Oates, Stephen B. 1936–

views updated

Oates, Stephen B. 1936–

(Stephen Baery Oates)

PERSONAL: Born January 5, 1936, in Pampa, TX; son of Steve Theodore and Florence (Baer) Oates; married Marie Philips; children (from previous marriage): Gregory Allen, Stephanie. Education: University of Texas—Austin, B.A. (magna cum laude), 1958, M.A., 1960, Ph.D., 1969.

ADDRESSES: Home—10 Bridle Path, Amherst, MA 01002-1632. Office—Department of History, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA 01003. E-mail[email protected]

CAREER: Arlington State College (now University of Texas—Arlington), instructor, 1964–67, assistant professor of history, 1967–68; University of Massachusetts, Amherst, assistant professor, 1968–70, associate professor, 1970–71, professor of history, 1971–80, adjunct professor of English, 1980–85, Paul Murray Kendall Professor of Biography, 1985–98, professor emeritus, 1998–. Guest lecturer at numerous colleges, universities, societies, and associations throughout the United States; has made numerous guest appearances on radio and television programs. Honorary member of board of directors, Abraham Lincoln Association. American history and biography consultant to various commercial and university presses, and consultant to National Endowment for the Humanities for various book, museum, television, and motion-picture projects.

MEMBER: Society of American Historians, American Antiquarian Society, Texas Institute of Letters, Phi Beta Kappa.

AWARDS, HONORS: Texas State Historical Association fellow, 1968; Texas Institute of Letters fellow, 1969; Guggenheim fellow, 1972; Chancellor's Medal for Outstanding Scholarship, University of Massachusetts, 1976; Christopher Award, 1977, and Barondess/Lincoln Award, New York Civil War Round Table, 1978, both for With Malice toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln; National Endowment for the Humanities senior summer fellow, 1978; Distinguished Teaching Award, University of Massachusetts, 1981; Litt.D., Lincoln College, 1981; graduate faculty fellowship, University of Massachusetts, 1981–82; Christopher Award, 1982, Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Award, 1983, and Chancellor's Certificate of Recognition, University of Massachusetts, 1983, all for Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr.; Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities fellow, 1984; Author's Award for best article of the year, Civil War Times Illustrated, 1984, for "Abraham Lincoln: Man and Myth"; University of Massachusetts Presidential Writers Award, 1985; Master Teacher Award, University of Hartford, 1985; Silver Medal winner and semi-finalist in national professor of the year competition, Council for Advancement and Support of Education, 1986 and 1987; Kidger Award, New England History Teachers Association, 1992; Nevins-Freeman Award, Chicago Civil War Round Table, 1993.

WRITINGS:

Confederate Cavalry West of the River, University of Texas Press (Austin, TX), 1961.

(Editor and author of introduction and commentary) John Salmon Ford, Rip Ford's Texas, University of Texas Press (Austin, TX), 1963, reprinted, 1987.

(General editor and contributor) The Republic of Texas, American West Publishing (Palo Alto, CA), 1968.

Visions of Glory: Texas on the Southwestern Frontier, University of Oklahoma Press (Norman, OK), 1970.

To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown, Harper (New York, NY), 1970, revised 2nd edition, University of Massachusetts Press (Amherst, MA), 1984.

(Editor) Portrait of America, Volume 1: From the European Discovery to the End of Reconstruction, Volume 2: From Reconstruction to the Present, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1973, 8th edition (with Charles J. Enrico), 2003.

The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion, Harper & Row (New York, NY), 1975.

With Malice toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Harper & Row (New York, NY), 1977, reprinted, 1994.

Our Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, and the Civil War Era, University of Massachusetts Press (Amherst, MA), 1979.

Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr., Harper & Row (New York, NY), 1982.

Abraham Lincoln: The Man behind the Myths, Harper & Row (New York, NY), 1984.

(Editor, author of prologue, and contributor) Biography as High Adventure: Life-Writers Speak on Their Art, University of Massachusetts Press (Amherst, MA), 1986.

William Faulkner: The Man and the Artist; A Biography, Harper & Row (New York, NY), 1987.

A Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War, Free Press (New York, NY), 1994.

The Approaching Fury: Voices of the Storm, 1820–1861, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1997.

The Whirlwind of War: Voices of the Storm, 1861–1865, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1998.

Editor, with Paul Mariani, of "Commonwealth Classics in Biography" series for University of Massachusetts Press, beginning 1986. Contributor to numerous periodicals, including American Heritage, American History Illustrated, American West, Civil War History, Timeline, Nation, American History Review, Journal of American History, and Southwestern Historical Quarterly.

SIDELIGHTS: Distinguished biographer and educator Stephen B. Oates links his lifelong dual interests in history and literature not only by assuming professorial posts in both disciplines, but by crafting biographies of historical and literary figures as well; and as professor emeritus of history at the University of Massachusetts, he still guides others in that art. "Inevitably," Oates recalled in Biography as High Adventure: Life—Writers Speak on Their Art, "biography appealed to me as the form in which I wanted to write about the past, because the best biography—pure biography—was a storytelling art that brought people alive again, eliciting from the coldness of fact 'the warmth of a life being lived,' as Paul Murray Kendall expressed it."

Oates is especially recognized for what he refers to in Biography as High Adventure as "a biographical quartet on the Civil War era and its century-old legacies, a quartet that sought to humanize the monstrous moral paradox of slavery and racial oppression in a land based on the ideals of the Declaration of Independence." In these four biographies—To Purge This Land with Blood: A Biography of John Brown, The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion, With Malice toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln, and Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr.—Oates examines the lives of men profoundly committed to the struggle for equality. "All four were driven, visionary men, all were caught up in the issues of slavery and race, and all devised their own solutions to those inflammable problems," writes Oates. "And all perished, too, in the conflicts and hostilities that surrounded the quest for equality in their country." A former civil rights activist himself, Oates considers these men "martyrs of our racial hatred," according to Genevieve Stuttaford in Publishers Weekly, "martyrs of what he describes as the hateful thing they hated."

John Brown, the subject of To Purge This Land with Blood, the first book in Oates's biographical quartet, was a "white northerner who hated slavery from the outside," explains Oates in Biography as High Adventure. Resolved to forcefully abolish slavery by leading an armed insurrection, Brown seized the government arsenal in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859, but was ultimately captured, tried, and executed. In the Saturday Review, T. Harry Williams called the book "a major work, based on research in a wide variety of sources … that treats in detail Brown's career before he went to Kansas and his actions in that territory, as well as the blazing climax at Harpers Ferry." Noting in the New York Times Book Review that "Brown's activities and motivations … have been the subject of heated historiographical debate," Eric Foner observed that unlike previous biographers who have set out "either to vindicate or demolish" Brown's legend as an American folk hero, thereby losing "sight of the man himself," Oates neither indicts nor eulogizes Brown. "Brown's life was filled with drama," noted Foner, "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."

Nat Turner, the subject of Oates's The Fires of Jubilee, was a "victim of human bondage, a brilliant and brooding slave preacher blocked from his potential by an impregnable wall," writes Oates in Biography as High Adventure. Oates adds that he "tried to narrate Nat's story as graphically and as accurately" as he could, hoping to "convey how the insurrection rocked the South to its foundations and pointed the way to civil war thirty years later." Assessed as "vivid and convincing" by a Publishers Weekly contributor, The Fires of Jubilee "presents as complete a narrative account of this affair as we are likely to get," remarked Henry Mayer in the New York Times Book Review. Oates recreates the violent and doomed 1831 uprising in which more than fifty whites "were murdered by Turner's insurgents, a band that grew from its nucleus of six to more than forty black men," explained Mayer, adding that Oates also devotes much attention to the "indiscriminate reprisals directed by vengeful whites against blacks" in which almost 200 blacks died during "the several weeks' reign of terror that followed Turner's two-day uprising."

Discussing the subject of his third biography, With Malice toward None, Oates indicates in Biography as High Adventure that "one of the supreme ironies of Lincoln's life—and of my quartet—was that he who spurned violence, he who placed his reverence for the system above his loathing of slavery, ended up smashing the institution in a violent civil war, a war that began because southerners equated Lincoln with John Brown and Nat Turner and seceded from the very system that protected slavery from Lincoln's grasp." Reviewing the work for the Washington Post Book World, Bernard Weisberger asserted that "what [Oates] has done in this admirable book is to synthesize basic source materials with an array of new scholarly writing on slavery, Republicanism, the Civil War and Lincoln," a synthesis that Luther Spoehr in Saturday Review referred to as "both comprehensive and tightly focused."

Translated into French, Spanish, and Polish, With Malice toward None "is an impressive performance," David Herbert Donald commented in the New York Times Book Review. "Full, fair and accurate, it does, as its author boasts, cover all significant aspects of Lincoln's life." Oates carefully probes the obfuscatory legends about Lincoln to reveal the man himself. Noting that the Lincoln of With Malice toward None is neither Carl Sandburg's "hardscrabble folk-hero, voicing the soul of a lost frontier," nor the "too overrated" figure perceived by the revisionists, Weisberger argued that Oates "has made Lincoln recognizably human instead of homespun saint—moody, unusual, inner-directed, but very successful in the world at large." Donald observed that "what most distinguishes Oates from all previous Lincoln biographers is the fact that he is consistently non-judgmental."

Let the Trumpet Sound, the last book in Oates's biographical quartet, examines Martin Luther King Jr.'s life "from Montgomery to Memphis," explained Roger Wilkins in the Washington Post Book World; Oates traces King's development from the "enormously bright … and sensitive" child and the youthful "serious scholar" to his adulthood spent "reshaping and refining against hard experience the moral and intellectual view of the world he had developed in his student days." In the New York Times Book Review, Foner found that "King emerges as a charismatic leader, a brilliant tactician of the civil rights struggle, but also a deeply troubled man, subject to periodic bouts of depression and indecisiveness and, like Lincoln, wracked by premonitions of his own death." Calling it "by far the most complete examination of the progression of King's movement and of the crosscurrents that beset it," Harry S. Ashmore noted in a Chicago Tribune Book World review that Oates "remained faithful to his conviction that biography is a storytelling art" by capturing "the high drama and moving tragedy of King's brief passage through our time."

Let the Trumpet Sound, which has been translated into French, German, and Arabic, "succeeds very well in describing King's intellect" and represents a "good place to begin for the facts of King's own life," added Wilkins, but it fails to adequately treat the movement's other prominent figures as more than "shadows in King's play." Suspecting that the biography is too uncritical of its subject, Elliott Rudwick similarly suggested in the American Historical Review that "Oates pictures King as more heroic than he probably was and greatly overstates the importance of his role in the movement." However, Foner declared that the book "provides more than just a chronicle of King's life; as his story is unfolded, the roles of other prominent personalities of the period become clearer."

A Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War evolved from Oates's research into the U.S. Civil War for his other books. He had initially planned to include Barton in his biographical quartet since she was well known for her efforts to aid and save wounded soldiers on the battlefield during the Civil War and for founding the American Red Cross. Once he became fascinated by Barton, however, he decided to devote an entire book to her. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Andrew Delbanco noted of A Woman of Valor that though readers "catch glimpses of some of Barton's less attractive features … somehow a fully human Clara Barton does not quite come into focus in the book." Delbanco nonetheless found that the biography, "by attempting a close-up view of one woman's efforts to salve the casualties, reveals just how adept Americans became between 1861 and 1865 at killing one another…. What Mr. Oates has written is a kind of chronicle of man-made horror, with one appalled but undaunted woman at the center." Suzanne Gordon noted in the Washington Post Book World that "for those who are intrigued by battle, this biography will give them what they want and a taste of Clara Barton as well. For those who want to learn more about Barton, they will have to wait for another book, or refer to earlier ones." Complementing Oates's biographical quartet of historical figures is his William Faulkner: The Man and the Artist; A Biography, about one of America's most esteemed literary figures, a voice in the turbulent South for the cause of equality of opportunity and a writer whose fiction frequently concerns the U.S. Civil War and its legacies. Based upon his own native Mississippi, the fictional world Faulkner created spanned generations and microcosmically mirrored the South's changing landscape while exploring the capacity of the human spirit to not only "endure" but "prevail."

Calling William Faulkner "romantic and absorbing," New York Times contributor Christopher Lehmann-Haupt likened reading it to "racing through a streamlined version" of the more massive, two-volume, fact-filled, scholarly biography by Joseph Blotner: "Suddenly, instead of being the sum of a million particles, Faulkner's life assumes terrific motion. His personality coalesces—the courtliness, the obdurate eyes, the impenetrable silences. There is action to his story." Liberating Faulkner from a "marble block of information," said Lehmann-Haupt, enables him "to live out his life at twice its normal rate and degree of drama." Praising Oates's "streamlined storytelling techniques," John Blades concluded in the Chicago Tribune Book World that "with considerable narrative skill, Oates navigates the muddy, turbulent currents of Faulkner's life, so that few readers will come away unmoved by his tragedy and his glory."

Oates refers to books such as A Woman of Valor and his William Faulkner as "literary" biography, explaining in Biography as High Adventure that in his work he tries to "create a life through the magic of language, that seek to illuminate universal truths about humankind through the sufferings and triumphs of a single human being." Oates pointed out in a Publishers Weekly interview with William Goldstein that "biography is an exercise in the art of omission," explaining that in William Faulkner he tried to suggest the writer's art as well as his life through "the use of telling detail alone." He also expresses to Goldstein why he chose a literary figure as a biographical subject: "I am attracted to figures who have [a profound] sense of history, and Faulkner shares this with the men I have already written about. Faulkner's imagination was fired to incandescence by the history of the South."

Oates's examination of the U.S. Civil War and its legacies continues in the two-part "Voices of the Storm" series, which Oates described as a "biographical history of the antebellum and Civil War era that tries to capture its human experiences, that presents the entire period through the perceptions and feelings of some twenty-three significant figures whose lives and destinies intersected on many levels." Oates noted that his goal in writing the work was to reinfuse that fratricidal war with the passion that he thinks has been wrung out of it through "dry, scholarly analysis." The first volume, 1997's The Approaching Fury: Voices of the Storm, 1820–1861, addresses the coming war and demonstrates "in human terms, which is the strength of biography, America's tragic failure to find a peaceful solution to slavery," according to its author. The second part, 1998's The Whirlwind of War: Voices of the Storm, 1861–1865, and explores "what it was like, through various individual perceptions, to fight and suffer in that conflict and to make the human decisions that determined the outcome."

In Biography as High Adventure, Oates addressed the increasing popularity of biography and offered a possible explanation for why it "may now be the preferred form of reading" in America. Aside from a certain natural curiosity about the lives of others, he argued that in an increasingly complex and technical society, biography's ability to personalize events "demonstrates that the individual does count—which is reassuring to people … who often feel caught up in vast impersonal forces beyond their control." Oates indicated that, for him, biography serves not only as "high literary and historical adventure, but deep personal experience as well." Having lived vicariously through the several lives he has documented biographically, Oates believes he has been enriched "beyond measure as a writer and a man," adding that the experience of writing biographies has "reinforced my life-long conviction that the people of the past have never really died. For they enjoy a special immortality in biography, in our efforts to touch and understand them and so to help preserve the human continuum. Perhaps this is what Yeats meant when he said that 'nothing exists but a stream of souls, that all knowledge is biography.'"

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

American Historical Review, October, 1983, Elliott Rudwick, review of Let the Trumpet Sound.

American History Illustrated, January, 1986; April, 1988, p. 19.

Antioch Review, summer, 1970; fall, 1984, review of Abraham Lincoln.

Atlantic, July, 1987, review of William Faulkner: The Man and the Artist.

Boston Globe, May 2, 1991, p. 77; May 23, 1992, p. 24; December 18, 1993, p. 13; April 17, 1994, review of A Woman of Valor, p. A16.

Chicago Tribune, July 26, 1987, review of William Faulkner; December 11, 1990, section 2C, p. 1.

Chicago Tribune Book World, August 8, 1982; September 18, 1983, review of Let the Trumpet Sound; April 22, 1984, review of William Faulkner.

Christian Science Monitor, February 28, 1977.

Chronicle of Higher Education, November 3, 1982; May 12, 1993, p. A16; June 2, 1993, p. A12; January 5, 1994, p. A17.

Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), August 23, 1986.

Journal of American History, June, 1987, p. 148.

Library Journal, April 1, 1994, review of A Woman of Valor, p. 108.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 29, 1982.

Nation, March 29, 1971; May 31, 1975.

National Review, October 23, 1987, review of William Faulkner, p. 58.

New Republic, September 13, 1982.

Newsweek, July 6, 1970.

New York Review of Books, December 3, 1970; October 27, 1983, review of Let the Trumpet Sound.

New York Times, March 12, 1977, review of With Malice toward None; August 25, 1982; August 3, 1987.

New York Times Book Review, November 1, 1970; October 5, 1975; March 13, 1977, review of With Malice toward None; September 12, 1982; October 28, 1984, review of Abraham Lincoln; September 20, 1987, review of William Faulkner, p. 18; June 12, 1994, Andrew Delbanco, review of A Woman of Valor, p. 14.

Publishers Weekly, January 13, 1975; August 27, 1982; June 28, 1985; February 21, 1994, William Goldstein, interview with Oates, pp. 240-241.

Saturday Review, August 22, 1970; February 5, 1977, review of With Malice toward None.

Spectator, February 25, 1978.

Time, April 26, 1993, pp. 59-60.

Times Literary Supplement, April 28, 1978.

USA Today, July 31, 1987, p. 5D.

Washington Post, January 8, 1994, review of A Woman of Valor, p. A12.

Washington Post Book World, March 6, 1977; August 8, 1982; April 29, 1984; August 16, 1987; May 1, 1994, review of A Woman of Valor, p. 4.