Monday, June 21, 2010

To overkill a mockingbird: fiction creates a new geography

This year is the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, which is getting a lot of press. Invariably, in the articles I've read so far, the authors lament the commercial enterprises in Monroeville, Ala., (Harper Lee's hometown) that have sprung up as a result of the book. These include: the Mockingbird Grill, Radley's Fountain Grille, the Mockingbird Museum, and all the Mockingbird trickets, t-shirts, hats and tote bags that are sold there at local gift shops.

I was going to join the tsk-tsking of this exploitation and then it struck me—it's actually kind of cool that what began as two-dimensional type (and fiction at that!) has now reshaped a physical environment. Admittedly, it's not what Lee might have wanted, but one still has to give a shout-out to the power of the word on the page. How many authors' works are celebrated this vividly and on such a constant basis? Those businesses sprung up because fans of the book continue to make pilgrimages there and obviously they want to buy a memento of their time there and relive moments from the book.

But my elation with fiction creating a new geography was only momentary. Lee still lives in Monroeville. When she steps out, she is confronted with what really is a bastardization of her ideas, a tacky echo of the decades-ago outrage and intent that went into her book. She is stuck in Mockingbird-ville, physically and intellectually. The success of Mockingbird also probably stymied her future writing, according to Harper Lee's Novel Achievement, an article in the June 2010 Smithsonian magazine.

Compare Monroeville to Asheville, NC (at least the Asheville I knew 28 years ago...)—the setting for Thomas Wolfe's early novels. The boarding house that Wolfe had grown up in and which he had featured in Look Homeward, Angel was still there. You could pay to walk through and see place settings, linens and furniture from his era (perhaps some actually original); there was a Thomas Wolfe playhouse nearby. That was it, as far as I remember. No gift shop selling plastic angels, no t-shirts with Wolfe's visage or quotations from his books. I sometimes drove over to the boarding house after-hours and sat on the porch, undisturbed. [I think the boarding house burned down a few years ago—I'm not sure if it was rebuilt...]

What's the difference? Look Homeward, Angel has never been as perpetually popular as To Kill a Mockingbird—as far as I know, it's not on any high school required reading lists as Mockingbird still is (perhaps it's never been a high school English assignment because of its length, or its lack of message). But the bigger difference, I think, is that Asheville had more going for it; it already had the Blue Ridge Parkway nearby and the Biltmore Estate, and lots of rich people retiring there. It didn't need Wolfe nearly as much as Monroeville obviously needed Lee.

I'm glad to see physical spaces that celebrate writers and writing, but it's probably better for the writers if the celebrations begin after they've left the town or the living—otherwise the celebration can become a trap.

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I was going to make a list of other destinations for literary pilgrimages, but of course someone else has already done it. I found a nice list, with additional recommendations from readers, on the Mental Floss blog: Book Your Trip Now: 12 Literary Pilgrimages.

1 comment:

Dr. Mohamed said...

Thoughtful post, Beth! One of the neatest "literary" pilgrimages I made was to Jerusalem and other parts of Palestine. You can almost see the pages of scripture come alive in those settings.