Atticus, Jem and Scout Finch endeared themselves to readers worldwide while wandering the streets of Maycomb, Ala.
Maycomb might exist only in fiction, but it was closely based on Monroeville, Ala. The town, with about 6,500 residents, gave birth to two of America’s most important writers – Harper Lee and Truman Capote. The former returned in 2007 and remained until her death in February, and its streets, courthouses and banks appeared, albeit in a slightly fictionalized manner, in her 1960 novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Maycomb is tucked unassumingly in Monroe County, about 100 miles southwest of Montgomery. From its old red brick, Federal-style courthouse to its unassuming streets, Monroeville has retained the qualities of the sleepy, quaint, Southern town that inspired Lee’s timeless Pulitzer Prize-winning novel so long ago.
But, located well off the interstate, at the intersection of state highways 21 and 41, it isn’t a popular destination for travelers.
Soon, though, that may change.
The late Lee’s lawyer Tonja Carter, along with a “tightknit coalition,” plan to tempt book fans into the visiting the town with the “Harper Lee Trail,” which Al.com reported will be “a multifaceted collection of new Lee-related attractions aimed at drawing hundreds of thousands of additional tourists to the small Monroe County town each year.”
Included in the plans is a museum dedicated to Lee in the Old Monroe County Bank Building. Built in 1909, it was once home to the law office of Lee’s father, who partially inspired her novel and its main character, lawyer Atticus Finch. Atticus was based on her father.
In addition, the coalition plans to build replicas of three homes from her novel.
The newspaper reported that currently about 30,000 people visit the town each year, but it hopes to drastically increase that number to 250,000.
“In its purest form, it will be tourism for our county, and that’s a green industry,” Monroe County Probate Judge Greg Norris told the New York Times.
Pete Black, a member of the board of the nonprofit Mockingbird Company, told AL.com that the coalition plans to register a foundation this month to raise money to create the trail, particularly for what he called the “first step” – creating the Lee museum.
The museum is set to open in March 2017, according to Vulture.
“There’s a bigger vision that we’re working on in Monroeville,” Black told the paper. “With Ms Lee’s passing in February we’ve been working with leaders in Monroeville on how do we honor Ms Lee, and our vision is, with some time, how do we create a Harper Lee Trail?”
But not many other details surfaced. Black told the Guardian, “The project is in the early conceptual stage. No details right now.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the decision has attracted criticism.
Sarah Churchwell, a literary critic and professorial fellow in American literature at the University of London, referred to the idea as the “commercialization of Lee’s legacy.”
Even worse, though, Churchwell said the trail has the potential to be misused. Lee’s novel deals directly with racism in the American South, and Chuchwell feared that racists could use such a tourist destination as a kind of ground zero.
“The so-called ‘alt-right’ is white nationalism repackaged as retro-chic, and its discourse constantly invokes nostalgia for a golden age in the Confederate South when racism when reigned supreme. The leaders of this project will need to be very careful that they don’t end up just creating a Disneyland for racists,” Churchwell told the Guardian.
It’s all the more fraught when one recalls the final years of Lee’s life.
When the famed author died in February, she should have left behind an unblemished literary legacy.
But the end of her life was beset by controversy – little to none of it of her own doing – surrounding the release of her swan song. The circumstances behind the release of “Go Set a Watchman,” her second novel and a sequel to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” struck many as unusual.
As The Atlantic reported, “Harper Lee eventually published a second novel, but not until she was at the eve of her death and beset with a dementia that some say enabled her attorney to take advantage of her and publish ‘Go Set a Watchman’ against her wishes.”
The book proved to be an instant financial success, as the Wall Street Journal noted – selling more than 1 million copies in less than a week.
While it’s impossible to guess how Lee would have felt about the trail, it’s not a stretch to claim she likely wouldn’t have been pleased.
She was a reluctant celebrity who offered only one recorded interview about her seminal novel – allowing the book speak for itself. For Lee, privacy was clearly paramount.
In 1993, she wrote a letter to a friend decrying the idea of a Monroeville as a tourist destination, mainly because she so valued her privacy.
The letter, obtained by the Guardian, stated that she didn’t like the “new holiday sport in Monroeville . . . That of people bringing their visiting relatives to look at me.”
It continued, “There is so little in the way of entertainment, looking at Harper Lee is something to do. Thanksgiving weekend was such hell that it got on [her sister] Alice’s nerves as well – they came in VANS.”
And when the town held a large festival for the 50th anniversary of the book, Lee was nowhere to be found, Vulture reported.
That said, she also seemed to enjoy the story of the Finches reaching as many people as possible. After all, she granted the rights to for the classic film starring Gregory Peck and Robert Duvall, and she publicly claimed to be pleased with the results.
“I think it is one of the best translations of a book to film ever made,” she said, according to Variety. “In that film the man and the part met . . . I’ve had many, many offers to turn it into musicals, into TV or stage plays, but I’ve always refused. That film was a work of art.”
What we do know for sure is that fans of Maycomb might soon be able to trace some of their favorite character’s steps. Perhaps they’ll even find some mint-flavored chewing gum buried in a knothole of an old oak tree.