Oscar Handlin R.I.P.

I always begin my course on the immigrant experience in America by talking about the work of Oscar Handlin and his book The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations That Made the American People.  It won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1952.  I was thus saddened to hear of Handlin’s passing.  Here is a taste of an obituary published in the Philadelphia Inquirer. 

Oscar Handlin, 95, a prolific, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian whose best-known book altered public perceptions about the role of immigration in U.S. history, died Tuesday at home in Cambridge, Mass.

Mr. Handlin wrote many scholarly volumes on immigration, race, and ethnic identity during his nearly half-century as a history professor at Harvard University. His work as a chronicler of the migrations of Puerto Ricans and African Americans to cities attracted a generation of scholars to the field of urban studies in the 1950s, when it was considered marginal.

But his best-known work, The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations That Made the American People, which won the 1952 Pulitzer for history, was aimed at general readers in making his case that immigration, more than the frontier experience, or any other episode in its past, was the continuing, defining event of U.S. history. Dispensing with footnotes and writing in a lyrical style, Mr. Handlin emphasized the common threads in the experiences of the 30 million immigrants who poured into U.S. cities between 1820 and the turn of the century. Regardless of nationality, religion, race, or ethnicity, he wrote, the common experience was wrenching hardship, alienation, and a gradual Americanization that changed the United States as much as it changed the newcomers.

The book used a form of historical scholarship considered unorthodox, employing newspaper accounts, personal letters, and diaries as well as archives.

Mr. Handlin, whose parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia, was among the first Jewish scholars appointed to a full professorship at Harvard, where he taught from 1939 until 1984. 

“All his work tried to capture the voice and experience of people undergoing this uprooting process, this process of immigration,” said David J. Rothman, a history professor at Columbia University and a former student of Mr. Handlin’s. “He was alert to the fact that every group was different. But this process, regardless of whether you were Irish or Jewish, was something shared.”