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Oscar Handlin : The Transforming Power of the Immigrant Experience

August 13, 1995|Donna Mungen | Donna Mungen is a contributor to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" and was nominated for a Cable Ace award for an A&E documentary. She interviewed Oscar Handlin by telephone from his home in Cambridge, Mass

After six decades of shifting through piles of American documents and artifacts, historian Oscar Handlin has always maintained that America "is not merely a nation, but a teeming nation of nations."

From his earliest studies--and later as one of America's leading scholars and the former director of Harvard's library--Handlin focused on the immigrant experience as the key to understanding American culture. Beginning in 1939 as an adjunct professor at Harvard University, he produced a stunning body of scholarly work while birthing a "tribe of Americanists" as he guided countless doctoral candidates as head of the Center for Study of Liberty in America and director of the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History.

Handlin was considered a pathfinder because of his novel use of previously untapped primary resources in his doctoral dissertation on Boston's immigrants, 1790-1865. For this work, published in 1941, he received the Dunning Prize, the top historical award, In 1952, Handlin won the Pulitzer Prize for "The Uprooted."

Handlin's accessible writing style allowed his ideas to travel beyond the academy to the general reading public. From the 1950s until the mid-1980s, he published nearly a book a year.

Handlin's theories on the metamorphosis endured by all immigrants have assisted U.S. policy-makers in understanding that the umbilical cord linking many second-generation Americans is not ethnic identity but the commonality that springs from their transformation.

Born 80 years ago in Brooklyn to emigrant parents escaping czarist Russia, Handlin grew up in a burgeoning Jewish community. His decision to become a historian was set by the age of 8. During his formative years, Handlin's passion for the written word would cause him to juggle books while delivering groceries for his father's neighborhood store. By the age of 19, he had finished Brooklyn College and before he turned 30--and a few classes shy of his Ph.D.--Handlin was invited to join Harvard's faculty.

Handlin married writer Lillian Bombach in 1977, after the death of his first wife, Mary Flug, a collaborator on several of his early books. He has three children from his first marriage.

Often bringing poetic refinement to his scholarly writing, Handlin has been called one of the "artists of American history."


Question: You've contended that cultural shock for most immigrants takes five forms: misinformation, blunders, cheats, exposure to the elements and assaults by humans or beasts. Has that changed?

Answer: No, I don't think so, except I do make a distinction between legal and illegal immigrants . . . . Those who arrive with visas today have less difficulty than people who arrived 50 years ago. Today, a legal immigrant who docks at a port of entry with a passport is treated rather sympathetically. However, the illegals are in quite a different situation. Unlike the legal immigrant, who is given the benefit of the doubt, illegal immigrants are harassed by imaginary or actual enemies, and that makes the entire situation totally different.

Q: You've repeatedly written that "emigration is central to American culture." Have our newest immigrants from south of the border altered this perspective?

A: That remains to be seen how they adjust--given the fact that they don't have recognized legal status . . . . People come in and out of the country without a federal response to the actual situation, which, I think, creates a feeling of suspicion and hostility that didn't exist 20 years ago. It also means the illegals have to live a marginal existence, taking whatever jobs become available and because of that, they are not in a position to further their own position.

Q: Did previous generations of immigrants encounter similar barriers?

A: The whole situation changed when, instead of arriving by ship, which could be readily controlled, people started coming by air or just walking over the border. This meant that in parts of the country exposed to this kind of population increases, there developed a great deal of suspicious feelings . . . . This same feeling doesn't exist against the Canadians who go back and forth, because their numbers are smaller and they aren't as great a drain on social resources.

In San Diego, this is a big problem because of its proximity to the Mexican border. Also, the Mexican American community is organized in a different way and seems not to be as responsive to the new arrivals. Whereas in Texas--where you have a lot of illegal Mexican immigrants in a city like San Antonio, where 60% of the native population is Latino--the immigrants, whether they are legal or not, are soaked up into a community that takes care of them . . . They seem to feel a sense of responsibility for newcomers, as far as other races can judge.

Q: Do you believe the Administration's recent commitment to buttress our southern borders will blunt this hostility?

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