Summary and book reviews of Author Unknown by Don Foster

Author Unknown

On The Trail of Anonymous

by Don Foster

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

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Book Summary

From the professor with an extraordinary gift for uncovering the authors of anonymous documents comes the inside story of how he solves his most challenging cases.

In Author Unknown, Don Foster reveals a startling fact: since no two people use language in precisely the same way, our identities are encoded in our own language, a kind of literary DNA. Combining traditional scholarship with modern technology, Foster has discovered how to unlock that code and, in the process, has invented an entire field of investigation -- literary forensics -- by which it becomes possible to catch anonymous authors as they betray their identities with their own words.

Foster's unexpected career as a literary sleuth began when he solved a puzzle in Shakespeare's Sonnets that had stumped scholars for centuries, and then stumbled onto another literary mystery, a funeral poem written for a 1612 murder victim. After definitively connecting the "W.S." who wrote the poem with William Shakespeare, Foster found himself on the front page of The New York Times. Just days later, he was invited to try to crack the case that at the time was a national obsession: who was the anonymous author of Primary Colors? In less than a week, Foster unmasked Joe Klein.

Foster's methodology was immediately understood by prosecutors and other investigators to be a perfect tool for identifying the authors of critical documents in criminal cases. Soon, he was enlisted in the infamous Unabomber case, and in a fascinating chapter he takes us inside the tangled mind of Ted Kaczynski, the former professor who gave new meaning to the academic motto "Publish or perish." Then it's back to Washington, for the capital's hottest new guessing game: who wrote the Lewinsky-Tripp "Talking Points"?

Returning to the literary, Foster investigates the case of "Wanda Tinasky," the oddball California bag lady who many believed to be Thomas Pynchon. And in the final chapter, Foster makes a surprising -- and heartening -- discovery about a beloved holiday icon.

As entertaining as it is eye-opening, Author Unknown shows us how Don Foster uses his unusual methods to search out the hidden identities behind anonymous documents of all kinds. Anyone who reads this remarkable book will find it impossible to read -- or write -- in the same way as before.

Prologue: On the Trail

JUST LEARNING

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" ...

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Reviews

Media Reviews

Publisher's Weekly

.... His accounts of his high-profile roles in transatlantic Shakespearean squabbles and journalistic whodunits are both personable and page-turning...... 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)

Library Journal

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.

Reader Reviews

jamesonisawingnutinmyopinion

Jameson got lucky on this one
This guy was wrong about jameson being jar, but that doesn't totally dismiss this guys work. Jameson makes me ill with all the money she made off of selling info to the national enquirer...she has no room to talk about credibility!

jameson

Donald Foster was discredited several times over in the past few years. He admitted he was wrong when he attributed the Funeral Elegy to Shakespeare and his work in the Ramsey case was publicly discredited - it is all documented in Ramsey case ...   Read More

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