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    Give anonymous offenders enough verbal rope and column inches, and they will hang themselves
    for you, every time.
           -Don Foster, Author Unknown

In a culture where your fifteen minutes of fame are immediately followed by a book deal, we are flooded with memoirs, but remarkably few are any good.  For the most part, our enjoyment of these books hinges almost exclusively on our interest in the event that propelled the author into the public spotlight, however briefly.  Don Foster is a Shakespeare scholar, Vassar professor, and literary sleuth, and his book, Author Unknown, is a glorious exception to this rule.

Though his name may be unfamiliar, many--at least the political junkies among us--will remember the dramatic moment when Mr. Foster unmasked Joe Klein as the man behind the nom de plume "Anonymous" and the author of Primary Colors.  Foster, at the behest of New York Magazine, had compared the text of the novel to the writings of a number of the most likely suspects and had found so many stylistic and linguistic similarities between the book and Klein's column--including heavy use of adverbs, hyper hyphenation, Capitalization of Concepts, an obsession with race and a certain uncomfortableness about sexual orientation issues--that he was able to confidently pronounce Klein the author.  Despite Klein's fearsome denials and some brief second thoughts, Foster stuck to his guns and eventually Klein was forced to acknowledge authorship, when handwriting samples also tied him to the manuscript.

This book contains plenty of fascinating details about the techniques Foster uses and the nitty gritty of the investigation, but the basics of the "Anonymous" caper are fairly well known, in at least general form, and, though this episode alone would probably suffice to sell the book, it is the other cases that Foster deals with that really make the book worthwhile.  He starts with the work that brought him to the attention of New York's editors, when as a graduate student he managed to use his investigatory skills to attribute a poem to William Shakespeare.  This story provides a truly sublime moment when, having submitted his dissertation to Oxford University Press as a book proposal, he was turned down and received instead two anonymous critiques of his work--apparently standard practice calls for scholars to read and judge submissions anonymously--wherein both authors stated that it is not possible to use only the internal evidence in written works to attribute authorship.  However, Foster then proceeded to compare the critiques to the writings of various prominent Shakespeare scholars and was able to discern precisely who had written them--perhaps predictably, neither expert saw the humor in this this, but the reader surely will.  Despite these early rejections, Foster was eventually credited with having discovered a new Shakespeare poem and write-ups in The New York Times and elsewhere established him as perhaps the first, certainly the leading, practitioner of literary forensics.

Later sections of the book deal with : his subsequent involvement in the JonBenet Ramsey and Unabomber cases; a demonstration that Thomas Pynchon was not the secret author behind a series of vituperative letters to the editor of Mendocino County, California newspapers, signed by Wanda Tinasky, the Fort Bragg Bag Lady; a tantalizing rumination on who may have really written the infamous "Talking Points" of Lewinsky fame; and a final chapter which pretty much demolishes the idea that Clement Moore wrote the beloved poem, 'Twas the Night Before Christmas.  The Talking Points discussion is especially interesting, mostly because it remains such a galling mystery, particularly for those of us who wanted Bill Clinton led out of the White House in an orange jumper and handcuffs.  Foster is not able to pin the deed on a specific culprit, but does show conclusively that the memo was not the exclusive work of Monica and her pal, Linda Tripp, and points at clues in the language and legal sophistication of at least the first page of the memo that seem to indicate it was most likely the work of one of a handful of lawyers in the Clinton inner circle.  Recall that Clinton himself is a lawyer, but Foster does not pursue him directly, focussing instead on Bob Bennett, Bruce Lindsey and Vernon Jordan.   He is hindered here by not having access to much written work by these three men, but it would be fun to see what he could do with more evidence.

My only criticism, and it's a mild one, is that there's a little too much "gee has my life become hectic" and "what have I gotten myself into."  This is self indulgent, almost self pitying, and is at odds with the genuine excitement he obviously brings to his work.  He does such a good job getting us caught up in the thrill of the chase that his complaints about the hectic lifestyle the work entails fall on deaf ears.  These quibbles aside, the book was one of the more pleasant surprises to come over the transom here in quite awhile.  This one is highly recommended.


Grade: (A)


Book-related and General Links:
    -Don Foster (Vassar English Department)
    -Professor Donald Foster
    -ESSAY : Literary Forensics : Don Foster, preeminent literary sleuth and author of the recently published Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous, reveals how his career as an English professor took an unexpected turn. (Don Foster, Contentville)
    -ESSAY : SHAXICON '95 by Donald Foster, Vassar College
    -EXCERPT : First Chapter of Author Unknown
    -INTERVIEW : THE HEART OF MYSTERY : Computer analyses seem to confirm that an elegy first published more than 350 years ago was, indeed, written by William Shakespeare. Elizabeth Farnsworth discusses the bard's poem with Roger Rosenblatt and Professor Donald Foster. (Online Newshour, PBS,   JANUARY 15, 1995)
    -LETTER : The Letters of Wanda Tinasky : A New Controversy! (Excerpts from a letter to the editor of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, March 17, 1999, signed "Prof. Donald Foster, Vassar College)
    -NEWSGROUP : From:           Don Foster <>
            Date:           Sunday, 10 Mar 1996 14:02:32 -0400 (EDT)
            Subject:        Re: Funeral Elegy
    -BOOK SITE : Author Unknown On the Trail of Anonymous By Don Foster (FSB Associates)
    -Don Foster Page (Jameson WebbSleuths)
    -PROFILE : The Bard's Fingerprints : Donald Foster Uses high-powered Computer Tests to Search for Shakespeare's Hidden Hand. His Critics Challenge Him on Every Move. (CALEB CRAIN, Lingua Franca)
    -PROFILE : The Mysteries of the Moonlighting English Professor : Don Foster has turned himself into the Sherlock Holmes of literary attribution. (Adam Langer, Book Magazine)
    -PROFILE : Professor finds unlikely fame as language detective : Computer analysis help a literature professor identify unknown authors (Holland Sentinel)
    -PROFILE : Transparent Eyeball: Book'em (JOANNE GORDON, Forbes)
    -ETEXT : William Shakespeare, "A Funeral Elegy for Master William Peter,"  (London: G.Eld for T.Thorpe, 1612). Normalized text, ed. Donald Foster
    -ESSAY : Arguments Against Foster and Others By Brooke Hamlett
    -ESSAY : The Ghost's Vocabulary : How the computer listens for Shakespeare's "voiceprint" (Edward Dolnick, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY : Roles Shakespeare played : Technology has established Shakespeare chose only minor roles that would not tax his limited histrionic talents (N. A. KARIM, The Hindu)
    -ESSAY : Bacon and Shakespeare Cyphers (Virginia Fellows, Sir
    -ESSAY : A Date with Anonymous (Spartacus)
    -ESSAY : Primary Colors of the Bible (Farrell Till, Skeptical Review)
    -ARTICLE : Did handwriting expert flip-flop on Ramsey ransom note?  Attorney: Professor first offered to help Ramseys before working with police  (Kevin McCullen, Rocky Mountain News
    -ESSAY : The Bombing  of Judi Bari & Darryl Cherney : New Evidence (Ed Gehrman, Sonoma County Free Press)
    -ESSAY : Beg, Borrow or ... While plagiarism accusations fly,  the crime gets harder to define (DWIGHT GARNER, Salon)
    -TRANSCRIPT : Ramsey Murder (48 Hours,  CBS, April 8, 1999)
    -REVIEW : of Author Unknown by Don Foster (Adam Liptak, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Author Unknown (David Kipen, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Author Unknown (Ellen Clegg, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW : of Author Unknown (Frank Lewis, City Paper)
    -REVIEW : of    Author Unknown: On The Trail Of  Anonymous by Don Foster (Philip Hensher, Spectator uk)
    -REVIEW : of Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous by Don Foster : The end of anon: literary sleuthing from Shakespeare to Unabomber : How was the anonymous author of Primary Colors finally unveiled? In this exclusive online essay from the London Review of Books, John Lanchester looks at literary attribution and the Sherlock Holmes of the field, Don Foster (London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW : of W. S. "A Funeral Elegy for Master William Peter." Read by Harry Hill. Dir. Paul Hawkins. Text Ed. Donald W. Foster. (Sean Lawrence, University of British Columbia)

    -ESSAY : Information Technology in Humanities Scholarship:   Achievements, Prospects, and Challenges-The United States Focus (American Council of Learned Societies  Occasional Paper No. 37)

    -Shakespeare Authorship Page
    -REVIEW : of    THE NEW CAMBRIDGE SHAKESPEARE: PERICLES, PRINCE OF TYRE. Edited by Doreen DelVecchio and Anthony Hammond and  THE NEW CAMBRIDGE SHAKESPEARE: KING EDWARD III. Edited by Giorgio Melchiori. All His Children? :  Standing up for the Bard's bastards (Jeffrey Gantz, AUGUST 17, 1998, Boston Phoenix)
    -REVIEW: of ALIAS SHAKESPEARE: SOLVING THE GREATEST LITERARY MYSTERY OF ALL TIME, By Joseph Sobran.  Much Ado About Nothing : Or as the Bard never said: "Enough of this crap!" (Jeffrey Gantz, NOVEMBER 10, 1997, Boston Phoenix)
    -ESSAY : Arguments Against Foster and Others By Brooke Hamlett
    -ESSAY :  The Meter and Structure  By Taryn Peterson
    -ESSAY :  Why I Am Not an Oxfordian by David Kathman

    -Rocky Mountain News : Ramsey Archives
    -The Daily Camera's Ramsey Archive, featuring more than 600 articles from the Daily Camera - Boulder, Colorado's largest and only complete daily newspaper

    -The Letters of Wanda Tinasky Directory | Thomas Pynchon : complete listing of Salon articles on Thomas Pynchon.
    -ESSAY : Finding V.(author Thomas Pynchon's book 'V')(Kenneth Kupsch)
    -ESSAY : The crying over Lot 49 of Thomas Pynchon's letters  (DWIGHT GARNER, Salon)
    -Jack Gillis Homepage

    -ESSAY : THE TALKING POINTS AND THE STARR REPORT : Did Kenneth Starr indulge in prosecutorial misconduct in his handling of the "Talking Points"? (Skip Fox, Ph.D., and Jack, Gillis, M.A., Graduate Department of English, Univ. of Southwestern Louisiana, September 15, 1998)

    -ARTICLE : The Mystery No Insider Can Unravel (TIME)
    -ARTICLE : 'Newsweek' columnist says he authored 'Primary Colors' (USA Today)
    -ARTICLE : "Primary Colors" Joe Klein a.k.a Anonymous (April 3, 1998, CNN)
    -ARTICLE : Forensic expert who unmasked Joe Klein prefers to be anonymous herself (Valerie Carino / Raleigh News & Observer)
    -INTERVIEW : Primary Colors by Anonymous, has many wondering who wrote this thinly veiled fictional look at Bill Clinton's 1992 run for the Presidency. Essayist Roger Rosenblatt postulates who Anonymous might be, and reviews the merits of the book. (Online Newshour, PBS)
    -ESSAY : Primary witness  (Robert McCrum,  Sunday February 20, 2000, booksunlimited uk)
    -ESSAY : THE LIARS CLUB : Joe Klein is not only a disgrace to his profession, he may be nuts, too. (DAVID CORN, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Journalism: Joe Klein's Crime; Jessica Mitford's Legacy (Randolph T. Holhut)
    -ESSAY : Will "Primary Colors" author score another win? : Joe Klein's new roman à clef will be a tough sell (Craig Offman, Salon)
    -ESSAY : JOE KLEIN'S TRUE COLORS? : An Analysis of "Primary Colors"  by Another Anonymous (American Review)
    -ESSAY : Primary Responsibility : Journalist Joe Klein got rich off his 'Primary Colors' hoax - but he lied to the public (AMY FIRIS, City Beat)
    -ESSAY :  Primary Targets (James Fallows, NPR Commentary -- March 8, 1996)
    -ESSAY : JOE KLEIN'S "SHOCKING" CONFESSION : The Mainstream Media's Double Standard (Edward Zehr, Washington Weekly)
    -ESSAY : Sloppy Joe : Media Rant on Primary Colors  (Jon Katz,  Mediaville, Wired)
    -ESSAY : Regular Joe : Impolitic on Primary Colors (John Heilemann, Wired)
    -ESSAY : My Tryst With Anonymous (Charles McGrath, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : It beats working in the White House (Mugger, Jewish World Review)
    -ESSAY : Integrity, Politics, and the Art of the Possible (Peter Landstrom)
    -ESSAY : Lurking About in Hyde Park With The Disembody Politic (Alan J Rosenblatt, George Mason University)

    -ESSAY : There Arose Such a Clatter : Who Really Wrote "The Night before Christmas"? (And Why Does It Matter?) (Stephen Nissenbaum, Common Place)