Accession Number #88-006

Biographical Note

OSCAR HANDLIN was born on Sept 29, 1915 in Brooklyn, New York, the oldest 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, attended a commercial college in the Ukraine prior to arriving in America in 1913. Oscar graduated from Brooklyn College in 1934 and taught there from 1936-38. It was during this time that he married Mary Flug. Handlin earned both his M.A. (1935) and Ph.D. (1940) from Harvard University. He then began his long career teaching at Harvard University (1939-1986).

       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.

       Handlin was a prolific writer. His book The Uprooted (1951), for which he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize (1952), begins with “Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history.” 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. Also, in 1954, Handlin won a Guggenheim fellowship.

       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 1979-1983, 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.


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