Stephen B. Oates: “His books were considered models of historical scholarship presented in an accessible style that made them popular.”

From a Washington Post obit by Matt Schudel headlined “Stephen B. Oates, historian and biographer of Lincoln and King, dies at 85”:

Stephen B. Oates, a historian and writer whose biography of Abraham Lincoln, “With Malice Toward None,” was once considered the finest one-volume study of the Civil War president before both the book and author were tainted with charges of improper appropriation from earlier works, died at his home in Amherst, Mass….

Dr. 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, Dr. 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, “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. Dr. 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 called Dr. Oates’s book “full, fair and accurate” and “certainly the most objective biography of Lincoln ever written.”…

The final book in what Dr. Oates considered his Civil War quartet, “Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” appeared 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 in which he cited similarities between passages in “With Malice Toward None” and a 1952 biography of Lincoln by Benjamin Thomas.

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

In “With Malice Toward None,” Dr. 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 . . .”

Dr. 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.”

Dr. 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. “Suddenly, I stood accused.”…

The American Historical Association conducted a year-long investigation, which Dr. 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.”…

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. Dr. Oates retired from teaching in 1997….

Dr. 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.

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004. He previously worked for publications in Washington, New York, North Carolina and Florida.

Also see the New York Times obit by Katharine Q. Seelye headlined “Stephen B. Oates, Civil War Histtorian, Dies at 85”

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