Guernica Magazine

An Infrastructure of Innocence

On a trip to Alabama, reckoning with monuments, myths, and To Kill a Mockingbird. The post An Infrastructure of Innocence appeared first on Guernica.
Illustration: Ansellia Kulikku.

Like To Kill a Mockingbird, Interstate 10 connects Alabama to Hollywood. It crosses through Harper Lee’s beloved state along the southern coast in Mobile. If you take the exit for I-165 and head northeast for about 90 miles, you’ll arrive in Lee’s hometown of Monroeville. Last year, I made the drive on a blazing hot Friday in early May. I checked into the Mockingbird Inn, a two-story motel whose only affiliation with its namesake was a gray bird on its blue sign. Then I drove into town.

I parked my white rental sedan in Monroeville’s central square, four long rows of low-slung buildings set at perpendicular angles around a wide expanse of green. Rising out of the lawn was the Old Monroe County Courthouse, red-brick with a round facade and cupola-topped tower. I looked up in awe, aware that I was taking my place among a decades-long stream of literary pilgrims, here to see the place that inspired the book that inspired the movie that inspired the country.

Mockingbird, you may remember, follows young white Scout Finch as she grows up in a Depression-era town called Maycomb, a fictional stand-in for Monroeville. Scout’s lawyer father, Atticus, is assigned to defend Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of rape. He loses the case, and Tom is ultimately killed. But the book isn’t about Tom. It’s about Scout, who sees in her father the same thing I once saw: somebody to look up to.

I first read the book in middle school, then again in college, and several more times in my twenties. Twice, I taught it to high school students in Chicago. I often wore a sky-blue “Atticus Finch is my co-pilot” t-shirt. One day, I knew, I wanted to have a puppy named Atticus. And a child named Harper.

It wasn’t just me. Both “Harper” and “Atticus” crossed into the top one thousand most popular US baby names back in 2004 and have remained there ever since. Atticus, for a boy, has spent the last seven years in the top 500. Harper, for a girl, has spent two of the last four years in the top 10.

And it wasn’t just millennials who loved the book. won the Pulitzer Prize and has sold tens of millions of copies. In 2003, the American Film Institute named Atticus the #1 movie hero of all time,

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