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In each one, he uses descriptive language and situations to represent the millions of uprooted Europeans coming to America for a better life and opportunities unavailable to them at home. He writes, "Now they would learn to have dealings with people essentially different from themselves. Now they would collide with unaccustomed problems, learn to understand alien ways and alien languages, manage to survive in a grossly foreign environment" (Handlin 1973, 35). Throughout the book, he uses this almost sentimental style to illustrate the difficulties these people faced, and how they managed to survive and thrive in spite of them.
He describes the cramped living conditions in urban ghettos where most of the immigrants first ended up, the difficulties in finding employment, and how they always remained separate and separated from the Americans all around them. He writes, "This street was apart as if a ghetto wall defined it. On other streets were other men, deeply different because they had not the burden of this adjustment to bear" (Handlin 1973, 151). His style makes the immigrants seem more poignant than the other works, and somehow, far more human, as well. He creates sympathy for them, but he does not feel sorry for them, that is clear. He is simply presenting their lives as they lived them, their experiences as they would have been, to show the reader the true experience of these people.
The author, like the others, is uniquely qualified to write this book. He is an Emeritus Professor of History from Harvard University, and he has written numerous books on American history. He notes it took him fifteen years to write "The Uprooted. He states, "For almost fifteen years now, I have searched among the surviving records of the masses of men who peopled our country" (Handlin 1973, 3). He is still on the Harvard speakers list, and he clearly, as he states, spent dozens of years studying, researching, and writing this book. His research is exhaustive, with extensive notes at the end of the last chapter that include books, journal articles, and many more sources and documents. It is clear he is an expert on the subject of immigration, and that he feels empathy for the people who gave up everything they knew to come to America. His book is certainly the most empathetic and sympathetic of the three, and it follows a completely different style than the others, as well. The writing style is different, there are few quotes and references, and the entire book focuses on experience, rather than formal history. That somehow makes it more interesting and easy to read than the other two books, as well.
Personally, I agree with Handlin's view, even though it is the oldest, because of his writing style and the way the book is presented. It is the easiest to read, and it paints the most graphic picture of the immigrant experience, because it is as if the reader is right there with the immigrants on their journey. Bodnar's book is probably the most factual, and it covers far more groups of immigrants that Handlin's work, but it is harder to read, and the facts and figures sometime become overwhelming. Jacobson's work is the most modern, and it does have extremely relevance in today's society, but it is the most negative of the three, and it touches on a very specific period in time, while Handlin's work is more general and more encompassing, but somehow more satisfying at the same time.
Handlin's work is more appealing because it talks about things that do not always come to mind when thinking of immigrants. For example, European immigrants had no real experience with government. He writes, "His European experience had included no participation in government; every question related to these matters would be new to him" (Handlin 1973, 181). Reading this makes perfect sense, but it is one of the many things that Americans might not think about when it comes to immigration. Certainly, the city, living conditions, and work would all be new to the peasant immigrant, but so would just about everything else, from reading a newspaper to voting in an election. Sometimes, these things are forgotten, and Handlin points them out with descriptive and enlightening language.
The fact that this book won a Pulitzer Prize might also be part of the reason I chose it as my favorite. I can see why the book won, it is a very different look at an important part of American history, and, unlike most textbooks, and it truly engages the reader and makes them want to find out what happens next. That is often unusual in history texts, which can be dry and extremely boring when they are filled with numbers, dates, and lists. The only thing this book did not have was photos and artwork, which Jacobson's book used so effectively. Photos would have made these immigrants even more real to the reader, and they would have made the book a little bit better, I think.
If there is anything to criticize about Handlin's work, it comes from the time it was written. He writes almost exclusively of the male experience, in fact, the male "protagonist" who is a blend of any and all immigrants is male, and the females play subordinate roles throughout the book. This represents thought in the early 1950s, when it was written, when men were the breadwinners, and women stayed at home and raised the family. In addition, when he does use direct quotes or "dialogue," he does not credit it, he uses it generically, something lese that would not be condoned today. Even if he recreated the dialogue, such as lines from letters, it would be nice to know the source material. He defends these choices in the last chapter, and I must admit, the lack of footnotes and such is quite refreshing in the book, and that was his purpose, after all.
In conclusion, these books all cover very different aspects of American immigration history, and so they are all extremely valuable in their own right. Reading all three gives the reader a better understanding of how, why, and when immigrants came to the country, and reading Handlin's work gives a much clearer picture of the immigrants themselves. The immigrants formed the backbone of American society, and their descendents make up a large part of society today. Understanding their role in history helps make the current immigration process much more understandable and sympathetic and perhaps more people would soften up on immigration issues if they read and truly understood these books.
Bodnar, John. The Transplanted: A History of Immigrants in Urban America. Bloomington, in: University of Indiana Press, 1985.
Handlin, Oscar. The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations…[continue]
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