National Press Club

Pulitzer winning biographer David Maraniss tells family’s story in latest release

May 19, 2019 | By Kristina S. Groennings |

Author David Maraniss discusses his new book with National Press Club President Alison Fitzgerald Kodjak at a May 17 Headliners event..

Author David Maraniss discusses his new book with National Press Club President Alison Fitzgerald Kodjak at a May 17 Headliners event..

Photo/Image: Denny Gainer

After publishing critically acclaimed biographies of cultural icons, David Maraniss shifts his lens to his own family in “A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Father.”

The two-time Pulitzer prize winner and associate editor at The Washington Post, joined National Press Club President Alison Fitzgerald Kodjak in a discussion about the book at a Headliners event on May 17.

“I’d spent a lot of my career digging deeply into the lives of people who in the beginning were strangers to me –- Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Roberto Clemente, Vince Lombardi –- and after three or four years of research and interviewing hundreds of people, I made them familiar to me,” Maraniss said.

In his mid-sixties, Maraniss decided it was time to dig into his own family’s past, focusing on his father’s harrowing experience as reporter whose early Communist beliefs led to a subpoena by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) during the Red Scare in the 1950s.

Blacklisted and fired from the Detroit Times, it would be years of subsequent career disappointments, tracking by the FBI and constant uprooting of his family, before Elliott Maraniss could return to a successful career.

Although the author was not even three years old at the time, he realized that the experience “had been in the background of everything that I thought and did, but it was never overt,” he said.

The book more broadly tackles the question of what it means to be American, through an honest portrayal of Elliott Maraniss as a communist ideologue, yet unwavering patriot willing to defend his country’s ideals in combat and as a newspaperman.

As commander of an all-black unit in World War II, Elliott Maraniss sent letters home highlighting the injustice of treating individuals fighting for democracy as second-class citizens.

“You put that in contrast with the chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952 [who] had voted against every civil rights bill and for the poll tax, and was briefly a member of the Ku Klux Klan –- and he’s calling my father before this committee and calling him un-American,” the author said.

Maraniss noted that a foundational document of the book was a letter from Elliott Maraniss to his newborn son, Maraniss’ older brother, before the senior Maraniss was deployed near the end of the war.

While many soldiers had written similar letters to their children, expressing their motivation to fight and what the country meant to them, this letter resonated more deeply with the author since his father had been labeled un-American.

“I wanted to show he didn’t believe in the violent overthrow of the American government. He was motivated by idealism, whether it was naïve or not, and trying to improve this country –- and that’s what you see in this letter,” Maraniss said.

Maraniss simultaneously grappled with his father’s rationalization of the Soviet Union and the Communist party, as he pored over hundreds of letters and documents for the story.

“[There were] moments where I saw, not anything that he did –- but what he wrote –- and thought that was confounding to me. I wanted to be honest about that and take people through that whole experience in an honest way, so that when you see what came out of that it feels more powerful, and real,” he said.

Maraniss used the same “four legs of the table” technique he has employed in writing his other books: “Go there wherever there is, find all of the archival primary documents you can, interview everyone you can, and look for what’s not there –- try to break through the mythology of the accepted conventional wisdom of the story and find the truth,” he said.

One document Maraniss discovered at the National Archives struck a particularly personal note –- a statement that his father intended to read when called before HUAC.

While the author noted that the statement was “such a powerful defense of freedom of the press,” it was a raised “S” in the word “Statement” caused by a stuck key on an old typewriter, that led to an epiphany.

“I was looking at what I call the imperfect ‘S’. For the first time in my life, I could feel what my father must have been absorbing at that moment, when he was in the crucible, and all these things were breaking around him,” Maraniss recalled.

“It just washed over me –- and that ability to finally be in my father’s shoes is what drove me through this book,” he added.