Excerpt from Author Unknown by Don Foster, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Author Unknown

On The Trail of Anonymous

by Don Foster

Author Unknown
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2000, 318 pages
    Aug 2001, 320 pages

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Prologue: On the Trail


O this learning, what a thing it is!
--William Shakespeare, The Taming of The Shrew 1.2.159

My office is what you would imagine an English professor's office to be, piled high with student papers, and with writings I have studied by poets and playwrights, some still unknown. But intermixed with the literary texts are others by felons, zealots, or nameless resentniks whose identity or actions were of sufficient interest to the press, police, attorneys, or my fellow academics for someone to ask, "Who wrote this thing?" Two locked file cabinets, four drawers deep, are crammed with literary hoaxes, Internet libels, corporate shenanigans, terrorist threats, bogus wills, extortion letters, and anonymous harassments -- and that's just the stuff I have had to save.

Some of the texts are well known: Primary Colors, the Unabom manifesto and Kaczynski papers, the Lewinsky-Tripp "Talking Points," the Atlanta-Birmingham "Army of God" letters, the JonBenét Ramsey ransom note. Somewhere under all of that is my own work of comparing and analyzing great literature, of teasing out the identifiers that let us know with confidence that a found composition is, indeed, say, a lost Beethoven or, in my case, a lost work of Shakespeare.

The story I have to tell is least of all my own. It is the fulfillment of what most of us would recognize, at first, as clichés. But those clichés have turned out, to my surprise, to be powerful and prophetic, which may account for their endurance: They can run but not hide. The devil is in the details. We reveal ourselves most when we try to disguise ourselves. We make our destiny. Murder will out. It is the story of how my work in dusty libraries and forgotten stacks of manuscripts drew me into headline battles I might have done well to avoid -- but I have had, at least, the consolation of a front-row seat. It is not about me, but of all the mysteries we will explore, the most preposterous is how I ever came to be involved in the often grim work of police detectives, the FBI, federal prosecutors, and public defenders. If the story I have to tell were fiction, where the truth does not greatly matter and where the blood is not real, the incongruity would be comical: What is this Shakespeare scholar doing at a desk in a police situation room or at a podium at the FBI Academy?

It is a story of how the study of the textual nuances of Shakespearean language propelled me onto the stage of public dramas, some tawdry, others ghastly and brutal. Events of the past few years have called me away from the eloquent lands of Dunsinane and Elsinore, where there prevails a sort of poetic quasi-justice, to investigate texts of terrorism, political intrigue, and murder, and anonymous writings having no other purpose than to obstruct justice -- and back again, safely, to the two-dimensional world of literary study. It has been said that Shakespeare soars on poetry and litters the stage with carnage. But this carnage -- stabbings, bombings, slander, murder -- was real.


Raised on the Good Book, I discovered the Great Books while wandering the globe as a young adult. They came alive to me not in the classroom but in the world itself, where they were written. When my wife, Gwen, and I returned to California in 1977, Gwen enrolled at UC Santa Cruz while I took a teaching post that required no credential and paid $400 a month. It was where I learned about writing, though I was supposed to be teaching it. As director of the Soquel High School Writing Center, I trained the best students (volunteers who received academic credit) to assist the less capable. To visit the Center for help, students had to request a pass from their English teacher. Some came to better their writing skills, others to get out of English class. I did not really know each student by personality, but came to recognize them by their writing, in their problems, or in their brilliance: Brian -- smart but can't spell. Ellen -- bound to use passive voice. Justin -- pronoun reference, parallel construction. Some, like Shakespeare's comic constables, Elbow and Dogberry, made fritters of the English tongue, though native-born. I remember one sophomore who could think of nowhere to go with his book report after his first sentence, which nonetheless sang and resonated with echoes of the ancient Anglo-Saxon: "This book is fuct."

Copyright © 2000 Don Foster

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