Cover image for Author unknown : on the trail of anonymous
Author unknown : on the trail of anonymous
Foster, Donald W., 1950-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Henry Holt, 2000.
Physical Description:
318 pages ; 25 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Central Library PE1421 .F59 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



From the professor who invented literary forensics - and fingered Joe Klein as the author of Primary Colors - comes the inside story of how he solves his most challenging casesDon Foster is the world's first literary detective. Realizing that everyone's use of language is as distinctive as his or her DNA, Foster developed a revolutionary methodology for identifying the writer behind almost any anonymous document. Now, in this enthralling book, he explains his techniques and invites readers to sit by his side as he searches a mysterious text for the clues that whisper the author's name.Foster's unique skills first came to light when a front-page New York Times article announced his discovery that a previously unattributed poem was written by Shakespeare. A few weeks later, Foster solved the mystery that had obsessed America for months when he identified Joe Klein as the author of Primary Colors . Foster also took on a case involving the elusive Thomas Pynchon. And his contributions to the Unabomber and JonBenet Ramsey cases have led the FBI and several police forces to hire him to train their organizations.Introducing a fascinating new field of forensics, Author Unknown will appeal to mystery fans-and to everyone interested in words and the writer's craft.

Author Notes

Don Foster is an English professor at Vassar College & lives in Poughkeepsie, New York.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

HThe Elizabethan scholar from Vassar College who unmasked Joe Klein as the "Anonymous" who wrote Primary Colors now shakes up Yuletide verse with a reattribution of "A Visit from St. Nicholas." The selected cases of literary detection that lead up to this final surprise are the scholarly equivalent of FBI psychological profiler John Douglas's Mindhunter. Foster's textual forensics have put "A Funeral Elegy" by "W.S." into the Shakespeare canon and helped put Unabomber Ted Kaczynski in prison. His accounts of his high-profile roles in transatlantic Shakespearean squabbles and journalistic whodunits are both personable and page-turning. Whether it's because the statistical side of Foster's methodology is rather technical or that his critics have dismissed him as a "professor with a computer program," he mostly sticks to describing the fingerprints of word choice and telltale punctuation rather than lexical databases and verbal probabilities. In his case for a Scots-Dutch Revolutionary War major, Henry Livingston Jr., as the author of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" and against puritan Manhattan professor Clement Moore, to whom it is traditionally attributed, he argues from not only lively biographic inference but also such small, telling details as the adverbial use of "all" and the Scottish origins of "snug." While lexiphiles will enjoy such minutiae, any book lover can savor the irony of how an Elizabethan elegy eventually put a literary scholar on the trail of a serial murderer. (Nov. 7) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Literary forensics? That's Vassar English professor Foster's specialty. Here he shows how he proved a long-lost poem was Shakespeare's, identified Joe Klein as Anonymous, and more. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Looking into Shakespeare SHAKESPEARE'S SOILED FISH What have we here? a man, or a fish? ... A fish: he smells like a fish; a very ancient and fish-like smell ... --WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, THE TEMPEST 2.2.25 Mark Twain once remarked of Christopher Columbus that "it was wonderful to find America--but it would have been more wonderful to miss it." I sometimes feel that way about "A Funeral Elegy for Master William Peter." When I first stumbled on this unfamiliar poem "by W.S." I was not looking for a lost work by William Shakespeare; I had no thought of sparking a heated literary debate, nor any wish to exasperate old-guard Shakespeareans. My project that afternoon in January 1984 was a modest one. As a graduate student of English literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I was investigating a typographical error.     In April 1609, the London stationer Thomas Thorpe published a paperback quarto entitled Shake-speare's Sonnets . He included, just inside the front cover, a cryptic salutation printed in all caps and ornamentally punctuated to resemble a lapidary inscription. Describing himself as a "WELL-WISHING ADVENTURER" and signing himself "T.T.," Thorpe wished TO. THE. ONLIE. BEGETTER. OF. THESE. INSUING. SONNETS. Mr. W.H. ALL. HAPPINESSE. AND. THAT. ETERNITIE. PROMISED. BY. OUR. EVER-LIVING. POET.     Shake-speare's Sonnets , which competed in the marketplace with prose romances, comical ballads, and ribald satires, and even with news stories about convicted witches and congenitally joined twins, did not sell. Marketed for five pence, the seventy-eight-page first edition generated little interest. That was not true of Shakespeare's other publications. Venus and Adonis , a long, erotic poem, passed through ten printings in the poet's lifetime, and The Rape of Lucrece six, but Shakespeare's Sonnets were rarely reprinted, read, or admired until long after the author of Hamlet and King Lear had come to be viewed as England's national poet. When Shakespeare's neglected Sonnets were at last resurrected for English readers in the late eighteenth century, the poems were greeted with disdain. Editor George Steevens remarked of the Sonnets in 1793 that "the strongest act of Parliament that could be framed, would fail to compel readers into their service."     Shakespeare's Sonnets seem to have improved with age ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate ..."), but few of the poems have inspired as much commentary as that brief preface by their publisher, Thomas Thorpe. Many readers suspect that the all-caps greeting to Mr. W.H. may contain a secret message. This is especially true of "anti-Stratfordians"--individuals who believe that "Shakespeare" is not really Shakespeare but a conspiracy (and a pseudonym for Edward de Vere or Francis Bacon or Christoper Marlowe or even Queen Elizabeth I). As decoded by amateur sleuths, Thorpe's prefatory wish has been discovered to contain such attributional secrets as "THESE SONNETS ALL BY E. VER." ( These sonnets all by E[dward] Vet[e] ), and "TO VERE HIS EPIGRAM," and "NIL VERO VERIUS" ( Nothing more true than Vere! ). One cryptographer of the Sir Francis Bacon party, by way of a secret decoding formula that I do not fully understand, has uncovered here an anagrammatic message that the Sonnets of Shakespeare are actually the "CYPPHRS" of "BEEKAAN."     The cryptographic approach to this ancient literary conundrum usually entails a minor reshuffling of the letters, or a reliance on unusual spellings like "cypphrs"--gambits that would not be allowed in a Scrabble game much less in Shakespeare scholarship. But, not to put too fine a point on it, professional Shakespeareans have obsessed over Thorpe's message as well. Around the world, library shelves sag beneath the weight of books and articles focused on the literary problem: Who was "W.H."? Was he the beautiful young man to whom most of the Sonnets are addressed? Was he the person from whom Thomas Thorpe obtained manuscript copy? Could W.H. be Shakespeare's literary patron?     Hyder Rollins, one of the great Shakespeare scholars of the twentieth century, observed wearily that Master W.H. "has caused the spilling of more ink, the utterance of more futile words, than almost any other personage or problem ... and there is not the slightest likelihood that the mystery surrounding his initials will ever be dispelled in a fashion satisfactory to a majority of critics, editors, and commentators." That was in 1944, but it was no easy matter to call off the troops. In 1965 the Canadian scholar Leslie Hotson confessed, "I cannot let the mystery of W.H. alone. In emulation of Sherlock Holmes, I find my thoughts irresistibly drawn to it ... Since we have nothing to chew upon, small wonder that sceptisicm pours in its gas of doubt." Hotson imagines his readers "hot for certainties," but he was no more able to provide that certainty than were others.     In the winter of 1983-1984, contemplating a doctoral dissertation on the Sonnets, I had no thought of identifying the elusive Mr. W.H., but I did think I should learn something about the conventions of the age with respect to Renaissance book dedications, epigraphs, and prefatory epistles, about which I knew very little. So I parked myself at a microfilm reader and began to explore what was then a brand-new research tool called "Early English Books, 1475-1640," a microfilm collection of every surviving English book, pamphlet, and single-page broadside printed during this historical period, a resource costing $350,000, available at UCLA. Taking the intercampus shuttle bus, I began making day trips to the UCLA library, to examine microfilm copies of early English books that were not yet available at the Santa Barbara campus.     Inching through reel after reel of book prefaces and dedicatory epistles and title-page blurbs, I had a few surprises. The one point on which all scholars and amateur sleuths had agreed was that William Shakespeare is the "EVER-LIVING POET" who promises us or Mr. W.H. "ETERNITIE." I was not so sure about that. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the term "ever-living" was applied sometimes to deceased Christians (once, to Chaucer, a dead poet), but reserved usually for God. When poetry was attacked by Puritans as an idle pursuit, its defenders typically replied that the word poet (from the Latin poeta ) means "maker," and that God is himself a poet. This God-is-our-Poet trope appears in at least three books already known to Shakespeare by 1609 if not to Thorpe, including a book published by Shakespeare's fellow playwright Thomas Heywood only four months before Shake-speare's Sonnets .     Nor could a human begetter like William Shakespeare deliver on a promise of ETERNITIE, a blessing mentioned in hundreds of Renaissance book prefaces and dedications but referring always to eternal life in heaven, not literary fame, and promised, according to the convention, in Holy Scripture, not in the sugared sonnets of a London playmaker. For English readers of Thorpe's generation, God in heaven was our EVER-LIVING POET ("Author," "Creator"), as opposed to a talented mortal like Mr. Shakespeare, and God was also the only Maker who can truly promise us ETERNITIE.     Who, then, was Mr. W.H., the only begetter of those ensuing 154 Sonnets? According to past scholarship, "W.H." was either the young man eulogized by Shakespeare as "beauty's rose," or he was the person who supplied Thorpe with manuscript copy. Looking around, I found that those two inferences were probably mistaken as well. The "BEGETTER" in Renaissance texts was an absolutely commonplace metaphor referring always to the author. According to this popular convention, translators did not qualify as "begetters" of the literary text--nor did commentators, publishers, patrons, paramours, scribes, inspirers, or suppliers of manuscript copy. Unless Thomas Thorpe was introducing a new twist to seventeenth-century convention, the "ONLIE BEGETTER" of the Sonnets had to be the mortal poet who wrote them.     When I viewed the 1609 epigraph in the light of these historical conventions, Thorpe's wish to the only begetter of Shakespeare's Sonnets seemed no more original or mysterious than the greeting on a Hallmark card: "To Mr. W. H., the sole author of this text, I wish happiness in this life and eternity hereafter, as promised in Holy Scripture by our Maker, the ever -living Poet."     But that second initial is wrong. One might suppose, from this front-page salutation, that Shakespeare's Sonnets were actually written by a Mr. William H. --fuel for new anti-Stratfordian conspiracy theories--were it not for the fact that Elizabethan printers often made mistakes when reproducing personal initials from manuscript copy. Such misprints occurred most often when the stationer of copyright did not have his own printing press, and paid someone else to do the printing--as Thomas Thorpe did the printer George Eld. Eld's typesetter may have made a mistake, misreading a majuscule S for an H (letters that can look very much alike in the standard "secretary hand" of the seventeenth century). More probably, he just omitted a letter from Thomas Thorpe's "Mr. W. SH." (Shakespeare's name during his own lifetime was abbreviated "W. SH." on other publications; and Thorpe himself elsewhere signs himself "TH. TH.")     If George Eld had printed "Mr. W. SH.," as was probably intended, Thorpe's meaning would have been obvious from day one. Forests might have been spared. But misprints have been causing trouble for literary scholarship ever since the invention of the printing press. Take F. O. Matthiessen, one of the great scholars and teachers of the twentieth century and a founder of American literary studies. Professor Matthiessen discovered the hard way that early American texts are no more reliable than early English ones. An expert on the fiction of Herman Melville, he once rhapsodized on the oxymoronic qualities of Herman Melville's image of the "soiled fish" in White Jacket: "Hardly anyone but Melville could have created the ... `soiled fish of the sea.' The discordia concors , the unexpected linking of the medium of cleanliness with filth, could only have sprung from an imagination that had apprehended the terrors of the deep, of the immaterial deep as well as the physical...." Matthiessen thought the twisted image of the soiled fish to be "peculiarly Melville's," inimitable.     But Matthiessen was unaware that the author actually wrote "coiled," not "soiled." Far from speaking in oxymorons, Melville was talking about a dead eel. It was not Melville, but the printer of Matthiessen's inaccurate edition of White Jacket , who "soiled" that dead, inert fish of the sea--producing a phrase that was aesthetically improved, perhaps, but mistaken--a printshop accident. If the printer had only made it a "boiled fish of the sea," Matthiessen would doubtless have spotted the misprint and saved himself a world of embarrassment. BY W[ILLIAM] S[HAKESPEARE] When all shall turn to dust from whence we came And we low-leveled in a narrow grave, What can we leave behind us but a name? --W.S., "A FUNERAL ELEGY," LINES 193-95 One puzzle often leads to another. In the course of researching the article on "Master W.H." I encountered "A Funeral Elegy." I have no romantic tale to tell of finding a lost literary Shakespeare poem in the mildewed cellar of a Tudor mansion or in a locked chest sold at auction, nor even of calling up the original printed text from the rare-book archive at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. I first encountered W.S.'s "Funeral Elegy" in Los Angeles while sitting at a microfilm reader.     I had taken the shuffle bus to UCLA to spend yet another day reading early English books. Late in the afternoon, I came to a pamphlet called A Funerall Elegye , printed in 1612 by George Eld for Thomas Thorpe, the same duo that had published Shake-speare's Sonnets three years before. The publication contained what looked like a typical funeral poem, written for a Devonshire gentleman named William Peter and dedicated to his elder brother John, names that meant nothing to me. The author's initials, W.S., were not unusual. What first startled me was the poet's dedicatory epistle. Signed "W.S.," the 135-word salutation is closely modeled, in structure, length, and phrasing, on Shakespeare's dedication letter in The Rape of Lucrece , modeled in turn on the one in Venus and Adonis . Having already looked at thousands of book dedications and prefatory epistles, I had not seen another so closely resembling Shakespeare's.     Cranking my way through W.S.'s microfilmed "Funeral Elegy" one frame at a time, I was puzzled further by the poet's frequent echoing of Shakespeare. There was no explicit quotation, but W.S. obviously knew Shakespeare's late plays, and even a few earlier ones, such as Richard II (1596), which was revived in the winter of 1611-1612. W.S. predicts, for example, that Peter's death will be sadly lamented: such as do recount that tale of woe, Told by remembrance of the wisest heads, Will in the end conclude the matter so, As they will all go weeping to their beds. ( Elegy, lines 167-70) --which sounds a lot like Richard II's final speech to his wife just before his assassination: let them tell thee tales Of woeful ages long ago betid; And ere thou bid good night, to quit their griefs, Tell thou the lamentable tale of me And send the hearers weeping to their beds. ( Richard II 5.1.41-45) W.S. borrowed much of Shakespeare's rare diction, had many of Shakespeare's idiosyncrasies down pat, and had arranged for the poem to be printed by Shakespeare's stationer.     Granted that W.S.'s "Funeral Elegy" was not widely available until 1984 (the year in which I first encountered it on microfilm), I nevertheless thought it odd that the poem had never been discussed, nor even once noted, by Shakespeare scholars. There was a possibility, of course, that "W.S." was a forgery, a hoax, a serious imitation by a Shakespeare wannabe, or just one more "soiled fish," a misprint for some other set of initials. But the "W.S." appeared twice, first on the title page, again as the signatory for the letter of dedication to John Peter. "W.S." was not likely to be a misprint.     It was late in the afternoon. If I didn't hurry, I'd miss the shuttle bus, my only ride home to Santa Barbara. Without reading past line 200, I rewound the film, fed the reel into a microfilm copier, and began printing W.S.'s "Funeral Elegy."     A UCLA student stood beside me, waiting to use the machine. Quickly running out of pocket change, I gave him a dollar, explained that I had a bus to catch, and asked if he would fetch me some dimes from the circulation desk. He was quick, but it was a long poem--ten more coins didn't do it. I gave him another dollar; he brought another ten dimes. Struck by the archaic typeface, he asked me what it was. "An old poem," I replied. "`A Funeral Elegy.'" Having now a copy of the text, I rewound the film, boxed it, and sprinted for the door. When I reached the parking lot, the punctual bus driver was already pulling away. I chased her down with arms flailing.     I didn't know what I had in my bag, but it looked pretty interesting. On the way home, I read the elegy in snatches, then put it down, then picked it up again, my opinion of its Shakespearean qualifies ranging from "Maybe," to "Yes," to "Never in a million years," and back again.     The original 1612 text of the elegy was made difficult to read by erratic punctuation and dozens of typographical errors, the result of George Eld's careless or hasty printing, and by the poet's own difficult, often convoluted, sentence construction. Back home, after transcribing and editing the text from start to finish, I shared it with two of my graduate advisors at UCSB. One thought the elegy was Shakespeare, the other was noncommittal but interested. With their blessing I dropped my proposed dissertation on Shakespeare's Sonnets and chose to write instead about "A Funeral Elegy" by W.S. My goal was not to prove that Shakespeare wrote the poem, but to find out who did. No matter what, it seemed like a good story.     In March 1984 I approached William Sisler, then humanities editor at Oxford University Press, with a book proposal: Here was W.S.'s 1612 "Funeral Elegy," a hitherto unknown poem possibly by Shakespeare. My UCSB advisors assured Mr. Sisler that, in their opinion, this was an important project, and that Donald Foster, though a graduate student, was not daft.     I worried, more than was truly necessary, that other scholars might become interested in W.S.'s elegy before my own investigation was complete. Fearing disclosure, I asked Sisler to sign a contract affirming that the publisher's expert readers would keep this matter top secret, and that there would be no mention of the elegy in any Oxford University Press publication prior to the release of my book, whether or not O.U.P. decided to publish it. Upon receiving that signed contract in April 1984, I submitted my edited text of "A Funeral Elegy" along with a book proposal, a synopsis of some thirty pages.     As always happens with academic submissions, the manuscript was farmed out to a press reader, a scholarly referee and expert reviewer whose task it was to prepare for the editors an anonymous report concerning the merits of publication. Only two weeks after submitting my proposal, I received the anticipated reader's report, a two-page review that was neither enthusiastic nor gentle. I knew from the opening sentence that I was in trouble: "Donald W. Foster is an unfamiliar name to me, but I dare say we'll be hearing more from him. I gather too that he is young; no doubt a plus ..."     My bemused reader turned thumbs down on my book proposal and urged me to rest up in a convalescent home for overwrought graduate students before writing another word. The author of the report said that the elegy couldn't be taken seriously as a Shakespeare poem (1) because there was insufficient external evidence that Shakespeare wrote it, such as a full name on the title page; (2) because authorship cannot be determined by internal evidence, such as diction, grammar, and syntax; and (3) because the poem was dull. ("`W.S.' does not a Shakespeare prove, as Foster has enough wit to realize....")     My anonymous reviewer was an established Shakespeare scholar, no doubt a plus. Had he signed his editorial report, his name would doubtless have been familiar to me. But I was puzzled. If the elegy is not certainly by Shakespeare, this reader seemed to say, why should anyone care who wrote it? The "W.S." problem had seemed to me quite interesting in itself. Why should it have produced so little curiosity in my expert reader? Faced now with rejection of my book proposal, another question arose: Who was my anonymous reader?     I thought I knew. While waiting to hear back from Oxford, I had been reading the work of Samuel Schoenbaum, a distinguished Shakespearean whose theoretical position was that you can't tell who wrote what on the basis of internal evidence, and whose work--that opinion, of course, excepted--I admired. The reviewer's criticism and language fell on my boxed ears like a drubbing from Samuel Schoenbaum. Closer study confirmed it. The linguistic habits in my anonymous report, and in Schoenbaum's published scholarship, were indistinguishable one from the other.     Hoping for a second chance, I wrote to Schoenbaum at the University of Maryland. Introducing myself, I said that I disagreed with him concerning the value of internal evidence in the determination of authorship. I mentioned, too, that I had just received a two-page reader's report in which the anonymous author took issue with my interest in a 1612 funeral poem. This anonymous report, I said, might have been done by a very good Schoenbaum imitator but was it not possibly written by Mr. Schoenbaum himself? I asked ii we might yet discuss this matter of "A Funeral Elegy," as its authorship was not, for me, an unimportant or uninteresting question.     Having his hands full at the time with other matters, Professor Schoenbaum arranged for an English Department secretary at the University of Maryland to reply to my note, confirming my guess that he was indeed my reader while adding that he had nothing further to say on this subject. But there was life in it: Bill Sisler at Oxford University Press offered me the second chance I had hoped for, inviting me to resubmit when the dissertation was finished. If I could turn my interest in W.S.'s elegy into a sensible book, O.U.P. would still be interested. Having now committed myself to a dissertation on "A Funeral Elegy," I had to learn something about W.S.'s dead friend, William Peter, about whom I knew nothing. Speaking of his friend's untimely death, W.S. laments that "such a man was sadly overthrown / By a hand guided by a cruel heart" (163-64). That sounded like a murder. Scouring library shelves for mention of John or William Peter, I found a confirmation that William Peter, son of Otho Peter of Bowhay, near Exeter, was slain on January 25, 1612 (just nineteen days before "A Funeral Elegy" was registered to be printed in London), by a kinsman named Edward Drew, also of Exeter.     W.S.'s elegy was shaping up as a topic for a criminal as well as an attributional investigation. With funding from the University of California, I packed my bags and flew to England with Gwen and our year-old baby. For three months in the summer of 1984--while lodging in youth hostels, boardinghouses, and campgrounds--I looked under every stone, behind every bush, in search of information about the victim William Peter, his killer Edward Drew, and his elegist W.S. Only two copies survive of the original paperbound quarto of "A Funeral Elegy." Both are at Oxford and each one is sandwiched between other printed pamphlets of the seventeenth century; both are bound in ancient leather volumes. Inspecting the two copies, I found no sign that either copy had ever been examined except by a bookworm, long deceased, that had eaten its way through the Bodleian text. I found no handwritten marginal notations, no "Yours truly, Shakespeare," no smoking gun.     William Peter, I learned, had studied at Exeter College, Oxford, for nine years off and on. Visiting the archives at Exeter College, I was admitted by the college librarian to a musty basement cell without windows, where I examined four-centuries-old registration books containing a record of matriculation, fellowships, disputations, and graduation. To learn when Peter was in residence at the college and when he was absent, I examined the college "Buttery Books," which recorded his charges for food. Five times in those years Peter remained absent for four months or longer, his disappearance coinciding on at least three occasions with visits to Oxford by Shakespeare's dramatic company; but that could easily be coincidental. I found no records directly linking Peter to the London theater.     It was in the Devon Record Office that I found the most interesting material. Until World War II, Exeter had one of the richest archives of testamentary and municipal records in all of England. During the German Blitz thousands of historical documents were destroyed by fire, but many survived, including a fascinating account of the Peter homicide compiled by Exeter's city recorder William Martyn. In a detailed inquest postmortem, begun within hours of Peter's death, Martyn recorded testimony from those who saw and conversed with Peter on the day he died. It was from the depositions taken by Martyn that I was able to assemble the story of what happened to W.S.'s friend on January 25, 1612. (Continues...) Copyright © 2000 Don Foster. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Prologue: On the Trailp. 1
Chapter 1 Looking into Shakespearep. 19
Chapter 2 No, Really, He Is Anonymousp. 53
Chapter 3 A Professor's Whodunitp. 95
Chapter 4 Starr-Crossed Loversp. 143
Chapter 5 Wanda, the Fort Bragg Bag Ladyp. 188
Chapter 6 Yes, Virginia, There Was a Santa Clausp. 221
Epilogue: After Wordsp. 276
Notesp. 283
Acknowledgmentsp. 303
Indexp. 305

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