Stephen Oates: Award-winning American civil war historian

As well as multiple books on the 19th-century conflict, Stephen Oates also penned a prize-winning biography of Abraham Lincoln

Matt Schudel
Monday 13 September 2021 00:01
<p>Although the historian (left) was plagued by allegations of plagiarism in his later career, his works are still noteworthy for many students  </p>

Although the historian (left) was plagued by allegations of plagiarism in his later career, his works are still noteworthy for many students

Stephen Oates, a historian and writer whose biography of Abraham Lincoln, With Malice Toward None, was once considered the finest one-volume study of the American civil war president before both the book and author were tainted with charges of improper appropriation from earlier works, has died aged 85.

Oates was a prolific writer whose books were, for many years, considered models of historical scholarship presented in an accessible style that made them popular with ordinary readers. He published more than 15 books, including a two-volume textbook of American history that was widely used in classrooms, and he was a featured expert in filmmaker Ken Burns’s 1990 PBS series on the civil war.

After writing several books about his native Texas, Oates turned his focus to biography, believing it could have the same dramatic force and literary grace as fiction.

“Biography appealed to me as the form in which I wanted to write about the past,” he wrote in a book he edited, Biography as High Adventure: Life-Writers Speak on Their Art, “because the best biography – pure biography – was a storytelling art that brought people alive again.”

He was perhaps best known for a series of four books about historical figures martyred to the cause of racial justice, beginning with a 1970 biography of abolitionist John Brown, who believed slavery could be ended only through violent insurrection.

“Brown’s life was filled with drama,” historian Eric Foner wrote in a review in The New York Times, “and Oates tells his story in a manner so engrossing that the book reads like a novel, despite the fact that it is extensively documented and researched.”

In 1975, he published The Fires of Jubilee, a biography of Nat Turner, an enslaved man who led a rebellion in Virginia in 1831. Oates then turned to Lincoln, publishing With Malice Toward None in 1977. Scholars praised the book for its treatment of Lincoln’s complex inner life and his oft-overlooked abilities as a strong chief executive and military strategist.

Harvard historian David Herbert Donald, in his review for the NYT, called Oates’s book “full, fair and accurate” and “certainly the most objective biography of Lincoln ever written”.

With Malice Toward None sold more than 100,000 copies, was studied in college courses and was hailed as the best single-volume biography of Lincoln until it was superseded by new studies by Donald in 1995 and Ronald White Jr in 2009.

The final book in what Oates considered his civil war quartet, Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr, appeared in 1982 and received the Robert F Kennedy Book Award. He later wrote biographies of author William Faulkner and civil war nurse Clara Barton.

In 1990, Robert Bray, an English professor and literary critic at Illinois Wesleyan University, delivered a paper at a conference in which he cited similarities between passages in With Malice Toward None and a 1952 biography of Lincoln by Benjamin Thomas.

Oates: ‘Biography appealed to me as the form in which I wanted to write about the past’

Thomas had written: “The body lay in the same room where they ate and slept.”

In With Malice Toward None, Oates wrote: “While Thomas fashioned a black-cherry coffin, the dead woman lay in the same room where the family ate and slept.”

In another passage, Thomas had written: “Lolling on the low deck, giving an occasional tug on the slender sweeps to avoid the snags and sandbars...”

Oates wrote: “At last they came to the Mississippi and headed southward in its tempestuous currents, tugging on their slender sweeps to avoid snags and sandbars...”

“Oates was turning Thomas’s pages as he wrote,” Bray later said, “yet failed for whatever reason to admit that.”

Oates vigorously disputed the charges, saying the resemblances were incidental and the result of a common body of knowledge about Lincoln. He demanded apologies from his detractors, hired a law firm and public relations agency, and threatened to sue.

“I was shattered, blindsided, lying on the floor in public humiliation,” he said in 1991. “Suddenly, I stood accused.”

Scholars joined the fray, with some accusing Oates of outright plagiarism, others arguing that he had been unfairly maligned. Two researchers at the National Institutes of Health who studied fraud in scientific papers took up the case, using computers to determine whether Oates’s books borrowed wording from other sources. They claimed to find hundreds of examples before they were reassigned by NIH and locked out of their office, leading one of them to go on a hunger strike.

The American Historical Association conducted a year-long investigation, which Oates called a “kangaroo court”, before concluding in 1992 that he had used language from other sources without proper attribution. He was not charged with plagiarism.

Nonetheless, Frank J Williams, a past president of the Abraham Lincoln Association and a former chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, said in an interview, “I still recommend With Malice Toward None to my students at the Naval War College as one of the five best biographies of Lincoln.”

Stephen Baery Oates was born on 5 January 1936, in Pampa, Texas. His father did mechanical work for an oil company, and his mother was a receptionist at a doctor’s office.

Oates studied forestry and advertising before switching to history, inspired by the civil war books of Bruce Catton. He graduated in 1958 from the University of Texas at Austin, where he was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honour society, then stayed on for graduate work in history at the university, receiving a master’s degree in 1960 and a PhD in 1969.

After teaching at colleges in Texas, he joined the University of Massachusetts faculty in 1968. His classes on biography, the civil war and the era of John F Kennedy were among the most popular on campus, attracting as many as 500 students a semester. Oates retired from teaching in 1997.

His three marriages ended in divorce. Survivors include two children from his first marriage to Helen Perry; a brother; and four grandchildren.

Oates’s final books about the civil war, first-person accounts from multiple points of view, appeared in the late 1990s.

He was deeply affected by the charges of plagiarism and said his health and public reputation were irreparably damaged. Once a prominent figure at conferences and in the media, he retreated from public life. Old friends said they had not heard from him in more than two decades.

Stephen Oates, academic and writer, born 5 January 1936, died 20 August 2021

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