Outside of connecting with my family history at Pine Level, there was nothing more appealing on our Alabama trip than a visit to Harper Lee’s hometown in Monroeville.
Lee’s story had gripped me for a long time. In 1960, at the age of 34, her bestselling novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published and won the Pulitzer Prize. It has become an American classic. What engaged me was the fact she stopped writing. One book and that was it. Her controversial and yet to be published “Go Set a Watchman” pre-dated ‘Mockingbird.’ In fact she has often called ‘Watchman’ the parent of ‘Mockingbird” and saw no reason to have it put into print.
Now, here it was, 55 years after ‘Mockingbird,’ and she was still alive, at age 89, residing in a care facility in Monroeville with the ‘Watchman’ controversy surrounding her. The new-old novel apparently was discovered by Lee’s attorney, sent to a literary agent with the author’s approval and is set to be published on or about July 15 by HarperCollins in the U.S. It will also be published in Great Britain. Many of Lee’s friends in Monroeville question whether she is mentally competent to OK a book that for more than a half century she has chosen not to publish. Many think it is an attempt by others to enrich themselves and to bring new fame and tourist business to her hometown.
Also, at least in my mind, was the question of her authorship of “Mockingbird.” Her late cousin and celebrated author of “In Cold Blood” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” has long been linked to at least having an editing role in ‘Mockingbird.’ As a young boy, Capote, spent summers in Monroeville, living next door to the Lee family, and becoming close friends with Harper. In fact, years later Lee accompanied Capote on his reporting trip to Kansas for “In Cold Blood.’
All this stirred my interest, although there was one apparent setback to our visit.
Since 1990, local amateurs have been putting on a two-act play of “To Kill a Mockingbird” at the old Monroe County courthouse in town. To see the play in Lee’s hometown while she was still alive and nearby was the big attraction. Trouble was the play, which runs several weekends each spring, was sold out. Every performance. I knew that as we left Sikes and Kohn’s Country Mall in Pine Level and steered south for the 120-mile drive to Monroeville. At least, I thought we could do the “Mockingbird” walking tour and check out the museum in the old courthouse.
Despite storm clouds moving in from the southwest, the drive proved enjoyable. Alabama seems to me nothing more than a zillion small towns, most of them interesting. But I saw none as nice as Luverne, between Troy and I-65 at Greenville. Luverne bills itself as “The Friendliest Little Town in The South.” Some of my distant kin live here to this day. In my notebook, I jotted “very pretty place.”
Then there was tiny Rutledge where on the west side I saw a Confederate flag flying high. It was the only one I would see during the entire trip.
The traveling was greatly enhanced by the fragrance of spirea blooms along the roadside. Growing an estimated 15 feet high in places, the sweet scent of these abundant bushes and their cascading white flowers permeated the Yaris as we drove along. Getting off 65 at Greenville, we stopped to take a closer look and a whiff of this intoxicating flower.
It was mid-afternoon when we finally reached Monroeville. Plenty of time to look around. And maybe, just maybe, we could luck in to a pair of tickets to the play. A woman at the museum I’d talked to by phone was not encouraging.
We had turned back north on 21 highway after seeing the sign to Monroeville, “The Literary Capital of Alabama.” Two writers, Lee and Capote, have made that boast plausible.
Coming into town from the south, the “new Monroeville” emerged. Sparkling signs dotted Alabama Avenue. Wal-Mart, Sonic, Shell gas for $2.29, the Monroeville Inn, McDonald’s, Burger King, you name it. The main town was quite different.
The old courthouse rests in a town square with store fronts on all sides, some empty and gathering dust. It appeared to be a poor town in decline. I thought, if it were not for “Mockingbird” and Harper Lee, this town would have dried up and blown away years ago.
The museum covers two floors in the courthouse. Separate rooms are devoted to Lee and Capote. On the west side is the court room itself, clean and sparkling as if it were awaiting the next trial. It became the model for the Hollywood set in the “Mockingbird” film of 1962 that starred Gregory Peck as the defense attorney, Atticus Finch. The film won three Academy Awards including a “Best Actor” for Peck.
We picked up a map of the walking tour and set out south along Alabama Avenue. The map shows 33 points of interest. Only two caught my eye, Nos. 14 and 15. They are the sites of the houses where Lee and Capote once lived side by side. Both houses are long gone. The ruins of a foundation and rock wall are all that remain of the Capote place, that and a metal plaque in front with bio notes and brief history of the house. Lee’s old home, just to the south, has been replaced by Mel’s Dairy Dream, a confectionary that dispenses tasty strawberry shakes, etc. The sites are just two blocks south of the courthouse.
While I napped in the car, Nebra poked around the area. I awoke to an excited rap on the window. Nebra had run across two tickets for the play at the regular price of $50 each. The play would start in about an hour, at 7 p.m. Sprinkles of rain had started. We walked over to The Courthouse Cafe and had a pleasing supper.
The two-act play began on time. It lasted 2 1/2 hours. Act One is performed outside at the west end of the old courthouse. When it is over, everyone gets up and walks around to the courthouse entrance and into the courtroom where the trial of the black man, Tom Robinson, is held. At the end, audience and cast intermingle. It was a powerful moment, the troupe’s director describing how much the play meant to everyone and the town.
As in so much of my life, good fortune had visited again. That we were able to get tickets to the play at the last minute, that the rain clouds had stayed away, well, it was a memorable evening.
Now, it was on to a motel in Greenville for the night. The next day we hoped to travel to Selma for some of the most important history in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
So much to do, so little time.