Alabama Road Trip No. 10
Monroeville: The "To Kill a Mockingbird" Experience
by Edith Parten
In early 2015 author Nelle Harper Lee agreed to publish the recently discovered novel Go Set a Watchman that she had completed in 1957, and set aside to rework it into To Kill a Mockingbird. One day, a package from her New York publisher arrived at her Monroeville assisted-living apartment containing a mockup of the Watchman cover. She told her attorney Tonja Carter, who had discovered the long-forgotten manuscript, to tell HarperCollins there should be no comma after the word “Go” in the title. The publisher responded that the King James version of Isaiah 21:6 reads, “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, ‘Go, set a watchman. Let him declare what he seeth.’” Miss Lee told Mrs. Carter to call back and say, “That’s the Lord’s book. He has a comma. This is my book, there is no comma.” When the book launched on July 14 and sold two million copies, there was no comma.
Despite widespread speculation that the famously elusive author of “Mockingbird” was in-firmed and unaware of the pending “Watchman” publication, nothing could have been farther from the truth. She attended a private lunch June 30 in a closed restaurant across the street from the historic Monroeville courthouse to accept the first copies from her New York and London publishers. Someone asked if she had ever expected the book to be published, she snapped, “Of course I did. Don’t be silly.” “Watchman” answered the burning question that “Mockingbird” fans had been asking for a half century: what ever happened when Scout grew up? That’s why you should read “Watchman.” Fans who want to know more about the author’s final years should read Dr. Wayne Flynt’s “Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee,” written in 2017 after years of exchanging letters with his friend Nelle and more than 100 visits at her assisted-living apartment.
Make the pilgrimage to Miss Lee’s real hometown of Monroeville, the inspiration for Scout’s hometown of Maycomb in both books. Tour the historic courthouse and enter the iconic courtroom that was copied for the beloved movie starring Gregory Peck. If you plan ahead and purchase tickets for a performance in April or May of the highly regarded “Mockingbird” play, you’ll watch the first act at the open-air amphitheater behind the courthouse, followed by the second act in the actual courtroom that inspired both the novel and the movie. When you do tour the courthouse you can be photographed sitting at the actual judge’s bench or where Atticus sits while defending black defendant Tom Robinson. There are plenty of exhibits and photographs of Harper Lee and her childhood friend Truman Capote throughout the museum.
During your walk around the courthouse square, note the unrestored red bank building where the real-life attorney A.C. Lee, the inspiration for Atticus, had his law office until his death in 1962, and where Atticus Finch practices law in both books.
Harper Lee died Feb. 19, 2016 at age 89, seven months after the publication of “Watchman.” After a private ceremony the next day at the First United Methodist Church on Pineview Road (324 Pineville Rd, Monroeville, AL 36460), she was buried next to her father and sister in the Lee family plot. It’s less than a half mile from the courthouse she made famous in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
While experiencing the history and heritage of Monroeville, be sure and take notice of the clock tower on the historic Monroe County Courthouse on the town square. Inextricably woven into the fiction of Lee and Capote, the clock not only symbolizes the passing of time, but is a symbol of the town’s proud literary heritage.
Tour the Old Courthouse Museum
Your visit to Monroeville should begin on the courthouse square with a tour of the Old Courthouse Museum (31 N. Alabama Ave., Monroeville; 251-575-7433). Through photos and exhibits, you will discover personal stories about Harper Lee, known to her friends as Nelle, and others surrounding her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” You will also get a glimpse into the life of Truman Capote, the famed author of the 1966 book “In Cold Blood.” Capote spent much of his childhood in Monroeville and was not only Lee’s neighbor, but the two also became close friends. Photographs of Capote and Lee can be seen in the second-floor exhibit.
"To Kill a Mockingbird," which has been performed in Monroeville for more than 22 years, will take you back in time.
Visit the gift shop where you will find unique items related to Lee’s novel as well as crafts and other items from the local area, such as stone-ground grits from Rikard’s Mill in nearby Beatrice. While in the historic courthouse, walk up the steps to see the courtroom made world famous by the novel and movie. You can feel free to move throughout the courtroom. Walk up to the balcony area to imagine scenes from the famous trial. See the witness chair, judge’s bench and tables used by the prosecutor and defense attorney during the trial. Throughout her childhood, Harper Lee, herself, often sat in the balcony as she watched her father practice law in the very same courtroom.
The Annual Performances of To Kill a Mockingbird
Plan your visit to Monroeville to coincide with the annual performances of “To Kill a Mockingbird” (251-575-7433), from mid-April through mid-May. This play, which has been performed here for more than 22 years, will take you back in time.
Set in the 1930s in the fictional town of Maycomb, Ala., the novel tells the story of a black man named Tom Robinson who is accused of attacking a white woman and goes to trial during a time when racial discrimination was legal and culturally accepted in the South. It is also a coming-of-age story of a young girl named Scout and the imaginations of her brother Jem and her childhood friend, Dill. Locals say that the character of Dill is based upon Truman Capote.
While watching the all-local cast perform, you will develop a fondness for Robinson as well as his lawyer Atticus Finch, the father of Scout and Jem. And, you will meet characters like Arthur “Boo” Radley, a recluse and one of the novel’s “mockingbirds,” described by critics as “a good person injured by the evil of mankind.”
The first act of the two-act play takes place at the amphitheater on the lawn of the Courthouse Museum. Act II takes place inside the historic courtroom. Once inside the courtroom, you will see the trial unfold as Finch makes a passionate plea in Robinson’s defense. The members of the jury are always selected from the audience, so you might get a shot at sitting on the jury during the second act.
A prerequisite for your visit to Monroeville is to purchase your tickets early. This is a very popular event and tickets sell fast. In addition to the main performances, which feature a VIP reception on certain nights, special performances are held for various groups, including young audiences. Group tickets (10 or more) and tickets for museum members go on sale in January. General public ticket sales begin the first of March. Tickets may be purchased by phone (251-575-7433) or in person.
The Birdhouse Trail
Continue your tour of Monroeville with a stroll through the downtown area to see some of the fascinating custom-designed birdhouses along the Birdhouse Trail (251-743-2879). The trail includes 25 uniquely crafted structures located throughout Monroe County. Highlighted in different scenes, the wooden birdhouses are the handiwork of area residents who designed, constructed and painted them. Many of the birdhouse designs depict scenes from “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Taking a picture standing by one of the birdhouses will make for a fun photo to remember your trip.
While experiencing downtown Monroeville, you will also see the themed "To Kill a Mockingbird" mural on the side of the building at the intersection of North Alabama and Claiborne. Next to the mural is a historic marker highlighting Monroeville’s past.
More to See and Do in Monroeville
Art galleries are also popular in Monroeville. As you stroll along the square, stop and explore some of the quaint shops. Be sure to make your way to The Art Room (669 Overlook Dr.; 251-575-7440) where you can discover your own artistic talent by signing up for art lessons and creating your own painting. You can also enjoy the unique gifts and paintings offered by the owner. Across the street at 36 E. Claiborne, you will find another art studio, the Purple Papaya (251-593-7449;. This has become an interesting studio/gallery, specializing in art classes that include a variety of mediums – from paintings and drawings to printmaking and pottery throwing.
Stop in for books about Monroeville, the Black Belt region and Alabama at Beehive Coffee and Books (11 W. Claiborne St.; 251-575-4193). Housed in a former warehouse, the shop has original brick walls with a comfortable sofa where you can sit and enjoy a book and a cup of coffee or a cool beverage.
You can end your tour in downtown Monroeville with a stop at the Katherine Lee Rose Garden & War Memorial Gazebo (65 N. Alabama Ave.; 251-743-2879). Located at Monroe County’s new courthouse, the garden features more than 90 different roses maintained by the garden club. The gazebo is used for weddings and other functions.
A Happy Harper Lee
Harper Lee’s closest New York friends Michael and Joy Brown loaned her a year’s salary on Christmas 1956 to complete what became “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Michael snapped this photo in 1957, the year she received a publishing contract. (Copyright Michael Brown)
Where To Eat
You have a couple of choices with connections to Harper Lee. The author and her sister favored David’s Catfish House just south of town. Recommended for tour groups. (145 Hwy. 84 E.; 251-575-3460.) The best restaurant in town, the Prop & Gavel on the east side of the square, faces the courthouse. (42 E. Claiborne St.; 251-575-7767) It was here that the American and British publishers of “Watchman” presented copies to the author during a private luncheon on June 30, 2015, two weeks before the publication date. It was her last major outing. The presentation is included in Mary Murphy’s documentary “Harper Lee: From Mockingbird to Watchman.” The Prop & Gavel’s Barrister Burger is recommended among the “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama,” and it has a good selection of cocktails and wines.
Where To Stay
Monroeville has several affordable hotels available for overnight lodging. Country Inn & Suites (120 Hwy. 21 S.; 251-743-3333), Mockingbird Inn & Suites (4389 S. Alabama Ave.; 251-743-3297), and Best Western Inn (4419 S. Alabama Ave.; 251-575-9999) are all located just minutes from downtown. Bed and breakfast options, such as The Loft (1594 Mexboro Rd., Frisco City; 251-575-3879) in the Mexia community and the Mary Elizabeth Stallworth House (1197 Main St.; 251-575-4021;) in Beatrice, are short drives away. For a complete list of area accommodations, visit www.monroecountyal.com.
While in the Monroeville area, you may also want to visit Rikard’s Mill Historical Park (4116 Highway 265 N., Beatrice; 251-789-2781) in Beatrice. The mill site is a nod to the folk traditions of grist-milling, blacksmithing and cane syrup making. Settled among pine trees alongside Flat Creek, the park reopens each spring during the same time frame as the “To Kill a Mockingbird” performances, making it an excellent enhancement to your road trip experience.
Points of Interest
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