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A Good American Family

Because of journalist Elliott Maraniss’ close ties to the Communist Party, various government agencies and informants shadowed him throughout his life—from the late 1930s when he was a student and editorial writer at the University of Michigan, through his meritorious service in World War II, and well into his post-war civilian life. This surveillance came to a boil on March 12, 1952 in Detroit, when Maraniss appeared, as subpoenaed, before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Merely being summoned to appear had cost him his job at the Detroit Times, and his refusal to answer the committee’s questions about his political affiliations and associates doomed him to being blacklisted and hounded out of work for years.

David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and associate editor of the Washington Post, focuses on this persecution of his father and other leftists to construct both a social and a family history, enlivened by family letters and other personal artifacts. Maraniss readily acknowledges that his father was a Communist who was slow to reject the party line dictated from Stalinist Russia. But ultimately he sees his father as a liberal idealist who never wavered from his belief in America’s essential goodness. Elliott Maraniss’ ordeal, his son asserts, failed to make him bitter or lessen his zeal for social justice. Always the objective reporter, Maraniss humanizes his father’s inquisitors by probing deeply into their backgrounds to ferret out both their virtues and flaws.

The University of Michigan bristled with leftist politics in the late 1930s. Future playwright Arthur Miller was there at the time and was one of many protesting the rise of fascism in Spain and Germany. So was Elliott’s future wife, Mary, who was possibly even more fervent in her politics than he, and her brother Bob Cummins, who would put his life and career on the line by taking up arms against the fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War.

After moving from state to state and job to job, Elliott Maraniss finally found a journalistic home at the Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin, where, over the next quarter of a century, he would rise from reporter to executive editor. In Madison, the author concludes, his parents were at last able to shake off “the chains of the past with their idealism and optimism intact.”

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