“‘Go Set a Watchman’ means ‘somebody needs to be the moral compass of this town,’” says historian Wayne Flynt. Fictional lawyer Atticus Finch was just such a man, as was Harper Lee’s father in the real world of Monroeville.
S ometimes journalists’ best stories fall right into their laps. This spring I was sitting in my own backyard — literally — when my neighbor, Elizabeth Turner, casually mentioned that her husband, John, had been born and raised in the little town of Monroeville, Alabama.
If that name sounds familiar to you, that’s probably because Monroeville is better known as the hometown of Harper Lee, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the beloved classic, To Kill a Mockingbird , and the recently discovered, feverishly anticipated novel, Go Set a Watchman , to be published this month in the United States by HarperCollins. Better yet, it turns out that my neighbor John Turner’s family was intimately acquainted with Lee and her late, older sister, Alice, and he kindly agreed to share some colorful memories with me.
First, a bit on the hoopla surrounding this historic literary event about which surely by now everyone has read. As The New York Times has reported, Lee, now 89, “stunned the world” by agreeing to the release of this unpublished novel written before Mockingbird , which was published in 1960. Go Set a Watchman takes place in the 1950s, 20 years after the timeframe of Lee’s first book. Famed literary characters, lawyer Atticus Finch, his daughter Scout, and others are in both novels.
There has been some legal wrangling concerning whether Harper Lee, who is in an assisted-living facility in Monroeville, is totally on board with the new book’s issuance; so far, evidently it has been determined that indeed she is. I just read recently that actress Reese Witherspoon, a fellow Southerner, will narrate the audio edition.
To begin his recollections, John Turner explains that Harper Lee’s real name is Nelle, and that is what she is called by friends and relations. The Lee family first moved to Monroeville from a nearby town when Lee’s father, Amasa Coleman (A.C.) Lee, went to work for John Barnett’s law firm. Barnett was Turner’s grandfather and a leading citizen of the town, who went on to found, in 1904, the Monroe County Bank, located on the town square.
Nelle Harper Lee was born in 1926, the youngest of four children. Turner recalls that back then, Monroeville was idyllic. Tucked away in southwest Alabama, 90 miles northeast of Mobile, Monroeville is close enough to the Gulf that as kids, Turner says, “we’d go to church and then go to the beach and back in a day.” It was a bustling and special place, a center of the textile and lumber industries, where everyone knew and cared about each other. The glue that bound the citizenry together in this Bible belt town was the Methodist church.
Though Harper Lee moved in 1949 to New York City on the Upper East Side, she always came home to Monroeville at least once a year for an extended period around the Christmas holidays. Turner says she refused to fly, always arriving by train, which presented a bit of a problem when in later years the train only came to Birmingham, a far piece away. Lee was a private person according to Turner, but she had some very close, dear friends in her hometown. She was devoted to her sister, Alice, who was 15 years older, and as Turner says, “You never saw one without the other.” Alice practiced law in Monroeville for many years at the firm founded by Turner’s maternal grandfather, retiring at the age of 100.
Alice and John Turner’s mother, Frances, were lifelong best friends as well — like sisters, really. He has fond memories of them sitting around the kitchen table, chatting away. It was a tradition that the Lee sisters always stopped by on Christmas Eve to visit the Turners, and they routinely gave his family — you guessed it — books as presents. Alice died last November at the age of 103, and Turner told me that not long before she passed away, he and Elizabeth had visited her, and though weak, she recognized them with a smile that lit up her face.
Turner points out that famed writer Truman Capote (whose real name, by the way, was Truman Persons) spent a great deal of his childhood in Monroeville living with his three maiden aunts. Capote and Harper Lee were neighbors and, as is well known, they were dear friends, staying close all their lives. John Turner vividly recalls that when he was a junior in high school, Capote blew into town driving a gray Jaguar XKE, a fancy car the likes of which few people in town had ever seen. He was there to pick up Harper Lee to accompany him to the state penitentiary in Kansas to interview two death-row defendants, the subjects of his famous nonfiction, true crime book, In Cold Blood , published in 1966.
It’s worth noting that part of the reason that Harper Lee went with Capote was that, early on, before she moved to New York, she had attended two-and-a-half years of law school at the University of Alabama; this legal background proved a valuable asset in the interview process. Clearly, respect for the law was an important part of her upbringing, as Lee’s father, her sister, and of course To Kill a Mockingbird ’s beloved Atticus Finch were all lawyers.
One of John Turner’s best stories revolves around the time spent with Harper Lee in a motel room, though, believe me, it was not what it sounds like. Turns out she and her sister didn’t have a television set (just books!), and both loved to watch college football and professional golf. They often went to Turner’s family bank on Saturday afternoons to watch sporting events. However, on one occasion, they couldn’t get the required channel to watch a football game, so the desperately determined ladies corralled young Turner to accompany them to a motel in nearby Brewton, Alabama, where they could watch the game in peace and quiet!
I have read that Harper Lee’s title, Go Set a Watchman , is taken from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah in the King James Bible: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” In the Southern literary renaissance, according to historian Wayne Flynt, longtime friend of Lee’s and also a Baptist minister, biblical allusions were common. “‘Go set a watchman,’” he explains, “means ‘somebody needs to be the moral compass of this town.’” Fictional lawyer Atticus Finch was just such a man, as was Harper Lee’s father in the real world of Monroeville.
Over the years, visitors have long flocked to Monroeville to pay homage to Harper Lee; thanks to her new novel, many more will surely follow. John Turner gave me the tip that his two favorite restaurants are Radley’s Fountain Grille and the Sweet Tooth Bakery on the Square, adding that the two Lee sisters ate regularly at David’s Catfish House, which is still in business. There are the usual chain motels in town, as well as the Mockingbird Inn and Suites, which sounds like an appropriate place to stay. The big tourist draw is in April and May, when for nine weekends a year a stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird is performed by the Mockingbird Players at the old Monroe County Courthouse, which is now a museum. These mostly local amateur actors have been quoted as saying that “the book is part of our heritage and its universal messages about justice, compassion, and human dignity touch us and our audiences.”
Amen to that. And thank you, John, for giving us this personal window onto Harper Lee’s world.
John Turner graduated from the University of Alabama in 1969 and soon thereafter came to Memphis to work for First National Bank (now First Tennessee). In the 1990s he returned to Monroeville for four years to work in the family bank. Once back in Memphis, he worked for AG Edwards and is now retired. He and his wife, Elizabeth, have two grown children, and Elizabeth is currently a manager in the women’s department of Oak Hall.