Pulitizer Prize winner Oscar Handlin (born 1915) ranks as one of the most prolific and influential American historians of the twentieth century, with pioneering works in the fields of immigration history, ethnic history, and social history.
Oscar Handlin was born on Sept. 29, 1915, in Brooklyn, New York City, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. His father was involved in running a grocery store, a steam laundry, and real estate. Handlin decided to become an historian at the age of eight and began reading avidly, even while delivering groceries for his father. He graduated from Brooklyn College in 1934 after only three years, winning the Union League History Prize; one year later, he earned his master's degree at Harvard University. He had intended to study medieval history, but specialized in American history because he thought the person one studied with was more important than the field itself; the medievalist had retired, so Handlin wrote his doctoral dissertation for Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. Handlin taught at Brooklyn College from 1936-1938, during which time he married Mary Flug, and began his long career on the Harvard University faculty in 1939.
Handlin's dissertation was published in 1941 as Boston's Immigrants, 1790-1865: A Study in Acculturation. The book was highly regarded for its innovative research involving sociological concepts, census data, and the previously untapped immigrant press; in 1941, the book won the prestigious Dunning Prize from the American Historical Association for being the outstanding historical work published by a young scholar that year. The book examined immigration from the Irish migrant's viewpoint and emphasized the high psychic cost of the transatlantic social dislocation.
Handlin was a prolific writer throughout his career. In 1947, in the first of several collaborations with Mary Flug, Handlin published a study of the role played by government in developing the economy in early Massachusetts. Two years later he published an anthology of writings by European visitors to the United States, and shortly after, The Uprooted (1951). This work was awarded a Pulitzer Prize and added considerably to Handlin's reputation. Opening with the now famous lines: "Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history". The work considered the nature and consequences of the alienation experienced by the more than 30 million immigrants who had come to America since 1820, considered from their point of view. In addition to traditional sources, Handlin based his work on folklore, novels, and newspapers, but the work was criticized by scholars who like footnotes. Handlin provided none, a practice he continued in other works written for the general public. Nevertheless, it became his most famous book.
In 1954, the year he became a full professor at Harvard, Handlin was chief editor of The Harvard Guide to American History, which was quickly recognized as "one of the most authoritative bibliographic tools in the field of American history"; the same year, he published a history of American ethnic groups (The American People in the Twentieth Century, tracing the history of racist thought in the early 1900s, and a history of Jews in America, (Adventure in Freedom: Three Hundred Years of Jewish Life in America), which among other things demonstrated elements of anti-Semitism in the early 1900's Populist movement.
In Chance or Destiny (1955), Handlin argues that history is "a line made up of a succession of points, with every point a turning point." In Truth in History and The Distortion of American, responding to the political and intellectual turmoil of the '60's and '70's, Handlin expressed disapproval of New Left historians, whom he saw as partisans, and of academic faddishness, hiring quotas, over-specialization and fragmentation in all fields of history, and deficiencies in graduate training. Handlin was strongly anti-Communist and was critical of those who opposed the war in Vietnam.
By the late 1950's Handlin was publishing a book almost yearly, with works in the fields of civil rights, liberty, ethnicity, urban history, the history of education, foreign affairs, migration, biography, adolescence even a book of poetry. Sometimes, he wrote collaboratively with Mary Flug Handlin and, after her death in 1976 and his second marriage a year later, with Lilian Handlin. In the 1960's, Handlin produced 11 books, wrote a monthly book column for The Atlantic Monthly,, directed the Center for the Study of Liberty in America, helped manage a commercial television station in Boston, chaired a board that oversaw Fulbright Scholarship awards all this in addition to his regular teaching duties at Harvard. From 1979-1983, he was director of the university library.
In the 1960's, Handlin wrote eight books, including the controversial Fire Bell in the Night: The Crisis in Civil Rights in which he criticized separatists, segregationists, and suburban liberals but also disapproved of quotas, school busing, and affirmative action, saying, "Preferential treatment demands a departure from the ideal which judges individuals by their own merits rather than by their affiliations." He also edited a 42-volume collection of books on subjects relating to immigration and ethnicity, The American Immigration Collection (1969). During the next three decades, Handlin wrote 12 more books, many on the subject of liberty, and edited at least 20 biographies.
Handlin was honored in 1979 with a book by several former students, Uprooted American: Essays to Honor Oscar Handlin, which was praised for its craftsmanship and for the testimony it provided of his influence on the historical profession. Still, there is no "Handlin school of history, " nor did he try to form one. He likely will be most remembered especially for his abundant demonstrations of the importance of immigration and its role in the history of the United States.
A mid-career evaluation of Handlin is Maldwyn Jones's essay in Marcus Cunliffe and Robin W. Winks, eds., Pastmasters: Some Essays on American Historians (1969). He is also mentioned in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., In Retrospect: The History of a Historian (1963). Handlin's work is considered in Bruce Stave, "A Conversation with Oscar Handlin, " in The Making of Urban History (1977); and Stephen J. Whitfield, "Handlin's History, " American Jewish History, Vol. 70, (December 1980); For an autobiography of his teaching at Harvard University, see Oscar Handlin, "A Career at Harvard, " The American Scholar, Vol 65 (Winter 1996). □