The fictional Maycomb, the setting for To Kill a Mockingbird, bears more than a passing resemblance to the landscape of Monroeville, the town where the novelist Harper Lee grew up during the Depression. “Monroevillians who read the book will see familiar names. Some events and situations are tinged with local color,” said an editorial in the Monroe Journal in June 1960.
Monroeville is set on a square with a courthouse in the middle. That is where Harper Lee has said that she, as Scout did in the novel, spent time in the balcony watching her own lawyer father, Amasa Coleman Lee (often called A.C.) at work. “Few people live to be 80 years old and then have their name changed,” the Journal reported. “That is what has happened to a prominent Monroeville attorney. A. C. Lee is now being called Atticus Finch.” Finch was the maiden name of A.C.’s wife and Harper Lee’s mother, Frances.
In 1961, when she was photographed in the balcony of the Monroe County Courthouse by Life, Lee told the magazine, “The trial was a composite of all the trials in the world—some in the South. But the courthouse was this one. My father was a lawyer, so I grew up in this room and mostly watched him from here. My father is one of the few men I’ve known with genuine humility, and it lends him a natural dignity. He has absolutely no ego drive, and so he was one of the most beloved men in this part of the state.”
While Nelle Harper Lee was growing up, her lawyer father also was a state legislator (1926–1938) and the editor of the Monroe Journal (1929–1947). This was the Deep South, where cotton was plentiful and sharecropping the norm. Monroeville was a farming community, hard-hit during the Depression. The Hoover carts of Maycomb—mules or oxen hitched to a car because gasoline was unaffordable—were on the real-life streets of Monroeville.
--adapted from Mary Murphy’s book Scout, Atticus, and Boo
HARPER LEE (WQXR radio interview): I think we are a region of natural story tellers naturally. Just from our tribal instincts. We um, did not have the pleasures of the theater, of the dance, of motion pictures when they came along. We simply entertained each other by talking. Its quite a thing if you’ve never gone or if you’ve never known a southern small town.
WALLY LAMB: (reading) "Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old 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; boney 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 tea cakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum."
REV. BUTTS: I didn’t meet Harper Lee until, oh, 25, 30 years ago, but I understood the context in which the book was written because that’s how I grew up.
REV. BUTTS: It was the farming aspect of it, people coming to town with their mules and wagons; the streets being muddy; Everybody suffered during the depression. It was just a matter of degree. It was hard scrabble for most people to make a living.
SOUND UP TKM: "There’s no hurry, for there’s nowhere to go and aint nothin’ to buy, no money to buy it with. Although Maycomb county had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself…"
NARRATOR: To Kill a Mockingbird takes place between 1932 and 1935 --the years Scout Finch grows from six to nine--living with her father and brother not far from the center of town.
During those years in Monroeville, Harper Lee was the same age and growing up on South Alabama Avenue – two blocks from the town square and the courthouse.
She was born Nelle Harper Lee --the youngest daughter of Francis Finch – the name she would later give her fictional family – and Amasa Coleman Lee, called AC.
Alice Finch Lee is the novelist’s older sister. She is 99 and still practices law at the firm her father helped to found.
ALICE LEE: we were a close family // there was a lot of love in the family. At home we were pretty much allowed to go in the direction that we wanted to go, unless we were headed the wrong way. 10:45 this was during the depression and children basically did not have many store bought toys.
SOUND UP TKM:Scout and Jem playing, “Me first, me first, me first, me first!
Harper Lee: WQXR (radio interview) We had to use our own devices for our entertainment. We didn’t have much money. Nobody had any money. we didn’t have many toys to play with, - nothing was done for us. So the result was that we lived our imagination most of the time.
REV. BUTTS: It was a time in which-- black people were treated terribly. And people took in racism with their mother's milk.
MARY TUCKER: You know, I grew up when the Klan was still active, and we would drive along 31 Highway, and you’d see all the signs, "White supremacy." You know, black people stayed in their neighborhoods.
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