Some 200 miles to the west, signs around Jackson, Miss., proudly direct tourists to the home of Eudora Welty. The house, now a museum, is a national historic landmark, a fitting tribute to one of America's greatest writers.
Here in Monroeville, population 6,519, there's no such shrine to Harper Lee. For one thing, she is, unlike Welty, still "alive and kicking," as she put it in a recent statement, albeit in reportedly poor health at the age of 89 in an assisted living facility in town. For another (and also unlike the gregarious Welty), Lee has never been the most accessible of writers. Although hardly a recluse like J.D. Salinger or a phantom like Thomas Pynchon, the author of "To Kill a Mockingbird" has always kept her circle of friends small and her availability for interviews even smaller.
This, of course, has only increased the public's curiosity about her — a curiosity that will be freshly stoked by the July 14 publication of "Go Set a Watchman," a novel that follows Scout Finch, her father, Atticus, and other characters from "Mockingbird" 20 years later. When announced in February, the decision to publish the manuscript, written in the 1950s and long believed to have been lost, was that rare thing in the book world: a media sensation.
This was inevitable, given Lee's long-standing position that she would never publish another novel. "One, I wouldn't go through the pressure and publicity I went through with 'To Kill a Mockingbird' for any amount of money," she told an Australian newspaper in a rare interview in 2011. "Second, I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again." After the February announcement, naturally, commentators worried that someone — her agent? her lawyer? her publisher, Harper? — might be taking advantage of the aging author and publishing "Watchman" against her will. The state of Alabama even launched an investigation of possible coercion and "elder abuse," charges investigators later described as unfounded.
I wasn't surprised, because all the (admittedly few) known facts about her suggest that, whatever the state of her health, Harper Lee is not a woman to be trifled with. On the occasions when her thoughts have become public, they often have a jagged, biting edge. "Recently I have received echoes down this way of the Hanover County School Board's activities," Lee wrote in 1966 when a Virginia school system banned "Mockingbird" as "immoral," "and what I've heard makes me wonder if any of its members can read." Writing to Oprah Winfrey in 2006 about her childhood love of literature, Lee declared: "Now, 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods, and minds like empty rooms (my emphasis), I still plod along with books." As for her famous reluctance to engage directly with the public, she told an audience before being inducted into the Alabama Academy of Honor, "Well, it's better to be silent than to be a fool."
Even some of the locals in Monroeville have discovered that embracing the lady they persist in calling Miss Nelle — her first name, her grandmother's spelled backward — can be something like hugging a cactus. In 2013, Lee filed a lawsuit against the Monroe County Heritage Museum, claiming that the museum's gift shop was exploiting her name and the title of her novel for purposes of self-promotion and "palming off its goods," as the complaint tartly put it, including "Mockingbird"-themed T-shirts, coffee mugs and other souvenirs. The suit was settled in 2014 for an undisclosed figure, but the gift shop still sells plenty of Mockingbirdiana, including car decals and a book of recipes, by Tim Federle, entitled "Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary Twist."
Lee's ire at the Heritage Museum was no doubt complicated by the fact that the handsome 1904 structure on Alabama Avenue began its life as the Monroe County Courthouse, where her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, practiced law, and where he once defended two black men accused of murdering a white man. (Their fate was roughly the same as Atticus Finch's doomed client in "To Kill a Mockingbird.") Harper Lee grew up a few blocks from the old courthouse and watched her valiant dad in action on many occasions inside the courtroom, which was faithfully recreated for the film adaptation of "Mockingbird," right down to the wrap-around balconies and pot-bellied stoves. The movie's art director, Henry Bumstead, visited Monroeville — fictionalized in the book and movie as Maycomb — to ensure the authenticity of his designs, which paid off in the form of an Oscar in 1963.
As if the connection between life and art needed reinforcing, the courtroom — already Monroeville's chief tourist attraction — has served double duty as one of the sets for a stage version of "Mockingbird" each spring for the past quarter-century. The amateur theater troupe performing Christopher Sergel's script is called — what else? — the Mockingbird Players.
Indeed, the mockingbird is the unofficial mascot of Monroeville, perched everywhere on murals, storefronts and outsized birdhouses, the latter including one in a public park just down the street from the Heritage Museum that proclaims the town the "Literary Capital of Alabama," as the state legislature named it in 1997. There's a strong case to be made for this, in part since the local literati include Truman Capote, who spent his formative years here — a past immortalized in his beloved story "A Christmas Memory" — and became fast friends with young Nelle, who may have based the character of Dill on him. (She, in turn, was the model for Idabel in Capote's "Other Voices, Other Rooms.") Years later, the adult Lee helped her old friend research the infamous Kansas murders that became the subject of his "In Cold Blood."
That same city park, at the corner of Alabama Avenue and Claiborne Street, features a large mural, by Joe Wilson, illustrating a scene from "To Kill a Mockingbird." On the far right of the mural is the old courthouse; by turning your head slightly to the right, you can see the actual building two blocks away. Keep turning and you're treated to the sight of Lee Motor Company (no relation to the author), whose building sports a large medallion-shaped mockingbird mural alongside some of the finest pickup trucks GMC has to offer.
Perhaps the most striking use of the mockingbird and its symbolism is on display a few blocks away on a billboard featuring a Universal Human Rights Pledge. Adapted from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Birmingham Pledge and signed by the Monroeville Council and the Monroe County Commission, it reads in part: "I believe that every individual is entitled to dignity and respect, without prejudice toward race, color, gender, disability, language, religion, creed, national origin, property, age or other status. I believe that every thought and every act of such prejudice is harmful. If it is my thought or act, then it is harmful to me as well as others. Therefore, from this day forward, I will strive daily to eliminate such prejudice from my thoughts and actions. I will discourage such prejudice by others at every opportunity."
Just to the right of these words is an image of a mockingbird.
It's inarguable, I think, that any fair comparison of the achievements of Lee and Welty, her neighbor to the west, will be favorable to the latter, and not only because of her far larger body of work. Welty was a great artist, a social critic with a deep understanding of the culture of the South (including its complex racial history), an epic tragedian with rich veins of comedy and a prose stylist with an Olympian command of the English language. "To Kill a Mockingbird," notwithstanding its Pulitzer Prize and its fame — derived to a large degree from the film adaptation starring a magnificent Gregory Peck as the crusading Atticus — is a fine example of mainstream fiction that dovetailed an unconventional coming-of-age narrative with the important social issue of racial injustice. But unlike, say, Welty's "The Optimist's Daughter," which also won a Pulitzer, "Mockingbird" is not a great novel. Perhaps "Go Set a Watchman" will astonish us all. I hope so, but place no bets.
On the other hand, nothing in Welty's relatively vast output ever had anything like the cultural impact of "To Kill a Mockingbird." Scout Finch remains a heroine and model to readers of all ages throughout the world. Lawyers aspire to be as brave, as incorruptible, as persuasive as Atticus. Perhaps most telling, I can't name a single Welty character, major or minor, without consulting my bookshelf, but almost anyone on any street in America can tell you who Boo Radley is.
And what other city in America has had its racist history depicted so harshly in a best-selling novel by one of its own citizens and then responded, not only by cashing in on the author's notoriety but with an official declaration of dignity and respect for all human beings regardless of their race?
Now that's a legacy.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Poets & Writers Magazine and other publications.