I read To Kill a Mockingbird just before visiting author Harper Lee’s hometown Monroeville, Alabama, recently, and I’m left with some questions about the nature of fiction, nonfiction, and real places, and how these intersect. Seeing the town and thinking about Nelle Harper Lee’s life story got me confused; I’ve yet to make sense of these things for myself. Since I don’t yet have an overall theory, I’m going to list some things I learned and what these things imply.
In the beginning of the novel, Maycomb, Alabama, lawyer Atticus Finch is the widowed, 50-something father of 6-year-old Scout Finch and her 10-year-old brother Jem Finch. Scout and Jem befriend a boy, Dill Harris, who spends summers in Maycomb living with his aunt Rachel Haverford “next door.” Neighbors “three doors to the south” are the Radley family, and “the Radley Place jutted into a sharp curve beyond our house. Walking south, one faced its porch,” and “the Maycomb school grounds adjoined the back of the Radley lot.” Arthur “Boo” Radley was kept “out of sight” from his teen years on after a run-in with the law.
Nonfictionally, Monroeville, Alabama, lawyer Amasa Coleman “A.C.” Lee was 52 when Nelle Harper Lee was 6. Her brother Edwin would’ve been 11 then. Nelle befriended neighbor boy Truman Capote, who lived with his Faulk aunts in the house directly north of the Lee house. Neighbors two doors to the south were the Boulware family, whose property extended into a south-easterly curve, whose house faced north, and whose back lot adjoined the elementary school yard. Alfred “Son” Boulware, Jr.’s “father promised to keep him under his thumb in lieu of punishment for an adolescent theft.“
An intriguing example of the mix of fiction, nonfiction, and real physical objects is the display in the courthouse museum pictured above. There’s a photo of the real oak tree that was supposedly the inspiration for the oak tree in the novel, and there’s a chunk of wood from that tree. The other objects represent the gifts that Jem and Scout found in the tree, an incident that may have had a nonfictional precedent, but there’s no claim that these other objects were the actual gifts. There’s a card reading “The Famous Tree,” naming a real tree made nonfictionally famous by a fictional text. About this display, visitor David G. Allan wrote, “It’s this kind of conflation of history and fiction that happily muddles your head in Monroeville.”
Of course, after the similarities, there are also many distinctions between the fictional characters and the real people, and because of the earlier similarities, these differences become that much more stark. We readers might wonder why certain things were changed when so many things were not. For instance, Nelle Harper Lee’s mother was alive until Nelle was 25, but the mother, “Frances Finch Lee, also known as Miss Fanny, was overweight and emotionally fragile,” according to Nelle’s New York Times obituary. Nelle had two older sisters; Scout does not. Dill lived with one aunt; Truman Capote lived with at least three aunts and an uncle.
I’m very tempted to use the phrase “real life” to describe Nelle’s life. But of course, her life story isn’t real in the way the streets and buildings and trees that I saw a few days ago were real. Her life story and the town’s history are simply nonfiction, as are the old photos of Nelle and of Monroeville in the museum and in books such as this. The house where she grew up does not exist and is only a story; the Lee house was torn down in 1952 and replaced with a food stand, now Mel’s Dairy Dream (see photos here).
What seemed the most real when I was at Monroeville were the physical objects before me, but it was actually hard to keep my attention on those things because I kept thinking of them through conceptual overlays (like a heads-up display, projecting information onto what I was seeing) of both the novel and of the history. The fiction and the nonfiction were both ideas, abstractions, but I kept applying them to the physical items I saw. I snapped pictures of anything associated with Scout or with Nelle; for instance, I took this photo of the pavement around Mel’s Dairy Dream while thinking “maybe Nelle Harper Lee once stepped here.”
I realized then I’d been thinking that the possibility of Nelle having stepped in a place made that place special. I was regarding her as more than just a regular person (whose footfalls aren’t special). I realized this thought was an example of magic thinking, that somehow I must have started to believe, by being in this town where Nelle lived and about which she wrote, that I could somehow enter the story itself and live within the funny, charming sensibility of the narrator’s depiction of Jem and Scout. This sounds absurd, of course, and it is, but I suspect this thinking might be similar to that of people who visit a site of a miracle or an important historical event. Why go to a place like Monroeville, Lourdes, or the Gettysburg battlefield unless I’m expecting, somehow, to get closer to, become part of, and be personally transformed by, the reality of these places I’d previously only read about?
I can read and analyze a novel like To Kill a Mockingbird without being anywhere near the town that inspired the novel’s setting. To visit the town does give me a chance to see for myself what buildings described in the story look like and how places relate to each other (for instance, now that I’ve walked from the elementary school to where the Lee house was, I think the length of Jem and Scout’s walk at the end of the book was exaggerated. But perhaps Nelle Harper Lee knew that the walk didn’t actually take long, and she made it seem longer to increase suspense in the story). Of course, even as Lee was writing in the 1950s, the town of her youth in the 1930s had changed. It’s also foolish to compare fictional descriptions to what I saw in the real town because, well, the fiction writer is free to change whatever she pleases, and also, to say a real place is “the basis for” or “the inspiration for” or “the setting for” a fictional place is basically meaningless. The fictional town and the real town are not be the same; it’s only in our abstract thinking that we conjoin the two.
Nelle Harper Lee wrote the book because, she told an interviewer back in 1964, in one of the last interviews she granted,
“This is small-town middle-class Southern life as opposed to the Gothic, as opposed to ‘Tobacco Road,’ as opposed to plantation life,” she told her interviewer, referring to the Erskine Caldwell novel, and adding that she was fascinated by the “rich social pattern” in such places. “I would simply like to put down all I know about this because I believe that there is something universal in this little world, something decent to be said for it, and something to lament in its passing,” she continued. “In other words, all I want to be is the Jane Austen of South Alabama.”
Mockingbird does present an image of her childhood’s cultural and material conditions and does effectively convey this to her readers. In doing this, she created characters based closely enough on real people so that the real people can be identified: noble Atticus as A.C. Lee, reclusive Boo Radley as Alfred Boulware. A.C. Lee is said to have been appreciative enough to sign copies of Mockingbird as “Atticus,” but Alfred Boulware’s relatives (he died before the book was published) have not been pleased by their association with the book, as I was told by Monroe County Museum staffer Rabun Williams.
Nelle benefited from writing about real people, but since she became famous, she seemed to discourage others from writing about her:
She returned to her solitary life in Monroeville, keeping the press and the public at bay. In writing “Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee” (2006), Charles J. Shields maintained that he had conducted 600 interviews with friends, acquaintances and former classmates of his subject, but Ms. Lee eluded him, turning down his requests for an interview “with vigor,” he said. (Times obit)
After turning other people into the abstractions of fictional characters, Lee perhaps did not want to be turned into the abstraction of Author Harper Lee. She wanted to control her own life story, though she did not allow others to do this. According to the Times obit, “Ms. Lee lived a quiet but relatively normal life in Monroeville, where friends and neighbors closed ranks around her to fend off unwelcome attention by tourists and reporters,” which protection was perhaps more than Lee granted to the people she wrote about.
By writing about her home town, Lee has also reshaped it. Entering Monroeville from the south on Rt. 21, I saw a sign that said “Literary Capital of Alabama.” While home to only about 7,000 residents, nearly 30,000 visit every year. The old courthouse has become a museum dedicated to Lee and Capote, and local actors put on play of Mockingbird each year, on the courthouse lawn and in the old courthouse itself. The book and museum prompt goofball tourists like myself to wander around taking pictures. Museum staffers and other locals also become storytellers as they share their own stories of Monroeville and the Lee family. The town has many empty storefronts, and poverty seems a problem in Monroe County, but no doubt the area would suffer more without its literary fame.
The book’s title comes from father Atticus’s warning to children Scout and Jem not to shoot mockingbirds with their air rifles for “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird,” and it’s a sin because, as another character explains, “mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy.” Mockingbirds are a symbol of beauty, of selflessness, etc. On the other hand, a mockingbird “often imitates other birds,” and so could also be a symbol for taking the expression of others and making it one’s own.
Update, 22 July: This essay makes a point about the mockingbird as a symbol of the South, and that it wouldn’t necessarily deserve the praise it gets in the novel.
Some additional links about Nelle Harper Lee:
† Google Books link to I am Scout biography of NHL by Charles Shields.
† NY Times review of Go Set a Watchman
† Daily Mail article on Harper Lee from 2010
† “In Search of Harper Lee” (dated 2010, seemingly written in 1997)
Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird is sugar-water served with humor. … It is frankly and completely impossible, being told in the first person by a six-year-old girl with the prose style of a well-educated adult. … A variety of adults, mostly eccentric in Scout’s judgment, and a continual bubble of incident make To Kill A Mockingbird pleasant, undemanding reading.