Michael Burlingame’s Response to Stephen Oates





Professor Oates's description of me as a"historian who's made the destruction of my books his raison d'etre" is a bit misleading. I have published eleven books on Abraham Lincoln and am currently writing a multi-volume biography of the sixteenth president for the Johns Hopkins University Press.

Professor Oates writes that"After carefully reviewing the allegations 23 nationally prominent historians, including 5 Pulitzer Prize winners, issued a public statement rejecting the allegations of plagiarism as 'totally unfounded.'" Professor Oates fails to note that two of those Pulitzer Prize winners -- C. Vann Woodward and Robert V. Bruce -- retracted their support of him after I showed them extensive plagiarism in Professor Oates's biographies of Martin Luther King and William Faulkner as well as in his Lincoln biography. Another of Professor Oates's 23 defenders, after examining the material I had sent, replied that"probably by some definitions it IS plagiarism" and added, to my amazement:"I have told Oates personally (and so did several others who signed the statement [calling the plagiarism charges 'totally unfounded']) that he had committed . . . a . . . sin against scholarship.'" I found it difficult to understand why several eminent scholars would publicly state that the charges against Professor Oates were"totally unfounded" would tell him in private that he had committed a"sin against scholarship."

Professor Oates also fails to note that two of America's foremost men of letters, William Styron and Gore Vidal, believe him guilty of plagiarism. Vidal told an audience at Harvard that"I do think Oates plagiarized." Styron wrote me saying"I think he has plagiarized," a fact which is"as plain as the nose on one's face."

Readers wishing to see the evidence of Professor Oates's plagiarism that convinced Styron and others of Professor Oates's guilt might want to consult my article,"'A Sin Against Scholarship': Some Examples of Plagiarism in Stephen B. Oates's Biographies of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and William Faulkner," in the Spring 1994 issue of the Journal of Information Ethics. (That issue, devoted entirely to the Oates case, contains essays by Professor Oates and his defenders as well as his critics.)

Here are some examples of Professor Oates's appropriation of words from other authors without quotation marks:

Stephen B. Oates:"With them came Dennis Hanks, illegitimate son of another of Nancy's aunts, a congenial, semiliterate youth of nineteen."
Benjamin P. Thomas:"With them came Dennis Hanks, an illegitimate son of another of Nancy's aunts, a cheerful and energetic waif of nineteen . . . ."
Stephen B. Oates:"tugging on their slender sweeps to avoid snags and sandbars . . . ."Benjamin P. Thomas:"giving an occasional tug on the slender sweeps to avoid the snags and sandbars . . . ."
Stephen B. Oates:"Tad . . . ate all the strawberries intended for a state dinner. The steward raged at the boy and pulled his hair . . . ."Benjamin P. Thomas:"Tad ate all the strawberries intended for a state dinner; the steward raged and tore his hair . . . ."
Stephen B. Oates:"the McCormick reaper episode had been one of the most
crushing experiences of his life . . . ."
Benjamin P. Thomas:"he remembered his snub at Cincinnati in the McCormick reaper case as one of the most crushing experiences of his life . . . ."
Stephen B. Oates:"an officer in civilian dress, detailed from Burnside's headquarters, leaned against the platform taking notes. Three days later the army arrested Vallandigham, and a military commission sentenced him to imprisonment for the duration of the war." Benjamin P. Thomas:"an officer in civilian dress, dispatched from Burnside's headquarters, slouched against the platform, jotting down choice samples of invective. Three days later Union soldiers took Vallandigham from his home . . . . a military commission sentenced him to confinement for the duration of the war."
Stephen B. Oates:"In the funeral procession, novelist William Styron found himself deep in memory, as Dilsy and Benjy and all the Compsons, Hightower and Byron Bunch and Flem Snopes and the gentle Lena Grove, all these people and scores of others came swarming back in Styron's mind with a sense of utter reality, along with the tumultuous landscape, the fierce and gentle weather, and the whole 'maddened miraculous vision of life' that had created them."William Styron:"And I am in deep memory, as if summoned there by a trumpet blast. Dilsy and Benjy and Luster and all the Compsons, Hightower and Byron Bunch and Flem Snopes and the gentle Lena Grove - all of these people and a score of others come swarming back comically and villainously and tragically in my mind with a kind a kind of mnemonic sense of utter reality, along with the tumultuous landscape and the fierce and tender weather, and the whole maddened, miraculous vision of life wrested, as all art is wrested, out of nothingness."
Stephen B. Oates:"Sometimes there was only the hawk of a throat, the sound of spit against the receiver." Time Magazine:"Sometimes there was only the hawk of a throat and the splash of spittle against the ear piece."
Stephen B. Oates:"The Rev. Mr. King, in an effort to demonstrate that chastisement was impersonal - the rule of law - used to have the children give each other a stipulated number of licks in their hands or on their buttocks with a belt or rod as punishment for their little deeds of misconduct." L. D. Reddick:"He even made them thrash one another, to demonstrate that chastisement was personal."
Stephen B. Oates:"Born in 1863, the year of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, Williams had literally come up from slavery."William Robert Miller:"Born in the year of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, the Reverend Mr. Williams had literally come up from slavery."
Stephen B. Oates:"On this cloudy afternoon, he thought, Judge Carter had convicted more than Martin Luther King, Jr., case number 7399. He had convicted every Negro in Montgomery."Martin Luther King, Jr.:"On that cloudy afternoon in March, Judge Carter had convicted more than Martin Luther King, Jr., Case no. 7399; he had convicted every Negro in Montgomery."
Stephen B. Oates:"Frazier was one of the most outspoken segregationists in the Methodist Church . . . ."Martin Luther King, Jr.:"Dr. Frazier - one of the most outspoken segregationists in the Methodist Church."
Stephen B. Oates:"She was lovely: tall and boyishly thin, with fine blonde hair that fell to her shoulders in a straight sweep. When she walked, she was lithe as a ballerina, with a waist that was only a handspan around." Meta Carpenter Wilde:"That I was pretty enough, with blond hair that fell in a straight sweep to my shoulders, with a ninety-two-pound body as lean and lithe as a ballerina's, and with a waist that was a handspan around, I knew without undue vanity."
Stephen B. Oates:"nine blood transfusions before she could leave the Oxford hospital to convalesce at Rowan Oak." Joseph Blotner:"nine blood transfusions before she could leave the Oxford Hospital to recuperate at Rowan Oak."
Stephen B. Oates:"so weak that she had to do all the driving the first day." Joseph Blotner:"so weak that she had to do all the driving the first day."
Stephen B. Oates:"with his knees out instead of tight to his horse." Joseph Blotner:"with his knees out instead of tight to his mount."
Stephen B. Oates:"he sat cross-legged looking from Claxton to the trees with the same penetrating stare." Joseph Blotner (quoting Simon Claxton):"he sat cross-legged, looking from me to the trees with the same penetrating stare."
Stephen B. Oates:"[Faulkner] had just lost the only job he had held for any length of time . . . ."Joseph Blotner:"Billy had just lost the only job he had ever held for any length of time."
Stephen B. Oates:"he stuffed himself with all the bananas and water he could hold and went to the recruiting station . . . ."Joseph Blotner:"He stuffed himself with all the bananas he could hold and drank all the water he could swallow, he said, and presented himself at the recruiting station."
Stephen B. Oates:"Faulkner tried to penetrate the inner lives of black people . . . . 'Pantaloon in Black,' one of the most powerful stories Faulkner had ever written . . . ."Joseph Blotner:"'Pantaloon in Black' was, in fact . . . one of the most powerful stories Faulkner had ever written . . . his determined attempt to penetrate the inner lives of Negroes . . . ."

Stephen B. Oates:"[Faulkner] was abnormally sensitive, so much so that life
must have been painful for him."

Joseph Blotner:"[Faulkner] was so sensitive, reflected Wortis, that life must have been very painful for him."
Stephen B. Oates:"He had a powerful need for affection . . . . Wortis decided that Faulkner was built to suffer, to be unhappy, and to make his contributions in part from that."Joseph Blotner:"He was a man with a strong need for affection . . . . built to suffer, thought Wortis, to be unhappy and to make his contribution partly because of this."

These examples would seem to satisfy the requirement that Thomas Mallon identified as necessary to establish plagiarism:"smoking guns, whole phrases appropriated like thy neighbor's wife and forced into adulterous proximity with whatever the plagiarist can manage to create himself." In an essay published during the summer of 1991, Peter Shaw - basing his conclusion on the findings in Professor Oates's biographies King and Faulkner - declared that it"no longer seems plausible that the similar phraseology [in the Lincoln biographies of Oates and Thomas]. . . can really be coincidental."

 

 

 

 

 

 



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More Comments:


Denise Ashkenas - 1/14/2004

Thank you for helping me to understand why students laugh at us when we tell them it's wrong to take someone else's words and/or ideas and simply appropriate them as one's own. I will add this to my private Wax Museum of plagiarism horror stories, which already includes a front page story from the Metro section of the Washington Post about the plagiarism sins of a former governor of Virginia--along with a story of plagiarizing UVa students whose degrees were retroactively revoked for doing the same thing.


Clayton E. Cramer - 4/15/2002

I read Professor Oates complaint about the AHA "Star Chamber"
proceedings, and the only thing I could find myself asking
was, "Why don't they care about violations of ethics much
more serious than plagiarism, such as Michael Bellesiles's
massive fraud?" I have become very cynical about AHA's
concern about professional conduct, watching the way that
Bellesiles's massive deception has received NO professional
discipline -- not even an attempt at it.

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