Author Unknown, Don Foster

Henry Holt, 2000, 318 pages, C$38.95 hc, ISBN 0-8050-6357-9

Literary sleuth! It sounds like a concept for an unlikely comic-book superhero, but Don Foster was, for a while, the world’s closest equivalent to such a thing: Someone who could sit down at a computer, read volumes and volumes of prose, develop a feel for the mind of the author and then apply this feel to evaluate the authenticity of a suspicious piece of writing. Whether the object is scholarly or criminal, curious or political, Author Unknown is a fascinating exploration in literary analysis and a book that should make any author nervous.

Don Foster became a literary sleuth by accident. A graduate student in English Studies, he became fascinated by the possibility that an obscure pseudonymous poem may have been written by none other William Shakespeare himself. The results of his investigation led to media notoriety, then on to the analysis of “Anonymous”’s Primary Colors and, later, criminal investigations. Author Unknown is part biography, part explanation regarding the amusing art and science of textual analysis.

The most intriguing chapter is doubtlessly the prologue, a breathless tour through his office in which he promises much… to be told later in the book. True crime fans may take note, however, that no criminal investigations are detailed in Author Unknown: For reasons of confidentiality, Foster wasn’t able to share the content of his files in this area. An understandable decision, but also a disappointing one given the wealth of material he alludes to.

More satisfying is his “unmasking” of William Shakespeare, the cornerstone case of his career. It’s a fascinating chapter not because of Shakespeare’s ID, but because it takes us through the treacherous halls of academia. It’s also deeply amusing in how it (twice) demonstrates Foster using his textual-analysis skills to pierce the identity of “anonymous” peer-reviewers. Alas, don’t believe everything you read, especially not the conclusion: Some quick Googling for (“Don Foster” Shakespeare “John Ford”) will give you the not-so-triumphant epilogue to this tale.

On the other hand, the second chapter is pure dynamite: It concerns Foster’s search for the identity of “Anonymous”, the pseudonymous author behind the political satire Primary Colors that so fascinated official Washington D.C. in early 1996. Foster details, in vivid prose, how he came to be hired for the job and how he managed to identify journalist Joe Klein as the true author. It’s by far the best tale of the book in part because there’s a clear conclusion. After months of nearly pathological denials, Klein was confronted with further evidence and confessed. Such definite resolutions aren’t common elsewhere in Author Unknown.

For instance, Chapter Three proceeds backwards, taking the identity of the Unabomber and working backwards to “prove” that he could have been connected to Ted Kaczynski well before his brother turned him in. Chapter Four is a classic exercise in frustration: The Monicagate “talking points memo” are analyzed without a straight conclusion and it doesn’t help that the subject really just isn’t exciting.

The last two chapters are a mixed bag. Chapter Five is an exercise through a small community of writers in an effort to prove that a pseudonym was not that of Kurt Vonnegut. Chapter Six is an exploration of the true author of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”, a subject about which I couldn’t be any less interested. The conclusion states Foster’s intention to retire from this crazy stuff, which obviously brings the book to an end.

Obviously, this Author Unknown is a mixed bag. The Primary Colors chapter is excellent material, especially if you’re familiar with the original novel. The Shakespeare chapter is interesting, but ultimately less than convincing. Pynchon fans won’t be the only ones to enjoy Chapter Five, but it’ll take die-hard political junkies to care about the “Talking Points” memo. As for the rest, your mileage will vary.

On the other hand, it’s impossible for even amateur writers to read Author Unknown without becoming acutely self-conscious about just any type of writing. Foster’s insistence on unconscious “signatures” is convincing, and it’s fertile material for paranoid thinking, especially for those engaging in pseudonymous writing. Authors: Don’t read this book before bedtime! The Literary Sleuth is after you!

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