1915: Man Who Taught U.S. About Migrants Is Born

Oscar Handlin eventually put the spotlight on the epic role of immigration in America.

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September 29, 1915, is the birthdate of Oscar Handlin, the prolific historian who was one of the first to attempt to systematically study the effect of immigration on the development of the United States. It was Handlin who wrote, in his 1952 book “The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations That Made the American People,” how, “Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history.”

Oscar Handlin was born in Brooklyn, New York, and was the oldest child of Joseph and Ida (nee Yanowitz) Handlin, both of them Jewish immigrants from the Russian empire. His father owned a grocery store.

Handlin received his B.A. from Brooklyn College in 1934, and a year later earned a master’s degree in history from Harvard University. He then taught for two years at Brooklyn College, while working on his Ph.D. at Harvard, which he completed in 1940. The latter institution is also where Handlin spent the rest of his academic career, from which he retired in 1984.

In addition to teaching history – which included overseeing the doctoral work of more than 80 students over the years – Handlin also served as director of the university library and acting director of the Harvard University Press. He also published over 30 books.

Handlin’s doctoral adviser at Harvard was the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the university’s pioneer in immigration studies. According to a biographical essay by Mary Elizabeth Brown, the day that Handlin came to Schlesinger’s office to discuss a topic for his thesis, his teacher showed him a letter he had just received from another student, announcing his decision not to continue work on a planned dissertation on “a racial history of Boston.”

Handlin took the topic on, and the result was a dissertation that was published in book form in 1941 as “Boston’s Immigrants, 1790-1865: A Study in Acculturation.” In it, Handlin employed census data and other records gathered in the United Kingdom and the Vatican, as well as the archives of immigrant newspapers and modern sociological theory, to examine the impact of both native-born “Yankees” and Irish Catholic immigrants on the city’s development. That book, which was described by the American Journal of Sociology as “the first historical case study of the impact of immigrants upon a particular society and the adjustment of the immigrants to that society,” won Handlin a prestigious prize from the American Historical Society.

“The Uprooted,” too, employed newspaper archives and personal letters and memoirs in looking at immigration’s impact on the United States as a whole, but it was intended for a general audience, and concealed its scholarly underpinnings (for example, it had no footnotes). It looked at the entire process of immigration, beginning in the old country, and then, according to Mary Elizabeth Brown, zeroed in on the theme of alienation in looking at the process undergone in the adoptive home. Immigrants felt alienation both from their work – having only a minimal connection to what they produced, while receiving pay based on the amount of competition for the job – and from the dominant surrounding culture. The first generation of immigrants, he postulated, was unsuccessful both in recreating their native culture in their new home and in assimilating into the new culture they encountered. “The Uprooted” won Handlin the Pulitzer Prize for History for 1952.

Handlin’s theories have to a large extent been supplanted by the work of later researchers, but the impact of his having put the immigration experience at the center of American history remains essential. His testimony before Congress in 1965 played a key role in the passage of legislation that eliminated the discriminatory quota system that had been in place since the 1920s.

Like many other liberal intellectuals, many of them also of Jewish background, in the 1960s, Handlin moved to the right in his response to the Vietnam War. While American campuses became the hotbed of opposition, both among students and younger faculty to the war, Handlin believed that American withdrawal from Vietnam would be disastrous for its foreign policy and that the war could and should be won. Even as late as 1981, in his book “The Distortion of America,” Handlin was arguing that Vietnam was a just cause and that American intellectuals did not understand the threat that their country faced from communism.

Handlin died on September 20, 2011, at age 95. Shortly after his death, the Henry Adams Club, an organization for history graduate students at Harvard, posthumously named Handlin as an honorary vice president. This was intended to rectify the wrong done him more than seven decades earlier, when the club refused him the position because he was Jewish. His daughter Joanna accepted the award on her late father’s behalf, but said at the time, according to the Harvard student newspaper, that she was amazed that “never did I ever hear my father mention anti-Semitism, or even mention the Adams Club for that matter."