(AP/Rob Carr/Salon)

My Harper Lee pilgrimage: Visiting Monroeville, in search of "Mockingbird's" essence

Visit Harper Lee's hometown and "Mockingbird" is just described as "the book," but its author is even more magical


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Margaret Eby
September 27, 2015 11:30PM (UTC)
Excerpted from "South Toward Home: Travels in Southern Literature"

Harper Lee and Truman Capote’s Courthouse, Monroeville, Alabama

The drive through the rural Alabama roads toward the sleepy town of Monroeville, the hometown of Harper Lee and the inspiration for her most famous creation, "To Kill a Mockingbird," is a quiet one. No interstates come near that hilly patch of rural southwest Alabama. If you’re hoping to get gas, grab a Twinkie, or go to the bathroom, you had better stop off in Selma on your way, because the approach to Monroeville didn’t have so much as a run-down Chevron to offer. For miles around, there were little more than pastures full of cows, great gleaming catfish ponds, abandoned gas stations, and hulking, mute crosses. The AM radio stations offered only crackling static, interrupted by snippets of sermon. I had set out for Monroeville at a predawn hour, and as I drove, trails of dusty pink began to streak through the gray winter sky. As I wound farther south down the country roads, Spanish moss began gathering on the trees and hawks glared down from telephone wires. My traveling companion was a dear friend of mine named Sarah, a whip-smart Alabamian with close ties in Monroeville; as we drove we gossiped about Alabama politics and the newest construction projects in Birmingham. I asked Sarah to come along for company because she knew the little town backward and forward, and because she had talked about paying a visit to her family friends down there the last time we spoke. One of those friends was Harper Lee.

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The visit I made was months before the bombshell news that, fifty-five years after "To Kill a Mockingbird" appeared, Lee was publishing a sequel of sorts to her bestseller. The new book, called "Go Set a Watchman," had been written before "Mockingbird" but deals with the same characters. With the announcement, reporters descended on quiet Monroeville, and my trip, though I didn’t know it at the time, was in the calm before this storm.

But I didn’t meet Harper Lee in Monroeville. Of course I didn’t: She was, and is, famously averse to inquiries from the press, flatly turning away journalists who fly from New York or Los Angeles to knock on her door just as surely as those who drive down from Birmingham or up from Mobile. She stopped giving interviews about fifty years ago, and speaks to reporters rarely and briefly, maintaining a tightlipped-ness that would have inspired the envy of Calvin Coolidge. A rejection slip from Lee may be as much a point of pride for reporters as those from The Paris Review and The New Yorker are for fiction writers.

Lee is vigilant about her privacy. Her image in the media is that of a shadowy recluse, the J. D. Salinger of southwest Alabama. In fact, Lee is just quiet. She has a reputation for being generous and friendly to the few whom she takes under her wing, far from the cantankerous spirit that many a rebuffed reporter has painted of her in the press. Her celebrity combined with her talent for keeping out of the papers has infused her appearances with an extra element of magic.

But even though I knew how unlikely it would be to meet Lee, I still half expected for her to show up, maybe drinking coffee at a booth in the local McDonald’s or taking a walk through the square. She seems to have a sense of whimsy about revealing her presence, like a local god or mythical sprite. Lee has been known to eschew formal, celebrity-filled engagements but show up at a library’s summer reading program festival or a local high school production of "To Kill a Mockingbird." Lee might appear at a symposium for writers or at your Easter dinner table, invited by a friend of a friend. Local authors who sent copies of their novels to Lee’s house in blind hope have sometimes gotten handwritten notes of encouragement. My father, a doctor at the University of Alabama for many years, once received a signed copy of "To Kill a Mockingbird" from a grateful patient who was one of Lee’s Monroeville neighbors. Growing up two hundred miles away in Birmingham, I was always aware that Lee had not only touched all of our lives with her writing, she could show up in person when you least expect it.

Lee had suffered a stroke in 2007, which meant that she was less mobile than before. Previously, she had split the year between living in New York City and Monroeville. Sarah had sometimes squired Lee around New York in those years, and it always gave me great pleasure to imagine her and Lee flying under the radar somewhere on the Upper West Side, ordering a cup of coffee from a bodega, traipsing through Central Park, or window-shopping along Fifth Avenue just under the noses of the journalists who would write perennial think pieces about Lee’s disappearance from public life. In New York, Lee sometimes attended dinner parties for stray Alabamians and friends. One of the times I missed meeting her was there, at a potluck supper hosted by an acquaintance. By all accounts she was sharp-witted and sweet-toothed, unpretentious and welcoming to fellow Southern stragglers who by stroke of luck had been seated next to her.

Lee’s declining health had confined her recent activities to Monroeville more or less, though she still appeared at the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony, posing for pictures next to George W. Bush, the Texan commander-in-chief towering over her slight frame. In recent years, reports had drifted up from Monroeville that Lee was becoming increasingly withdrawn and wary. She had stopped signing copies of her book, once such a common occurrence that, as a schoolchild on a field trip to Monroeville, I remember a teacher submitting a list of names to one of Lee’s friends for her to inscribe copies of Mockingbird.

She had even landed in the news for filing a suit against the Monroe County Heritage Museum, demanding they cease selling souvenirs based on "Mockingbird." The museum, the most prominent feature of the tiny town of Monroeville, is essentially a monument to Lee and her book. The courtroom of the museum hosted regular re-creations of the famous scene in "Mockingbird" where Atticus Finch addresses the jury over the fate of Tom Robinson.

The case settled out of court, but some Monroeville citizens commented to the press that the case felt like an attack on the hometown that had nourished and celebrated her fiction. It was, in fact, the result of a long-simmering tension between Lee and her hometown’s efforts to either celebrate or capitalize on her fame, depending on one’s point of view. Monroeville, in the meantime, was changing. Lingerie company Vanity Fair, which had opened operations near Monroeville in the 1930s and been the major employer in the area for years, had only a handful of its once robust workforce. The nearby paper mill shut down in 2009, laying off all of its employees, the machinery sold for scrap. Once the manufacturers fled, Monroeville doubled down on its fame as the “Literary Capital of Alabama,” drawing about 20,000 tourists a year to a city that, by the last census count, has only around 6,500 residents. As New York City has the Village, Monroeville has the Book.

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Yet Monroeville residents are fiercely and famously protective of Lee. More than one out-of-towner from a well-respected news outlet has been unwittingly guided right past Lee as she sat at a corner table. Only a few Monroeville natives seem to be outside of an unspoken policy of silence, and they pop up over and over again in Lee-related articles: George Thomas Jones, who once worked as a caddy for Lee’s father, is one, and Reverend Thomas Butts, the pastor of the Methodist church in Monroeville, is another. A highly vaunted “interview” with the Daily Mail on the fiftieth anniversary of "Mockingbird" consisted of Lee thanking the reporter and saying, “We are just going to feed the ducks but call me the next time you are here. We have a lot of history here. You will enjoy it.” Translated from Southern politesse, that gracious dismissal might be rendered as “Don’t let the door hit you on your way out.”

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The centerpiece of "To Kill a Mockingbird" is the lone architectural landmark of Monroeville: the county courthouse. The courthouse square sits at the center of town and is really the only way that you would know that you had entered Monroeville. The opening pages of "Mockingbird" describe Monroeville’s downtown, loosely disguised as the hamlet of Maycomb, as it was in the 1930s:

In rainy weather the streets grew to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square . . . bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and talcum.

By the time "Mockingbird" came out, the court square had lost some of the leaky-molasses pace that Lee described in her book. Gone were the mules, and even the live oaks. When art director Henry Bumstead, tasked with adapting the quiet town of Maycomb to the screen for the film version of "Mockingbird," came to Monroeville in 1962, his crew found the square too modernized to use for their exterior shots. No mules, no Hoover carts. (They ended up re-creating much of Monroeville on a back lot in Hollywood, including a painstaking replica of the inside of the courthouse.)

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Today, the square is the liveliest place in town. Monroeville remains, as Lee wrote about Maycomb, “an island in a patchwork sea of cotton fields and timberland,” a government town in the countryside of southwest Alabama prevented from much growth by its location far away from the closest ports. Around the courthouse, a perimeter of faded brick buildings keep guard. Chipped, faded signs advertise long out-of-business dry-goods companies, but the occupants of the buildings are mostly banks, county offices, and boutiques specializing in monogrammed canvas totes and college football team–themed hair ribbons. The corner hardware store, now out of business, was once the town’s all-purpose shopping stop; couples would register for their weddings there. Outside the store stood large birdhouses painted with references to "Mockingbird" and the square; nearby is Radley’s Fountain Grill, named after Lee’s fictional shut-in, Boo, and the Maycomb Mall. The offices of Barnett, Bugg, Lee & Carter, where Harper Lee’s father, Amasa Coleman Lee, and sister Alice Finch Lee both practiced, is a block away.

The museum itself is a small one, mostly run by volunteers. Three years after the publication of "Mockingbird," county employees moved out of the building and into the offices scattered around the square. In 1968, still riding the wave of Lee’s publication fame, the courthouse reopened as a local attraction.

The first floor has the gift shop and a small exhibit about the history of Monroeville, which began, like so many Alabama towns, as an agricultural crossroads for exporters of timber and cotton. One room is devoted to a re-creation of a country lawyer’s office, a nod to Lee’s description of the nook Atticus Finch worked out of in the courthouse early in his career, though the room is crowded with leather-bound books—a far cry from Lee’s description of a room that only contained “a hat rack, a spittoon, a checkerboard, and an unsullied Code of Alabama.”

Lee’s father, who went by A. C., was the model for the determined Atticus Finch and his virtuous if doomed quest to defend a black man from an unfair verdict in Depression-era Alabama. The match between Atticus and A.C. is, of course, not exact, but Lee noted in a 1962 interview with The New York Herald Tribune that they are alike “in character and—the South has a good word for this—in ‘disposition.’” Like Atticus, A. C. was a well-respected presence in his small town. Along with his legal work, A. C. Lee was an editor of the Monroe Journal and a member of the Alabama House of Representatives.

“It is and it isn’t autobiographical,” Lee told the Tribune about her book. “For instance, there is not an incident in it that is factual. The trial, and the rape charge that brings on the trial, is made up out of a composite of such cases and charges. . . . What I did present as exactly as I could were the clime and tone, as I remember, of the town in which I lived. From childhood on, I did sit in the courtroom watching my father argue cases and talk to juries.”

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The courtroom, without doubt, is the centerpiece of the museum. A fair chunk of the $2.5 million that was poured into renovating the courthouse, correcting the “sagging” part of Lee’s description, was used to shine up the old courtroom, preserving the setting of the fictional trial in "Mockingbird." The film version of the book had re-created the airy room exactly, a detail that Monroeville residents often recount with pride. Its on-camera doppelgänger and the carefully preserved 1930s details—hard, pewlike wooden benches, tin jugs balanced on the tables once occupied by the plaintiff and opposing counsel, a wide balcony encircling half the room—conspire to give the room the quality of a film set. In fact, it is a set of sorts. The courtroom’s main role in Monroeville life is as the fulcrum of the annual "To Kill a Mockingbird" play, one of the town’s major yearly tourist attractions. The court scene is often reenacted here for tour groups, with sullen-looking middle-schoolers acting as the jurors. The play migrates from inside the courthouse to the open square, where a row of re-created shotgun shacks acts as a stand-in for the street where Scout Finch and Boo Radley live.

“The Play” is as ubiquitous a term in Monroeville as “the Book.” In the weeks leading up to the six-week series of performances, it is the main focus of the town. The cast is made up of local volunteers, many of whom have returned to play their roles for years. In recent years, the production values of the play have escalated, as has the attention paid to the players. The outdoor cottages, once working sets taken down after the play’s run, are now permanent fixtures. The play traveled to Hong Kong in 2012 as part of a cultural exchange. Nelle Harper Lee has reportedly never come to see it.

On the day Sarah and I visited, the courtroom was being used as an auditorium for a heritage festival. Women in richly patterned head wraps watched children doing a dance routine in front of the judge’s bench. On the balcony, where Sarah and I ascended to observe the proceedings, groups of grade-school children craned their necks over the railings to watch their friends, occupying the same place that Lee and Scout Finch had during trials held here.

The courthouse’s transformation into a sanctuary for Lee’s novel is an amusing turn of events considering the unflattering, if affectionate, way she described the building in "Mockingbird." The Maycomb County Courthouse is a mélange of architectural styles, where “Greek revival columns clashed with a big nineteenth-century clock tower housing a rusty unreliable instrument, a view indicating a people determined to preserve every physical scrap of the past.”

That preservation is still in full effect. It’s the familiar paradox of small Southern towns: The only way to move on from the past is to embrace it. One of the ways that Monroe County has pivoted away from the ravages of industrial collapse is to re-create a work of literature that records one of its worst chapters. History and a sense of chagrin about its unfolding are the only resources the South has ad infinitum. Mockingbird is, at its heart, a book about the begrudging evolution of Southern mores and manners. Mid-Depression Maycomb is a place stuck by both circumstances and design in the mire of the past, where the future holds less appeal than the potential buried, still glimmering, in years behind them. It is as if, by faithfully re-creating their history, the residents can by some voodoo conjure back the imagined glories of the antebellum era. Racial equality, the old and poisoned logic goes, is an affront because it breaks with the way things have always been, no matter the way they should be. "Mockingbird" is beloved by middle-schoolers across the country for its clear message about the value of the fight for social justice. Atticus Finch may have lost his case defending the black Tom Robinson from the Jim Crow legal system, but there’s no question that his quest is a virtuous one. Even the young Scout Finch manages to accidentally diffuse a KKK-flavored mob outside of the courthouse that has vaguely violent intentions toward her father.

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When Lee published her book in 1960, Alabama was deep in the turmoil of the lead-up to the civil rights movement. It was 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was passed, and 1965 when nearby Selma briefly became the most infamous place in Alabama for the bloody face-off between police and protestors. Publishing a thinly veiled account of her small Alabama town’s grappling with deeply entrenched racial divide was a bold declaration. It was an act of protest that shone the national spotlight on Monroeville. Even with the obvious tenderness Lee has for her hometown, her portrait risked alienating great swaths of the community that she grew up in. In her lifetime, she has seen Monroeville, ouroboros-like, advance in the only way it knows how, moving away from the past by making more of it to emulate.

Outside the entrance to the courtroom is a wizened piece of trunk encased in glass with tiny, old-timey toys scattered around its base. this, proclaims a plaque, is the famous tree. It is, to the best of anyone’s reckoning in Monroeville, a live oak that stood between Lee’s childhood home on South Alabama Avenue and the Boleware place, where a shut-in named Son, who may have inspired the character of Boo Radley, lived. There’s no real evidence that Boo Radley was more than loosely based on Alfred “Son” Boleware, a local recluse whose reluctance to leave the house made him a similar object of speculation for local kids. But the Boleware place has passed from local legend into the larger network of literary myths surrounding "Mockingbird." Even the pieces of the book that are taken wholesale from Lee’s imagination seem to find physical vessels, much to Lee’s apparent amusement. At an awards ceremony for an essay contest in 2006, Lee told a reporter that one girl came up to her and informed her that Boo Radley lived across the street from her grandparents. “Well, I didn’t know what to say to that,” Lee replied with a laugh.

The tree that the chunk of lumber outside of the courtroom represents has become one of the book’s main symbols, often incorporated in the design for the cover of the book. In "Mockingbird," Boo leaves little gifts for Scout and her brother, Jem, in the knothole of a similar live oak. In the final chapters of the book, the “malevolent phantom,” as Lee describes him, saves Scout and Jem from a vengeful Bob Ewell, bent on punishing Atticus for the humiliation he wrought on him in the courtroom by attacking his children. “Boo was our neighbor,” Lee writes. “He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives.”

It is an irony lost on no critic or would-be biographer of Lee’s that the press now treats her as Scout and Jem once treated Boo Radley. Among the many standard tropes in an article about Lee (including some variation of “To a Mockingbird” in the title, making reference to Monroeville’s access to Walmart, describing a failed attempt to contact Lee) is comparing the author to the spectral presence of Radley. Lee seems to encourage the comparison, even though it exaggerates her reclusiveness, perhaps also in an attempt to hammer home the moral that Scout and Jem learn at the end of the book, that the kindest thing you can do for some people is to leave them alone. According to Mary McDonagh Murphy’s "Scout, Atticus & Boo," when Oprah Winfrey attempted to convince Lee to appear on her show for the fiftieth anniversary of "Mockingbird’s" publication, Lee declined by citing Radley’s character. “If you know Boo,” Lee reportedly told Winfrey, “then you understand why I wouldn’t be doing an interview, because I am really Boo.”

On either side of the tree are a series of small rooms, places that Lee described as “sundry sunless county cubbyholes . . . hutches that smelled of decaying record books mingled with old damp cement and stale urine.” With its conversion into a museum, the courthouse replaced the musty old spaces with airy rooms lined with blown-up historical images of Monroeville, quotes from Lee’s limited interviews typed across them in 90-point font.

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A good portion of the exhibit is devoted to the making of the Oscar-winning "Mockingbird" movie, particularly the time that Gregory Peck came to scope out the small Alabama town he was representing on camera. The movie was also a turning point in the town’s conception of "Mockingbird," from a local footnote to a countrywide sensation. People in Monroeville alive to see Peck’s visit still trade stories about seeking out his autograph or spotting him as he strode across the town square. In photos, Lee seems as swept up in the excitement of the Hollywood star’s visit as anyone else. She escorted him around town, introducing him to her curious neighbors, showing him the courthouse square. Many of the stock images of Lee are from that visit, particularly one in which Lee and Peck are eating at the Wee Diner, Peck turned toward Lee as she holds a cigarette in one hand and looks deep in thought.

Lee’s experience with Hollywood was apparently a uniformly positive one. Unlike other authors who chafe at seeing their work adapted to the silver screen, Lee seemed genuinely pleased with the end result. She championed the screenplay, written by Horton Foote, as a work of art. In the liner notes to the movie’s DVD release, Lee praised Peck’s interpretation of Finch. “When he played Atticus Finch, he had played himself, and time has told all of us something more: when he played himself, he touched the world,” Lee wrote. Lee and Peck became fast friends after his role. Peck told interviewers later that Lee was so moved by his performance in the movie that she gave Peck her late father’s gold pocket watch. When Peck died in 2003, Lee traveled to attend his funeral. Her support of the movie has never wavered. “I think it is one of the best translations of a book to film ever made,” Lee said to the New York Times in 2006. It’s the only adaptation that Lee has ever given her blessing.

Noticeably absent from the rooms dedicated to Lee are any actual artifacts of her life in Monroeville. There is mention of Lee’s family: her sisters, Louise and Alice; her father, A. C., and his similarities to Atticus. There is the note that Lee’s name is her aunt Ellen’s, spelled backwards. (She decided on her middle name, Harper, for her books because she didn’t relish the thought of accidentally being called “Nellie.”) There are statistics about the global success of "Mockingbird," the many languages it has been translated into and the many millions of copies sold. There are no personal treasures on display, no real comment from Lee that hasn’t been culled from a national magazine. No objects in the room indicate that Lee lives within walking distance of the place. It is a visual reminder that the museum must, as every Lee fan and biographer, tread an impossible line, both attempting to satisfy widespread curiosity about Lee’s life and attempting to protect her wish for privacy.

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The dearth of information on Harper Lee’s personal life is particularly striking when compared to the rooms dedicated to Monroeville’s other literary sensation: Truman Capote, born Truman Streckfus Persons. Capote grew up spending his summers with his cousins, the Faulks, who lived next door to Lee. The Faulk family had donated a slew of artifacts from Capote’s youth to the museum after the writer’s death in 1984. There are handwritten letters between Capote and his aunt Mary Ida Faulk, as well as pages from a family photo album and a colorful, worn crocheted baby blanket he rarely traveled without, even as an adult. The notes from Capote are lively and tinged with family gossip. In one, he derides his estranged father’s attempt to trade on Capote’s fame as part of his business selling penny scales. In another, he explains having to delay a visit back to the South with fellow Alabamian, actress Tallulah Bankhead. “I honestly think it would be a mistake for us to stay right in your house,” Capote writes. “Tallulah stays up all night every night and never gets up till five in the afternoon.”

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Capote and Lee’s childhood friendship worked its way into both writers’ fiction. A version of Lee appears in Capote’s first novel, "Other Voices, Other Rooms," as the sassy, tomboyish Idabel Thompkins. In "Mockingbird," Capote is the model for Charles Baker “Dill” Harris, the slightly effeminate out-of-towner who eggs on Scout and Finch’s investigation of the Radley house. “Dill was a curiosity,” Lee wrote. “He wore blue linen shorts that buttoned to his shirt, his hair was snow white and stuck to his head like duck-fluff; he was a year my senior but I towered over him.”

Lee could have been describing—and indeed might have been—the oddly formal childhood photo of young Capote, blown up and hung on one of the walls in the museum. In it, Capote looks like a shrunken serious scholar, his hand deep in the pockets of his formal shorts, and a smile semisuppressed. Like Dill, Capote blew in as the summer began, got into mischief, and left again in the fall. Like Dill, Capote’s worldliness was partially earned and partially faked, a tumultuous family situation eased by an abundance of chattering Alabama cousins. Capote clearly identified with Lee’s fictionalized version of himself, even going so far as to boast about it. “Nelle’s book is high on the bestseller list,” Capote wrote to his friends Alvin and Marie Dewey after "Mockingbird" came out. “And yes, my dear, I am Dill.”

The relationship between attention-loving Capote and publicity-shy Lee has long passed into mythology. It’s not unusual for a large city to birth several writers who enter the literary canon, but for a small rural town in the Deep South to do so is remarkable. They seemed like an Algonquin roundtable of South Alabama embodied in one friendship. Even standing in the sunlight-soaked rooms full of Capote’s personal items, it’s easy to envision them at parties, Capote at the center of the table and Lee making quick, dry jokes at the edge of the room.

Neither Lee’s nor Capote’s fictional depictions of each other garnered as much attention as their collaboration on "In Cold Blood," Capote’s much-lauded work of narrative nonfiction that became a touchstone of New Journalism. Capote, riveted by a 1959 New York Times item—just three hundred words long—about a massacred Kansas family, proposed a piece on the murders of the Clutter family to The New Yorker. He invited Lee to join him as a research assistant of sorts. At the time, Lee was deep in the process of "Mockingbird’s" publication. The manuscript had been accepted, but it would be several months before the book hit shelves. “She is a gifted woman, courageous, and with a warmth that instantly kindles most people, however suspicious or dour,” Capote told George Plimpton in an interview. “Feeling at loose ends, she said she would accompany me.”

During their time in Kansas, Lee joined Capote and took copious notes, about 150 pages in all. She provided an extra set of observations for Capote’s research, but more than that, she helped oil the social interactions between the brash Capote and the Kansans he hoped to interview. Lee, speaking to Newsweek, cracked, “Those people had never seen anyone like Truman—he was like someone coming off the moon.” Alvin Dewey, a detective in charge of the case who later became a friend of Capote’s, described the two of them later in the Garden City Telegram: “If Capote came on as something of a shocker, she was there to absorb the shock. She has a down-home style, a friendly smile, and a knack for saying the right thing.”

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Capote echoed this assessment to Plimpton. “A Kansas paper said the other day that everyone was wonderfully cooperative because I was a famous writer,” he said. “The fact of the matter is that not one single person in the town had ever heard of me.” The two months that the writers spent in Kansas became the basis for a four-part serial that ran in The New Yorker in 1965, and eventually became "In Cold Blood." Something about the idea of Lee and Capote conducting a murder investigation in a sleepy Kansas town has stuck in the literary imagination, the soon-to-be famous homespun novelist convincing churchgoers to have tea alongside a quirky, diminutive, flamboyant New York celebrity. Those few weeks became the basis of not one but two movies on Capote’s life, "Capote" and "Infamous." Catherine Keener and Sandra Bullock, respectively, play Lee. The fafare around the movies drew another crop of would-be interviewers down to Monroeville, a development Lee, one imagines, was less than thrilled by.

The falling out between Capote and Lee is as mythologized as the relationship between them, though the details of their estrangement aren’t as firm. Sometime after Lee’s star ascended with the publication of "Mockingbird," the two friends drifted apart. When "In Cold Blood" finally hit shelves, Lee was credited only as “assistant researchist,” a title that didn’t acknowledge the lengths to which she had gone to aid him in his work and how crucial her help had been to the project. No doubt Capote’s acid tongue and the tightening grip of alcoholism played some role. In the years between "In Cold Blood’s" publication in 1966 and Capote’s death from liver cancer coupled with drug intoxication in 1984, he became a regular on the talk-show circuit and an incorrigible gossip, recounting stories of his famous pals and their glitzy gatherings. Perhaps Lee didn’t want to be another celebrity acquaintance mined for cocktail fodder. Certainly a comment that Capote made about Lee’s mother did nothing to help matters. Frances Finch, Capote said, had twice tried to drown Lee in the bathtub. “Both times she was saved by one of her older sisters,” Capote told his biographer, Gerald Clarke. “When they talk about Southern grotesque, they’re not kidding!”

Capote’s sensational claim, posed so glibly, was then echoed by many articles on Lee, either as a way to explain her later reticence toward the press or as a provocation of sorts. It opened the door to the exact kind of attention that Lee goes to lengths to avoid, making her the target of tabloid speculation. Probes into Finch’s nature revealed little but secondhand whispers about her mental health and stories about her fondness for crossword puzzles. Whether there is truth in it or not, it was clearly a betrayal of Lee’s trust to air such a thing in a national setting. One repetition of the story drew the ire of Alice Lee, who until recently acted as her sister’s liaison to the press. “It was a fabrication of a fabrication,” Alice Lee told the Associated Press in 1997. “It is false. How would you feel if someone told a story that in essence accused your deceased mother of being an attempted murderer?”

Then there is the persistent conspiracy theory that Capote, not Lee, really wrote "Mockingbird." Capote never discouraged rumors that gave him credit for the book publicly, though in a letter to his cousin Mary Ida in 1959 he says that he had seen the book and “liked it very much. She has real talent.” Literary critic Pearl Belle, who possibly had been privy to some unsubstantiated commentary by Capote on the novel’s success, floated the claim originally. No doubt part of the reason it took root so strongly in the public imagination is thanks to the one-hit-wonder nature of "Mockingbird." But Capote’s and Lee’s literary styles, aside from being steeped in the dialect and mannerisms of a small south Alabama time, are not really that similar. The myth of Capote’s authorship also smacks of sexism and a kind of privileged, New York–centric literary view. How could this backwoods, publicity-shy woman write something so popular and profound, it seems to say. Surely we should look to her flashier male companion. It is the kind of theory that seems aimed at punishing Lee for failing to play the game, for abandoning the salons and publishing lunches for her pocket of south Alabama. Lee has never commented publicly on the rumor, largely because she hasn’t commented publicly on almost anything. It doesn’t deserve the dignity of a response. But it must have rankled her to see her success attributed to Capote.

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There isn’t much left at the intersection where the Lee family house once stood. Lee and her family moved away from South Alabama Avenue and the Faulk home when she was still young. The house is gone, but a crumbled back fence that once separated the two backyards remains. The little section of South Alabama Avenue where Lee grew up is just a couple blocks north from the courthouse square, easy walking distance for "Mockingbird" tourists. The Lee family moved away from the spot in the early 1950s, after Lee’s mother and brother died unexpectedly in the same year. At the site of the old Lee house is a Mel’s Dairy Dream, planted there after the Lee house was razed and before "Mockingbird" fever took hold of the town. The Faulk house is gone too. In its stead is a historic marker with a microbiography of Capote and his time in Monroeville, staid camellia bushes dotting the property. Lee has resisted the town’s attempts to place her own marker there, or to rename South Alabama Avenue after her or her book.

Standing there, it wasn’t "Mockingbird" that first came to mind—though this place is clearly the model for the house Scout lives in with her father and brother—but Capote’s short story “A Christmas Memory,” a gorgeous, tender tale of preparing for the holidays with his cousin Sook. Sook, who called Capote “Buddy,” was the one who made the baby blanket that was in the museum. (There is a Citizen Kane-esque story about Capote’s last words being “It’s me, it’s Buddy,” perhaps addressed to a vision he had of his cousin.) “It’s always the same,” Capote wrote. “A morning arrives in November, and my friend, as though officially inaugurating the Christmas time of year that exhilarates her imagination and fuels the blaze of her heart announces, ‘It’s fruitcake weather!’”

At my Alabama high school, it was an annual tradition for our gregarious principal, once an acquaintance of Capote’s, to read aloud “A Christmas Memory.” It’s easy to see why it was so warmly embraced: It’s a story that shows the best of Southerners, a kindhearted elderly woman and her six-year-old ward saving their pennies to bake fruitcakes for near-strangers, a ritual of quirky generosity that jibes with a certain fondness for weirdos that the South nurtures. It offers the reader a direct line to Capote’s heart, to one of the relationships most precious to him, cutting through the thick crust of persona he built in his later years. And, like "Mockingbird," it is a part of a South rarely written about, the region between the julep-swilling porch dwellers in Faulkner and the country folk of Crews and O’Connor and the Jim Crow terrorized black community in Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston. It is about the middle class.

In "Mockingbird," Scout and Jem exist in a state of relative indifference toward money, one afforded them by their father’s stature and steady job. “There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County,” Lee writes. Much of Scout’s education in "Mockingbird" comes from running up against the race and class prejudices woven into the fabric of Maycomb’s social life, being forced to understand the way the social categories of the small town she lives in amplify or diminish hardship. These realizations dawn on her slowly, and Lee often relays them to us with a heavy hand. There is the scene when Scout informs her teacher that her classmate, Walter Cunningham, can’t afford to buy lunch. His family, like many poor Southerners, bartered what they had for services, a fact Scout explains clumsily to the slick Yankee import Miss Caroline: “Walter hasn’t got a quarter at home to bring you and you can’t use any stovewood.” The Finch family’s housekeeper, Calpurnia, later scolds Scout for her tactlessness, for though Scout has grasped the class differences between her and the Cunninghams, she hasn’t figured out the subtleties of pride and poverty.

There is no talking about "Mockingbird" without addressing race. The central story of the book is about the deeply entrenched racial injustice that Atticus Finch seeks to help correct through his defense of Tom Robinson. The lessons in it are not difficult to grasp. Atticus presents his nuggets of wisdom like deep-fried Zen koans: “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience” and “You never really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk a mile in it.”

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Critics of "Mockingbird" often sneer at Lee’s approach to these issues as lacking in nuance, absent of any moral ambivalence. “It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they are buying a children’s book,” Flannery O’Connor sniped. But "Mockingbird" faithfully follows O’Connor’s own guidelines for how best to shake an audience out of complacency: For the hard of hearing, you shout. Lee spells out the uncontestable rightness of racial equality in terms that a fifth-grader could understand. If "Mockingbird" sometimes reads as cartoonish, it is only because the essential message of Robinson’s trial is one that now seems glaringly evident. "Mockingbird" has elements of a caricature, a sly message about grown men failing to acknowledge truths that a child of Scout’s age can clearly discern. It does the book a discredit not to acknowledge how skillfully Lee made a then radical-sounding conclusion about civil rights sound so obvious, so palatable that her book is now a staple of middle-school curricula.

At its heart, "Mockingbird" is about manners. It is an attempt to catalogue them but also to gauge their value, to determine which codes of honor are worth following and which deserve to be challenged. In one of her last formal interviews in 1964, Lee made this goal explicit. “As you know, the South is still made up of thousands of tiny towns,” Lee said. “There is a very definite social pattern in these towns that fascinates me. . . . I would simply like to put down all I know about this because I believe there is something universal in this little world, something decent to be said for it, and something to lament in its passing. In other words, all I want to be is the Jane Austen of south Alabama.”

The Jane Austen line may have been half-joking, but it’s also revealing. "Mockingbird" is a novel of sensibility. Lee’s work elevated the social struggles and scandals and injustices of a tiny town into something of wider interest. It is not a gothic tale; it is a radio drama. It is the weight that Lee afforded these small incidents that makes her book remarkable, a declaration that the quotidian affairs of a nowhere town deep in the Bible Belt were both relevant and worth preserving.

*

Sarah and I stopped for lunch at David’s Catfish House, a restaurant just outside the town center, where Lee and her sister used to come for lunch. It was a faux log cabin, filled with long wooden tables set with condiments and rolls of paper towels. The house specialty was fried catfish and hush puppies, those dollops of fried cornbread that, legend has it, were used in the Civil War to quiet the yaps of Confederate dogs. Lee’s sister preferred to order their catfish cooked “continental”— broiled with spices—and order the children’s plate, while Lee herself would opt for a traditional helping of the breaded, crispy fish. I ordered the same, along with a slice of buttermilk pie. In the kiosk outside, a headline on the Mobile Register blared news about Lee settling with the museum.

After lunch, Sarah, armed with some potted plants and cookies, took us to the assisted-care home where Miss Alice Lee, a friend of Sarah’s family, lived, in order to pay her a visit. In years past, if a journalist wanted to talk to Lee, the best bet was to approach her sister. For years the sisters lived together in an unassuming brick house near the town elementary school, a home so cluttered with books and papers it was said that you could, on occasion, find a volume in the oven. Alice Lee served as her sister’s intermediary, lawyer, and press representative. A slight, sharp woman whom friends called Miss Alice, Lee’s sister worked as a lawyer in her father’s office until after her hundredth birthday, making her the oldest practicing attorney in the state before medical problems forced her into retirement. She died some months after our visit to Monroeville at the age of 103, and the remembrances, like most profiles of Miss Alice, focused on her mental alacrity—in order to stay sharp, she recited the presidents, vice presidents, and secretaries of state in order every night before bedtime—but equally remarkable was her wry humor. When Alice Lee was asked by the Birmingham News her secret to longevity, she responded, “I don’t do anything to bring on dying.”

A stamp of approval from Alice Lee functioned as a tacit nod from Nelle. You can hear Alice’s voice in almost any project about the book that Nelle didn’t overtly object to, though she rarely granted interviews about anything other than her law practice. (One such exception is director Mary Murphy’s documentary "Hey, Boo," which captures Miss Alice’s lively, gravelly voice in all its glory.) Much of the difficulties between Monroeville and Lee were exacerbated by this system breaking down.

Inside the nursing home where Alice Lee lived, a gracious nurse in Garfield-printed scrubs let us into a waiting room, where Miss Alice’s diploma from law school hung alongside a photo of her and Nelle, grinning, at a luncheon. But Alice, in fragile health, wasn’t up for seeing visitors. We left the plant, cookies, and a note on the sideboard already cluttered with Valentine’s Day presents.

Before we headed out of town, Sarah had another plant to drop off, at the nursing facility where Harper Lee lives. And that was when a sort of anxiety set into my stomach, at the ludicrously small chance that, despite all evidence to the contrary, maybe Lee would be curious about Sarah’s friends, invite me in, want to have some tea. If you’re a fan of her work, the prospect of meeting Harper Lee poses a conflict, since it is so well known that she has no particular wish to meet her adoring public.

And the gap between the mythology of a writer and the realities of the writer’s life is wide, of course. Because she keeps so private, that’s particularly true in Lee’s case. It reminded me of a pilgrimage Harry Crews went on to talk to one of his favorite writers, Frank Slaughter. He hitchhiked to see Slaughter and rang him up, only to find him occupied at the barbershop. “The notion that a writer had to get a haircut! I mean, writers don’t get haircuts. They don’t have to deal with everything the rest of us do, do they?” Crews told an interviewer. “I just couldn’t put together my own love of literature—the mystery, the overwhelming, profound grandness of literature—with going to the barbershop and getting your hair cut.” It’s a disappointment that’s completely unfair, that flies in the face of every hard-earned lesson about all people just being the weak, interesting, complicated beings that we all are, but it exists nonetheless, that your heroes still have to get haircuts instead of living on a plane of existence where they can avoid every human inconvenience. Harper Lee could never live up to the idea I had of Harper Lee.

Sarah drove us to the assisted-care home where Lee lives. On the way, we stopped at the Dollar General, where I made a quick, frantic hunt for some suitable item to bring to Lee as a gift, some small token that could bear the weight of all the hopes and well wishes and tidings I hoped to convey. Such a talisman, unsurprisingly, proved impossible to find. And I knew, even at the time, that the search was a ridiculous one. It wasn’t just that the Dollar General was piled with coloring books, canned goods, discount makeup, and cheap cat collars—not exactly the fare of a thoughtful visiting gift. It was that talismans are basically meaningless except to the holder. I could mentally inscribe whatever message I wanted onto, say, a box of chocolates and all Lee would see is a snack. There was no secret code, no riddle to be unlocked. I settled on a chocolate Easter bunny, one of those pastel-festooned numbers with a single, unblinking eye peering out from the packaging. It would have to do.

I followed Sarah into the foyer of the cheery facility. Unlike most of the buildings around Monroeville, there was no sign of anything "Mockingbird"-related: No painted birdhouses, no murals, no hint of the famous resident in their midst. As I watched Sarah walk up the hall and disappear into a room, I thought of the things I wanted to say to Lee.

That I was a fan, obviously. That she and I had people in common. That I hoped the winter weather hadn’t been too hard on Monroeville and I hoped her bingo games had been paying out for her. That I, too, had gone to New York City as a wide-eyed Alabama girl, hoping to write something true about the South, to convey some small part about the place I grew up, its fiery strangeness and treasures and tangled past. That I understood how impossible that mission was, but felt it was the only thing worth doing.

I kept thinking about an encounter that the journalist Michael Clarkson had with J. D. Salinger in the 1970s. Clarkson knocked on Salinger’s door to try to coax the author out for a drink, to perhaps lure him into giving an interview. Salinger refused, but he also rebuffed Clarkson in a way that’s always haunted me, that pointed to the clash between writers as mythological figures and writers as people. “I have no obligations beyond my writing. I have nothing to answer for,” Salinger said. “You’re just another guy who comes up here like all the rest and wants answers, and I have no answers.” And that, essentially, would be what I would be if I met Lee: just another visitor who treated her like an oracle instead of a person, demanding answers that she didn’t have for questions I couldn’t articulate.

After a few minutes, Sarah walked back down the hall. Lee was asleep, anyway. Before we left, I had Sarah leave the chocolate bunny for her, just inside her door. On the box, I scribbled a note. It read: “Dear Nelle, Sorry to miss you. Thank you for everything. With admiration, Margaret.”

Excerpted from "South Toward Home: Travels in Southern Literature" by Margaret Eby. Published by W.W. Norton and Co., Inc. Copyright © 2015 by W.W. Norton and Co. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved. 


Margaret Eby

Margaret Eby has written for the New York Times, The New Yorker, Salon and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, she now lives in New York City.

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