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To Milk a Mockingbird

Nov 18, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 10 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Flannery O’Connor once famously said of To Kill a Mockingbird that “it’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they are reading a child’s book.” Which is true enough. But it seems that its 87-year-old author, Harper Lee—recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, civic awards and citations and honorary degrees too numerous to mention—has an adult-sized appetite for revenue as well as honors.

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Miss Lee, who is in the midst of a protracted legal struggle with relatives of her onetime agent, is struggling to regain the copyright of her one and only novel, which was published a half-century ago. Presumably, she is not without resources for the battle: To Kill a Mockingbird has sold more than 30 million copies since 1960, was made into a much-loved Hollywood movie, and is required reading for virtually every middle-school student in the United States.

The Scrapbook takes no side in this particular dispute. But as sometimes happens when litterateurs join hands with litigators, the story has produced some ugly scenes. A case in point is the news that Harper Lee has filed suit in federal court to force the Old Courthouse Museum in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, to stop selling unlicensed souvenirs based on her novel—T-shirts, tote bags, “Mockingbird Lemonade Mix”—in its gift shop. Lee’s lawyers, in Alabama and Manhattan, contend that the museum and its gift shop are getting rich at the expense of their client and her trademark, and demand damages as well as destruction of the offending tote bags.

Monroeville is a rural county seat of 6,500 inhabitants, about halfway between Mobile and Montgomery—and pretty much in the middle of nowhere, even by Alabama standards. There is no question that its modest annual tourist traffic is largely inspired by the fact that To Kill a Mockingbird is set in its fictional equivalent—there is an annual theatrical production of the story—and that Monroeville also happens to be the hometown of another (and considerably more distinguished) writer, Truman Capote. 

The museum’s lawyer told the Wall Street Journal that the gift shop’s profits amounted last year to the princely sum of $28,000, “and that the museum put ‘every penny’ of the money back into the museum’s mission: education and historical preservation.” The Scrapbook cannot vouch for that figure but has no doubt that the proceeds from the shop’s cash register aren’t making anyone rich. What is likely, however, is that if Harper Lee and her lawyers prevail in court, the Old Courthouse Museum might be forced to close its doors, leaving Monroeville with one less venue to honor its most famous resident. 

In one of his incessant homilies throughout To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch tells his daughter that “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” Well, The Scrapbook has considered Harper Lee’s point of view in this instance, and concludes that we now understand her, and her legal team, all too well.

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