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I'm writing an essay comparing the views of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. In parts of it I explain quotes from the story. (The quotes are in 1st person past-tense.)

Should I use the form of:

While the staff was showing the other passengers their rooms and preparing dinner, Washington milled about in front of the hotel.

Or:

While the staff is showing the other passengers their rooms and preparing dinner, Washington mills about in front of the hotel.

closed as off-topic by tchrist, ScotM, Drew, ermanen, Hellion Mar 10 '15 at 18:15

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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is requesting writing advice. – tchrist Mar 9 '15 at 21:35
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A document, "Verb Tense for Analysis of Literature and History," that was posted on Harvard's website says to use the present tense when you discuss literature of any type:

Whether you are dealing with fiction, poetry, or nonfiction literature, use the present tense (also called the literary present tense) to discuss the actions and thoughts presented in the text. Do this because literature exists as a present phenomenon regardless of whether or not its author is alive.

Autobiography falls under the category of nonfiction literature, so you should use the present tense.

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    Your link contradicts your answer. The second point explicitly indicates that you should use past tense: "Use past tense when writing about historical events, even those events involving the artists'/writers' actions in the past" – Nick2253 Mar 9 '15 at 22:24
  • That doesn't refer to actions within the literary work. The examples it gives are things that happened to the authors, not things from their works. – Nicole Mar 10 '15 at 11:21
  • Considering it is an autobiography of a historical character, action within the work would in fact be "historical events involving the writers' actions in the past." And if you read the next point in your link, it specifically addresses the issue where you must split the author into the authorial voice and the historical figure: ascribing the thoughts of the author contemporaneously with the analysis and the (historical) actions of the author to the past. – Nick2253 Mar 10 '15 at 14:59

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