The two leaders congratulated the newlyweds
“She always denied the book had any basis in reality,” says volunteer guide Rabun Williams of Harper Lee and her novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Standing in front of the witness’s chair in the Old Monroe County Courthouse — possibly the most recognisable courtroom in America — he projects his voice in a measured tone, reminiscent of an attorney at law addressing the members of the jury.
A dozen of us are visiting the elegant cupola-topped building that’s today a museum. It dominates the central square of Monroeville, a small Alabama town midway between Montgomery and Mobile. The acoustics within the historic courtroom are excellent. In part, that’s down to the oval-shaped room’s tin-plated ceiling. It’s stamped with a four-petalled pattern depicting the blossom of dogwood, a shrub commonly seen in and around the town which was the childhood home of both Truman Capote and Harper Lee.
Capote and Lee grew up as friends, two doors apart from each other, in houses located a couple of blocks from the courthouse. Monroeville’s association with two of the most influential American authors of the 20th century has resulted in the town of approximately 6,000 residents becoming known as the Literary Capital of Alabama.
In Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, the character Idabel Thompkins echoes several of Lee’s personality traits. “Harper Lee was a notorious tomboy in elementary school. I have the testimony of her fifth grade teacher, who was also my fifth grade teacher,” says Rabun before sharing details. Miss Ruth told her former pupil that Lee could beat up every boy in town, except the scrawniest member of her class — she left him alone because he had a tendency to bite.
Dill Harris, one of the child characters in To Kill a Mockingbird, was based on Capote. A mural depicting Dill, Jem and Scout playing together in dungarees outside of a picket-fenced house in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, adorns a wall by a fountain barely a minute’s walk from Monroeville’s courthouse.
The town’s residents knew the Pulitzer-winning author as Nelle Harper Lee. Her mother’s maiden name was Finch. Her father, Anamasa Coleman Lee, represented Monroeville in the Alabama Legislature and was a local lawyer. “She did admit that the character of Atticus Finch was based on the character and personality of her father… although he did not practise criminal law, so he would not have been involved in a trial,” reveals Rabun.
When the future bestselling authors were growing up, racial segregation was part of everyday life and enshrined in law. Interracial marriages were outlawed. African-American defendants were unlikely to receive fair hearings from all-white juries in a society that expected its members to conform to conservative values and maintain the status quo.
In 1934, Walter Lett, a local black man, was accused of assaulting a local white woman. The resulting trial was held in the Monroeville courtroom that was later faithfully recreated in Hollywood as a set for the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird. Gregory Peck was awarded the 1962 Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Atticus Finch.
“It came out at trial that there was no witness and no physical evidence. The defendant presented alibi witnesses to show that he was miles away at the time and he also had a very good reputation,” explains Rabun to his shocked listeners. Nonetheless, Lett was convicted and given a capital sentence. Concerned citizens appealed to the state governor on his behalf but Lett died of tuberculosis while incarcerated.
Another notable parallel between Lee’s childhood and her literary masterpiece is the recluse that lived near the local school. Like Boo Radley in the book, Alfred ‘Son’ Boulware was remanded at home as a punishment by his father. The mortal remains of both Boulware and Lee, who died aged 89 in 2016, are buried a 10-minute walk from Monroeville’s central square.
Each springtime locals perform an adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. The first act is outdoors, on a stage depicting wooden homes by the courthouse. The second act takes place within the courtroom.
Will Ruzic is one of the men playing Atticus Finch during the 19-show run that continues until Saturday 21 May. “To Kill a Mockingbird is a big part of American literature,” he acknowledges. “Everyone has a different experience with the book and takes a little bit of a different message. At the end of the day, it’s about seeing a person for the content of their character. This is a timeless story and it’s amazing to play this.”
Watching the play in the town where the story’s author grew up certainly adds to the experience.
The two leaders congratulated the newlyweds
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