REALLY Bad History

The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations that Made the American People Oscar Handlin, 1951

Yesterday while I was making a case for teaching historians to write in ways that appeal to general audiences, I bashed this book. I think Oscar and Mary Flug Hamlin's Handlin’s 1947 work, Commonwealth, was valuable. But I think The Uprooted is an embarrassment to the profession. Here's why:

Handlin's thesis is that the “history of immigration is a history of alienation and its consequences” (4). But he never mentions anyone in particular. “I have not found it in the nature of this work to give its pages the usual historical documentation,” he says (308). Freed from any obligation to support his generalizations with the experiences (much less the voices) of real people, Handlin paints a picture of superstitious, ignorant peasants who are too thick to understand the new society they find in America. They huddle together in ghettos until they are told by their social betters that they must become American; and then they discover the depth of their alienation -- they will never belong, and they can never go home.

It’s a real tale of woe. “The mighty collapse” of “the peasant heart of Europe...left without homes millions of helpless, bewildered people,” Handlin says (7). These peasant immigrants belong to a pre-modern, pre-commercial, and definitely pre-industrial world in Handlin’s account; so it makes sense that they are naively religious, believe in fairies, and feel attuned to the rhythms of nature (94-9). Their village communities give structure and meaning to their lives; so they are adrift the moment they leave. The horror of the passage weeded out the weakest and hardened the rest (43). Once here, peasants who had known only the land were unable to escape the cities and find a place in the countryside. Instead, they became unskilled workers on canal, then railroad, and then highway crews (66).

“Often,” Handlin says, “they would try to understand. They would think about it in the pauses of their work, speculate sometimes as their minds wandered, tired, at the close of a long day” (94). It’s as if he’s talking about an alien species -- and perhaps from his perspective, he is. The incredible condescension and sheer distance between the historian and his subjects is remarkable, in a book still regarded by many as a classic text. Handlin consistently denies the immigrants agency: they are orphan birds forced from their “nests” and unable to return; “and if they failed to reach the soil which had once been so much a part of their being, it was only because the town had somehow trapped them” (64).

There are some interesting facts sprinkled into the melodrama, that suggest the skeleton of a more accurate and more interesting story. “A single year in the 1830’s saw seventeen vessels founder on the run from Liverpool to Quebec alone,” Handlin says (48). And in 1847, he says, “eighty-four ships were held at Grosse Isle below Quebec...ten thousand died.” Unfortunately, he continues this passage not with facts, but with an italicized but unattributed statement written in slang, to sound like it’s a first-person account: “
I have seen them lyin on the beach, crawlin on the mud, and dyin like fish out of water” (55). By 1910, Handlin says, there were not only 350,000 miles of railway, but 200,000 miles of paved highway (66). And he says that Henry George was popular with foreign-born voters (218). Interesting details that could have been the basis of an interesting book.

Two of the most problematic elements of
The Uprooted are Handlin’s discussions of why the immigrants didn’t move to country, and his musings on their sexual difficulties. “Reluctance to pitch on the cheapest frontier lands,” he says, was based on “the expensive compulsion to settle on farms already brought under cultivation by others,” rather than the timing of their arrival and availability of accessible land (84). Isolated farms, where “neighbors lived two or three miles off,” also discouraged village-oriented peasants, Handlin claims (165). But this is a very late, high plains type of farming; for much of the period he’s discussing it would not have applied. And Handlin completely mis-characterizes truck farming close to urban centers; turning it into a sad affair where “Would-be agriculturalists...found used-up bits of ground...[and] took up the sterile, neglected acres” (88). The fact that they were successful and provided perishable foods to city-people while re-establishing their relationship with the land, goes almost unnoticed in Handlin’s gloomy account.

On the sexual front -- I’m not even going to go there, except to say that it’s unnecessary, it’s a blatantly condescending caricature, and it’s probably a figment of Handlin’s own fevered imagination. “
Better sleep out on the fire escape, Joe” (238) ...REALLY?  This is a Pulitzer-winning book from a revered historian. Give me a break.