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David Maraniss’s Tale of Hope and Misfortune in Postwar America

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A Washington Post editor and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, David Maraniss is the author or coauthor of a dozen books, including well-received biographies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. His latest is a family memoir that Maraniss’s publisher describes as a “thank-you note to his father.” If it were simply that, A Good American Family would be of little interest, except perhaps to the author’s kinfolk. But Maraniss has fashioned his book into something much more than an homage to a much-loved parent. A Good American Family is an empathetic, though not entirely successful, effort to understand why his parents and uncle were drawn to communism in the 1930s and then why, nearly two decades later, they fell victim to a frenzied government witch hunt that targeted them because of these convictions. If only obliquely, the book thereby takes on two topics central to 20th century history: the allure of communism during the heyday of the Old Left and the subsequent impulse to label otherwise loyal citizens as un-American because of their radical commitments.

Maraniss is hardly the first person to engage with these questions; whole historiographies have emerged around the influence and legacy of communism, anti-​communism, and anti-anti-communism in American life. Yet such questions are salient today, when the evident exhaustion of conventional politics may once again bring more radical alternatives, whether on the left or the right, into play.

In the Red Scare that erupted after World War II, Elliott Maraniss, the author’s father, was the smallest of small fry, but his prewar flirtation with communism nonetheless sufficed to get him fired from his editorial position with the Detroit Times. Though neither imprisoned nor even charged with a crime—his principal offense was refusing to answer questions when subpoenaed by the House Un-​American Activities Committee, or HUAC—Elliott Maraniss found himself unable for a time to get work. While this derailment caused acute personal and economic distress, it was only temporary: By the late 1950s, he was able to begin what would prove a long tenure with The Capital Times, a Madison, Wisconsin, daily with notably progressive leanings. Still, the trauma was by no means negligible, and the pain and dislocations that the experience caused stuck not only with the father but also with the son all those years since.

Born in 1918 to nonreligious Jewish parents, Elliott spent his boyhood in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, where he played baseball and participated in the Boy Scouts. By the time he was in high school, he began to show a knack for journalism. Like many outer-borough kids, Elliott was politically active, participating as a high school student in the massive strike for peace organized by the left-leaning National Student League in 1935.

After high school, Elliott went on to the University of Michigan. There he devoted less time to his studies and more to working for The Michigan Daily, the university’s student newspaper, as well as to courting Mary Cummins, a townie who was already a professed communist as a teenager. Indeed, radicalism ran in the Cummins family: As soon as he graduated from the University of Michigan, Mary’s older brother Robert Adair Cummins headed off to Spain to fight the fascists in the civil war there.

Through Mary and Robert, Elliott soon became radicalized. For all three, there was nothing incongruous about having a commitment to communism, as incarnated by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and to the United States. “They loved the promise of America,” Maraniss writes of his parents, but “at the same time wanted to believe in a virtuous, peace-seeking, equality-minded Soviet Union”:

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