Friday, April 3, 2020

A Good American Family - A Review

David Maraniss, A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Father, (NY: Simon & Shuster, 2019)

In A Good American Family: the Red Scare and My Father, journalist David Maraniss writes three intermixed narratives: a history of the 1950’s Red Scare mixed with a biography of his parents, Elliot and Mary Cummins Maraniss with their extended family, and a memoir of his own growing up in the 1950’s.

The book opens March 12, 1952 with 34 year old Elliott Maraniss at the witness table in Room 740 of a Federal building in Detroit for an inquisition before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). A paid government informer has identified everyone subpoenaed as a communist. Elliot Maraniss dabbled in left wing politics for a period at the University of Michigan in the 1930’s and after college into the 1940’s and joined a group of devotees of the Communist Party. Now his son wants to know if there is “an essential radical tradition in America” . . . “propelled by a desire not to destroy but to realize something better and fairer?” Or if not, what?
The book has 26 chapters but these are grouped into clusters of subtopics of four parts. Part one – Watching One Another - includes four chapters devoted entirely to historical material from the Red Scare - Chapter 2, 4, 5, 6 – where we meet Bereniece “Toby” Baldwin, the informer, the operation of HUAC and its Chair, Congressman John Stephens Wood, a soft spoken racist from Georgia. Then readers get the flavor of committee hearings with the inquisition of two uncooperative black men: Attorney George Crockett and a Baptist minister, Charles A. Hill.

In Chapter 3 readers meet Elliot Maraniss growing up in Brooklyn and attending Abraham Lincoln High School from 1932 to 1936. There he encountered some especially progressive educators and socially conscious liberals who introduced people like Baruch Spinoza and Willa Cather. Then in Chapter 7 readers meet Robert Cummins who will become Elliot Maraniss brother in law and David Maraniss’ uncle. The older Cummins went to the University of Michigan three years before Elliot; both worked on the Michigan Daily and shared political views.

Cummins and several of his U of M friends volunteered to serve in the Spanish Civil War and fought to protect an elected government in Spain from fascist Franco. Maraniss devotes chapters 8 and 9 to the Spanish civil war and the sacrifice and death of American volunteers that contrast with a transcript of the testimony of Cummins before the HUAC. Questions ooze with contempt for volunteers since the elected Spanish government carries the communist label.

Chapters 10-12 return to the Maraniss family history. The narrative includes Elliot’s time writing for the Michigan Daily and his term as editor; his meeting Mary Cummins and their marriage in 1939. Here Maraniss provides the HUAC transcript of Bereniece Baldwin citing Elliot Maraniss as a communist in testimony February 29, 1952. Readers learn some family consequences that include immediate firing from his copy desk job at the Detroit Times.

Part Two – In Time of War – covers Elliot’s enlistment in the army and four years of service in World War II. It describes his work as the commander of the 4482nd company, an otherwise all black unit doing repair and salvage for the Quartermaster Corps in the Pacific. The war service narrative includes two significant family letters, one written to his infant son Jimmy describing his views and hopes for him and the future of America.

The first three chapters of Part Three – Trials and Tribulations – return to Red Scare History. Maraniss narrates post war efforts to exploit the fear of communism to suppress dissent and free speech. These chapters include biographical material of members and staff of the House Un-American Activities Committee and some of the events that define the era like the 1949 trial at the Foley Square Courthouse in New York. Red Scare events give background for the appearance of Elliot Maraniss before the HUAC on March 12, 1952. The remainder of the book includes the transcript of the March 12 testimony, the prepared statement he was not allowed to read and related family woes that include the direct consequences of his firings. The consequences involved forced family moves from Detroit to New York to Ann Arbor to Cleveland back to Detroit to Bettendorf Iowa and to Madison Wisconsin over five years. The book finishes with a synopsis of the family’s lives after the last move to Madison, where readers learn life mostly returned to normal and people settled in to live productive and enjoyable lives.

The book makes a good story by itself. It flows along and reads easily and includes notes and a bibliography as an academic history would and which it sometimes resembles. Readers will also feel the personal importance of the narrative to the author, which at times sounds like a resolution of long unfocused thoughts and emotions.

Toward the end at Chapter 22 “A Good American Family” includes a three generation picture of the Cummins-Maraniss clan on the front steps of a house at 1402 Henry Street in Ann Arbor in 1950. For me the picture pulls together the stories in the book as a question: What does it mean to be a “A Good American Family?” Compare the family in the picture to your own or to some generic ideal.

The stories and details in the book repeatedly raise the question “What is patriotism?” The question comes up numerous times. One, in particular, was the testimony of the informer Berenice Baldwin and the relationship she had with her victims and elected officials. Beginning in 1943 the FBI paid her a generous salary to join the communist party in Detroit solely to systematically inform on others she met.

Over nine years she befriended many while attending their parties, baby showers and social events. Then in 1952 she appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee to betray all of them knowing full well the hardship she would cause. Congressman Charles E. Potter, a disabled war veteran, thanked her for serving her country. He could think of no person “more worthy of a decoration for gallantry than you, Mrs. Baldwin.” Congressman Donald Jackson declared “The American people have no way of expressing directly to you their thanks.”

For them patriotism means obedience to their views delivered with authoritarian power not to be challenged. For others, patriots might believe a paid stool pigeon that betrays friends betrays the ideals the country was founded to sustain. In Good American Family readers will find plenty of opportunities to consider patriotism and what it means.

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