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Oscar Handlin; historian led US immigration study

Harvard historian Oscar Handlin received the Pulitzer in 1952. Harvard historian Oscar Handlin received the Pulitzer in 1952. (Boston Globe/File 1962)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / September 22, 2011

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Oscar Handlin - one of the nation’s most distinguished historians, who pioneered the study of US immigration and whose book “The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations That Made the American People’’ received the 1952 Pulitzer Prize for history - died Tuesday at his Cambridge home. He was 95. The cause of death was a heart attack.

Dr. Handlin taught at Harvard for almost half a century. He was Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and, later, Carl M. Loeb University Professor (a university professorship is the highest honor Harvard reserves for faculty). He was university librarian from 1979 to 1984 and acting director of the Harvard University Press in 1972.

The author of more than 30 books, he wrote on a broad range of historical topics: family, education, race, freedom, and historiography.

“I embarked upon historical research as an explorer conscious that every great discovery was one that revealed a continent of ignorance,’’ Dr. Handlin once wrote, “the importance of which would unfold from subsequent discoveries.’’

Dr. Handlin also frequently wrote for newspapers and magazines. An exacting stylist, he emphasized the importance of clear and vivid expression in the writing of history.

He had a standard response when students lamented the difficulty of putting pen to paper: “Good. It should not come too easily.’’

Teaching was no less important to Dr. Handlin than writing or research. Many of the approximately 80 doctoral students he supervised went on to notable academic careers, among them Bernard Bailyn, Martin Baum Duberman, Sam Bass Warner, Stephan Thernstrom, and Richard Sennett.

“An extraordinary man,’’ Robert Fogelson, another of those students, said in a telephone interview yesterday.

“He was a great historian, a superb scholar, and a wonderful teacher,’’ said Fogelson, a professor of history and urban studies at MIT. “What made him so extraordinary was not simply that he did such extraordinary work of his own but that he guided so many other scholars.

“To many of us, it was always a mystery how he found the time not only to do his own scholarship but also to watch over so many young historians. He had an enormous impact on a whole generation.’’

Richard L. Bushman, another doctoral student, wrote, “Whatever their particular interest, students felt that he gave them access to new perspectives, new themes, and, particularly, to the systematic study of plain people.’’

The son of Joseph and Ida (Yanowitz) Handlin, Oscar Handlin was born in Brooklyn. His parents were Russian immigrants.

“A quiet, shy lad, he did not lack for confidence,’’ one of his students, Barbara Miller Solomon, wrote in a 1979 collection of writing by former students, “Uprooted Americans: Essays to Honor Oscar Handlin.’’ “Before he was 8, young Oscar knew he would write history books better than those he read. He meant to be a scholar.’’

He entered Brooklyn College at 15. Four years later, he began graduate school, at Harvard.

He had intended to specialize in medieval history. “The pull of external forces led me to the modern history of the United States,’’ he recalled in his 1979 essay collection, “Truth in History.’’

During his university studies, Dr. Handlin had begun demonstrating his prodigious memory: He never took lecture notes.

He received his master’s degree in 1935 and won a Frederick Sheldon fellowship for research in Europe. “I don’t know why,’’ Dr. Handlin joked in a 1952 Globe interview. “I guess they just liked my face.’’

Traveling in England, Ireland, Italy, and France, he began assembling material that would become his first book, “Boston’s Immigrants, 1790-1865.’’

It was Arthur Schlesinger Sr., Dr. Handlin said, who “directed my attention to the subjects of social history that have since occupied much of my attention.’’ Schlesinger also urged Dr. Handlin to write his dissertation on immigration to Boston in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

“Boston’s Immigrants, 1790-1865’’ (1941) won the American Historical Association’s J.L. Dunning Prize for the year’s “best work by a young scholar.’’

The book marked a turning point in the study of Boston, which had been the province of the antiquarian and nostalgist. It also demonstrated Dr. Handlin’s capacity for hard work: In assembling his data, he transcribed entries for 43,567 immigrants.

Dr. Handlin taught at Brooklyn College from 1936-38. He joined the Harvard faculty in 1939 as an instructor and remained there until retiring in 1984. In 1972-73, he held the prestigious Harmsworth professorship in American history at Oxford University.

He helped set up Harvard’s Center for the Study of the History of Liberty in America and served as its director from 1958-67. He was chairman of Harvard’s Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History from 1965-73.

From 1962-65, Dr. Handlin was vice chairman of the United States Board of Foreign Scholarships (better known as Fulbright scholarships) and was chairman from 1965-66. He served on the board of overseers of Brandeis University and was a trustee of the New York Public Library.

Among the better-known titles Dr. Handlin wrote or edited are “The American People in the Twentieth Century’’ (1954), “The Harvard Guide to American History’’ (1954), “Chance or Destiny’’ (1955), “Race and Nationality in American Life’’ (1956), “Al Smith and His America’’ (1958), “The Dimensions of Liberty’’ (1961), “Children of the Uprooted’’ (1966), “The American College and American Culture’’ (1970), “The Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups’’ (1980), and “Liberty in America, 1600 to the Present’’ (1986).

Dr. Handlin collaborated on several books with each of his wives. Mary (Flug) Handlin died in 1976 after 39 years of marriage. He married Lilian (Bombach) Handlin in 1977.

Among Dr. Handlin’s hobbies were music and the outdoors. He was an accomplished bassoonist and an enthusiastic alpinist.

In addition to his wife, Dr. Handlin leaves a brother, Nathan, and three children from his first marriage: David of Lexington, Joanna Handlin Smith of Cambridge, and Ruth Handlin Manley of Guilford, Conn. He also leaves four grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

A memorial service will be held later.

Globe correspondent Edgar J. Driscoll Jr. contributed to this obituary. Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.