Category Archives: Teaching

‘That’s a damn story’: Considering To Kill a Mockingbird after visiting Monroeville

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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.

A piece of the oak tree that was the model for the oak tree near the Radley house in the book.

A piece of the oak tree that was the model for the oak tree near the Radley house in the book. Also in the case are pennies, a gold watch and chain, gum wrappers, marbles, and carved soap figures.

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 — “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, any description of her life is still just a story. 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 can be found only in 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.”

Pavement at the site of the former Lee house.

Pavement at the site of the former Lee house and the current Mel’s Dairy Dream store.

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 through her novel, she had taken control of others’ stories. 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 the town is 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 willing 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

“A Queer Look at Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman'”

† “The Decline of Harper Lee” at Vulture.com

Daily Mail article on Harper Lee from 2010

“In Search of Harper Lee” (dated 2010, seemingly written in 1997)

† Sister Louise Lee Connor obituary

Alice Lee practices law at age 100

†  The Guardian: Should Marja Mills’ memoir have been published?

† Go Set a Watchman in the papers of Harper Lee’s literary agents

†  Rabun Williams’s speech at Harper Lee vigil

Some comments regarding Boulware

19 Things about Harper Lee

10 Facts about Harper Lee from AL.com

† Southern Literary Trail: Monroeville

Two nonfiction pieces Lee wrote

† An early (1960) review of Mockingbird includes this section:

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.

‘Literary Capital of Alabama’: Monroeville as Harper Lee’s Maycomb, Part 2

After my wife and I toured the Monroe County Courthouse (see Part 1) recently, we walked south on Mt. Pleasant Avenue to Oak Street, then east on Oak to Alabama Avenue, then back north to the Old Courthouse.

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An image of South Alabama Avenue from the early 1950s, as displayed at Monroe County Heritage Museums. Top of the photo is north.

An image of South Alabama Avenue from the early 1950s, as displayed at Monroe County Heritage Museums. Top of the photo is north.

An image of South Alabama Avenue from the early 1950s, as displayed at Monroe County Heritage Museums. Right side of the photo is north.

Another image of South Alabama Avenue from the early 1950s, as displayed at Monroe County Heritage Museums. Right side of the photo is north.

One of several run-down-looking buildings in downtown Monroeville, on east side of Mt. Pleasant Ave.

One of several run-down-looking buildings in downtown Monroeville, on east side of Mt. Pleasant Ave.

Another run-down-looking building in downtown Monroeville, on west side of Mt. Pleasant Ave, southwest of Old Courthouse.

Another run-down-looking building in downtown Monroeville, on west side of Mt. Pleasant Ave, southwest of Old Courthouse.

Coxwell House, Mt. Pleasant Avenue, southwest of Old Courthouse.

Coxwell House, Mt. Pleasant Avenue, southwest of Old Courthouse.

View of "Deers Pasture" from Mt. Pleasant Ave. This was an open area Scout and Jem passed through. According to Rabun Williams of the Monroe County Heritage Museums, this has always been a low spot on which there've been no buildings.

View of what the book calls “Deer’s Pasture” on the east side of Mt. Pleasant Ave. The east side of this open area backs up to what would have been the Faulk and Lee lots. According to Rabun Williams of the Monroe County Heritage Museums, this has always been a low spot on which there have been no buildings.

Maxwell/Sawyer/Barnett House, Mt. Pleasant Avenue, southwest of Old Courthouse.

Maxwell/Sawyer/Barnett House, Mt. Pleasant Avenue, a couple blocks southwest of Old Courthouse. Along with the Coxwell house above, this house is one of “two blocks of houses … built by the leading families in town,” according to the “Monroeville in the 1930s Walking Tour” pamphlet published by the Monroe County Museum.

Current Monroeville Elementary school, facing Mt. Pleasant Ave. Note air-conditioners in each classroom.

Current Monroeville Elementary school, facing Mt. Pleasant Ave. Note air-conditioners in each classroom.

Facing east on Oak Street from north of school.

Facing east on Oak Street from north of school. To walk this street from the school to the Lee lot would require passing the Boulware (which I heard pronounced “Bo-ware”) house, where lived Alfred “Son” Boulware, Jr., “who, similarly to the character Arthur Radley, lived life as a reclusive shut-in,” according to the “Walking Tour” pamphlet.

School playground along south side of Oak Street.

School playground along south side of Oak Street.

Fence between school playground and Cannon gas station -- former Boulware house.

Fence between school playground and Cannon gas station, the former location of the Boulware house.

Boo Radley's convenience store. This is where the Boulware house stood. Some sources say Alfred "Sonny" Boulware, Jr., was the inspiration for the character Boo Radley.

This is a view of Cannon gas station from the north. Alabama Avenue, which runs due south from the courthouse square, turns southeast at the left side of this picture. This is the lot where the Boulware house stood. Judging from the old photos at the top of this post, the Boulware house faced north and the lot extended to the south and to the west.

View of Mel's Dairy Dream from the south.

View of Mel’s Dairy Dream from the south. This building replaced the Lee house in the early 1950s.”Go Set a Watchman” tells of Jean Louise getting ice cream at a store located where family’s house had been.

Mel's Dairy Dream stands where the Lee house stood on Alabama Ave. I can vouch for the chocolate shakes.

Mel’s Dairy Dream stands where the Lee house stood on Alabama Ave. My wife orders at the window on the left. She said the peach swirl was good; I can vouch for the taste of the chocolate shakes.

This is the view from Mel's Dairy Dream (the former Lee house lot) southwest toward the elementary school.

This is the view from Mel’s Dairy Dream (the former Lee house lot) southwest toward the elementary school.

View south on Alabama Avenue from an image at the Old Courthouse. Caption says the view is dated 1915 and the car is in front of the Lee house.

View south on Alabama Avenue from an image at the Old Courthouse. I read that the view is from about 1915 and the car is to the left of the Lee house. According to the book Monroeville: The Search for Harper Lee’s Maycomb, the picket fences were gone by 1939 and sidewalks had been installed by then.

View of Alabama Avenue south from in front of Mel's Dairy Dream.

View of Alabama Avenue south from in front of Mel’s Dairy Dream, location of the former Lee house.

View east across Alabama Ave. from Mel's Dairy Dream (Lee house lot). Across the street during the Lee house era were the Dr. G.C. Watson houseAccording to the book Monroeville: The Search for Harper Lee's Maycomb and according to the Walking Tour pamphlet.

View of the Goody’s store east across Alabama Ave. from Mel’s Dairy Dream (Lee house lot). Across the street from the Lee house was the Dr. G.C. Watson house, and Watson’s daughter Gladys Burkett was Harper Lee’s English teacher, according to the museum’s Walking Tour pamphlet. Also across the street lived Maggie Dees, secretary to A.C. Lee, and Velma Dees, who tutored Nelle and Truman, according to the book Monroeville: The Search for Harper Lee’s Maycomb.

View north toward neighboring Faulk house from Lee house.

View from Mel’s Dairy Dream (former Lee house) north toward sign marking the neighboring Faulk house. The rock wall was near the old fish pool described in chapter six of To Kill a Mockingbird, according to the book “Monroeville: The Search for Harper Lee’s Maycomb” by Monroe County Heritage Museums. The post office is the brick building at what looks like the end of the street. Presumably, if one were to walk from the Lee home to the courthouse, the fastest way would be to walk north on this street, Alabama Avenue.

Marker on Alabama Ave. at location of former Faulk house.

Marker on Alabama Ave. at location of former Faulk house, the next house to the north of what was then the Lee house.

Capote marker at Faulk house and one of many audio-tour signs in Monroeville.

Capote marker at Faulk house and one of many audio-tour signs in Monroeville. This view is from the sidewalk, looking southwest.

A view looking west behind the Trustmark bank. To the left here is the north end of "Deer Pasture"

A couple lots north of the Faulk house is now the Trustmark bank, and this view is looking west on the south side of the bank.To the left here is the north end of “Deer’s Pasture,” and the street to the west is Mt. Pleasant Avenue.

View north along Alabama Ave. Note the Old Courthouse to left of bank sign and brick white house to the right. Temperature was as of 2:55 p.m. 25 June.

View north along Alabama Ave while standing east of the Trustmark Bank. Note the Old Courthouse dome to left of bank sign and brick post office to the right. Temperature was as of 2:55 p.m. 25 June.

View north along Alabama Avenue. Brick

This view is north along Alabama Avenue from the southwest corner of Claiborne Street. The Old Courthouse is just out of the photo to the left, and the new courthouse is visible just behind the van. The brick building on the right side is the post office. The mural of three children hiding and watching the street (see previous post) was directly to my left as I took this picture.

Nelle Harper Lees gr

Two or three blocks east of the courthouse square on Pineville Road is a cemetery where we found a Lee family plot. This plot and many others were outlined in stone. When we visited on 25 June 2016, we found many coins at the headstone of Nelle (not pronounced  “Nellie,” according to her New York Times obituary) Harper Lee. The church steeple in the background is that of the First Baptist Church, but Harper Lee reportedly belonged to the First United Methodist Church, which is just out of the photo on the left side.

A.C. Lee, father of Nelle Harper Lee

Also at this plot, the grave of lawyer A.C. Lee, father of Nelle Harper Lee.

Mother of Nelle Harper Lee

Mother of Nelle Harper Lee. She and her son Edwin both died in 1951.

Brother of Nelle Harper Lee. He and mother Frances Finch Lee both died in 1951. In 1952, A.C. Lee moved from his house on Alabama Avenue.

Brother of Nelle Harper Lee. He died just weeks after his mother Frances Finch Lee both died in 1951. In 1952, A.C. Lee moved from his house on Alabama Avenue.

Older sister of Nelle Harper Lee. She was an attorney who reportedly managed business affairs of Nelle

Older sister of Nelle Harper Lee. She was an attorney who reportedly managed Nelle’s business affairs. A fourth Lee sibling, Louise, was born between Alice and Nelle (I think).

Also at cemetery, family names Deas and Tate, which were used as character names in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Also at cemetery, family names Deas and Tate, which were used as character names in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Leaving Monroeville on Routes 21/47. I was surprised to see how densely wooded much of rural Alabama seems.

Leaving Monroeville on Routes 21/47. I was surprised to see how densely wooded much of rural Alabama was.

Rural house along Route 21/47 northwest of Monroeville

Rural house along Route 21/47 northwest of Monroeville

I believe this is kudzu outgrowing and covering other vegetation along the roadside.

I believe this is kudzu outgrowing and covering other vegetation along the roadside.

More kudzu.

More kudzu, under the trees here.

Along Alabama Route 21/47. Red dirt.

Along Alabama Route 21/47. Red dirt. We say several small roads leading off the highway that seemed to be made only of red dirt rather than of rocks or pavement.

Rural building along Routes 21 and/or 47

Rural building along Routes 21 and/or 47

Rural house along Routes 21 and/or 47

Rural house along Routes 21 and/or 47

Rural house along Routes 21 and/or 47

Rural house along Routes 21 and/or 47

Kudzu

Kudzu, climbing trees.

Pine Flat Methodist Church and cemetery along Route 10, west of Butler Springs Road.

Pine Flat Methodist Church and cemetery along Route 10, west of Butler Springs Road. It may be hard to see in this picture, but this building seemed to have a foundation of brick piers, and I could see under the building.

Cotton, across the highway from the church in previous photo.

Cotton plants, I think, across the highway from the church in previous photo.

Kudzu at the edge of the church yard.

Kudzu at the edge of the church yard. I’d heard it was amazingly thick vegetation, and so it amazed me.

 

‘Literary Capital of Alabama’: Monroeville as Harper Lee’s Maycomb, Part 1

On the way driving back from our Florida vacation a few days ago, my wife and I got off I-65 to see Monroeville, Alabama, the hometown of Harper Lee, who seems to have based many of the settings in her book To Kill a Mockingbird on real places in this town. The old Monroe County courthouse has been preserved as a museum and gift shop.

View of Old Courthouse's east side.

View of Old Courthouse’s east side, from Alabama Avenue.

The Harper Lee books I borrowed from my hometown library are at Monroeville!

The Harper Lee books I borrowed from my hometown library are at Monroeville!

Explanation. Sign reads: ...

The sign explains that the Old Courthouse was used from about 1903 until the early 1960s, when the new courthouse was built. This is the building that contains the courtroom used as a model for the court in the book and in the movie To Kill a Mockingbird.

View of Old Courthouse's south side. Note the curving walls, presumably matching the courthouse wall's curve.

View of Old Courthouse’s south side. Note the curving walls, presumably matching the courthouse wall’s curve.

South lawn of old courthouse, facing west. The old bank building in which A.C. Lee had a law office is visible.

South lawn of old courthouse, facing west. The old bank building in which A.C. Lee had a law office is visible as the brick two-story with the arched windows.

A sign near statues of children reading, south of Old Courthouse.

A sign near statues of children reading, south of Old Courthouse.

Statues of children reading, south of Old Courthouse.

Statues of children reading, south of Old Courthouse.

A live oak tree on the courthouse square, one of the shade trees described in the book.

A live oak (I think) tree on the courthouse square, one of the shade trees described in the book.

View of Old Courthouse's west side. The little houses are sets for the annual productions of a play of To Kill a Mockingbird put on by local actors.

View of Old Courthouse’s west side. The little houses are sets for the annual productions of a play of To Kill a Mockingbird put on by local actors.

A plaque to Atticus Finch from the Alabama State Bar located at courthouse grounds.

A plaque to fictional Atticus Finch from the Alabama State Bar located at courthouse grounds.

View of the Old Courthouse from a northeast perspective.

View of the Old Courthouse from a northeast perspective. To the right of this picture is the new courthouse.

The new (built in early 1960s) Monroe County courthouse. We were told that, like the old courthouse, there is just one courtroom in this building.

The new (built in early 1960s) Monroe County courthouse. It’s directly north of the Old Courthouse. We were told that, like the old courthouse, there is just one courtroom in this building.

Monroe County

Monroe County, Alabama, in the southwest corner of the state, has the Alabama River as part of its western boundary.

A view of the east side of Alabama Avenue while standing on east side of Old Courthouse. The two-story building was once the millinery shop owned by Truman Capote's Faulk relatives. The brick one-story to the right (south) is the post-office, dating to 1937. According to a book written by Monroe County Heritage Museums, the post office was on the south side of the courthouse square before 1937.

A view of the east side of Alabama Avenue while standing on the east side of Old Courthouse. The two-story building was once the millinery shop owned by Truman Capote’s Faulk relatives. The brick one-story to the right (south) is the post-office, dating to 1937. According to a book written by Monroe County Heritage Museums, the post office was on the south side of the courthouse square before 1937. At far right, there’s a mural of a mockingbird on a car dealership wall.

Mural on east wall of building at southwest corner of Claiborne and Alabama, southeast of courthouse and diagonal from the post office.

Mural on east wall of building at southwest corner of Claiborne St. and Alabama Ave., southeast of courthouse and diagonal from the post office.

Mural of a scene from To Kill a Mockinbird. This is on the west wall of a building south of Old Courthouse, which is at left side of this pic.

Mural of a scene from To Kill a Mockingbird. This is along Mt. Pleasant Ave. on the west wall of a building southwest of Old Courthouse, which is at left side of this pic.

View of Mt. Pleasant Avenue, the street on the west side of courthouse, from northwest corner of courthouse square. The building with the slanted roof was the town jail at the time of the book's setting. The building with the two-story facade was the location of the town newspaper at that time. This seems likely to be the model for the scene in the book where Scout and Atticus break up the attempted lynching of Tom Robinson. In an old picture of this building, there is a smaller door, three upstairs windows, and one downstairs window.

View of Mt. Pleasant Avenue, the street on the west side of courthouse, from northwest corner of courthouse square. At the left side of photo is the brick building where A.C. Lee, Harper Lee’s father and the model for Atticus Finch, had his law office. Moving to the right (which is north), the building with the slanted roof was the town jail at the time of the book’s setting. The building in center of photo with the two-story facade was the location of the town newspaper at that time. This seems likely to be the model for the scene in the book where Scout and Atticus break up the attempted lynching of Tom Robinson.

Jail from courthouse lawn looking west. The short building in the middle now is labeled as belonging to Monroe County Sheriff.

Jail from courthouse lawn looking west. The building labeled “RSVP” was once the jail. In an old picture of this building, it had a smaller door, three upstairs windows, and one downstairs window. The short building to the north is now labeled as belonging to Monroe County Sheriff.

View of the courtroom from between judge's bench on right and jury area on left.

View of the courtroom from between judge’s bench on right and jury area on left.

My attorney wife was thrilled to pretend to sit (signs said to not actually sit there) at the judge's bench.

My attorney wife was thrilled to pretend to sit (signs said to not actually sit there) at the judge’s bench. She said she first considered becoming a lawyer after reading Mockingbird, and that visiting this courtroom was as exciting as seeing an original copy of the Constitution would be.

Cowhide-seated jury chairs.

Cowhide-seated jury chairs.

The third-floor balcony from where, in the book, Scout, Jem, Dill, Rev. Sykes, and others watched the trial. While the courtroom seemed to be air-conditioned when we were there, the third-floor landing was not, and it was noticeably warmer than the second-floor courtroom was.

The third-floor balcony from where, in the book, Scout, Jem, Dill, Rev. Sykes, and others watched the trial. While the courtroom seemed to be air-conditioned when we were there, the third-floor landing was not, and it was noticeably warmer than the second-floor courtroom was.

View of the court from the balcony.

View of the court from the balcony.

A note in Nelle Harper Lee's handwriting.

A note in Nelle Harper Lee’s handwriting.

The second floor of museum has a room dedicated to Harper Lee and another to Truman Capote, who were neighbors and childhood friends in Monroeville.

The second floor of museum has a room dedicated to Harper Lee and another to Truman Capote, who were neighbors and childhood friends in Monroeville.

This is a closer-up section of the poster.

This is a closer-up section of the poster.

A piece of the oak tree that was the model for the oak tree near the Radley house in the book.

A piece of the oak tree that was the model for the oak tree near the Radley house in the book.

Soap carvings and pennies, presumably there as examples of those objects mentioned in the book.

Soap carvings and pennies, presumably there as examples of those objects mentioned in the book.

This courthouse room off the central lobby of the first floor is set up as a typical lawyer's office of the 1930s, the setting of To Kill a Mockingbird.

This courthouse room off the central lobby of the first floor is set up as a typical lawyer’s office of the 1930s, the setting of To Kill a Mockingbird.

The book mentions that lawyer Atticus had a set of the Code of Alabama in his office. This photo's a bit out of focus, but I loved that the volume titles included "Bastardy."

The book mentions that lawyer Atticus had a set of the Code of Alabama in his office. This photo’s a bit out of focus, but I loved that the volume titles included “Bastardy.”

In the Bird's Nest gift shop, among the postcards, books, and t-shirts, there's a metal tub of old photos. Museum staffer George Jones explained that these photos belonged to a town photographer and local people come in and dig through the photos and buy ones they like for a dollar a piece.

In the Bird’s Nest gift shop, among the postcards, books, and t-shirts, there’s a metal tub of old photos. Museum staffer George Thomas Jones explained that these photos belonged to a town photographer and local people come in and dig through the photos and buy ones they like for a dollar a piece.

"Tequila Mockingbird" is long what "To Kill a Mockingbird" has sounded like -- I'm glad I'm not the only one.

I’ve always thought “To Kill a Mockingbird” sounded like “Tequila Mockingbird” — and so I was glad to learn that someone had made such a cocktail.

See photos, Part 2.

‘Really interesting people look ugly at times’: An Exquisite Corpse hallway display

Here is my current display (in the hallway outside my classroom) of my students’ Exquisite Corpse poems from the last couple of semesters.

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Ideas aren’t real: A classroom discussion

 

The paint doesn't know why it's peeling, nor does it seem to care.

The paint doesn’t know why it’s peeling, nor does it seem to care.

My students are trying to figure out what’s real.

I challenged my class of high school writers, as part of our study of argument, to define the word “real.” After a couple days of discussion, we came up with a tentative definition: something is real if it can be seen or touched or proved to be present.

So, physical material is real. If it’s something I wouldn’t want to hit against my head, it’s real. But ideas, which can’t been seen, are not real.

Someone said that the desk she was sitting at seemed real. I said, the materials are real, but the idea of that object being a “desk” is just an idea. My dog, which can’t understand language as we do, still goes around objects rather than through them, but he doesn’t know what an object is named or how it can be used.

One student asked, if I have an idea to make a desk, and then I make a desk, how did that thought become real? Two things, I said: 1. How ideas in the mind cross over to the body, nobody can yet explain, but 2., what she built was still not a “desk” — it’s a new arrangement of physical things.

Another student asked whether atoms were real. We defined atoms as particles that make up all objects. They are composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons. We discussed the parts of this definition, including that the size of an atom is to an orange as an orange is to planet Earth. (An idea contained in this video. See also this post.) But such an explanation requires us to use our imaginations, which is a turn away from the physical world itself. We also discussed what a proton is, and how it’s got “positive charge,” and how this charge is a “fundamental property,” which is another way of saying, scientists can’t yet explain how or where this charge arises. 

And so, atoms are not real things that can be seen or touched. Atoms, rather, are explanatory ideas, and ideas are not real. Atoms are part of a scientific story, an interpretation, of how the world works. Physical matter itself doesn’t need to understand itself. Things don’t think. Only people think, and what we think are ideas, and ideas are not physical things.

Now, it can be useful to have science ideas about the world. If we want to alter the physical world — say, to build a house from wood or undergo surgery to fix a disease — it’d be nice to have the most useful ideas possible about how the house-building or body-repairing should go. Where early doctors would prescribe bloodletting to cure a variety of illnesses, modern doctors don’t. We like modern medicine because its ideas seem more successful at getting cures.

But, of course, modern medicine isn’t perfect. Much remains to be explained, to be mentally modeled. I suggested that there could be fictional ideas (which we don’t care if they are realistic), like how Greek mythology says Zeus turned into a bull, and nonfictional ideas (which we’d like to be as realistic as possible), like scientific interpretations, that atoms have parts called protons, electrons, and neutrons. And the nonfiction ideas are never perfect, are never worthy of being called “The Truth,” because they must remain open to revision, as new ideas are learned. The story of science remains imperfect.

 

So, why do we care about science? Our ancestors got by without it. The fact that we’re here means our ancestors knew enough to survive in the world (get food, form shelter, make babies, raise ‘em). However, science ideas are now taught in school because it’s important for citizens now to know these so as to be able to “join society,” as one student said. And we’d like the people we trust to do physical things — like engineers and doctors — to agree amongst themselves as to the best ideas for doing things. I don’t want the person designing the bridges I drive on to choose a different idea for gravity than what’s commonly accepted (unless his ideas are shows, through argument and evidence, to be better, the way science is supposed to proceed). 

So even though what schools teach are just imperfect stories, mere ideas, and not reality itself [ I wonder what a school that didn’t teach ideas would look like], these imperfect ideas are what we have to tie each other together into a society. If each individual had his/her own ideas about what’s real, that might be chaotic, a student said.

So we take part in civil, communal society by sharing some ideas about the best ways to think about physical reality.  And yet, of course, we shouldn’t take these ideas too seriously. I think it’s useful to form an idea about ideas. I told students that the reason we’re talking about ideas and reality is that it can be useful for them to have a theory of knowledge, and to question how it is that ideas are accepted or revised. When one student said he’d question his other teachers about how things are known in those classes, I said he could, but to remember that when Socrates asked too many questions, he got killed. Sometimes, people who like to believe that their ideas are real don’t like to have their ideas questioned.

Some students said it got them upset to think about these things, to ask these questions, to think of reality this way. I said I wasn’t trying to upset them, but that I like to think that ideas aren’t real because then it lets me think of new ideas. I also said, maybe it’s helpful to think that ideas aren’t real — real physical things themselves don’t give us ideas for how to change the things. Only ideas can direct us to change the physical things — change comes from the unreal.

A student asked if students’ grades merely tell how well they learn the unreal stories.  Yeah, I said. And I said that that’s why I like having discussions, so I can provoke students to ask these questions. Another student asked at the end of class yesterday: so schools brainwash us? And I said, well, kinda, but I’m having this discussion to help you unbrainwash yourself — unless that’s just a different kind of brainwash!

 

A sonnet of Eustace Tortoise

To have my high school creative writing students show they can write to the iambic pentameter rhythm, I assign them to finish the last 6 lines of a Shakespearean sonnet we start together in class. Rather than using our sonnet to present or evaluate a romantic claim, we told a narrative of one Eustace Tortoise, which narrative some students wanted me to post here:

So Eustace Tortoise went to chew some gum. 

He rode a unicycle to the club.

He wore a tunic but he looked a bum.

He hoped to meet a hamster with a nub. 

Then Eustace took the hamster by the leg

(which leg was made of dense and crispy lard);

they danced until the hamster lost its leg

that’s good. She hopped along the boulevard.

The students diverged in their conclusions of the narrative, but we all got some laughs out of our protagonist Eustace.

‘Everything’s true except for the monkey’: My week in review

Things I heard this week included this:

and all of this:

That’s rough, dude, [to have to] sit in silence all day,” said a young woman, perhaps a Jimmy John’s employee at another store, to a man working at a Jimmy John’s where there was no music being played due to lack of working speakers. [13 Sept.]

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I heard a weird crashy, screechy sound coming from a group of trees as my dog and I walked past. “According to my imagination, it was a cougar,” I told my wife later. [13 Sept.]

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My dog retrieves a stick as he swims in my family's farm pond this week. Once he returns to shore, he whines until I throw another stick.

My dog retrieves a stick as he swims in my family’s farm pond this week. Once he returns to shore, he whines until I throw another stick.

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Publishing, being An Author, as what James Carse described as a “finite game” — something where there are winners who play within the established rules, with their winning acknowledged by material gain, but not an “infinite game” of making up new rules. [14 Sept.]

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“It’s something that’s cooler than your life so you read it,” said my student of fiction. I answered that I like my life better than fiction because my life is already cool. [14 Sept.]

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“Holy nice outside,” said senior girl on leaving the high school building on 14 Sept.

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Light reflects from a stone wall onto the water.

Light reflects from a stone wall onto the water.

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After we watched the end of the 1992 movie “Of Mice and Men,” a student of mine said, of George shooting Lennie: “in the book, it was way slower.” [14 Sept.]

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My grandmother Phoebe told how she found out that she couldn’t keep the pet skunk she had rescued after its mother died, but she could pay 10 dollars and a petting zoo would take it. Phoebe said she was sad to lose the little fellow, who never even emitted any scent. My grandfather Lorin punned, “He made no scents but you had to pay 10 bucks.” [14 Sept.]

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I’ve got opinions on many things but nobody’s asking me to give my opinions, and that’s probably a good thing. [15 Sept.]

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Doing things (including writing these notes) for posterity versus writing them for now: posterity lasts longer but is never actually here the way now is. [15 Sept.]

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Meditation as merely an adult’s form of self-comfort (like maybe sucking their thumbs are for babies)? Maybe I’m just trying to feel better in the moment by letting go of my worries? [15 Sept.]

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“I really do have gorgeous children. They’re gorgeous,” said my wife’s friend on 16 Sept.

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“63’s not old,” said a 77-year-old. [16 Sept.]

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“I’ve got a lot of practice taking annoying sh!t away from kids,” said a friend after he took a song-playing birthday card away from a child who kept opening it. [16 Sept.]

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After I showed my students this blog, one seemed sincerely impressed. She said I could host ads here and make money and “you could leave this school — you could DO something with your life!” I shared this quote with a colleague who reacted with, “Shots fired!” [17 Sept.]

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Backlit weed seeds.

Backlit weed seeds.

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“Everything’s pretty much true in there, except for the monkey,” said a student to me about her fiction story that included a monkey passed out from drinking Jack in her grandma’s bedroom closet. [17 Sept.]

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