Less than a year ago, Harper Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, was gearing up for the release of her controversial new book.
Now the famous author’s hometown is trying to deal with her death. Officials announced today, Feb. 19, that Lee has died at age 89. No cause of death or exact time has been given.
On my visit to Monroeville last June, Lee was living in an assisted living facility a few streets from where she grew up. Blind, deaf and in a wheelchair, the author had been a recluse for years. But her hometown revealed how proud they were of the prize-winning writer.
Sitting down on a park bench next to Scout, I peered at the book she was reading. Over her right shoulder was Dill. Over her left was Jem. All the sculptured figures seem engrossed in the pages of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Behind us was the stately 1903 courthouse, the model for movie scenes where Scout’s father, lawyer Atticus Finch, fought valiantly to save a black man accused of rape.
More than half a century after Harper’s only novel was released, her new book came out on July 14, 2015. The title – “Go Set a Watchman” appears to be taken from Isaiah 21:6: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.”
Pre-sales set a world record and Monroeville also was pre-selling the book with a special Monroeville imprint. Lee thinly disguised Monroeville in her book as Maycomb.
“People come here because they love ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and the sense of place they find in Monroeville,” said Stephanie Rogers, former director of the Monroe County Heritage Museum in the old courthouse. The upstairs courtroom is where Harper’s father, attorney Amasa Lee tried his cases and where a young Harper watched spellbound from the balcony.
Saved by concerned citizens, the courthouse has displays about Lee and her next-door neighbor Truman Capote. Born in New Orleans and shuttled among relatives, Capote lived with his aunts in Monroeville as a youngster.
“Truman Capote was a precocious young boy,” said George Jones, a childhood friend of Lee and Capote. “Even before he started school, Truman could read.”
CHILDHOOD FRIEND RECALLS REAL PEOPLE IN BOOK
Over lunch at Radley’s Fountain Grille, Jones shared stories about Lee and Capote and growing up in Monroeville. The diner is renowned for its potato soup, which Lee and her sister Alice loved and restaurant owner Sam Therrell delivered to them every Thursday until he received a court order a year or so ago from Lee’s new attorney telling him to no longer take the soup to her. Therrell said he knew the order was not Lee’s doing.
In Monroeville, Leer was known as Nelle. “That’s what people still call her here,” Jones said, adding that Lee dropped her first name as book author because she didn’t want people to mispronounce it and call her “Nellie.” Nelle is a reverse spelling of Lee’s grandmother’s name, Ellen.
Capote was the inspiration for the Mockingbird character of Dill with his snow-white hair “that stuck to his head like duck fluff.” Having watched the talented Capote self-destruct over the years into a drug-and-drink addled clown, I was surprised to hear Jones say that the young Truman was quite athletic.
Kids often picked on Truman because he was “a runt and a smart aleck,” Jones said. “He wouldn’t fight … He would jump up on the stone wall (still standing by Mel’s Dairy Dream where his aunts’ house once stood) and walk it on his hands.” Then he would challenge the bullying boys to see if they could do that. They couldn’t and the matter was usually dropped.
Lee, on the other hand, was a tomboy and not above punching boys or kicking their shins. “She put three fifth-grade boys on the ground,” Jones said, recalling a day when older boys were hassling the third-grade Harper while she was playing dodge ball.
As unbelievable as it sounds, Jones said the character of Mockingbird’s Boo Radley (played in his movie debut by Robert Duval) was based on a real Monroeville teen who spent his life locked up by his father. Seems the boy, Alfred “Son” Boulware and two others boys stole cigarettes from a local market. When Son was sentenced to a year in reform school, his father implored the judge to release the teen into his care, promising the boy would never get in trouble again.
To ensure that he didn’t, the father kept his son imprisoned at home where the boy grew old and became a legendary ghostly figure. If a ball went into the Boulware yard, Jones said, “we would draw straws for who had to go get it because there was a crazy man in there.”
Townspeople were surprised, Jones said, when Lee went off to New York and wrote her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The 1962 film adaption won three Academy Awards, including best actor for Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch.
CONTROVERSY SURROUNDS NEW BOOK
The new book was a sequel or prequel – depending on how you look at it – of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” “Go Set a Watchman” centered around Scout’s life 20 years after Mockingbird when she returned to Maycomb to visit her father.
The new book reportedly was written first but was “lost” after Lee’s editor said the real story was the one told by Atticus’ tomboy daughter Scout who narrates the tale as she ages from six to eight. The lost pages were said to be found by Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter, lumped together with Lee’s original manuscript.
After a stroke in 2007, Lee moved from New York City back to Monroeville to live with her sister. Before her death on Nov. 17, 2014, Lee’s older sister Alice Lee always protected her younger sibling and took care of Lee’s legal matters. Lee called her attorney sister “Atticus in a skirt.” After the success of Mockingbird and the public clamor for more, Lee famously answered that “I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.”
Although some questioned the timing and accuracy of the “find” as well as Lee’s agreement to publish it, Lee insisted in a news release at the time that she was “happy as hell” to release the new novel.
“Believe me, no one can manipulate Nelle,” close friend Wayne Flynt, professor emeritus of history at Auburn University, said last June. “No one can pressure her into doing anything.”
Despite fans saying that Lee was the basis for young Scout in the book, Flynt noted that she was more like Boo Radley. Notoriously private and detesting publicity, Lee gave her last interview in 1964. Since then interview requests were met with a blunt reply – “No. Hell no!”
With vigilant nursing home security, Harper was protected from the outside world. Or isolated. “You can’t see her anymore,” Monroeville resident Bobbie Grace said last June. Grace works at a flower shop that delivered flowers to Harper at her nursing home for years. “She gets flowers all the time from people all over the world.”
Before leaving town, I headed to the Ol’ Curiosities & Book Shoppe to place an order for the new book. Ringing up my purchase, Kristen Taylor said the shop had already received 6,000 pre orders and pre ordering had just begun.
“We only have about 6,000 people in this town,” Taylor said. “We’re getting orders from people everywhere who want their book with the special Monroeville certificate of authenticity. When the book arrives, I think I’ll be staying up all night to read it.”
I did, too. No matter the controversy surrounding the book, to me it was a gift to have 300 more pages from Harper Lee and to finally read what happened to the Mockingbird characters when they are no longer naïve children in a complicated world.
Despite my dislike for the new book and the shenanigans around its “discovery” and publishing, I have no qualms at all about saying that Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” is one of the finest books I have ever read. That is her true legacy.