Scrawler I.D.

A Literary Detective Shakes Spears at Hidden Authors

In 1984, a young graduate student named Don Foster approached Oxford University Press with a book proposal for his dissertation-in-the-works: a study that would determine the author of the decidedly Shakespearean 1612 obscurity "A Funeral Elegy," which Foster had stumbled upon in the UCLA library. Foster's abstract was given to an anonymous Elizabethan scholar who pooh-poohed the project, stating that its author could not be decided on internal evidence alone and, in the same breath, declaring the poem too tedious to be Shakespeare's. And if the Bard didn't write it, why read it?

Foster's devilish response gives a good name to passive aggression. He set aside his meticulous textual analysis of "A Funeral Elegy"—in which he descried Shakespeare's rhythms, syntax, and mannerisms in each of its nearly 600 lines—and turned to his unattributed, unsympathetic editorial report. Like any good lit student, he did a close reading and looked up a few relevant scholars. Foster then wrote a friendly letter of respectful disagreement to Samuel Schoenbaum, the man he believed was his critic—and Foster was right. His opponent having declared this wasn't a dagger he saw before him, Foster had no choice but to wield it against him.

Twelve years later, Foster's attribution of "A Funeral Elegy" to Shakespeare, the first such discovery in more than a century, made the front page of The New York Times. Journalists then pounced on Foster as the best hope for outing the author of the just-published Clinton-campaign roman à clef Primary Colors. Après Joe Klein, le déluge—authorities have called upon Foster's self-taught expertise in literary forensics for the Theodore Kaczynski criminal trial, JonBenet Ramsey murder investigation, Lewinsky-Tripp "Talking Points" fracas, and countless lower-profile cases, as he recounts in his recent book, Author Unknown (which also includes a terrific chapter on Wanda Tinasky, Thomas Pynchon's erstwhile alleged doppelgänger).

Foster somehow manages this pro bono workload as well as his duties as a Vassar English professor, and stresses, "My first love is teaching. That's what I would like to make my continued top priority, not all this other hoopla." His fall course schedule crystallized his long, strange trip from toiling grad student to discipline-straddling High Counsel: He taught the first half of a yearlong Shakespeare survey and a seminar on anonymous and pseudonymous texts.

Oddly enough, Foster's literary-celebrity status was ignited by making a positive I.D. of the writer with the most famously amorphous identity in Western literature. "A Funeral Elegy" presented a bottomless paradox, a feast for decon appetites: Because Samuel Schoenbaum was at least right in calling the lament a dull read (Foster dryly notes that "there are plenty of scholars, especially across the Atlantic, who would say I've ruined Shakespeare's reputation with that poem"), the general audience's interest in it would seemingly begin and end with its author-in-dispute. But that author doesn't exist in any concrete, demonstrable sense. Just ask any Shakespeare purist, clutching to the precious few remaining records of Will's existence, to say nothing of the scribblers who claim Francis Bacon, Queen Elizabeth I, or—by far the most persuasively—Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, as the real deal. Author Unknown could double as an alternate title for the First Folio, and the irony isn't lost on Foster.

Foster considers himself a Stratfordian, though he could be easily pegged as a gimme-some-truth Oxford hardliner. "The evidence is for Shakespeare as Shakespeare," he says. "It's not just one definitive scrap of evidence—you have to include things like references in Lord Chamberlain's account book, Stratford records of the stage, finance records, testimony of his colleagues. These texts belong together, and many of the greatest were written after the Earl of Oxford was dead." Still, for classroom purposes, Foster says, "with Shakespeare, we're talking about a body of work; we're not talking about a man. But once 'Funeral Elegy' came to be grudgingly known as the work of Shakespeare"—there are still plenty of holdouts, of course—"we could start asking, How does the 'I' of this text connect to the 'I' of the sonnets, the 'I' of The Rape of Lucrece? The discourse is within the work."

An Oxfordian would counter that Stratford proponents studiously ignore the 'I' of the intensely private sonnets: Aligned with the factual scraps of Will's life, they seem a curious diversion even as fiction, but matched up with Oxford, their lovesick shame is transfigured into a nakedly confessional cri de coeur. Are we discoursing with a tormented nobleman or a stage-dabbling grain-puller? Foster responds with typical intertextual wit: " 'What matter who's speaking?' asked Foucault, quoting Beckett. Sometimes it matters quite a lot. Take 'A Funeral Elegy.' One big problem is that it's written in the first person. Even allowing for the inevitable discrepancy between the scriptor (the 'I' that wrote the poem) and the narrator (the 'I' of the text), it's difficult to say anything of critical interest without first deciding whose voice it is that we're hearing."

Just after the "Elegy" story broke in 1996, Foster received a transcript of what was purported to be an Elizabethan theatrical manuscript. The owner, apparently attempting a one-sided game of Gotcha, was inquiring as to its authenticity, but Foster could hear its authorial voice loud and clear, declaring it "an elaborate but unsuccessful hoax." He continues, "If it were to be ascribed, rightly or wrongly, to an Elizabethan playwright, its meaning and value would change with the attribution. The kinds of cultural work that the text might be able to perform would change as well. Its intrinsic aesthetic values would remain more or less the same—the question of literary 'merit' has little to do with attribution."

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