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Dear Family and Friends,
Here is a travel note. We made it up to send around to our students, but thought you might enjoy it.
~Jonathan and Anne
To Kill a Mockingbird is set in a small town in Southern Alabama. For some while, we have been wanting to visit the place where the great tale unfolds. It is a special thrill, if you love a story, to enter the landscape of the author's imagination and walk around in the spaces that inspired the adventure.
The author called it Maycomb, but the real name is Monroeville. It's a pretty day when we arrive. There are still hints of the tired, old town described in the novel. Local efforts have restored the 1903 county courthouse where Atticus Finch argued cases. Entering the most famous courtroom in America was stepping into the movie. Gregory Peck just left the room, leaving his briefcase on the table. Anne peruses a law book. The high pressed metal ceiling hovers above. Near the jury box, we notice several brass spittoons. We are the only visitors in the building, so we take turns sitting in the original witness chair from the 1930s and the table where the idealistic lawyer sat with the wrongly accused man. It's as if we can hear echos of the couragous early civil rights pioneers.
We climb the stairs to appreciate the view from the curved balcony that once served as the "colored" section. Harper Lee, who went by her first name, Nelle, visited this courtroom often as a child. She was very much the feisty Scout of the novel. One of the great characters in American literature, Scout is the intrepid kid we all might have liked to be. Surely, every reader would want to have been as independent and idealistic as this energetic tomboy. We are in good hands with Scout. She is an honest and caring narrator.
A major reward of entering the story is to be Scout for awhile. She has the run of the town, learning quickly as she encounters the complexities of the adult world. She is newness itself. She may be surrounded with poverty, but to Scout this is a land of lavish possibilities. She draws us back to our original purity.
Identifying with a dauntless protagonist can bring forward some valuable qualities. Don't we all wish we had been so virtuous and courageous at that age? Even wanting such traits can strengthen access to those parts of ourselves. Scout represents our curious adventurous side as she makes important discoveries. She is the embodiment of the earnest student as she makes her way through transformative experiences.
Nelle Harper Lee's father, A.C. Lee, was the model for the noble defense attorney, Atticus Finch -- the kindly father figure of everyone's dreams. Mr. Lee had a law office across the street, near the old sheriff's jail where Atticus stared down a lynch mob. For me, just being around his haunts helps evoke the inner Atticus. He is an upright person who can serve as an example of our best possible selves. When faced with difficult choices, we might do well to ask ourselves, "What would Atticus Finch do?" Psychologically, he whole account could be viewed as the inner journey from the earnestness represented by Scout to the dignity of Atticus -- an elegance of purpose we might begin to claim in our mature years.
Scout's close bond with her father and brother is memorable. One recent client of mine with a troubled background loved the book, but envied Scout's family life so much I had to remind her an author's imagination can idealize memories. Still, the discussion was useful to the client in revealing how much she wished for the sense of belonging Scout had in her family and community. It is important not to measure our lives against the richer landscape of literature. We will be found wanting. Stories compress events. Everyday experience is seldom as intense.
I've never met a person who had a father as soulful as Atticus Finch, or who was themselves such an ideal parent. Still, we must aspire. I've certainly worked with people who lost their mothers at early ages or had great financial challenges in childhood.
Scout's journey has many applications to emotional issues. For example, reflecting on the tale can provide clues to how we might face our fears. Boo Radley, the much feared reclusive neighbor, might be seen as a shadow character. As we discover Boo is not a danger, but an ally, we might also see potential value in the rejected parts of ourselves.
As we explore the area, several kindly locals are generous enough to tell us about the impact of the book on the town. Some of the best insights come from Nelle's childhood friend George Thomas Jones.
In real life, Nelle and her close friend Truman Capote had a old typewriter and would spend hours every day being writers. They lived near the house where a boy was hidden away for many years. The boy became Boo Radley in the story. We get to see the tree where Boo would hide little treasures for the kids to find.
Mr. Jones tells us the spooky house was next to the school. Rumor had it a crazy person lived there. If someone hit a ball over the fence, the boys drew matches to see who would go after it. Once, it fell to George to dash for the ball. He said an olympic runner couldn't have caught him that day.
As a boy, our host caddied for Mr. A.C. Lee frequently. George is a lanky man nearing 90 who looks like he might still have a good swing. He ambles through stories in a melodious drawl. He tells us Mr. Lee was also the editor of the town paper. This family connection to the written word was, no doubt, a big influence on young Nelle. I ask why Nelle's mother was absent from the book. George says she suffered post-partum dementia after giving birth to Nelle and tried to drown the future writer more than once.
From the town square, it is a short walk to where the Lee family lived. We climb on the stone wall that separates their yard from the Faulk house next door, where Truman Capote aka "Dill" lived. Both houses are gone now. Only the foundations of the Faulk house and the fence wall remain, ruins of another time. Truman was small, but athletic. When neighbor boys called him a sissy, he would hop up on the rough stone wall and do a hand stand, then walk the length of it on his hands. Jumping down, he'd say, "Can you do that?" Scout calls Dill a "pocket Merlin," because "his head teemed with eccentric plans, strange longings, and quaint fancies."
As I'm taking a picture of Anne by the wall, we meet longtime local reporter Steve Stewart, now a professor of journalism. Steve is a soft-spoken, thoughtful guy, whose father bought the local paper once owned by Mr. Lee. Steve says recent critics suggest Atticus Finch should have done more. In my humble opinion, that is imposing present-day options on a historical situation. It was amazing, in those days, that Atticus would even try to mount a serious defense for a colored man accused of a major crime. We also discuss some of the legal issues raised by the story. I have concerns about the sheriff reporting the death of the sinister Bob Ewell as caused by "him falling on his own knife." Sheriff Tate means well but is taking liberties with the law.
Steve mentions Nelle Harper Lee, now 86, lives nearby in a rambling house with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves -- with her older sister Alice, now 101 years old, who still works as a lawyer. The conversation with Steve echoes another world. He has a quiet manner and an engaging way, with the graciousness so characteristic of the deep South.
When Mockingbird came out, the town was not impressed. The local bookseller ordered 50 copies, the largest order she had ever made. Mr. Lee said, if they didn't sell, he would buy remaining copies. It seemed significant that even the author's father didn't think the book would succeed. As it turned out, the copies flew off the shelves. Steve said everybody wanted to see who they were in the book.
Being in Monroeville reminds us the tale is rewarding because the memorable characters live in a town with the tangible sense of time and place. Visiting such a close-knit village, for all its underlying tensions, is still an enriching experience. True to the best Southern custom, people take time to chat and make us feel like special guests. Anne gets in touch with her early years as a Southern belle, falling back into the courteous manners easily. She also takes notice of the local flora, especially the fragrance of the sweet olive trees. We leave the literary capital of Alabama full of good yarns.
It's actually an invitation to speak at LaGrange College in West Georgia that was the impetus for the trip. The morning of my talk, our host, Quincy Brown, takes us to the local breakfast place. Leading citizens do a lot of the town's business in this modest cafe, and everyone in the room knows Quincy. As chaplain and vice-president of the Methodist college, he's a prominent figure, so we get to meet local movers and shakers. He regales us with good stories and local lore. As we walk across the campus, Quincy greets dozens of students by name. There is community here, and he is clearly the soul of it. I find myself reflecting on how good it was for me to study liberal arts at a small church-related college.
My lecture is a psychological look at the Book of Jonah. We had a good discussion on learning to trust your calling, and surviving "belly of the beast" experiences. The crowd shows enthusiasm for exploring a bible story symbolically. The next day, counselors from the area gather for a seminar on finding meaning. I use the search for the holy grail as a teaching text and draw on my studies with Viktor Frankl years ago. Anne leads two writing activities, on hearing your calling, and on forming meaning from what we learn along the way. The day flows into a good exchange on gaining access to the inner life through stories. It has been rewarding in recent years to train and consult with therapists far and wide. The regions may differ in many ways, but the emotional issues clients face are remarkably similar.
Returning home, I ponder the personal significance of the adventures. For me, travel is always pilgrimage. The trick is to sleuth out the psychological projections. My fantasy about the rural South is right out of The Waltons. I know it is an illusion, but want to investigate the emotions. From my therapy clients, I've learned nostalgia is often about missing an affirming family that never was.
When visiting small towns, I don't just want to see shops and houses from another era, I actually want to travel back in time -- to enter a quality of life from a quieter age. It does occur to me that such a calm gentle way of being may never have existed. The treasure may be in the seeking. In the end, such searches may be for a better version of ourselves, and for a kindly inner life. The task is to find what we desire within. In the poetic words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, "There lives the dearest freshness deep down things."