Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Mockingbirds, Finches, Motorcycles, and a Courthouse

On July 11, 1960, the world was first introduced to Miss Jean Louise Finch of Maycomb County, Alabama.

But you probably know her better as Scout.

Since that day, people all around the world have come to cherish her, Jem, Calpurnia, Miss Maudie, Tom Robinson, May Ella Ewell, the exquisite Atticus, and the other characters who so richly inhabit Harper Lee's masterpiece To Kill A Mockingbird.

Like many people, I rank this book and the 1962 film, with it's Horton Foote screenplay, among my very favorites.

Today, however, I write not of the book, its characters, the importance of its themes, or the enormity of its effect around the world, but of the town that inspired it.

The courthouse exterior
Monroeville, Alabama

Even when I lived in Alabama, there was no reason to go to Monroeville. It wasn't close to the Interstate or near a city of any size. You didn't drive through it on your way to the beach or back from one of the University towns after a football game. In fact, you pretty much had to go out of your way to get there at all, which may be why the outlet mall didn't make it... and paper pulp and lumber industries did.

Monroeville was as much a “tired old town” as its fictional counterpart Maycomb when I first knew it and I'd be lying if I said it was a bustling metropolis today. Like Maycomb, though, what Monroeville does have is a population of extraordinary townsfolk.

The first time I visited the Monroeville County Courthouse, my father and I sort of stumbled across it while out for a meandering motorcycle ride.* I was aware that the town, and specifically the courthouse, had inspired the settings of the book and film. I did not dream, however, that we would be able to walk around inside and explore the old building – which ended up being not only a fantastic museum dedicated to the town's most notable residents, Harper Lee and Truman Capote, but the home to the annual Southern Alabama Writer's Symposium** as well. I was blown away.

Then a smiling docent asked us, “Are y'all here for the play?”

Every year since 1991, an all-volunteer cast of locals has staged a full-length production of To Kill A Mockingbird in and around the iconic courthouse. I had the good fortune of seeing the 2012 production and can see why every performance sells out every year.

We sat in the courthouse square of the town where Harper Lee grew up and still lives today, where she and fellow literary giant Truman Capote once played, and where the real-life experiences that would one day inspire the novel had unfolded. We walked the same grounds, sat beneath the same sky, smelled the same pines, saw the same sunset, heard people speak in same purring drawl, and fanned ourselves against the same stagnant, sticky heat, watching as those same events were reenacted in real time. That experience is possible in only one place in the world -- the town of Monroeville.

I did manage to snag a seat on stage for Act 2. Gotta be me...
Monroeville is still a small, rural Alabama town, just as it was in the 1930s when Harper Lee was a child, in the 1960s when the world knew it as Maycomb, or in the 1990s when I was barely aware of it at all.

It is not blessed with favorable geography, a breadth of salable resources, or an over-abundance of material wealth. It will never be a center of fashion or culture or a capitol of commerce or industry. Yet, it will always be the home of Scout, Jem, Dill, Boo, Atticus, and Miss Nelle Harper E. Lee.  

Today's lesson: Great inspiration rather than dense population is what makes a place special. 

Next: Given my recent pattern, probably a long stretch of silence. :-(


*My dad is cooler than your dad.

**Y'all should call me.

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