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Prof. Handlin Would Never Say Tell It Like It Is, but That's His View of History

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When Oscar Handlin was young, his teachers regarded him—balefully—as the kind of boy who gives public schools a bad name. Once, when he was 8, he arrived home in West Haven, Conn. with a note pinned to his lapel. “Just don’t send him back,” it read.

Handlin returned, of course; otherwise he would not be the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who has taught at Harvard for the past 40 years. But his early education was distinctly unorthodox. “I wouldn’t do what they told me,” he recalls with a laugh. “The schools were awful, so I tried to beat the system. I didn’t learn anything until college.”

Presumably, Handlin exaggerates. A voracious reader as a child (“Libraries were a big thing in my life; I began on the top shelf and just read across”), he decided early on to write history. As the son of an immigrant grocer, he was inspired—in a peculiar way—by a book he read while making deliveries for his father with a pushcart. “It had a golden cover and was about the ancient world,” the professor recalls. “I thought, ‘This is awful. I’m sure I could do better.’ ”

Handlin’s confidence was not misplaced. At 15, he enrolled at Brooklyn College (tuition free, since his family had moved to New York City in 1923), where as a freshman he submitted a history paper so precocious his instructor suspected plagiarism. (She later apologized.) Graduating in 1934, he began postgraduate studies at Harvard, where he soon acquired a reputation for (a) brilliant scholarship, (b) a fondness for argument and (c) refusing to take notes during lectures. To this day he regards such note taking as an intrusion on the educational process. “It means that kids don’t listen or think,” he says, “but it’s an impossible habit to break them of.”

Handlin, then 23, taught for a year at Brooklyn College, then returned to Harvard in 1939 to stay. In the beginning many of his students were older than he. “It was sobering and instructive,” he recalls. Always fascinated by the lives of ordinary men and women, Handlin is author or editor of 36 books, including The Uprooted, a study of the immigrant experience, which won the 1951 Pulitzer. He wrote five of them in collaboration with his late first wife, Mary, mother of his three grown children. The couple’s partnership, he says, “involved everything. It would be hopeless to describe to this generation what that meant. People are so involved in their own individuality that it’s hard to explain a relationship of another order.” (Each of the children has followed Handlin into teaching. Joanna, 37, is an associate professor of Chinese history at the University of Rochester; David, 36, is an associate professor of architecture at Harvard, and Ruth, 32, is an assistant professor of English at Yale.)

When Mary died in 1976, Handlin, now 64, was certain he would never marry again. The next year he met Polish-born Lilian Bombach, a professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Some things are accidental,” he says with a shrug. “I was just lucky.” Married two and a half years ago, he and Lilian, 32, live in a three-story house in Cambridge and are working on three books together, including one on Lincoln to be published this spring.

Currently teaching a course on the development of the modern city, Handlin is also chairman of the editorial board of WCVB, the ABC-TV affiliate in Boston. “When I was young and innocent,” he says, “I thought television was a way to convey to a larger audience the things I had been trying to say in books and magazines. Now I don’t think I make as much difference as I thought I might. People say this is the best TV station in the country. I say, ‘Fine, but that’s because the others are not so good.’ Television isn’t being used for enlightenment but for sensationalism. The most popular entertainment makes people hateful. Mork and Mindy, Laverne and Shirley—they’re all slobs.”

Unshaken in his commitment to scholarship, Handlin has never lost his passion for historical accuracy. “If you think the world is what you want, and not what it is, you’ll be in trouble,” he says. “The great statesmen all knew history, and not in a facile way. Lincoln had no education, but he learned as he went along. History taught him what he could and could not do.” Handlin is scathingly critical of writers like Gore Vidal, Mario Puzo and Alex Haley, who he believes have played fast and loose with historical fact. In Roots, Handlin charges, Haley created Kunta Kinte in the image of a 20th-century civil rights activist and “invented an idyllic African homeland that proved inaccurate wherever evidence was available.”

Above all, Handlin maintains, a historian must be prepared to defend incontrovertible truths against the encroachments of fashion, and never be afraid of becoming unpopular. During the 1969 Harvard student strike, he recalls, “I became notorious for being ‘reactionary.’ I continued to lecture, and had nearly everyone in class, including one of the strike leaders. I grabbed him and asked, ‘What are you doing here?’ He said, ‘I’m not taking the course for credit. I’m just auditing.’ ” The professor grins broadly. “That was fine with me,” he says. “Most students, given the choice, will listen to the honest thing, not the thing they want to hear.”