Historians Will and Ariel Durant famously likened civilization to a river, with historians chronicling what happens in the current while real life is found on the banks.

David Maraniss’ engrossing biography of his own family tells what took place when the river overflowed its banks and threatened to drown the people living there.

In previous books, Maraniss, a Washington Post editor, has chronicled the turbulent ’60s as well as the lives of men as disparate as Bill Clinton and Vince Lombardi. Now he’s turned his gaze on his own family, and the tale that emerges is fascinating.

Maraniss’ parents, along with many of their friends and several of their relatives, were Communists in their youth. Coming of age in the 1930s, when the Great Depression called the future of capitalism into question, they envisioned a brighter communitarian future. In particular, Elliott “Ace” Maraniss, the author’s father, threw himself into political debate and activism, notably at the University of Michigan, where he wrote fiery editorials for the student newspaper.

Maraniss lays out the intellectual and social ferment that drew so many to leftist causes in those years, including a Michigan contemporary of Ace Maraniss, the young playwright Arthur Miller.

Bob Cummins, brother-in-law of Ace Maraniss and the author’s uncle, was among the thousands of young Americans who fought with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War against Franco’s fascists.

Maraniss includes an absorbing account of the fighting in Spain, drawing on soldiers’ letters home, including those of his uncle. On this and other topics, he builds a thorough foundation, allowing the reader to fully appreciate the motivations of the leftist Americans who eventually would be caught in the net of McCarthyism and the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Ace Maraniss was caught, but good. Called to testify before the committee in 1952, he refused to name names, invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination — and was promptly fired from his newspaper job. That began a five-year migration that saw the family move a half-dozen times, with FBI agents keeping track and informing Ace Maraniss’ employers about his past, leading to another firing and another move.

Through all the trials, the father never lost faith in America, even though his nation’s government had officially branded him a subversive. Called before the committee, Ace Maraniss entered a statement into the record summarizing his beliefs.

It’s a pity to be able to quote only a small portion of it.

“I was taught as a child and in school ... to do my part in securing for the American people the blessings of peace, economic well-being and freedom,” he wrote. The committee “reflects no credit on American institutions or ideas. Its attempts to enforce conformity of political or economic thought is a long step toward dictatorship.

“In this country we have never acquiesced in the proposition that persons could be punished for their beliefs.”

The fever of the Red Scare eventually broke, and Ace Maraniss found a home at the Capital Times in Madison, Wis., a liberal newspaper that had been the strongest home-state opponent of Sen. Joe McCarthy. He spent the next quarter-century at the Capital Times, retiring as its executive editor. He died in 2004 at age 86.

In recounting his family saga, David Maraniss has wisely followed the precept his father delivered to the House Un-American Activities Committee: “To properly measure a man’s Americanism you must know the whole pattern of a life.”

Maraniss presents the whole pattern of a generation of young, idealistic Americans — and, ultimately, of one brave and stubborn man who refused to give up his belief in what America stands for.


John Reinan is a Star Tribune reporter. On Twitter: StribGuy. 612-673-7402

A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Father
By: David Maraniss.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 416 pages, $28.