In the summer of 2004, I left my home in Monroe County and stopped for lunch in another Monroe County five hours down the road.
I was on my way to New Orleans to attend a conference. I pulled off the interstate in Evergreen, Alabama, and headed west through rural outposts with names like “Burnt Corn” and “Scratch Ankle.”
I arrived at the old courthouse in Monroeville. It had been built a century earlier by a prominent architect named Andrew Bryan, who designed courthouses in small towns across the Deep South.
None was more famous than this one, though. In the 1930s, an attorney named A.C. Lee practiced law in Monroeville. He once defended two black men -- a father and his son -- accused of murdering a white storekeeper.
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If he sounds a lot like Atticus Finch, well ....
Harper Lee was his youngest child. She grew up observing her father in that courtroom.
When A.C. Lee gave his daughter a 20-pound Underwood typewriter, it was more than just a gift to her. It was a gift to the world.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” was published in 1960, won the Pulitzer Prize for literature, sold 40 million copies and was translated into 30 languages.
It became part of my life a dozen years later. There is not another book, except the Bible, that has wielded such influence on the way I write and view the world.
So many of its passages are pressed between my pages.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
“I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”
“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin.”
Atticus Finch was the perfect father and the consummate Southern gentleman. Had I gotten my wish, Atticus would have been my youngest son’s middle name. (His mother wanted Madison. Our compromise was Jake Addison Grisamore.)
The character of “Dill” was modeled after Truman Capote, one of my favorite writers. He was Lee’s childhood friend in Monroeville. At our house, we have owned dogs named “Scout” and “Harper Lee,” and we sometimes refer to mysterious people as “Boo Radley” when we don’t know their names.
Monroeville, of course, was the inspiration for the fictional town of Maycomb. Lee drew from its well of rich characters and experiences. Finch was her mother’s maiden name.
In the movie, which earned Gregory Peck an Academy Award for best actor, the Hollywood courthouse was patterned after the one in Monroeville.
Two blocks from the courthouse toward Oak Street, there’s not another neighborhood in the universe that can match the literary legacy of South Alabama Avenue.
The houses where Lee and Capote lived, once separated by a stone wall, are no longer there. A cinder block restaurant known as Mel’s Dairy Dream now sits on the property where Lee’s house once stood.
In the parking lot, against a backdrop of burgers and milk shakes, I still felt as if I was standing on sacred ground. I’m sure it was the same feeling people have when they visit Ernest Hemingway’s stomping ground in Key West or Flannery O’Connor’s farm, Andalusia, in Milledgeville.
I did not see Harper Lee that day 10 years ago, although I was told she was occasionally spotted at the grocery store and post office when she was in town.
Some even considered her a recluse, not unlike her own Boo Radley. She lived in New York, returning to Monroeville to visit her sister, Alice Lee, a former attorney who died last November at the age of 103.
Lee claimed many times she would never publish another novel, although she could hardly be considered a one-hit wonder. If an artist had only one masterpiece to paint, “To Kill a Mockingbird” would be a monumental place to start and finish. It is much like “Gone With the Wind,” Margaret Mitchell’s sole contribution to literature.
Last week, I spoke at the Macon Writers Club, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. It was the same day the now-controversial news broke about Lee’s new 304-page novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” which will be published in July and was actually written several years before “Mockingbird.” The title is from a Bible verse, Isaiah 21:6: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.”
In the sequel, Scout returns to Maycomb to visit Atticus some 20 years later.
One day, I am going to go back to Monroeville.
I don’t want Scout to grow up.
Contact Gris at 744-4275.