[Marxism] Can Communists be good Americans?
lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Jul 28 11:55:02 MDT 2019
Letters to the editor in today's NY Times Book Review section. The
review they complain about is at the bottom.
To the Editor:
Kevin Baker’s review of David Maraniss’s “A Good American Family: The
Red Scare and My Father” (July 14) ends with Baker trying to puzzle out
why in the world any “great American spirit” would be drawn to joining
the Communist Party. After more than three decades of serious treatment
by acclaimed historians and nonfiction writers, from Robin D. G. Kelley
to Vivian Gornick, this subject is hardly one of life’s great mysteries.
Aside from being at the cutting edge of civil rights throughout the
first half of the 20th century, American communism offered people like
Maraniss’s father — working-class children of Jewish immigrants — the
priceless feeling that they had become more than the sum of their life’s
parts. But as historians of United States social movements, we know that
communism did much more than light a fire in people’s imaginations:
Scratch the surface of any significant progressive movement in this
country over the last 100 years and you will find participants with ties
to American communism. Instead of “dreary Russian dogma,” communism, for
most Americans involved, was about committed and effective grass-roots
Lana Dee Povitz
The writers are, respectively, a visiting assistant professor of history
at Middlebury College and a distinguished professor of history at
Rutgers University, Newark.
To the Editor:
In his review of David Maraniss’s account of his parents’ involvement
with the American Communist Party, Kevin Baker asks, “Just what were his
parents, and especially his father, doing in the Communist Party in the
My parents were also involved in the Communist Party in the same time
period. They joined because the party was one of the only organizations
in the country fighting for civil rights, for a fair shake for working
people and for many other causes of justice. When they finally
understood the evils perpetrated by Stalinism, they left the party and
continued to be active in civil rights and peace efforts. Their
motivation, like that of so many thousands of others — including, I
imagine, David Maraniss’s parents — is not hard to understand.
Jamaica Plain, Mass.
To the Editor:
We’re wondering what thinking went into having Kevin Baker review David
Maraniss’s book about his father’s experience with McCarthyism. Baker’s
apparent cluelessness about why Americans joined the Communist Party,
what being a Communist meant and the experience of being subject to the
McCarthy fever seems a bit surprising.
It was this sentence especially that should at least have been
questioned: “Throughout their long marriage Mary insisted on buying the
homes the family lived in — strange behavior for an avowed communist.”
Wait. What? It’s almost as though Baker got his idea from some of those
old movies about the “red menace.”
Janice and Kenneth Bailey
A Son’s Memoir of His Father’s Radical Beliefs, Pursuit by the F.B.I.
and Ardent Love for America
By Kevin Baker
A GOOD AMERICAN FAMILY
The Red Scare and My Father
By David Maraniss
416 pp. Simon & Schuster. $28.
“Think of this story as a wheel,” David Maraniss writes in an author’s
note at the beginning of his new book, “A Good American Family.” “The
hearing in Room 740 is the hub where all the spokes connect.”
Room 740 in Detroit’s Federal Building was where Maraniss’s father,
Elliott, was summoned to appear before the notorious House Un-American
Activities Committee (HUAC) one day in 1952, to answer charges that he
was a member of the Communist Party. Simply being subpoenaed to appear
had already cost Elliott his job, and his refusal to cooperate with the
committee’s questions would force him into years of desperate struggle
to keep his family afloat.
Elliott Maraniss was no atomic spy or government mole. He was a rewrite
man at The Detroit Times, a World War II vet with a wife and three kids.
HUAC had come to Detroit hoping to find communists in the United Auto
Workers, a powerful liberal institution; people such as Elliott and his
wife’s brother, Bob Cummins, were just “collateral damage,” expected to
make “a few acts of repentance and contrition” — bow their heads and
name names of old friends and comrades in the ongoing theater of the Red
scare. If they didn’t, they were dismissed after a brief interrogation
with their lives in tatters. Elliott was not even permitted to read a
prepared statement, though he was allowed to file it with the committee.
Now, David Maraniss, in his “long overdue attempt to understand what had
happened to my father and our family and the country during what has
come to be known as the McCarthy era,” has unearthed that statement, and
that moment. A winner of two Pulitzer Prizes in journalism and one of
our most talented biographers and historians, Maraniss has used his
prodigious research skills to produce a story that leaves one aching
with its poignancy, its finely wrought sense of what was lost, both in
his home and in our nation. It is at the same time a book that, like his
family, never gives in to self-pity but remains remarkably balanced,
forthright and unwavering in its search for the truth.
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David’s father was “a liberal but undogmatic optimist,” whose mantra was
“It could be worse.” He loved baseball and literature and funny songs;
he once wrote a column under the moniker “the Ol’ Railbird”; and he had
an abiding passion for nearly everything to do with the American
heartland. He was, his son tells us, a brilliant newspaperman but also a
constant “force for good … not only in my life and those of my
siblings,” but also in the lives of everyone he knew.
So how does such a man end up writing Soviet propaganda under a fake
name for The Michigan Worker? “I can appreciate his motivations, but I
am confounded by his reasoning and his choices,” Maraniss confesses.
Elliott was the son of Jewish immigrants from Odessa and Latvia, a Boy
Scout who grew up in Coney Island, an outstanding student and editor of
the school paper at Abraham Lincoln High School — a place almost painful
to behold in its glowing idealism and dedication to learning, even in
the midst of the Depression. A fellow student was Arthur Miller, whose
own encounters with communism and the Red scare are another “spoke”
connected to Room 740. Like Miller, Elliott went on to the University of
Michigan, then “in one of its own golden periods” of scholarship, where
he discovered his great love for the Midwest.
He also encountered a key influence on his political development:
17-year-old Mary Cummins, a wisp of a girl with strawberry blond hair
and deeply held radical convictions. The Cumminses were another
remarkable American family, originally dirt-poor Kansas homesteaders
living in a one-room dugout cut out of a hillside. Mary’s father was a
civil engineer who couldn’t afford to finish his degree, but made enough
money to drive a Cadillac and send his five children to college. The
courtship of Elliott and Mary included strolls through Ann Arbor to gaze
at a “little blue house on Stadium Boulevard” they dreamed of owning one
day. Throughout their long marriage Mary insisted on buying the homes
the family lived in — strange behavior for an avowed communist.
By 1939, as editorial director of The Michigan Daily, Elliott was
defending the monstrous Stalin-Hitler pact that triggered World War II —
a stance that outraged and mystified many of his readers and friends, as
well as his son, who calls it one of Elliott’s “indefensible positions.”
When the war reached the United States, Stalin was back on the side of
the Allies and both Maranisses threw themselves into the struggle.
Elliott enlisted, while Mary helped build B-17s, and advocated for civil
rights at her plant.
Rising to the rank of captain, Elliott was put in charge of a black
salvage-and-repair company in the still segregated Army, arriving in
Okinawa in July 1945, just after the terrible battle there. He excelled
in his position, and the experience seemed to fill him with patriotic
ardor. He wrote passionately to his wife about Franklin Delano
Roosevelt, General MacArthur and especially Dwight Eisenhower, whom he
would later admit to having voted for in 1952. He always harbored, it
seemed, a desire to belong to a wider America, even as he saw its
Unbeknown to Elliott, though, his assignment to command black troops was
the end result of a desire by military intelligence, wary of his
“communistic” tendencies, to exclude him from sensitive work while in
the Army. Before his file was finally sealed, some 14 F.B.I. agents
would interview 39 “confidential informants” about him. Their
investigation would culminate in Room 740, but it would not end there.
Even after HUAC had finished with him, the F.B.I. sent agents to
interview Elliott’s employers whenever he got a job, knowing it would
likely cost him the position. The consequence was a series of agonizing
sojourns back and forth across the country, as Elliott sought to find
and keep gainful employment, badly straining his family and his nerves.
“A Good American Family” is intercut with Maraniss’s deep dives into the
lives and backgrounds of all those other “spokes,” before, during and
after the hearing in Room 740 — an effort to explore one congressman’s
amazement that even some communists hailed from “good American
families.” Here are his father’s radical friends who went to fight (and
die) in Spain, along with his lawyer, fellow witnesses, the professional
informer — a five-foot grandmother and high school dropout — who had
ratted out Elliott, along with the prosecutor and leading inquisitors on
the committee. Maraniss is able to spare some sympathy for the corrupt,
drunken Democratic chairman of HUAC at the time, Representative John
Stephens Wood, an inveterate racist with an appalling secret in his past
— whose society wife would have little to do with him after she
discovered his Cherokee ancestry.
This is, in the end, a fascinating confluence of America, and if the
story drags in places — we don’t really need to know that there were
17,000 varieties of American apple by 1905 — more often one is bowled
over by the vibrancy of that vanished nation. It’s a world where David’s
sister listens to a new song called “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” and the
family watches mesmerized as exquisite lines of Detroit cars appear
every summer. Elliott’s wanderings take him to an Iowa newspaper that
grew out of a strike by union typographers. Later, he sees his revered
new publisher, William T. Evjue of The Capital Times, in Madison,
talking and laughing in his office with Carl Sandburg and Frank Lloyd
Wright. Did we ever live in such an America? Did we just dream it?
After a long travail, Elliott and Mary Maraniss and their children would
come through, buoyed by their unflagging optimism and faith.
(Remarkably, the book’s cover photo, of the Maranisses posing in front
of the Statue of Liberty, was taken after Elliott’s ordeal in Room 740.)
For all of Maraniss’s research, a mystery remains at the heart of “A
Good American Family”: Just what were his parents, and especially his
father, doing in the Communist Party in the first place? This is a
question Maraniss cannot answer, because his parents, for one reason or
another — shame? embarrassment? an effort to spare their children? —
rarely spoke of it. About the furthest his father would go was to admit
that he had been “stubborn in his ignorance about the horrors of the
Soviet Union.” But this gives us little insight into how this great
American spirit ended up stuffing himself into a closet of dreary
In the end, even in the best of families, some things remain secret.
Kevin Baker is currently finishing a book on the history of New York
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