Small Town, Big Story: Monroeville, Alabama

Courtesy Everett Collection

Harper Lee’s hometown, and setting for her To Kill a Mockingbird,
 finds the spotlight once again as a controversial new—or, rather, old—novel is published this summer.

“You’re in Monroeville,” Miss Pat is saying to me in her tangy drawl, as rich and viscid as butterscotch.

“You’ve got to have it.” 
A word about Miss Pat: She’s been the waitress at Radley’s Fountain Grill for as long as anyone can remember, and people here re­ member a good, long time. She sports hair the color of a scouring pad, done up in a perfectly symmetrical bouffant that conjures a grayer Marlo Thomas, the That Girl years. People come to Radley’s for convivial chat and thick food and also to gossip or flirt, and sometimes both, with Miss Pat. They also come for Rad­ley’s legendary BLT Supreme. It is this sandwich that Miss Pat is telling me to order. Like most people who come to Radley’s, I listen to her. It’s that kind of place.

Radley’s is named, of course, after Boo Rad­ley, the reclusive specter who haunts the pages of To Kill a Mockingbird, which is inarguably the greatest export to ever come out of Monroeville, Alabama, the lingerie from the old Vanity Fair textile mill notwithstanding. The restaurant itself, like every other restaurant here, is your basic diner, with green tablecloths and the type of chairs you find in meeting rooms at nicer Best Westerns. At the next table, three men slurp up their standing ­order breakfasts, chewing, then relaying some town news, then chewing some more. “Hello there, Fred,” Miss Pat says, circling the table with a fresh pot of coffee. “I saw your truck this mornin’...” The Miss Pats of Monroeville are always watching.

As I mull what could make any BLT supreme, Miss Pat says it’s the “secret special sauce.” The sandwich is comprised of lightly breaded fried green tomatoes, crispy bacon, and shredded lettuce. (Iceberg, naturally.) To me, the special sauce tastes not so much special but rather like...ranch dressing. No matter. Whatever’s in here, it’s delicious.

Miss Pat is at another table, her hip saucily thrust out. She’s trying to talk one of three burly young men into ordering the sandwich when I pass to leave the restaurant. She points at me. “Ask him,” she says. “Didn’t y’all love your BLT Supreme?” I admit I did. (Who would contradict Miss Pat?) As I push out the glass door, I can hear Burly no. 3 ordering. “I’ll have the Supreme,” he says.

Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.

—From To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)

It is one of the most quoted passages in modern literature and with reason. Its simple, elegiac language renders a languid portrait of the Depression ­era South that we still cling to today and helps make To Kill a Mockingbird one of the most beloved books of the 20th century. Which may explain why there has been such frenzy surrounding the July 14 release of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, described as either a prequel, a sequel, or a disgrace to To Kill a Mockingbird, depending on which hysterical observer you talk to. It is the story of Scout Finch as an adult in the 1950s and is being marketed with appropriate theatrical flourish as the “lost manuscript” that Lee first submitted, had rejected, and then later recast as To Kill a Mockingbird. Anticipation for the book—Spence Madrie’s Ol’ Curiosities and Book Shoppe, in Monroeville, has sold more than 5,000 preordered copies— and the polarizing reaction to it are testaments to the place in the literary pantheon that Lee’s original work still commands. Despite the protests of those who allege that Lee has been victimized by her Monroeville attorney, Tonja Carter, and would never have assented to the novel’s publication, there is nonetheless electric expectancy for it, even by the conflicted.

Much of this has to do with our collective yearning for the small­ town beauty that Harper Lee conjured in To Kill a Mockingbird. The images of the old tire swing by the swimming hole, the ladies on their wide white porches sipping lemonade on a hot summer’s day, the azaleas and the marigolds and all of that soft moonlight washing across the quiet streets—they enchant us, nourish us, sustain our most romantic notions of the Old South. Perhaps we grasp onto them because they re­mind us of what we have lost in the name of zippy modernity. Grace. Restraint. Courting. Manners. Even faith. “I believe there is some­ thing universal in this little world, something decent to be said for it,” Lee said in one of the last interviews she granted, in 1964, “and something to lament in its passing.”

A cadre of fine storytellers preserved this lost world for the masses, creating the mythology of the Southern Writer, capital W. But with To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee achieved something grander: She left the portrait of the colorful, genteel South of her childhood untainted, while still employing it as an axis to spin her tale of grave and shocking racial injustice. If not for Harper Lee, Monroeville would likely have come to the denouement of so many Southern burgs, defined by their soporific town squares and everybody ­works­ there plants euthanized during the sunset of American manufacturing. The fierce, enduring power of Lee’s seminal novel has mitigated the shadows that have fallen over Monroeville. Though there is only so much one book can do for one town, no matter how exalted.

The first thing one notices about Monroeville today is its silence: jarring and eerie. The town is 
drenched in sunshine and appears pristine, orderly. But you can go hours without seeing another person. It’s like being on The Walking Dead. Bumblebees the size of Ping ­Pong balls levitate in midair—the only sounds the cackling crows, the whoosh of the occasional passing sedan, the doleful bell of the clock tower. The main square feels exhausted, rows of empty buildings that were once the hive of daily life now merely slouching commercial phantoms.

If you look hard enough, 
you can still find some of the honeysuckle 
charm that Lee plucked from her dirt roads: the brick facade of the old Barnett & Jackson hardware store, its white letters faded by the sun; the old Monroe County Bank, where Harper Lee’s father (a lawyer and the inspiration for Atticus Finch) had an office; the curving balcony of the old courthouse, now a museum, that was replicated on a Hollywood stage set spindle for spindle for the 1962 film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, which won Gregory Peck an Oscar. Harper Lee’s house is long gone, now the site of the Dairy Dream snack bar. Next to it is a metal historic marker heralding the life of Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote, the inspiration for Scout and Jem’s puckish friend, Dill. The net effect of all of it is a sort of musty melancholy, like opening a cedar closet and finding an old jacket that no longer fits but that you can’t bring yourself to part with.

Monroeville (population, about 6,500) still receives 30,000 visitors a year, drawn by both the enduring and visceral puissance of To Kill a Mockingbird in the collective American psyche and Lee’s kooky notoriety as a literary recluse on par with J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon. For decades, people have poured into town hoping to spy its native daughter in her trademark Moe Howard silver hair and oversize glasses eating dinner at David’s Catfish House (the best coleslaw on the planet—trust me) or, in the words of Stephanie Rogers, who now runs the Old Courthouse Museum, “riding in her junky, old Buick, going out to feed the ducks at the pond.” Almost none have succeeded. Harper Lee is now 89, almost completely blind and deaf, and tucked away in a nursing home.

Mayella Ewell is on the witness stand. “I got something’ to say, then I ain’t gonna say no more!” she thunders. “That n—r yonder took advantage of me.” Even now, in the context of a play rehearsal, hearing such language spoken out loud feels like a slap across the face.

I am sitting in the rear of the courtroom of the old courthouse, which houses the museum dedicated to all things Mockingbird. Every year, for the past 26 years, Monroeville has mounted a play here based on the novel, its actors a slapdash collection of locals with no theatrical training at all. The 14­-day run is, by far, the town’s biggest tourist draw. There is some fretting among the Miss Pat crowd about this, because it has recently come to light that Tonja Carter (her again) has not yet granted rights for the play to be performed beyond this year. But for now, the show must go on.

Outside the rear of the courthouse is a permanent set of three housefronts: the Finch house, the Radley house, and Dill’s aunt’s house. The stage scenery comes off a bit amateurish, more Blanche Devereaux than Blanche DuBois, but no one minds. Act I is spent outdoors as Scout, Jem, and Dill search for Boo Radley, then moves inside the courtroom for Act II and the emotionally charged trial of Tom Robin­ son, unjustly accused of the rape of Mayella Ewell. The wood is painted in shades of glossy white and chocolate brown; the ceiling is high and arched and made of tin. Many people sit in this courtroom and cry. 
In this year’s rendition, Atticus Finch is played by 47­-year-­old Harvey Gaston, the CEO of a local community bank. He’s tall and broad and handsome, Monroeville’s version of a matinee idol. “Every performance, I kind of approach it differently than others,” he tells me after the rehearsal. “I will typically go off by myself, listen to some music, try to get myself into 1935. Because this is Atticus Finch.” Because this is Atticus Finch. For Monroeville, there will never be a more important hero, the man who stood for the best of what the South could be. And every year, for as long as God and Tonja Carter allow, it will continue to show its best to the world, by preserving the legacy that Harper Lee created at her typewriter more than half a century ago.


Luxury accommodations do not exist in Monroeville, but both 
the Best Western Monroeville (rooms from $86; 4419 S. Alabama Ave.; 251-575-9999; and the Mockingbird Inn and Suites (rooms from $73; 4389 S. Alabama Ave.; 251-743-3297;, located next to each other, provide acceptable rooms at extremely reasonable rates. The restaurants are similarly no-frills. But do have the BLT Supreme (and chat with Miss Pat) at Radley’s Fountain Grill (1559 S. Alabama Ave.; 251-743-2345;, and enjoy authentic BBQ with all the fixin’s at David’s Catfish House (145 Highway 84 East; 251-575-3460). The town centerpiece is, of course, the Old Courthouse Museum (31 N. Alabama Ave.;, which presents the annual To Kill a Mockingbird play each spring. Tickets go on sale the first business day in March every year and sell out quickly.

Image Credit: William Widmer/Redux