Don Foster Tracks Down Anonymous
Interview by Gavin J. Grant
Vassar professor Don Foster has become known as the father of literary forensics. Through his work in Linguistic attribution -- studying an author's writing -- he has helped identify the Unabomber, unmask the author of Primary Colors, and identify William Shakespeare as the author of a previously anonymous sonnet (as detailed in Elegy For W.S.: A Study in Attribution).
On October 26, 2000, The New York Times presented his case against the alleged author of the children's poem, "The Night Before Christmas."
Foster's new book, Author Unknown, is an explanation of the science he uses and accounts of other "cases" he has taken on including Thomas Pynchon, the Jon-Benet Ramsey murder, and the Lewinsky-Tripp "Talking Points."
Tell us how you came up with the method you use to track down writers?
I wish I could say I had some special miraculous gift or calling or something, but I kind of backed up and sat down. When I was a graduate student at the University of California -- a story I tell in the book -- I stumbled upon a poem that looked to me like it might have be written by Shakespeare. If it were really obvious that it were Shakespeare's or if it were really obvious that it wasn't, there wouldn't have been any trouble. So I looked at it, used some new techniques, but it wasn't really clear. So I pretty much set that work aside. I didn't want really to be Mr. Attribution until this Shakespeare poem ("A Funeral Elegy") suddenly became big news in January of 1996. So, because my name had just been in the papers, I was approached about Primary Colors by Anonymous.
I gave it the old college try, wrote an article for New York magazine where I identified Newsweek columnist Joe Klein as the author of the novel, and he promptly denied it and said that I was wrong. [Laughs] That put me back to square one for several months.
That must have been a difficult time.
It was pretty stressful, actually, though I think it worked out for the best. I've got no grudge against Joe Klein. It was after that, really, when Klein finally fessed up, that I suddenly found myself inundated whenever a document needed attribution.
Can the method be taught?
I've taught a class, a daylong seminar, at the FBI Academy and spoken to other groups. There are several people who are starting to do more of this kind of work. It's been done in the past. The Lindbergh case, for example. There was a question, not just of handwriting, but of the language that was used. I guess you could describe what I've done is to pull together a lot of different methodologies.
Would this be possible without a computer? Or would it just be too much work?
It would certainly be possible but it would be a lot more work. There's one often misprinted piece of information that there's a computer program that can do this. But what makes a computer really useful is that it can scan or search billions of words of text in the time it would take you or I just to read a sentence. It's often possible not only to find where else similar language appears -- when it might have originated, whether there's a regional influence on the language, or if there is any official jargon creeping in -- but also to establish a kind of basis for comparison, so that you don't have to rely on somebody's opinion for the attribution.
How long does an average case take?
A long time. You have to look at document after document.
How much of a writing sample is necessary for a convincing attribution?
Quite a bit. You've got to have the Question Document itself, and the longer the better. It doesn't usually matter for the work that I do whether it's handwritten or typed. But, it has to be something longer than an anonymous email.
Do you think new editions of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" (previously thought to have been written by Clement Moore) will be attributed to Henry Livingstone?
I think there's a good chance they will be, but it would be premature to start the presses running now because there has to be a time for reassessments to be made. There's still quite a bit more evidence that has to be put on the table in favor of Henry Livingstone.
What has the response been like since the story came out in The New York Times?
I think David Kirkpatrick is thinking of doing a follow through story. I've gotten a lot of letters from Livingstone family descendents saying, "We knew that our ancestor wrote this poem." I haven't yet seen any evidence that I've missed that would strengthen Clement Moore's claim.
What was your most enjoyable publicity experience?
I'm tempted to say my first one as a graduate student years ago! The thrill of the recognition as a graduate student was wonderful.
What do your students think of your 'other' profession?
Most of them didn't have a clue about it until the book came out.
What are you currently teaching?
One freshman course that I taught this year -- I like teaching freshman courses every once in a while because it gives me a chance to read other texts -- was "Great Wicked Books." We did some of the classics, including the Bible, Sophocles, Plato, Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, Horatio Alger, Joseph Conrad, and Vladimir Nabokov. Next semester I'm teaching a Shakespeare course, and a course on women writers. You know, I've got real good students here, it's a pleasure to teach.
Do you like mysteries?
Well, I probably would if I had time! I don't read mysteries. The closest I've come recently would be The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad. I don't have a real background in detective fiction but it might be something I should look into.
What are you reading?
At the moment I have stacks of student essays. Then I want to see what's going on with that new book by Neal Pollack to see if it is actually by Dave Eggers. I haven't got to that one yet.
Do you have a favorite book shop?
We used to have more independents than we do now here in Poughkeepsie, but I like Ariel Booksellers in New Paltz, NY.
Don Foster Recommends:
The Professor and the Madman
Author photograph by Al Nowak.