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Lawyer Wants to Make Harper Lee’s Hometown a Haven for Tourists

Monroeville, Alabama, could change with a proposed Harper Lee Trail

The old county courthouse in Monroeville, Alabama will soon be just one of the town's many To Kill a Mockingbird-themed attractions. (JR P )
smithsonian.com

When Nelle Harper Lee died in February, loving readers paused to mourn the woman who gave the world To Kill a Mockingbird. Soon, they might get a chance to commemorate her in person in the place that inspired the novel’s small-town setting. The Associated Press reports that Lee’s attorney and other locals intend to turn Monroeville, Alabama, into a tourist destination with new, Mockingbird-related attractions.

Monroeville became Maycomb in Lee’s novels, which examined the fictional town’s racism and intolerance even as it celebrated the sleepy pace of small-town Southern life. Tonja Carter, Lee’s attorney and executor, has worked with a local businessman to buy a bank building in the town which contained the law office where the author’s father once worked. The building will be converted into a museum, the AP reports.

But that’s not all: As Connor Sheets reports for Al.com, the group also intends to create the Harper Lee Trail studded with replicas of buildings that inspired the book. Members of the coalition tell Sheets that in addition to turning the bank into a museum, they intend to refurbish the house where Lee and her sister lived until Lee’s death and replicate three homes that inspired the homes of Boo Radley, Scout and other characters from the book.

If the plan comes to fruition, it could bring unprecedented tourism to the quiet Alabama town. It’s already home to the Monroe County Museum, which features a restored courthouse that served as the model for the one that’s central to Mockingbird. But the museum often locked horns with Lee during her life. In 2013, Lee sued the museum for selling souvenirs related to her book. In addition, Sheets reports, a company formed by Lee, her attorney and a local accountant is embroiled in an ongoing conflict over a dramatic adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird traditionally performed inside the courthouse.

Carter burst onto the literary scene in 2015 when she announced that she had found a long-lost prequel to Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The book was published despite a 50-year silence from the author and claims that she never intended to publish a second book. At the time, Lee was reportedly nearly blind and deaf and had suffered at least one stroke, contributing to claims that Carter was exploiting her legacy or even engaging in elder abuse. Though the elder abuse investigation was closed and the allegations deemed unfounded, Lee’s fans and residents of Monroeville continued to question whether the author truly consented to the publication of Go Set a Watchman.

Is the proposed Harper Lee Trail an opportunity for locals and Lee fans, or a cynical bid to profit even more from a publicity-shy author’s legacy? Perhaps the better question is whether the trail will ever come to fruition. As Sheets notes, the coalition is planning to create a foundation to fund the trail, which will rely on public donations, meaning ultimately, it’s up to readers to decide whether to finance the trail through the quiet town Lee so loved.

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