Good Reading : June 2009
writer’s city Lee’s Inspirations H arper Lee, known locally as Nelle, based her only published novel on the people and places with which she was familiar. Many of her childhood experiences in a sweltering small town in Alabama in the Depression era were incorporated into To Kill a Mockingbird, written some 30 years later. The setting for To Kill a Mockingbird, Maycomb, was based on the author’s hometown of Monroeville, a sleepy Bible-Belt community surrounded by red dirt and cotton fields. Lee’s father, like Atticus, was a lawyer, and in his only criminal case he defended two AfricanAmerican men accused of robbery and manslaughter. Both were hanged. Lee never took another criminal case and remained a realestate lawyer for the rest of his life. The story of Tom Robinson and Mayella Ewell was undoubtedly inspired by a case tried in the Monroeville court when Harper Lee was about Scout’s age. An African-American man was found guilty of raping a white woman and sentenced to death. Leading citizens of the town, presumably including Lee’s father, came to have doubts about the facts of the case, but the prisoner suffered a breakdown while awaiting execution and later died in custody. The author has confirmed that she based the character of Dill on a young boy who came to live with his cousins in the house next door to hers. His name was Truman Streckfus Persons, later known as Truman Capote, author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood. He was a great friend and playmate of Lee’s. 20 goodreading ı JUNE 2009 The Old Courthouse T he lines between fact and fiction blur when you visit Monroeville, because you can’t help seeing it through the eyes of both a young Harper Lee and the fictional Scout Finch. The Old Monroe The Old Courthouse Boo Radley’s character was undoubtedly inspired by a local boy who had broken the law and was kept virtually isolated in the family home out of shame for a quarter of a century. Rumours and superstition grew up around the elusive figure and children crossed the road to avoid imagined evil vapours emanating from the house. Apparently, Lee did speak to the recluse on one occasion and found nothing too strange about him. Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop. Grass grew on the sidewalks. The courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow it was hotter then. County Courthouse, a red brick building with an octagonal clock tower, dominates the Town Square. The unusual ovalshaped courtroom has been restored to look exactly as it did in the 1930s. Timber staircases lead to the curved ‘coloured’ galleries, from where Jem, Scout, Dill and Reverend Sykes watched Atticus defend Tom Robinson. It is a special experience to sit quietly on the benches there and reflect on this pivotal scene in the novel. Everything is exactly as Lee describes it, including the witness chair, attorney’s table and the judge’s bench, complete with gavel. The courtroom was faithfully recreated for the Academy Award-winning film adaptation of the novel. The Courthouse building is now a museum, with permanent exhibits devoted to Harper Lee, Truman Capote and the Courthouse itself, with a substantial gift shop for visitors. Throughout the year, the museum hosts a number of events based on the JUDY BROAD and JILL DIEDRICH explore the places that inspired Harper Lee.