'A Good American Family'

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Pulitzer Prize winning journalist details Red Scare’s impact on father

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

Detroit native David Maraniss, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and best-selling author, knew he wouldn’t write about how his father Elliott Maraniss was blackballed during the era of McCarthyism in the 1950s while both his parents were still alive.

“My father didn’t want to talk about it and I didn’t want to disrespect that sensibility that he had about it. He wasn’t embarrassed about it, but it was just that he moved on and didn’t want to be defined by it. I was honoring him by waiting until after he was gone,” said Maraniss, an associate editor at The Washington Post.

Elliott died in 2004 at 86. His wife Mary passed away in 2006 at 84.

“I think it was around 2010 that I started seriously thinking about it,” recalled Maraniss. “It slowly built up into an obsession. By 2015, I was totally obsessed with the topic and ready to go. It was probably sticking in my subconscious for most of my writing career. It was the right time for me to do it. I was in my mid-60s and thinking about the forces that shaped me. I had written biographies about other people like Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and (football legend) Vince Lombardi, who were strangers to me when I started and then became familiar. Here I was, ready to delve into my own family’s life-story.”

In “A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Father” (Simon & Schuster $28), the author’s 12th book is part-family memoir and part-history lesson as he chronicles the impact the Red Scare – also called McCarthyism after its most famous supporter/advocate Sen. Joseph McCarthy spread rampant fear that communists had infiltrated the United States – had on his father, a veteran journalist.

A World War II veteran, the elder Maraniss was a journalist for the now-defunct Detroit Times. He was distraught over the injustices and unfairness that occurred after the Great Depression, believing that America hadn’t lived up to its founding ideals in terms of race and equality.

As a result, the FBI spied on him and an informant called him a communist. Even though the FBI found no evidence to support such a serious accusation, Elliott was fired from his newspaper job and blacklisted for five years. On March 12, 1952, he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Room 740 of the Federal Building in Detroit, where he had been subpoenaed to testify before the panel.

Maraniss found his father’s statement – which was submitted but went unread at the hearing – decades later at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. when researching this book. In this statement, his father asked: “Didn’t being a citizen of this country give him the freedom to affiliate with the politics of his choosing and to write and speak his mind, as long as he didn’t betray his country as a foreign agent? Was he un-American? What does that even mean? By whose standard? Un-American compared to whom and to what?”

Maraniss, the third of four children, wasn’t quite 3 years old when this happened, so he has no memory of it.

The consequences of the Red Scare witch-hunt had his father bouncing from job to job and city to city over the course of those long five years he was blacklisted. He briefly worked for The Compass, a newspaper in New York City that folded. He returned to Ann Arbor but didn’t have a job. He was then hired by The Cleveland Plain Dealer in Ohio, but the FBI visited the publisher and he was immediately fired. He returned to Detroit, working for an organization that sold party favors to labor unions, a job completely unsuited for him since he loved newspapers, according to the author.

After a brief stop in Iowa, the family settled in Madison, Wis. There, Elliott was hired by The Madison Capital Times, a progressive newspaper that fought against McCarthyism, not long after McCarthy died in 1957. He eventually became the editor of The Capital Times.

“They gave (my father) another shot, he took it, and never looked back. We all thrived in Madison,” said Maraniss.

Despite all the fear, paranoia, and hatred so prevalent in that era, Maraniss stated his father never lost his faith in America.

“He was an eternal optimist. It was a very difficult time for him and he survived it. He was never bitter in the sense that he didn’t dwell on it, he didn’t talk about it. He instilled an optimism in me – that’s the way he looked at life... My mother was wonderful in keeping us together. My dad had that optimistic spirit and a lot of talent as a newspaperman. Madison helped save us as well,” explained Maraniss. “The lessons of (the Red Scare) gave the whole family an outsider’s sensibility, a sympathy and empathy for underdogs and for people in any way who face the destructive power of the government.”

According to the author, writing this book wasn’t difficult as much as it was different since it’s about his father. The main challenge was structuring it.

“I couldn’t make it just chronological because it would take too long for the reader to get to the hearings. I wanted to bring out the context of the people who confronted one another in that era, so I came up with the idea of making the first 12 chapters go A-B, A-B, so you see the trial and the people’s lives. From that point, I (made it chronological). It builds to the power of my father’s three-page statement that he delivered to the Committee in Chapter 24.”

Writing this book brought him closer to his father in some ways.

“Every part of it was a learning experience for me,” said Maraniss.

“It’s a rich part of American history. The ability to combine a personal story with an important era in American history and a difficult period in American history at that is what made that effort worthwhile for me. The research led me to a deeper understanding of my father's intellectual and political evolution. I already knew he was a classy, generous man.”

 

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