Is Maycomb Alabama real? Well, yes and no. Read on to learn all about the place where Mockingbird’s Harper Lee grew up. And if you haven’t yet read the book: spoilers ahead!
Disclosure: we visited Monroeville as part of an Alabama road trip in partnership with Sweet Home Alabama. As ever, as always, we kept the right to write what we like. Otherwise, there’s just no point.
Is Maycomb Alabama real?
You won’t find Maycomb, Alabama on any map. But you will find Monroeville and that’s much the same. Better, perhaps, because it shares its literary history and inspiration with not one but two world class authors.
Allow me to explain.
To Kill a Mockingbird and life in Alabama
For many schoolchildren around the world, our first introduction to life in Alabama was through the well-thumbed and library stamped pages of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
A classic on the curriculum, it shares the tale of events in Maycomb, Alabama that surround the trial of a Black man, Tom Robinson, during segregation in the South. And it’s narrated through the eyes of a white child, creating an easy way in to a difficult subject for white teens in the UK and beyond.
Published in 1960, it still sells around one million copies a year. It’s won a Pulitzer Prize, sparked an Academy Award-winning movie, has been translated into more than 40 languages and, perhaps most notably, brought the vision of a walking ham to the silver screen.
But for all these big figures and glittery accolades, the story begins on a much smaller scale. In a small place in Alabama called Monroeville.
Is Maycomb Alabama real? Answer at a glance
The novel takes place in the fictional Maycomb county in the small southern town of Maycomb itself. While Maycomb is fictional, it closely resembles Monroeville, the childhood home and birthplace of To Kill a Mockingbird’s author, Harper Lee.
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Visiting Maycomb – aka Monroeville
“We’re proud of that book,” explains Nathan Carter, the Director of Sites at the Monroe County Heritage Museum, whom we meet on a December evening in Monroeville, where crisp autumnal leaves chase the shadow of winter.
We’re in the thick of our eye-opening family road trip through Alabama, an adventure that has taken us through beaches and space rockets to unflinching encounters with America’s Civil Rights struggle.
Monroeville itself is just 104 miles from Montgomery, the city where Rosa Parks refused to stand and where Martin Luther King Junior took a stand.
And on this day, we’re fresh from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the 16th Street Baptist Church. Sculptures of raging wild dogs and water cannons stand outside; doves flutter above the three children murdered here by the KKK.
It’s a poignant, painful yet powerful part of history to revisit.
All of which is to say, we arrived in Monroeville with a lot more context than when I first turned the pages of Mockingbird all those years ago at school.
Monroe County Museum
The focal point for any literary lover’s trip to Monroeville is the Monroe County Museum and its courthouse.
The original building was the Old Courthouse and one where Harper Lee spent her childhood watching her father at work below. A.C Lee was an attorney during the Great Depression and was haunted by a case involving the wrongful conviction of two African American men for the murder of a white man.
To help visitors immerse themselves in that time, the museum houses an attorney’s office from that era complete with dusty shelves, a typewriter and a faded sign above the door.
Upstairs, we find exhibits on both the life and work of Monroeville’s two most famous literary children: Harper Lee and Truman Capote, who were also childhood friends. Dill, from Mockingbird, is based on Lee’s summers spent with Capote. In turn, Lee helped Capote research his famous work In Cold Blood.
Capote, author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Other Voices, Other Rooms, is featured more prominently than Harper Lee in the museum, which first comes as a surprise.
“His family contributed more,” came the reply. “Memorabilia, artefacts, other material. Plus, he was the more prolific author.”
As you probably know, Harper Lee famously only published one novel until the later years of her life.
In a wonderful twist of fate, one of Capote’s family members works at the Museum. Nathan Carter is a cousin of Capote and a proud defender of his work.
“Not to take anything away from the work of Harper Lee,” he said. “But the writing, the actual words of Truman Capote are exquisite. You really should make time to read some.”
And with that, a copy of A Christmas Memory was placed in my hands.
In the museum itself, we see blue ceramic artefacts and a colourful coat, quilted by Capote’s aunt. We see photographs and handwritten letters and the answers to another key Mockingbird question.
Not is Maycomb Alabama real? But did Harper Lee even write the book?
Did Harper Lee write Mockingbird?
Because Harper Lee only published one novel (until Go Set a Watchman in 2015) and because Truman Capote was so prolific and because they were such close friends… Well, people speculated that perhaps Capote was the true author of Mockingbird all along.
Such speculation ran for years until the discovery of a letter from Capote to his aunt, saying that Nelle had shown him her book and that he liked it.
Nelle, as residents of Maycomb, sorry Monroeville, know is how most people referred to Harper Lee if they knew her.
Sleeping in literature in Alabama
Just 90 minutes up the road in Montgomery, you can visit and even sleep in the former home of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Decked out with handwritten manuscripts and memorabilia, plus posters of The Great Gatsby, you will also find two suites upstairs that you can book overnight.
And it’s more than a little mind-bending to realise that Harper Lee, Rosa Parks and the Fitzgeralds all spent time on the streets of Montgomery at around the same period.
There’s no dispute, however, that the courtroom is the star turn in the Monroe County Museum. This is exactly how the Old Courtroom looked and functioned for years here in Monroeville.
When Gregory Peck and the rest of the Hollywood machine wanted to film here, they couldn’t, since it was still in use. So they rebuilt the courthouse on a sound stage in California, piece by piece, to resemble this one.
And it was here that Harper Lee and Truman Capote would while away their childhood days, watching the court machinery proceed instead of flicking through YouTube videos and TikTok.
And here, that the dream of Atticus Finch, the man who stood up for what was right even though it put his family’s life in danger, was born.
Monroeville beyond the courthouse
What’s fascinating about Monroeville and Mockingbird is just how closely the two intertwine. Not only was Harper Lee born in this village but she grew up just two blocks away from the courthouse.
A photograph in the museum details the layout of the place: the courtroom, the school, the house of Boo Radley.
The second surprise is that, were it not for the literary and movie history, people tell me that Monroeville is just like any other in Alabama’s cotton belt.
But to foreigners, it’s a whole other world. Road kill of armadillos, snakes and raccoons. Flat topped shops around a square and vehicles large and looming like panthers. It’s closer to Marty McFly and Back to the Future than Marks and Spencers on a busy Saturday afternoon.
A Tired Old Town Awakes
Scout may have described the 1930s Maycomb as a “tired old town” with “nothing to do and nowhere to go” but 2021’s Monroeville looks a far sprightlier affair. Christmas lights twinkle, literary festival dates gleam and tourist websites run self-guided walking tours.
Did this reinvention arise from the changing fortunes of America or did the Mockingbird tale itself usher in better times for Monroeville?
“There’s no doubt that Mockingbird put us on the map,” says a representative from the tourist board. “But we have much more to offer than that.”
“Sometimes,” Carter confesses,” you get the feeling that you’d like to move on from that one bird. Capote’s writing is so intense and we have many other authors from here who deserve to be heard.
“But the book is solid. It stands the test of time and reading and rereading. We’re glad to have it as part of our town.”
Even with the unflattering depictions of Monroeville residents?
“It was from a different time and things have definitely changed. We know we still have a way to go but the Maycomb of 1930s Alabama is not what you’ll find here today.”
And don’t we all wish that were true.
What about Harper Lee’s House?
In complete contrast to the Fitzgerald home, you cannot visit Harper Lee’s former stomping ground in Monroeville: it doesn’t exist.
It burned down in the 1940s and then a replacement was subsequently demolished. Today, Mel’s Dairy Dream occupies the spot, serving ice cream and an All American vibe.
And according to the people I met, that’s just how Harper Lee would have wanted. it.
“She wasn’t a recluse,” I heard time and again. “She just didn’t enjoy people prying into her life. She was sociable with people she knew.”
Revisiting Mockingbird as an adult
Revisiting Mockingbird as an adult is interesting. While thrilling again in the magnolia, the porches, the sibling banter and the Miss Maudieness of it all, some aspects of the work feel uncomfortable.
After all, for all the theme revolves around injustice against African Americans, most of the voices we hear are white. And for all the talk of mockingbirds, I still feel queasy at the quick cover up of a killing.
But the bigger reappraisal involves Atticus.
While the book charts Scout’s loss of innocence with regards to racism in the old South, she still has something to hold onto: Atticus.
Her father, her white father, tries to do the right thing. He is inspirational and heroic. Scout, and readers, are protected from facing that far more painful truth. That our ancestors, people we loved and who could show such kindness to their own families, could still support and sanction cruelty to others.
Go set a watchman
In 2015, Harper Lee released the second book of her career: Go Set a Watchman. Although published much later, Lee wrote this book before Mockingbird and some see it as the de facto first draft. Scout, our narrator, is an adult and, here’s the twist, Atticus is an unapologetic racist.
It’s a more painful blow for Scout – and for fans of Mockingbird.
Instead of a tale involving a heroic white man from the Depression-era south who stands up for what’s right, we find a disillusioned white woman from the south who cannot understand her own family.
Which reminds me of one of the book’s most famous quotes:
“You never really understand someone until you climb into their skin and walk around in it,” Atticus Finch.
Controversies about To Kill a Mockingbird
Do young children learn that poor white women lie about rape as their first impression of the crime? Do they see that Black men receive no justice and so it’s not even worth trying? This interesting article takes a look at the pitfalls of teaching To Kill a Mockingbird in schools.
Pins from visitors around the world who have visited the Monroe County Museum in Monroeville.
So, is Maycomb Alabama real?
Few books have received as much attention and dissection as To Kill a Mockingbird. Who was the real Atticus Finch? Why do so many people from all around the world love the book so much? Is Maycomb Alabama real?
Perhaps if we study anything too much, we realise that nothing can be perfect enough to weather the storm of fierce inspection. Followed by introspection.
What a visit to Monroeville offers is a chance to breathe in history, to walk among literary genius and to travel back in time to mythology you can touch.
But it also offers something even more powerful. The chance to reappraise what you thought you knew: about literature, childhoods, friendship, allyship and Alabama.
And to leave with a new resolution: you really should read more from Truman Capote.
MockingBird comes to London
10th March sees Aaron Sorkin’s interpretation of To Kill a Mockingbird come to the West End. Sorkin, from The West Wing and A Few Good Men, brings his touch to this 60 year old classic at the Gielgud Theatre and you can buy your tickets here.
Fun Facts about Monroeville, Maycomb and To kill a Mockingbird
- The courthouse scene in the Oscar winning Mockingbird movie starring Gregory Peck was based on the Monroeville courthouse.
- Scout Finch describes Maycomb as a “tired old town” at the start of the novel. To Kill a Mockingbird is set during the Great Depression, which perhaps describes her point of view: “There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County.” Today’s Monroeville is much more interesting!
- Dill in the novel is based on Harper Lee’s real childhood friend and later author, Truman Capote. Capote is widely considered to be the more talented author in literary circles and it was once speculated that he actually wrote Mockingbird rather than Lee. That rumour seems to have ended when a letter surfaced that showed Capote writing about Lee’s new novel.
- The book inspired the name of the English rock band The Boo Radleys and their song Wake Up Boo.
- Every year, the citizens of Monroeville stage an amateur theatre event of To Kill a Mockingbird in the Old Courthouse itself.
How to Visit Monroeville
Monroeville is around a 90 minutes drive from state capital Montgomery, although the worlds are very different. Be prepared to drive through forests of pine, abandoned trucks, white picket fences and empty land en route to the pretty and polished Monroeville. The drive will take you through the Black Belt, so named for the appearance of cotton along the roadside. It will also help put the fictional town of Maycomb into perspective.
You can also drive up from Mobile, the colourful carnival city of the south.
- See how a trip to Monroeville fits into an Alabama Road Trip here.
- Search for somewhere to stay in Monroeville on CozyCozy, an online search engine for accommodation. It rounds up all the main players, from AirBnB to Booking and Agoda. All in one place.
More About Travel in Alabama
- How to create your perfect Alabama road trip itinerary
- 101 Interesting and fun facts about Alabama
- The beach in Alabama that is changing the world. Seriously.