Longtime Harvard historian and Pulitzer Prize winner Oscar Handlin, who pioneered the study of immigration to America, died Sept. 20 at 95 in Cambridge, Mass.
Handlin, who began teaching at Harvard in 1940 and mentored scores of historian and students, wrote more than 30 popular and scholarly biographies and histories, including those of American Jews.
He was lauded by Jewish historians as a pioneering and influential figure who was one of the first generation of American Jews to become a historian. A commentator on an email list of Jewish historians said he was the first Harvard historian interested in the history of American Jews.
Robert C. Darnton, a Harvard professor and University Librarian, said Handlin’s own presence at Harvard as a representative of the Jewish immigrant community was just as significant as his work. “Here was living proof that Harvard was open to talent, and it could make room for people who were different,” Darnton said.
His 1952 book, “The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations That Made the American People,” (2002 reprint) won the Pulitzer Prize for History and legitimized study of immigrants to the United States. Historian James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, said Handlin “reoriented the whole picture of the American story from the view that America was built on the spirit of the Wild West, to the idea that we are a nation of immigrants.”
Handlin put it this way in the introduction to “Uprooted”: “Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history.”
In the 1960s, Handlin’s “sway as a public intellectual and commentator peaked” when his testimony to Congress helped win the repeal of the US immigration quota policy, which had been in place since the 1920s, and which discriminated against many groups, including Asians.
He was born in Brooklyn and was the oldest of four children of Joseph and Ida Handlin, who owned a grocery store. Handlin had said he decided to become a historian at age 8. He graduated from Brooklyn College in 1934 at 19, and received a master’s degree in history from Harvard a year later. He taught at Brooklyn College from 1936 until 1938 while working on his doctorate, which he received from Harvard in 1940. He was one of the first Jews appointed to a full professorship at Harvard.
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