Pulitzer Prize winner David Maraniss revisits Detroit in new book

By Shelby Ashline

(Jessica Simpson/Daily Collegian)
(Jessica Simpson/Daily Collegian)

A crowd of more than 75 students and faculty members filled room N301 in the Integrative Learning Center yesterday evening to see guest speaker David Maraniss, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and the author of 11 books.

His lecture began at 4 p.m. and focused on the content of his most recent book, “Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story.”

Having grown up in Detroit, Maraniss reminisced fondly about his memories of Detroit-made 1950s automobiles and drinking locally-produced Verners ginger ale and explained that he set out to honor his childhood memories through his book, while also showing readers how Detroit changed the United States.

“What I at first sought to do is to honor what Detroit gave America, which is enormous,” Maraniss said.

He went on to list the city’s notable contributions: Motown music, cars built by GM and Chrysler, labor unions such as the United Auto Workers Union “that helped build the working class into the middle class in this country” and events that were influential to the civil rights movement.

From there, Maraniss said he knew he wanted to tell the history of a time period when Detroit’s influence was strong, specifically between 1962-1964. He compared the research process to “the four legs of a table,” a philosophy that drives his work in journalism as well.

The first leg requires that the journalist or writer go to the place he or she wants to write about and experience it. Maraniss said he traveled to his hometown eight times during his research, a process he said initially depressed him due to the deterioration of the city.

“I thought I could sit down in the middle of the street and read ‘War and Peace’ and not get hit by a car,” Maraniss joked. Many of the houses he remembered from childhood had been demolished and what remained was in a state of decay.

For the second leg, Maraniss worked on finding historic documents, especially letters and diaries. Thirdly, he conducted interviews, though he said he inevitably encountered sources whose memories were uneven and unreliable.

Lastly, Maraniss said he sorted through myth to find the real story of Detroit. The four legs of his research process, all intensive in their own respects, combined to bring readers the city’s full story and – figuratively speaking – produced a functional table.

“I like to sit like an oil rig and go as deep as I can (into a story),” Maraniss said. However, Detroit’s story could not be complete without mention of the city’s decay.

“Everything decays,” Maraniss said bluntly.

A failing housing market, businesses that were more concerned with short-term gains than the wellbeing of their workers and an increased amount of freedom through cars caused people to leave the city.

Regardless, Maraniss is hopeful for the future of Detroit and feels that its importance should not be underestimated.

“I think it’s on its way to being a city of hope,” he said, explaining that Detroit is attracting “foodies, techies and artists” which produce the same creative energy that the city witnessed in the 1960s.

Following the lecture, Maraniss answered questions from the audience and signed copies of “Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story,” which was offered for sale at the event with discounted student rates courtesy of Amherst Books.

In addition to his new book which was published this year, Maraniss has written biographies of Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Al Gore. He has focused on eclectic topics from baseball to the Vietnam War, always providing historical accounts through detailed research. As a journalist, he works as the associate editor of The Washington Post.

Shelby Ashline can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter @shelby_ashline.