Oscar Handlin 1940s, family photo

Oscar Handlin (September 29, 1915 in Brooklyn, New York – September 20, 2011 in Cambridge, Massachusetts)[1] was an American historian. As a professor of history at Harvard University for over 50 years, he directed 80 PhD dissertations and helped promote social and ethnic history. Handlin won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1952 with The Uprooted.[2][3] Handlin's 1965 testimony before Congress was said to "have played an important role" in abolishing a discriminatory immigration quota system in the U.S.[4]


Handlin was born in Brooklyn, New York, the eldest of three children of Russian-Jewish immigrants. His mother, the former, Ida Yanowitz, came to the United States in 1904 and worked in the garment industry. His father, Joseph, came to America in 1913 after attending a commercial college in the Ukraine and later being stationed in Harbin, China as a soldier during the Russo-Japanese war. Handlin's parents were passionately devoted to literature and the life of the mind. Their experience of religious persecution in Czarist Russia made them fiercely devoted to democracy and social justice (Handlin was a proto-"red diaper baby.") The couple owned a grocery store, the success of which along with real estate investments enabled them to send their children — Oscar, Nathan and Sarah — to Harvard.[5]

In 1934, Handlin graduated from Brooklyn College and received a M.A. from Harvard University one year later. Between 1936 and 1938, he taught history at Brooklyn College.[6] In 1940, he received his PhD from Harvard, where he studied with Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr.[7] During his time as a graduate student at Harvard, he was denied the position of Vice President in the Henry Adams Club for being Jewish.[8] He was among the first Jewish scholars appointed to a full professorship at Harvard.[9]

His work centered around the topic of immigrants in the U.S., and their influence on culture.[7] Handlin taught at Harvard from 1939 to 1986.

A man of few words outside the lecture room, Handlin made every word count. He was possessed of a sardonic wit honed by his love of the novels of James Branch Cabell, the operettas of Gilbert & Sullivan and the cartoons of Al Capp who was a family friend.[10]

He died in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Handlin was very active as a scholarly organizer and administrator. In the Harvard history department he helped create the Center for the Study of the History of Liberty in America and directed it 1958-67; he also chaired the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History from 1965 to 1973. From 1962 to 1966, he was a top official of the United States Board of Foreign Scholarships, which gives out Fulbright scholarships. He served on the board of overseers of Brandeis University and was a trustee of the New York Public Library. He was Harvard's head librarian from 1979 to 1984 and acting director of the Harvard University Press in 1972.[11]



Among Handlin's many important contributions was his pioneering work on immigration to America. In his Pulitzer Prize winning The Uprooted (1951), he opens with the declaration: "Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history."[12] In the process, Handlin laid the ground for study of immigration by the succeeding generation of historians, even though many of them would dispute his immigrant archetype of a peasant guided primarily by religious conviction, having no familiarity with wage work or urban settings, and having experienced migration first and foremost as alienation from family, community, and tradition.[13]

The American Journal of Sociology described Handlin's first book, Boston's Immigrants (1941), as "the first historical case study of the impact of immigrants upon a particular society and the adjustment of the immigrants to that society. The writer has opened a new field for historical research and has also made a significant contribution to the literature of race and culture contacts."[14]

Handlin is viewed as one of the most prolific and influential American historians of the twentieth century. As an American historian and educator, he was noted for his in depth examination of American immigration history, ethnic history and social history. His dissertation (1941) was published as Boston’s Immigrants, 1790-1865: A Study in Acculturation. The book was highly regarded for its innovative research on sociological concepts and census data; in 1941, the book won the prestigious Dunning Prize from the American Historical Association as outstanding historical work published by a young scholar.

By the late 1950s Oscar Handlin was publishing a book nearly every year, 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 1960s, Handlin produced 11 books, wrote a monthly 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— in addition to his teaching duties at Harvard. From 1979 to 1983, he was director of the Harvard University Library. 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. He continued his work with immigrants with From the Outer World (1997), which collected the travel accounts of visitors to the United States from non-European countries.[5]

American slavery[edit]

Oscar Handlin argued that racism was a by-product of slavery, and that the main focus was on the fact that slaves, like indentured servants, were regarded as inferior because of their status, not necessarily because of their race.[15]


  • Boston's Immigrants, 1790–1865 (1941, rev. and enl. ed. 1959)
  • Commonwealth (1947, together with his wife, Mary Flug Handlin)
  • The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations That Made the American People (1951, 2d enl. ed. 1973)
  • Adventure in Freedom; 300 Years of Jewish Life in America (1954)
  • Chance or Destiny: Turning Points in American History (1955), Little, Brown, & Co.
  • Race and Nationality in American Life (1957)
  • Al Smith and His America (1958)
  • The Newcomers: Negroes and Puerto Ricans in a Changing Metropolis (1959)
  • The Dimensions of Liberty (1961)
  • The Americans: A New History of the People of the United States (1963)
  • A Continuing Task: The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, 1914—1964 (1964)
  • Occasions for Love, and Other Essays at Recollection (Poetry, 1977)
  • Truth In History (1979)
  • From the Outer World (1997, with Lilian Handlin)

About Handlin

  • Bushman, Richard L. et al., eds. Uprooted Americans: Essays to Honor Oscar Handlin (1980)
  • Rothman, David J. "The Uprooted: Thirty Years Later," Reviews in American History 10 (September 1982): 311–19 in JSTOR
  • Ueda, Reed. "Immigration and the moral criticism of American history: The vision of Oscar Handlin," Canadian Review of American Studies, 1990, Vol. 21 Issue 2, pp 183–202
  • Vecoli, Rudolph J. "Contadini in Chicago: A Critique of The Uprooted," Journal of American History 5 (December 1964): 404–17, critique of Handlin in JSTOR
  • Bukowczyk, John J. "Oscar Handlin's America," Journal of American Ethnic History (Spring 2013) 32#3 pp 7-18; special issue devoted to Handlin.
  • Anbinder, Tyler. "Boston's Immigrants and the Making of American Immigration History," Journal of American Ethnic History (2013) 32#3 pp 19-25.
  • Kraut, Alan M. "Oscar Handlin and the Idea That We Are a Nation of Immigrants," Journal of American Ethnic History (2013) 32#3 pp 26-36
  • Reed, Touré F. "Oscar Handlin and the Problem of Ethnic Pluralism and African American Civil Rights," Journal of American Ethnic History (2013) 32#3 pp 37-45
  • Thomas, Lorrin. "Oscar Handlin, The Newcomers: Negroes and Puerto Ricans in a Changing Metropolis," Journal of American Ethnic History (2013) 32#3 pp 46-52
  • Diner, Hasia. "Oscar Handlin: A Jewish Historian," Journal of American Ethnic History (2013) 32#3 pp 53-61
  • Ngai, Mae M. "Oscar Handlin and Immigration Policy Reform in the 1950s and 1960s," Journal of American Ethnic History (2013) 32#3 pp 62-67
  • Gerber, David A. "The Uprooted Would Never Have Been Written If Oscar Handlin Had Taken His Own, Latter-Day Advice," Journal of American Ethnic History (2013) 32#3 pp 68–77