UMass symposium will examine the career of historian Stephen Oates

AMHERST — Popular teacher, prominent biographer, respected Civil War historian: Stephen Oates has worn many hats, all with style.

The former University of Massachusetts Amherst professor died just over a year ago at the age of 85. Now friends, family, former students and colleagues are preparing to pay their respects.

On September 9, the university will host “Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life and Legacy of Award-Winning Biographer and Historian Stephen B. Oates,” a day-long symposium that will examine Oates’ work as a writer and biographer – he was the author of 16 books – as well as a public intellectual and a teacher and colleague.

Oates, born in Texas in 1936, was best known for his biographies of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., abolitionist John Brown, and Nat Turner, the enslaved African-American man who famously led a rebellion against slavery in Virginia in 1831. Oates called these works a “civil war quartet” because he believed the four men “humanize the moral paradox of slavery and racial oppression in a country based on the ideals of the Declaration of Independence,” as he once said.

His 1977 biography of Lincoln, “With Malice Toward None”, received widespread acclaim upon publication, with a number of reviewers calling it the new “standard” for one-volume biographies of the 16th U.S. president. Oates’ book on King Jr., from which the title of the UMass symposium is taken, won the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Award. Overall, he was noted for an accessible style of writing that helped bring his subjects to life.

Oates was also a featured voice in filmmaker Ken Burns’ 1990 PBS series about the Civil War. Commenting last year, Burns said Oates “knew the story up as well as the story down, but more importantly he knew and appreciated the huge stakes for the United States and indeed the world in a victory for the United States. Union”.

Oates taught history at UMass from 1968 to 1997, winning numerous university awards for his work and also winning a silver medal in the national Teacher of the Year competition. Its classes, according to UMass officials, were extremely popular, with up to 500 students filling its large lecture halls.

Hugh Carter Donahue, a writer, scholar, and consultant on technology and broadcasting issues, was one such student, winning an award in 1972 as the top undergraduate in history at UMass. Donahue, who lives in Pennsylvania, remembers Oates as a generous man “who met students on their own terms” and invited him to attend some of his graduate seminars and help research his biography of John Brown.

“He was a very dynamic teacher who worked all the time, was really productive and enthusiastic, he had a very close relationship with his peers – he was really the perfect teacher,” said Donahue, who became a lifelong friend. date Oates and moved on to earn a doctorate himself. “He was one of my inspirations” to pursue higher education, he said.

Donahue and Greg Oates, son of Stephen Oates, spent months organizing the Sept. 9 symposium, with support from the UMass Department of History, College of Humanities and Fine Arts, and university libraries. . Greg Oates, who lives in Amherst, said he started thinking about some sort of event shortly after his father’s death: “How can I best extend and honor my father’s legacy? “

To do this, they bring together a number of Civil War-era scholars, such as keynote speaker Harold Holzer, a leading authority on Lincoln, and Catherine Clinton, a University of Texas professor who wrote the biographies of Mary Todd Lincoln and Harriet Tubman. as well as studies of Southern women during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

A number of UMass professors and others with ties to the university will be present at the event, including Gretchen Gerzina, professor of biography in the English department and author of several biographies; David Glassberg, founding director of the university’s public history program; and Playthell Benjamin, writer, radio commentator and founding member of the school’s African American studies department.

Several former Oates students will also be on hand to talk about how his classes have shaped their lives. The symposium includes three round tables – Donahue is one of the panelists – each with its own moderator.

Former Mount Holyoke president Lynn Pasquerella, now president of the American Association of Colleges & Universities, will also join the forum. She says Oates’ career and life “provide a model for practicing the humanities – in the classroom and beyond, inspiring moral imagination and speaking across differences at a time when those abilities are more critical than never”.

Oates faced controversy in 1990 when other scholars claimed there were instances of plagiarism in his biography of Lincoln and two other books. Oates has denied the charges, and many scholars have come to his defense. The American Historical Association delivered a mixed verdict on the matter in 1992, saying that Oates had not plagiarized but relied too heavily on “the structure, distinctive language, and rhetorical strategies of other scholars and source”.

Donahue, who calls the charges against Oates “grossly unjust,” said his former teacher’s struggle to fight the charges left him exhausted. But he said Oates bounced back by writing two groundbreaking works, “The Approaching Fury: Voices of the Storm, 1820-1861” and “The Whirlwind of War: Voices of the Storm, 1861-1865”, in which the author used the first person. accounts of many prominent figures of that time as a new way to examine how the Civil War occurred.

Greg Oates, a screenwriter who has adapted material from some of his father’s books for proposed television series, says the September 9 symposium will end with a memorial service for his father, with family and friends sharing memories and appraisals.

“Let the Trumpet Sound” takes place from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Old UMass Chapel. You can register for the free event at or by emailing [email protected] The deadline for registration is September 2.

Steve Pfarrer can be contacted at [email protected]