Maybe it wasn’t just Nelle’s insecurity that held her back from becoming “the Jane Austen of South Alabama,” but also the dismaying decline of the “small-town middle-class” idyll she’d staked her career on documenting. She had, after all, written a historical novel. To Kill a Mockingbird was filmed not in Monroeville but on an L.A. lot. There were — still are — remnants of Depression-era Monroeville, not least the old Federal-style courthouse. But even as the film came out, a drab new courthouse was being built next door. Downtown’s only movie theater burned down not long after Mockingbird had its first run, and was never rebuilt. In 1997, the city was dubbed “The Literary Capital of Alabama,” prompting Lee, who wasn’t consulted on the nickname, to remark, “The literary capital of Alabama doesn’t read.”
Harper Lee’s assisted-living apartment is on Highway Bypass 21, just a couple of blocks from the town’s real commercial center, a series of malls. There’s a place called Radley’s Fountain Grill down that way, and an old stone wall that once separated Lee’s childhood home from Capote’s — both long gone, replaced by a takeout shack called Mel’s Dairy Dream. Lee prefers the more generic places by the lingerie factory outlet (a remnant of the old Vanity Fair plant). Before her stroke, she could be found at Hardee’s, or better yet at McDonald’s, gulping down coffee during long chats with friends. (There were higher-end expeditions to the local golf club and to casinos on the Gulf coast.) When she watched an advance screening of the biopic Capote at a neighbor’s house — the Lees had no television — she opted for Burger King.
—Boris Kachka for Vulture, writing about Harper Lee and her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama.
Photo of the Monroe County Heritage Museum