In his ably assembled and appropriately respectful New York Times review of David Maraniss’ "A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Father," novelist Kevin Baker praises the author for revealing “a fascinating confluence of America” and marvels at how often “one is bowled over by the vibrancy of that vanished nation.”
The book, as readers of this newspaper are well aware, is a memoir and a history that reflects on the journey of David’s father, Elliott Maraniss, from 1930s radical to 1950s target of anti-communist zealots to his distinguished tenure at The Capital Times — where in the late 1970s and early 1980s he served as the editor. Baker ruminates on the evocation of time and place that makes "A Good American Family" such a fine read, observing, “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?”
Of course, it existed. I grew up in it. I remember wandering around the old Capital Times offices on South Carroll Street as a 10-year-old, when it was still possible to imbibe the mixture of grit and idealism that characterized the newspaper Evjue led from its 1917 founding until his death in 1970. I remember playing in the fields around Wright’s Taliesin. I learned from my friend Frank Zeidler that Sandburg had gotten to know Evjue when both were newspapermen in Milwaukee — Sandburg as a contributor to the Social Democratic Herald, Evjue as an ideologically frustrated writer for the conservative Sentinel. Zona Gale, an acquaintance of Evjue and Sandburg from those Milwaukee newspaper days, would in 1921 become the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Like Gale, Edna Ferber wrote for the Journal and, in 1925, Ferber collected her own Pulitzer for fiction writing.
Evjue, the son of Norwegian immigrants, was born in Merrill. Wright, a descendant of Welsh immigrants, was born in Richland Center but spent most of his childhood in the towns across the Wisconsin River from Spring Green where my mother’s family settled. Sandburg grew up on the other side of the Wisconsin-Illinois line in Galesburg but came into his own as a young socialist in Milwaukee. Gale was from Portage. Ferber spent her teen years in Appleton before heading to Milwaukee.
For the most part, these men and women were known for their journalistic and literary accomplishments. Yet they were all intensely political people. They were products of a remarkable moment in Wisconsin history when Robert M. La Follette and his allies ushered in an era of radical progressivism that advocated for economic and social and racial justice, opposed imperialism and colonialism, and recognized a need to preserve rather than exploit our natural resources. And, for a time, they made Wisconsin the embodiment of those values. This work was never easy; it was always a fight.
Evjue and his acquaintances and allies, including my great-grandfather and the Capital Times-reading progressives of rural Grant County, maintained their militant faith in a politics that rejected the empty compromises of centrism and corporatism. They made this place over as America’s “laboratory of democracy.”
States choose their destinies. They are as glorious or as miserable as they decide to be. Wisconsin was not the wealthiest or most well-positioned state during the Gilded Age. In fact, it was exploited rather mercilessly by the grain merchants and the railroad companies of the late 19th century.
But generations of Wisconsinites were inspired by La Follette, a son of the town of Primrose in southwestern Dane County, to throw off what “Fighting Bob” described as the “invisible hand” of “these corporations and masters of manipulation in finance heaping up great fortunes by a system of legalized extortion.”
“Think of the heroes who died to make this country free; think of their sons who died to keep it undivided upon the map of the world. Shall we, their children, basely surrender our birthright and say: 'Representative government is a failure'? No, never,” declared La Follette when he issued his great call to arms on July 4, 1897, in Mineral Point. “Let us here, today, under this flag we all love, hallowed by the memory of all that has been sacrificed for it and for us, dedicate ourselves to winning back the independence of this country, to emancipating this generation and throwing off from the neck of the freemen of America, the yoke of the political machine.”
La Follette died in 1925, having transformed Wisconsin and made it a North Star for the nation. Evjue lived on to 1970. Their legacies have been battered by politicians without conscience, the Scott Walkers and Paul Ryans who used Wisconsin as a springboard for their national ambitions, but they have not been erased. We can still point to them. More importantly, we can renew them. The place of beginning is to recognize that we once lived in an America such as the one Elliott Maraniss witnessed on that afternoon in the late 1960s. It was not a dream. It was Wisconsin.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising.
Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to email@example.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.