Oscar Handlin: Immigration made America

Father Tom Joyce CMF| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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Oscar Handlin, the Harvard historian of immigration, died last week to almost unanimous praise. His book, The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations That Made the American People (1951), put an end to the romantic nonsense that the American frontier fashioned a new, independent, and superior character--the American who contrasted with the tradition-bounded European. That thesis was famously expounded by Frederick Jackson Turner at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago (1893) and dominated American history for more than half century. Even as late as 1961, President John F. Kennedy was inviting America to find renewed vigor in a “New Frontier.” Oscar Handlin more than anyone tempered, if not exploded, the frontier theory. The American people were immigrants, and the immigration experience has as much, if not more, to do toward fashioning the American people than the frontier.

In the 1950s I read Handlin’s Uprooted, and later his Boston Irish, and it turned me to seeing history as a story of the fashioning of people. Turner’s thesis was more nuanced than a simple upward, unbounded progress of the people across the continent. There was a dark side to the frontier; the westward expansion came with a great deal of violence and lawlessness. But Turner propounded his image of a new independent and resourceful American at a time when the U.S. Census Bureau declared that the frontier had closed. Leaders and intellectuals were stunned and wondered where American was to go next. Many looked to the cities which were being filled with more and more immigrants--who also practiced religions foreign to Protestant, rural America--with fear and loathing. Yet the saga of a people “uprooted” from their past, new to this vast land, bound to struggle for survival in the tenements of Boston or New York, adapting their customs and religions to new realities, Handlin argued, was the true forge of the American people. It was a noble story, and I was hooked on it.

As graduate student of history, even though I specialized in church history, I tried to maintain a social perspective. I modified some views from Handlin, but never really strayed from his basic thesis--especially since it explained much of the American Catholic experience. Some scholars, reacting perhaps to his politics more than his history, dismissed Handlin in the '60s and '70s. But is his influence telling the American story through the spectrum of immigration is again recognized. He had influenced the reform of immigration law in the 1960s that did away with the discriminatory quota system of the 1920s.

I also found it amusing that a kid from Brooklyn, himself the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, would tell the story of so exotic a creature as the Boston Irish. (And another irony, a New England son of Irish immigrants perpetuated the frontier myth through films.  I just read Roddy Doyle's, The Dead Republic, in which the director John Ford is accused of creating an unreal America in Monument Valley, Utah. What bothers Doyle is that Ford’s sentimentality does the same thing to Ireland in the Quiet Man. History is not an exact science and there is a danger in romanticizing it.) But we should be grateful to Oscar Handlin in making us aware that we are a country of immigrants--even the Native Americans whose ancestors came across a land bridge from Siberia.