View of the historic Monroe County Courthouse, Monroeville, Alabama
Photo: Carol M. Highsmith [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Carol M. Highsmith [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

'Watchman' to bring more dollars to 'Mockingbird' town

All eyes are on Monroeville, Ala., in anticipation of the July 14 launch of Harper Lee's second book, "Go Set a Watchman." Monroeville, between Montgomery and Mobile, is believed to be the inspiration behind Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning first novel, “To Kill A Mockingbird.” 

The legions of fans expected to descend on the small town in celebration of the novel's debut will be treated to a very different Monroeville as it transforms into Maycomb circa 1955, the fictional town at the center of “Mockingbird," complete with vintage vehicles, an adult "Scout" and an aging "Atticus." 

But for now, Monroeville, with a waning population of 6,519, looks like the shrinking Southern town that it is.

The historic courthouse looms over shuttered shops and businesses on the town square. Vanity Fair Mills and Georgia Pacific's plywood plants, once the cornerstones of Monroeville's long industrial heritage, shut down years ago, taking with them hundreds of jobs. And with nearly a third of Monroeville’s population living in poverty, there doesn’t appear to be many economic bright spots for the town.

Despite these realities, tourism remains a pillar of Monroeville’s economy. Each year, about 30,000 people visit the self-proclaimed “Literary Capital of Alabama,” bringing with them about $8.4 million, and almost $114,000 through the Alabama state lodging tax, according to the Alabama Tourism Department.

This revenue is largely due to the town’s connection to Lee’s "Mockingbird," as Monroeville is a major stop on the Southern Literary Trail. Droves of fans come to enjoy Mockingbird-themed restaurants and lodging, statues recognizing characters, murals depicting scenes from the novel, and countless other sites of "Mockingbird" significance. The town’s annual dramatization of “Mockingbird” alone is estimated to have an economic impact of nearly $1 million. 

The Alabama Writers Symposium, now in its 18th year, is also an economic driver for Monroeville. The literary festival attracts many of the state’s most celebrated writers and scholars.

It’s also worth noting that Lee is not the town’s only literary legend. Truman Capote, next-door neighbor and childhood friend of Lee, is also highly celebrated in Monroeville. Foundation stones from the author’s childhood home have been preserved as a memorial and is a popular destination for visitors.

Author Mark Childress, best known for "Tender" and "Crazy in Alabama," and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Cynthia Tucker also have ties to Monroeville, further solidifying Monroeville's status as a literary destination.

The concept that literature can have an economic impact is at the core of the mission of the SouthEastern Literary Tourism Initiative. The organization encourages writers to publish place-based fiction so that readers can celebrate the literary heritage and history of fictional sites.

“Today’s modern e-readers allow readers to instantly browse tourism websites related to fiction through links embedded into the story, but many writers and publishers have not thought to include that yet,” SELTI founder Patrick Brian Miller told AL.com.

Stephanie Rogers, executive director of the Monroe County Museum, said literary tourism is the next big thing for Monroeville.

“I would be the one who would stand on the middle of the courthouse square and shout it from a pedestal: Tourism is our industry right now,” Rogers told the Alabama News Center.

If Rogers is correct, "Go Set a Watchman" could create a surge to Monroeville's already growing literary tourism industry.  

Click here for the AJC's review of 'Watchman.'

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