Atticus would recognize and enjoy.