It seems you can’t go anywhere online or check out the magazine rack at your favourite retailer without finding something about To Kill a Mockingbird, Nelle Harper Lee, or Monroeville, Alabama (Maycomb in Mockingbird). I’m sure it’s great for circulation and I’m equally sure that a lot of it is either repetitive or speculative.
The Smithsonian’s offering by Paul Theroux is a little different. He’s not talking about the book or the author per se, but he is taking a look at Monroeville today and looking at ways it has changed, for better or worse, since the time when it was immortalized by Harper Lee.
Isolated the way Monroeville is (Theroux quotes Southerners as saying “You had to be going there to get there”), compared to the “decay” of Camden (where Martin Luther King Jr. preached in old Antioch Baptist Church) and Salem (where the historic march took place on its Edmund Pettis Bridge), Monroeville has perhaps not done too badly but it certainly still has its problems: economic and racial. As bad as things were in the depression of the setting of Mockingbird, times in the 50s saw black veterans returning from serving their country to find they couldn’t vote; in the 60s, a black principal was fired for refusing a demotion and spent the next 10 years fighting for reinstatement; in the 80s, Walter McMillan (like Tom Robinson in the book) was arrested and convicted of the murder of a white woman despite the fact that he could prove he was nowhere near the scene of the crime at any time during the day of the crime, the only difference being his conviction was overturned in 1993.
On the economic side, jobs lost through NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) to Mexico, the closing of the Vanity Fair Mills, the mechanization of field work, and the restaurants right off the highway, are the major causes of unemployment — unemployment that isn’t in the least offset by the tourism that ventures into Monroeville in search of the nostalgia generated by Mockingbird: a glimpse of the courthouse (copied in Hollywood for the set of the movie), the main square, the houses copied for the homes of Scout and Boo, and the sherif’s office.
Theroux talks about the book, the characters, the writing, the life of Lee, and the two-act play produced every year (apparently you’ll only see 4 or 5 black people in the audience: they’ve lived it, they don’t want to hear it again), and how the book has becoming endearing over the years, and the hospitality of the black folk he met during his visit and their reminiscences. It’s a folksy look at Monroeville, its past problems, and how the book really didn’t change that much for the town, particularly the blacks in the area, despite its impact on the literary world.
You can read the article in the August 2015 edition of Smithsonian and at Smithsonian.com/alabama and see some of Mark Peterson‘s pictures of his visit there with Theroux.