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Oscar Handlin, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Harvard Historian, Dies at 95

By Nicholas P. Fandos, Contributing Writer

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and long-time Harvard University Professor Oscar Handlin died of a heart attack on Sept. 20 at his home in Cambridge. He was 95 years old.

During a career that spanned well over 50 years, Handlin earned a reputation as one of the most influential historians in the United States and formidable professors at the University.

Handlin’s best-known book, “The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations that Made the American People,” earned him the 1952 Pulitzer Prize for History and was a watershed text in American historical scholarship. But it was his clear, accessible style backed by rigorous research, drawn from diverse sources, that earned Handlin a reputation as one of the foremost commentators on American history and politics.

“In the years after World War II and for decades, he was one the major figures in the study of history,” said History Professor Emeritus Bernard Bailyn, a former student and colleague of Handlin’s, who has himself garnered two Pulitzer Prizes. “His views were intensely original and provocative, so people read them and listened.”

Handlin was a member of the Harvard faculty from 1939 until his retirement in 1984, serving the University in a wide array of roles, including Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor, director of the University Library from 1979 to 1984, and acting director of Harvard University Press in 1972.

As director of the Harvard libraries, Handlin began the modernization of the library catalogue and laid the groundwork for today’s electronic card catalogue, the Hollis system.

Born Sept. 29, 1915 in Brooklyn, NY to Russian-Jewish immigrants, Handlin was a product of the world that he would come to chronicle so famously. At 15 he entered Brooklyn College, and after earning his degree in 1934 he began studies as a graduate student at Harvard.

Handlin earned a master’s degree in 1935 and after a fellowship in Europe, began a brief teaching stint at his alma mater in Brooklyn. Working as he taught, Handlin successfully defended his dissertation in 1940, earning a Ph.D. in history from Harvard. Under the direction of Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr., Handlin’s dissertation “Boston’s Immigrants, 1790-1865” won the American Historical Association’s top prize for young scholars. Among his many accolades was the Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship, which he was awarded in 1954.

Handlin went on to write over 30 books and numerous articles on a wide range of topics in American social history, but his most influential work remained the study of immigration and race.

“I think he had a genius for explaining complex questions in clear language,” Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and University Librarian Robert C. Darnton said. “He could cut to the heart of an issue and make it really understandable to the general public.”

Handlin’s sway as a public intellectual and commentator peaked in the 1960s when his public pronouncements and testimony before Congress helped win the repeal of the United States’ immigration quota policy. At the same time, his writing on race helped break the moral backbone of American racism, Darnton said.

Darnton remembered Handlin fondly personally, as well. He recalled a time when he was interviewing for a job at Harvard and Handlin could recollect the details of Darnton’s undergraduate thesis, which he did not advise, asking Darnton specific questions about the work.

“He was someone who had read everything and really thought about everything,” Darnton said. “He was encyclopedic.”

Handlin was just as influential in the classroom. His unique teaching style—a combination of straight analysis and student-led discussion—influenced generations of students. Notable academics Stephan Thernstrom, Samuel Bass Warner, and Robert Fogelson were among Handlin’s roughly 80 dissertation advisees.

“There’s no Handlin school of historical writing,” Thernstrom said. “Oscar stood out as someone who emphasized that this was your dissertation not his .... He wasn’t interested in disciples.”

According to Darnton, for students of poor or minority backgrounds, Handlin’s 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.

Handlin was made a Carl M. Loeb University Professor Emeritus upon his retirement and continued to research and write in his Widener Library study until his death.

“He was quite a presence, ancient as he was. He showed up every day in a suit,” said Darnton.

In addition to his academic work, Handlin helped found and direct Harvard’s Center for the Study of the History of Liberty in America and the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History. He also served on the boards of the Fulbright Scholarships and Brandeis University and as a trustee for the New York Public Library.

Handlin’s first wife Mary Flug Handlin died in 1976. He is survived by his second wife of 34 years, Lillian Bombach Handlin, as well as his brother and three children. A memorial has yet to be scheduled.

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