Q&A: Journalist David Maraniss on His Memoir About His Father and the Red Scare

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David Maraniss, Washington Post journalist and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, has mined the past as biographer of prominent figures like Presidents Bill Clinton and  Barack Obama, and chronicled turbulent times in books like They Marched into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967 (Pulitzer finalist in history and winner of the J. Anthony Lukas Prize).

With his twelfth book,  David Maraniss may have found his most challenging subject yet: his father, newspaperman Elliott Maraniss, whose life and career were derailed after he was brought before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in Detroit in 1952. That story, and its reverberations through the Maraniss family, are the subject of his excellent new book A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Father (Simon & Schuster). Employing his formidable skills as a reporter and historian, Maraniss does not shy away from the reality that his father, who had served honorably in the Army, was also a political progressive whose search for a just world led him (and his wife and brother-in-law) to join the Communist Party. 

Maraniss deftly places his father within the tumult and anxieties of the era.  He illuminates a fraught moment in American history and the struggle to reconcile idealism and patriotism.

For The National, Madeleine Blais talked with Maraniss about his family and writing. Blais, who won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing while on the staff of the Miami Herald’s Tropic Magazine, has been a professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and serves as the Honors Director in Journalism. Her most recent book is the witty, charming To The New Owners: A Martha's Vineyard Memoir, and her previous books include Uphill Walkers: Portrait of a Family and In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle, the story of an Amherst, Massachusetts girls high school basketball team, a National Book Critics Circle finalist.

Q:  You have made a career writing major biographies: Clinton, Obama, Clemente, and Lombardi among others. You have written about personal matters in the past, the elegy about the death of your sister, the essay about the struggles of your Uncle Phil and sketches of your parents, but never at such length in such a generous context. This is your first full-length memoir.  Did you feel a different sense of vulnerability in writing about yourself and your family than you did in writing about your other subjects, and how so?

A: I was worried about finding the right voice, mixing first person with historical reportage, and getting the right balance between my deep love for my parents and my willingness to be honest about them. It took me a while to realize that those were not conflicting ideas, but that they wove together, and that I could move seamlessly between memoir and history if I set the book up right.

Q:   You have written an American story that is also a Midwestern story. In fact, you could say one of the characters in this book is the Midwest. Can you talk about what that part of the country meant to you and your family during all those years when they hopped from city to city, looking for work, evading government persecution, and what it means to you now?

A: My parents met in the Midwest, at the University of Michigan, they got married there, they experienced the most traumatic period of their lives there in Detroit (and Cleveland) and also found salvation there in Madison. But I think once my father left Brooklyn for college when he was eighteen, he slowly evolved into a Midwesterner in every sense, and inculcated in his children, or at least me, a sense of rooting for the Midwest, its land grant colleges, its baseball teams, its humility and generosity, against the gloss of the east and west coasts.

Q:   I am wondering when you first decided that your parents’ story as political activists and your father’s blacklisting would be something you would write about.  You write, “Every family has secrets, subjects that are difficult to confront head-on, and this [Elliot Maraniss’s past as a Communist] was ours.” Did your siblings or extended family have any misgivings about making this story public? In what ways did they show their support?

A: I had carried the idea for this book inside me for a few decades, but knew I had to wait until long after my parents were gone to write it. My parents rarely talked about that part of their pasts, and never in much detail with me. My brother Jim was skeptical about the project at first, but slowly came around and was extremely insightful and helpful in the end. My sister Jean was supportive and helpful from the beginning. As I wrote, I felt that I was writing for all three of us, knowing that their perspectives would nonetheless be unavoidably different from mine in some respects.

Q:  Why do you think your father did not, or could not, write this story? I ask because both of your parents were gifted writers (as your father liked to say about newspapering, “I love it and it is in my blood”) and you had access to wonderful letters your father sent home to your mother Mary during World War II and letters she wrote to him and other family members as well. Their prose, in both cases, is stunning. Your father tried, right? But something kept him from committing the hardest truths to paper. What prevented him from doing so, in your opinion?

A: I think the reason he couldn't write about it is because he reached a point of mental comfort with his life and did not want to upset that by delving into a difficult past. He was a survivor, and had overcome so much, but he felt no compunction to publicize what he had endured. He just didn't want his past to define him, simple as that.

Q:  When you were writing A Good American Family, did you ever wonder what your parents would think of the enterprise? Are there any places where their versions of the same events might differ from yours?

A: People who have read it often say, "Your parents would be proud." I'll never know I know whether if I had started it while they were alive they would have been uncomfortable about it. But in the end I consider it a love story, and hope they would, too.

Q:   What do you think would make them most proud?

A: It depends on whether you mean proud for me or proud for their own histories. In both cases I would like to think it would be my chronicling of their lifelong commitment to racial justice.

Q:  One of the most beautiful segments of the book is a letter your father wrote to his first-born child, your older brother known as Jimmie at the time. Your father was in the service and had only a few hours leave to meet him as a brand-new infant for a few hours before returning to military duty. Did you ask your brother’s blessing to publish such an intimate personal document or are you a “ask forgiveness rather than permission” kind of writer?

A. Jim thought Dad was too sentimental in that writing, but that's a matter of taste. He read it and didn't complain in the end. I didn't need Jim's blessing, but in the end he gave it.

Q. In a conversation with Jim, you speak about the peculiar contradiction of writing biography  -- the author’s desire to know the subject in the round and the subject’s inevitable opaqueness: “How can you presume to know what any other human being is thinking? The only answer: most of the time you can’t.” Nonetheless, you persist in this quixotic enterprise.  What fuels you?

A: I know there is always more information out there, more clues to find, and I love to work on the human puzzle. I worked with material from twelve archives, FBI files that I had FOIAed, HUAC files, a few hundred letters my father had written home during the war when he commanded the all-black unit, letters my mother had written to her brother Phil, and another few hundred essays and editorials and book reviews he wrote at The Michigan Daily, and from all that I could work on the puzzle. I had seen none of that before I started the book. 

Q: Your memoir is as broadly reported as it is deeply felt. Can you talk about how you went about securing long-forgotten government documents that provide a significant portion of the backbone for the tale? (Asking for a friend.) 

A: Robert Caro has a motto that sticks in my mind: Turn every page. Looking at archival papers can be boring for four hours and then thrilling for a few minutes, and it's always worth it. I worked my way through archives in Detroit, Ann Arbor, New York, Fort Lee, Virginia, Georgia, and Washington, D.C., and every little detail helped me piece by piece to build the narrative.

Q: What other memoirs did you use as a model? (Hint: Carl Bernstein’s Loyalties: A Son's Memoir, Arthur Miller’s Timebends, Elia Kazan’s A Life, all of which you reference in your bibliography.)

A: I read those books, and learned from them, but did not use any other books as my model. I never do. I build my own models.

Q:  How did the fact that your father was reported on, often secretly and unfairly, influence your path to become a reporter?

A:  I'm not sure it had anything to do with my path to becoming a reporter. The truth is I became a reporter because I was too stupid or incompetent to do anything else. It was something I loved to do and had a capacity to do, and I've always felt lucky about that. My older siblings were scholars, my little sister a classical pianist. I was the ink-stained one, like my Dad.

Q:  Government overreach, suppression of information, the targeting of individual journalists and tarnishing of their reputations: your father’s story does not sound like ancient history.  As you wrote A Good American Family, were you struck by parallels with the current political climate?  Do you think the HUAC hearings and the Red Scare were more of a threat to our republic than what is going on today in the current administration?

A: I started this book before Trump. As a matter of fact, it was exactly one month before Trump rode his escalator down to his presidential announcement that I was at the National Archives looking at my father's long-lost statement to the House Committee on Un-American Activities for the first time. So history just came around again, as alas it so often does. I would say that what went on then and what is going on now are equally alarming. One big difference - then the powers that be that were fanning the flames of fear were senators and congressmen, now the head fearmonger is the president of the United States.

Q:  What next?

A: I've begun research on a full-scale biography of Jim Thorpe, the great American Indian athlete.