Book Review: A Good American Family by David Maraniss

May 2, 2020

A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Father, by David Maraniss. New York, Simon and Schuster, 2019, 416 pages.

When I was in fifth grade, my elementary school required us to answer a list of biographical questions that included where my father, then a Republican, was born. I wrote Poland even though I knew he had been born in Russia. This was the sort of mindset that dominated many of us in the fifties and is an integral part of David Maraniss’ poignant memoir, A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Father. Maraniss is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist, an associate editor at The Washington Post, and author of scores of notable biographies and histories, including the brilliant They Marched into Sunlight that featured parallel stories of a Wisconsin unit in the Vietnam War and protestors against that war at the University of Wisconsin. Like many of his books, this one relies on deep archival research and also a unique cache of family letters.

He begins his story on March 12, 1952 when his father, Elliott Maraniss, answered a subpoena to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities at the Federal Building in Detroit. A few days earlier, because of that subpoena, the Detroit Times fired him from his copyediting job, after which he joined thousands of blacklisted radicals and liberals in the ranks of the Red Scare’s unemployed and harassed. Many of them came from good American families. Elliott and his wife’s brother Bob Cummins, both affiliated for a long time with communist organizations, were as American as apple pie. The very close friends were baseball fanatics, for example. Mary, Elliott’s radical wife, knew “If dad came home with mustard on his shirt…that he stopped off at a Tiger’s game.” Elliott had also been an enthusiastic Boy Scout in his early years in Brooklyn. And he voted for Ike in 1952.

The author returns to the 1952 hearing and the parallel lives of all its participants many times as he tells the story of his close-knit family and its politics from the thirties through the next century. Like Dan Lynn Watt, who wrote about his father, the celebrated Lincoln Brigader George Watt in History Lessons (2017), Maraniss’ main concern is to discover how and why his father came to hold his political views over three decades and how those views determined the trajectory of his family’s life. Watt, by the way, was the person who recruited Bob Cummins for the International Brigades.

Elliott was active in leftist causes at Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, the same school that Arthur Miller attended a few years earlier. But he really blossomed as an activist at the University of Michigan (1937-1940) where he once again crossed paths with Arthur Miller at the Michigan Daily, a hotbed of left-wing internationalism and Marxism. “Ace” Maraniss, who wrote 150 articles during his college years, worked with fellow Young Communist Leaguer Bob Cummins at the newspaper. This was not a “campus” newspaper. It devoted much of its news coverage to national and international issues, especially the Spanish Civil War. Although Elliott did not go to Spain, Cummins did; he was a runner in the Mac-Paps and encountered Alvah Bessie, Robert Merriman, and Joe Dallet. The author’s perceptive chapter on Cummins and the Brigades is one of the highlights of the book. (He thinks that the Maraniss name came from the marranos, the name given in the late Middle Ages to Christianized Jews or Muslims—another link of his family to Spain.)

Both Elliott and Bob served in World War II. Their political activism followed them in the shape of the thick security files that kept them out of the combat zone, for Captain Elliott Maraniss until the spring of 1945. Like other radicals, Elliott was assigned for much of the war stateside to an all-black unit. Government surveillance from the FBI and the Detroit Red Squad continued when both men returned to Detroit and to Communist-Party activities. Here Maraniss introduces us to a fascinating figure, Bereniece Baldwin, a paid informant for the FBI from 1943 to 1952, who held high positions in the party that gave her access to its files. She would become the star witness at Elliott’s and Bob’s 1952 HUAC hearings.

The Maraniss and Cummings families continued their “subversive” activities for a while after the war. As the author looks back on their devotion to the Soviet Union from the Spanish Civil War to the Moscow show trials in 1938, to the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 and then again during the early days of the Cold War, he tries to understand why his relatives were so blind to Soviet perfidy and dictatorship. He fails to do so in part because he apparently never engaged his father directly on the Soviet issue. He does understand their Marxist political philosophy and the fact that American Communists were correct on so many of their progressive positions on the economy, race, and capitalism. Maraniss concludes that “they latched on to a false promise and for too long blinded themselves to the repressive totalitarian reality of communism in the Soviet Union. And now [during the Cold War] they were paying the price.”

The FBI hounded them after the war, making it difficult for them to keep their jobs—despite Elliott’s proclamation that “Nobody has the right to question my Americanism” in his unread statement at the hearing. Thus, after being fired from the Detroit Times, he could only stay one step ahead of the agency from 1952 to 1957, even though he no longer was a communist sympathizer. He moved from New York, to Ann Arbor, to Cleveland, back to Detroit, to Bettendorf Iowa, and finally to safe haven in Madison, Wisconsin where he restarted his journalistic career with the Capital Times. That made for quite a disruptive odyssey for young David Maraniss and his family.

David Maraniss’ well-written and well-researched study of his all-American family and other American families they encounter from all political perspectives will be a familiar story to those with family ties to the Spanish Civil War and American Communism. Many will “absorb, finally, what I had never fully allowed myself to feel before: the pain and disorientation of what my father had endured.”

Melvin Small is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History from Wayne State University and one of the founders of the university’s Abraham Lincoln Brigade Scholarship Fund, now in its fortieth year.