Charles J. Shields: Background
Charles J. Shields is a literary biographer and the author of the newly revised, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, from Scout to Go Set a Watchman (Holt 2016). The earlier version in 2006 became a New York Times bestseller. He and his wife reside in Charlottesville, Virginia. Upon request, Charles Shields gifted us with the following remembrance of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird:
Charles J. Shields: A Remembrance of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird
I grew up in what was called a planned community for ex-GIs and their families, south of Chicago, after World War II. As a child, I thought everyone’s father had been in the military and now worked in the city. All of my classmates were white. This wasn’t just happenstance: it was the result of the community developers, banks, and local realtors discouraging minority families from purchasing homes in that town. The first Black American to shake my hand was the father of a friend on the track team who was giving me a lift home, my junior year of high school. I feel ashamed remembering how strange that moment felt.
When I visit high schools today, I’m struck by a paradox. Racism is not the issue it once was because the students are so diverse; and yet, To Kill a Mockingbird is all the more teachable. Now, the novel inspires discussions in the classroom about differences of religion, politics, and lifestyle, and understanding “the other.” The book has become a springboard for confronting forms of discrimination and hatred most readers wouldn’t have considered fifty years ago.
To Kill a Mockingbird will continue to be read however because of a trait it has in common with all great works of literature. All enduring works of literature read you, the reader, as you read the book. What I mean is, important books and stories probe your convictions; silently, they ask what you stand for. You can leave a piece of escapism on an airplane seat and not think about it again because, well, you’ve never been a movie star; you don’t belong to a secret, criminal organization. But when you read To Kill a Mockingbird, you have to wonder, even if just subconsciously: Would I do what Atticus did? Would you risk being vilified for sticking to your principles? What if people said, as they hint to Atticus, that your children are suffering because of what you’re doing? What if a family member, such as Atticus’s brother Jack, argued it was wrong-headed and foolish of you to ruin your reputation over a forgettable incident with a predictable outcome?
That’s why it’s good to reread To Kill a Mockingbird now and again, because the story reminds you that it isn’t easy to be a better human being, but it’s important for all of us to try.