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On the trail of a literary sleuth
Don Foster enlightens readers with 'Author Unknown'
(CNN) -- Don Foster admits his hobby of literary forensics has the potential for a "Murder, He Wrote"-type movie or TV show.
"There is," says Foster, "something quirky, I suppose, about a Shakespeare professor at Vassar College who ends up teaching classes at Quantico (Virginia, where FBI headquarters are located), standing next to FBI guys who have been dealing with the grimmest of serial killers."
In other words, Foster's "quirky" hobby has resulted in a unique story. For one thing, his talent for identifying the authors of anonymous works has taken him to places he might never have traveled. Besides the FBI, Foster once found himself on a helicopter flight to CBS News headquarters and into the maelstrom of a media firestorm.
Now, readers can join Foster on his journey. "Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous" (Henry Holt) is Foster's chance to retrace the favorite literary cases he has worked on, from revealing that Newsweek columnist Joe Klein authored the best-seller "Primary Colors" to the Christmastime shocker that Clement Clarke Moore did not write "The Night Before Christmas."
Foster says writing "Author Unknown" was fun.
"It's certainly better writing for the real world rather than writing for a couple hundred Shakespeare scholars," the professor says. "I actually found it liberating."
Who is W.S.?
Foster admits he stumbled into this hobby-turned-book subject. As an English literature graduate student at University of California, Santa Barbara, his 1984 studies of Shakespeare's works led him to a 1612 poem, "A Funeral Elegy for Master William Peter," written by someone with the initials of "W.S." Foster was intrigued with how the elegy echoed of Shakespeare's work:
"When all shall turn to dust from whence we came
The literary sleuthing began, and it continued for many years.
"Once I get hooked on a problem, I have a hard time letting it go," says Foster.
By the time Foster was finished comparing Shakespeare works with the words and phrases of the elegy, along with digging up connections between the two, he had determined that Shakespeare was the author.
By January of 1996, he was featured on the front page of the New York Times: "A Sleuth Gets His Suspect." This was just the start of Foster's experience with the media.
Words, words, words
There is no magic formula to determining who wrote what. Foster admits that he's not the first literary sleuth (he even dislikes being called a sleuth), and he's certainly not a handwriting expert. Put simply, what Foster does is compare writing samples - typed or hand-written -- until he finds a consistent match in words, phrases and style.
He believes our writing samples are like DNA. No two are alike. We all leave our fingerprints on choices of "spelling, words, grammar, regionalisms, signs of social or ethnic background, what a person has been reading."
One person writes, "She was a dish."
Another writes, "She was attractive."
Those wishing to be identified immediately might write, "She was pulchritudinous."
Over the course of many writings, patterns develop, habits and word crutches become evident, and a suspect's identity emerges.
Foster has become an expert at zeroing in on various verbal IDs. He's skeptical with every case, taking the attitude that he needs to have it proven to him. In the process, his work has turned him into a constant target of people seeking answers to literary mysteries.
"The request I get most often is, 'Will you run this text through your computer program and tell us who wrote it?' As if there was an easy way to do that," laughs Foster.
Often, there isn't a moment during Foster's detective work when he screams "Aha!" Instead, he develops his cases, or non-cases, with a collection of information, an "all-signs-point-to" method to reach his conclusions.
In short, Foster will use word clues to narrow down choices, until he's left with one high-percentage choice, or none.
Chasing 'Colors' creator
Following the Shakespeare story in the New York Times, Foster hooked up with New York magazine, which wanted to determine who wrote the 1996 novel "Primary Colors." At the time, the authorship of the book was the guessing game of Washington politicos, and the media in general.
Foster set about analyzing the writing in "Primary Colors" and comparing it to the writings of top "suspects" in the case: various political writers, many of whom had worked closely with President Clinton, the real-life inspiration for "Primary Colors" candidate Jack Stanton.
At one point, Foster admits he nearly gave up. Then he ran across the columns of Klein, and he was on his way to nabbing his man. (Foster's detailing of how he identified and matched Klein's penchant for using "adverbs made from -y adjectives" should make most writers paranoid of their every word. And that's just scratching the surface of his claim.)
When New York magazine first unveiled Foster's highly-educated guess, CBS News landed a helicopter at Vassar's hockey field, waited for Foster to finish teaching a class, then whisked him away to CBS News in New York.
But not everyone greeted his theory with open arms. CBS anchor Dan Rather, a friend of Klein's, practically scoffed at Foster's theory, according to Foster. Klein, meantime, flatly and heatedly denied it. Eventually, of course, Klein admitted he was the author.
Helping the FBI
Since then, Foster has been beseiged with requests from people wanting to identify the authorship of anything and everything without authorship.
"You should see my e-mail," he says. "It rolls in by the hundreds. I get asked pretty regularly who wrote the Declaration of Independence, who really wrote the ransom note in the Lindbergh kidnapping."
One notable client (Foster says he works "pro bono" with investigative forces), was the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who needed help developing its case against Unabomber suspect Ted Kaczynski, who had written numerous anonymous letters and journals.
Foster has worked on other high-profile cases, too, like the Jon-Benet Ramsey murder investigation.
He's not the type, he says, to sit on a witness stand and point the finger of blame at a potential criminal. He most often presents his evidence to prosecutors and investigators to give them direction.
Nabbing a Grinch
Foster also deals with his favorite subject -- Shakespeare -- from another angle: those who believe Shakespeare didn't actually write the works that bear his name, that they were penned by the Earl of Oxford, Christopher Marlowe, or even Queen Elizabeth I.
For the record, Foster has investigated and come to a conclusion.
"In my opinion," he says, "the evidence for Shakespeare's authorship of 'Shakespeare' is pretty solid. But I do think it's good to have those theories out there. That Shakespeare is still somehow speaking to ordinary people and they are still finding him fascinating -- when they vanish, it's probably because Shakespeare's place has stopped being relevant or as important as it once was."
Also, Foster never knows when his investigations might turn up something. For instance, there was that day in late summer of last year when he received a call from Mary Van Deusen, who claimed that her great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Major Henry Livingston Jr., wrote "The Night Before Christmas" (also known as "A Visit from St. Nicholas"). Foster could practically see Clement Moore turning over in his grave.
"I was already thinking of some way to get off the hook," says Foster. "But she persisted ... I thought, well, there's probably nothing to this, but it would be fun to look into. It might turn into a story, and it certainly did."
As Foster relives in "Author Unknown," "The Night Before Christmas" was first published without attribution in 1823. Years later, Moore was mistakenly credited with the poem, and he did nothing to alter that thinking, according to Foster's research.
Foster says a major reason that Moore was allowed to steal "The Night Before Christmas" was the simple fact that "he was a Bible professor and a Bible professor wouldn't lie."
It was up to Foster, then, to determine why Moore, like a 19th-century Grinch, would claim the rights to the story. He says he found evidence, and he offers his conclusions in "Author Unknown."
"Moore was a man who was pretty vain," says Foster. "He never felt that he got enough credit for anything. And the one thing he got credit for was this poem that he didn't write, and it made him pretty famous."
Of course, despite Foster's work, book-buyers can still go to the local Barnes & Noble and find a stack of freshly printed texts of "The Night Before Christmas," with Moore listed as the author.
"It will be interesting to see whether in future years publishers change the name on the title page," Moore says. "When that happens, you know the case has been won."
Until then, Foster will continue doing what he does best -- teach, and sleuth on the side.
"I got into this business almost by accident," he says. "What I really wanted to do was be a teacher of English lit, and that's still my first love."
Excerpt: 'Primary Colors'
The Shakespeare Authorship Page
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