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I just fulfilled a lifelong dream to travel to Monroeville, Alabama, the home of Harper Lee and the real setting for To Kill a Mockingbird [the 1961 Pulitzer Prize winner about the trial of a black man accused of raping a white woman. Gregory Peck immortalized the film by the same name with his role as Atticus Finch, the lawyer of the accused]. Like so many others I am sure, I was inspired by the book and wanted, from my first reading of it, to be Atticus Finch. While I have fallen woefully short of his decency and his kindness, I have succeeded in carving out a professional life as a criminal defense attorney.
Monroeville was in many ways exactly as I pictured it and in other ways dramatically different. The Monroe County Courthouse and its iconic courtroom, as seen in the movie, is still totally preserved. Just stepping into the courtroom, you can envision Harper Lee's father arguing cases before (all White) juries. The courthouse is beautiful and the square that surrounds it is still exactly as it was in the 1930s when Mockingbird was set. The only difference is that the storefronts on the square are all virtually empty. The town itself is completely isolated, being 100 miles from the nearest decent size city (Montgomery) and the drive to the town from Montgomery is entirely rural.
Harper Lee now resides in Monroeville in an assisted living facility and her two sisters both still live in town. One of her sisters, 90 years old, still practices law and maintains an office. But in other respects, the town is different than I envisioned. For one thing, owing to the Vanity Fair textile factory that opened in the town after WWII, there are many lovely, indeed stately, homes in the town. For another, Harper Lee's family home was torn down in the 1950s (before publication of her book, of course) to make way for an ice cream store. Truman Capote's home, that was directly next to the Lee household, is also gone and only the foundation of that home remains. The home of the real life mysterious neighbor (Boo Radley in the book) likewise is now gone.
It sounds lovely. I read that Monroeville, the "literary capital of Alabama" attracts 30,000 visitors each year, which is pretty impressive for a town with fewer than 7,000 residents. I also read that Harper Lee and Truman Capote were childhood friends, as well as next-door neighbors. You opened the conversation mentioning that this pilgrimage was your lifelong dream. You're middle-aged now. What happened now that gave you the impetus to finally realize this dream?
I wish I could say that my trip to Monroeville now was anything more than what it really is; now that I am an empty-nester I am able to make such a trip, guilt-free. I suppose that after spending the last 28 years practicing strictly criminal work always trying to be in the shadow of Atticus Finch made the trip necessary at this point in my life.
Okay, then. It must feel great to have finally fulfilled one of your lifelong ambitions. So Jonathan, what's next on your list?
There are no "pilgrimages" left for me to take but I will continue to live out for me what has been a daily dream-come-true of being a criminal defense attorney. There is literally not a day in my professional life when I do not remind myself how lucky I am to have been able to make a nice living doing exactly what I had always dreamed of doing.
You are really fortunate, Jonathan. How many people can say that? And to think all this came from reading a book in your childhood! Ah, the power of literature to inspire. Thanks for talking with me; it's been a pleasure. And who knows, Jonathan? As an empty-nester, with all that free time on your hands, you might uncover more dreams that need doing.