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A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Father

Review

A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Father

Accomplished biographers seek to understand the ages when their subjects lived and the forces that shaped their lives. The goal of a biography is to measure individuals by the pattern of their lives. Biographers researching men and women often find that they begin as strangers and ultimately become familiar figures.

A GOOD AMERICAN FAMILY is a different biography because the subject was intimately familiar to the author at the start of his work. Elliott Maraniss was David Maraniss’ father, called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1952, fired from his job as a newspaper editor and blacklisted for five years. David Maraniss is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of a wide range of bestselling biographies of American politicians and athletes. His subjects have included Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, as well as sports legends Vince Lombardi and Roberto Clemente. Along the way, he has journeyed into Vietnam, the 1960 Olympics, and the rise and fall of Detroit as a great American city.

"Throughout his ordeal, Elliott never lost faith in America. His eventual vindication overcame the political fear and distortion prevalent in the 1950s. At this moment in our history, viewing his life through the words of his son can provide us with optimism for the future."

The politics of the 1950s McCarthy era and the Red Scare have been debated for decades and are the focus of countless books. Perhaps the debate continues to flourish because there are parallels to the ’50s that remain strong in contemporary American society. In March, speaking to a large audience at the Tucson Festival of Books, Maraniss quoted Mark Twain that “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Although Maraniss started A GOOD AMERICAN FAMILY before the rise of Donald Trump, the issues of spreading fear as a means of political control, demonizing others, and riding roughshod over civil liberties and freedom of speech are once again all too relevant in the world.

In writing his biographies, Maraniss follows a formula requiring four elements: 1) spending time in the environment where the subject lived, 2) interviewing as many people as possible, 3) reviewing every accessible document, and 4) looking for what is not there, which may be the most important component. Last month, on the pages of Bookreporter, I reviewed a book by Robert A. Caro, another extraordinary biographer. His formula is nearly identical to that of Maraniss, and both stress the importance of researching, interviewing and, as Caro says, turning every page. Regardless of how it is described, the work of a biographer is mapping every street and avenue of a subject’s life.

A GOOD AMERICAN FAMILY was a book that had been percolating for years. Maraniss knew he would not write it while his parents were alive and finally realized its scope while reviewing documents at the National Archives. There he saw for the first time the subpoena issued to his father and the statement Elliott wrote to the HUAC that he was not allowed to read unless he named names.

Elliott was a World War II veteran who had commanded an all-black company in the Pacific during the final months of the war. During the war, he had been investigated by the Military Intelligence Division of the Department of War, which concluded that he should not be given access to confidential work. But the details of the report were contrary to what his commanding officers observed, and eventually he was recommended for officer training.

Also featured here is the chairman of the Committee, John Stephens Wood, a Democrat from Georgia who, like many southern politicians of his generation, had ties to the KKK. Wood was involved in the lynching of Leo Frank, who was wrongfully convicted of the murder of Mary Phagan in 1913 and hung by a mob in 1915, after his death sentence was commuted to life in prison. Maraniss weaves the story of his father through those of Bereniece Baldwin, the undercover FBI informant who testified against Elliott, and Frank Tavenner Jr., the Committee attorney who sought to question Elliott and other friends and associates, including playwright Arthur Miller, a fellow student at the University of Michigan. Miller would later write THE CRUCIBLE in response to the witch hunt environment of the McCarthy era.

There is an important lesson from this poignant and inspiring biography. In the statement Elliott Maraniss was not allowed to read, he observed, “The U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights are not simply musty documents in a library. They have meaning only if they are used.” Throughout his ordeal, Elliott never lost faith in America. His eventual vindication overcame the political fear and distortion prevalent in the 1950s. At this moment in our history, viewing his life through the words of his son can provide us with optimism for the future.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on May 17, 2019

A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Father
by David Maraniss

  • Publication Date: May 14, 2019
  • Genres: Biography, History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1501178377
  • ISBN-13: 9781501178375