Photograph by Michael Nichols, National Geographic
Read Caption

In 2005, when this photograph was made, Hanna Brown played Scout in Monroeville's annual staging of To Kill a Mockingbird. On April 10, 2015, the town presented its 26th season of the play adapted from the novel.

Photograph by Michael Nichols, National Geographic

Remembering Harper Lee's Hometown

Harper Lee has died at age 89. We remember her with a look back at the town that inspired her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, To Kill a Mockingbird.

It was confirmed today that Harper Lee has died at age 89. This story about her hometown was originally published in the January 2006 issue of National Geographic magazine.

"Top secret," Mr. X whispered to me toward the end of my stay in Monroeville, Alabama. "Nelle is in town."

By then, though, I was in on the secret. Three other people had also mentioned Nelle sightings that day. Besides, I'd spotted the secret myself—having driven by a bank building and seen a thick-bodied woman with short, white hair dressed in slacks and a short-sleeve shirt help an older, wren-like woman out of the car and on to a walker. It was Harper Lee (whose first name is Nelle), author of To Kill a Mockingbird, dropping off her older sister, Alice Finch Lee, at the office where she practices law.

Monroeville, where Harper Lee grew up and where Truman Capote, her childhood friend, spent summers, is the self-proclaimed literary capital of Alabama. The label is not met with approbation by everyone. "All anyone wants to talk about is Nelle and Truman," said Jennings Carter, a retired crop duster pilot and first cousin to Capote. "There's more here than that."

OK, Mr. Carter, shoot.

"I don't mean to sound like the Chamber of Commerce, but we have a good strip of farmland, cattle, and timber."

For sure, there's a lot of timber. To be on a thin, dusty road caught behind a log-laden truck is to resign yourself to flipping the dial to one of the ever present airwave evangelists, for you will be behind that truck till kingdom come. Monroeville, tucked away 30 miles off exit 93 of I-65 in southwest Alabama, is Bible Belt country through and through. There are 7,000 people and 28 churches; heads bow in grace before meals, and the defining question is, "What church do you belong to?"

View Images

Actors playing the Reverend Sykes and his congregation prepare to tell Atticus Finch about a member of their community who has been unjustly accused of rape. The cast is entirely homegrown.

But timber, cotton, and churches do not draw 30,000 visitors a year. Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird do. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, then became an Academy Award-winning movie with Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, the lawyer who defends a black man accused of raping a white woman in a town, not unlike, well, Monroeville.

High season for Monroeville is May, when the Monroe County Heritage Museums puts on a stage version of Mockingbird. The event is a morality play of sorts, a migration of pilgrims paying homage to the powerful sermon of the story. "People around here actually quote lines from the book like scripture," one man told me.

The homegrown cast stars, among others, a forester, the owner of an air-conditioning company, a firefighter, several teachers, and a few lawyers thrown in for good measure. "We always have a pastor play a role," said Carol Champion, who sells souvenirs between acts. "The one year we didn't was the year we got rained out." (See more black-and-white photos of the Monroe Country Heritage Museums' play version of To Kill a Mockingbird in Monroeville, Alabama.)

Carol's husband, police detective Robert Champion, plays Boo Radley, the neighbor whose reclusiveness captivates Scout and Jem, Atticus's children. "Boo only has one line, so it's all played in body language," he told me. Tall, rangy Dennis Owens, who sells insurance, plays Atticus. "There is no way you can live up to the character of Atticus," he said, "but I like to think you have a few moments in time when you do."

Charles McCorvey, a county commissioner, plays Tom Robinson, the falsely accused black man. "It's 1935 and survival means 'yassuh this and that,' and being mindful and second-class," says McCorvey. "I had a difficult time with the role until I could leave who I really am and realize I am not in the 21st century."

The cast volunteers their time. "We're not putting on a play," says director Kathy McCoy, "we're sending a message of racial tolerance." The show has traveled to Washington, D.C., Hull, England, and Jerusalem, where the jury, drawn from an Israeli audience, balked at finding Tom Robinson guilty. "We wondered what was taking them so long," said McCorvey. "It turned out they wanted to acquit. They were arguing with the actor who plays the sheriff, who explained that they had to convict."

Though the actor playing the prosecuting attorney once went blank, asked to approach the bench, and was fed his line by the judge, the cast performs like pros. You get the feeling if Broadway called, more than a few would be on their way in a New York minute. They step into character and, sometimes, linger. "I've signed checks 'Boo Radley' and had them clear," Champion said.

The actors appear before sold-out audiences, but the one person in town who has never seen the play is Harper Lee. She abhors anything that trades on the book's fame. As reported in the Chicago Tribune by Marja Mills, when the Monroe County Heritage Museums began selling Calpurnia's Cookbook, a compilation of recipes from the cast ("before killing a chicken, be sure to put in coop or small pen and feed well for at least one week," one entry instructs), Lee demanded it be yanked. (Calpurnia is the Finches' housekeeper.) The museum dutifully complied.

Gentle Reader, you will not be hearing from Harper Lee here. She no longer gives interviews. ("Hell no" was a response to one inquirer.) She lives most of the year in New York and travels by train to stay with her sister in Monroeville. Though Lee once told a journalist, "all I want to be is the Jane Austen of south Alabama," she never published another novel. After the flurry of publicity following Mockingbird, she retreated into silence.

"She just wants to be left alone. She is not reclusive—she goes out with friends," Ms. Y told me. I call her Ms. Y because, like Mr. X, she is fearful of being quoted talking about Harper Lee. Mention Lee, and the wagons circle. "Those who value her companionship walk on eggs," said George T. Jones, a columnist for the Monroe Journal. Perhaps the uneasiness was always there. When the novel first came out, there wasn't a long line of people waiting to buy it in pre-civil-rights Monroeville. "Folks didn't take much notice until the movie came out," he says.

"It seems there are a few rough edges between Harper Lee and the town," I said to the Reverend Thomas Lane Butts, a keen surveyor of souls and a friend of the writer. He considered the matter carefully. "We all have our dark side," he said finally. "In most of us it remains hidden."

We are all light and shadow, except, perhaps, the pitch-black soul of Bob Ewell, Mockingbird's villain. Cranky, mean Mrs. Dubose turns out to be brave. Gossipy Miss Stephanie has a good heart. Even Mayella Ewell, the white girl who falsely accuses a black man of rape, plants geraniums in chipped enamel chamber pots, trying to bring beauty to her bleak, shabby world.

We want to believe the dancer is the dance; we think we know the writer from the words, but it's never that simple. If Harper Lee wants a cordon sanitaire around her, let it be. Best to heed Atticus—Most people are nice when you finally see them—and read that beautiful book.

Follow Cathy Newman on Twitter.