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.”
Yet in that qualifier “more or less” resides a thousand shades of gray, as literary hoaxers know so well. The story on the page needs a back story on the book jacket; biography interlocks with orthography. The acclaimed poet Andreas Karavis, a reclusive Greek fisherman, was a ruse by Montreal poet David Solway; the writer Helen Demidenko, winner of a top Australian literary prize for a novel about her Ukrainian family’s experiences in the Holocaust, was the alter ego of the well-to-do Brit Helen Darville; Hiroshima survivor Araki Yasusada, celebrated in a 1996 special issue of American Poetry Review, was a fiction contrived by community college professor Kent Johnson. The list goes on; creative writing mutates into creative authoring. Painstaking frauds like these hit a nerve because they organically indict the practice of using the author’s sociocultural status to confirm the “authenticity” of a text. In a larger sense, they uproot the reader’s assumption of inscribing her idea of an author onto the text she is reading. The reader writes the author as surely as the author does the text; if one authorial mask slips to reveal a less convenient face, the mirror cracks.
As it can for the hoaxer. Take the perpetrators of the Ern Malley prank, which Foster taught in a seminar session on famous literary deceits. In 1943, the aspiring Australian poets James McAuley and Harold Stewart sent a batch of dog-eared, coffee-speckled pages of verse by a Keatsian unknown, dead at 26, to the journal Angry Penguins; the editor, Max Harris, adored the poems, much to the wicked delight of McAuley and Stewart, who claimed they had dashed off Malley’s 17-poem canon in half a day. But their little joke turned out to have more than one punch line. As Foster explains, “The Ern Malley poems received critical acclaim even after the actual authors announced them to be utter rubbish. Skilled parody, after all, requires a measure of artfulness.” Foster adds, “McAuley and Stewart may join in the critical discussion, but they do so as readers, not as arbiters of meaning or value.” He quotes one of his students, Hilary Shroyer: The duo’s disavowals “make as little difference to readers (those who ‘own’ the text in terms of its meaning and interpretation) as would the protestations of a madman that his grocery list is a work of stunning genius.”
Harold Bloom says Shakespeare created us; you could infer from Shroyer that we create Shakespeare. It’s a splendid means of passing the buck. During the Primary Colors contretemps, Joe Klein shouted from all available rooftops that he didn’t pen the book, even after Foster had plucked him from the lineup of suspects; Klein knew the gig was up only when notes in his hand were found on the manuscript. But Don Foster, of all people, sets the bar for burden of proof higher than handwriting analysis or his own well-tested brand of linguistic sleuthing. And it turns out that partisans on any side of the who-wrote-Shakespeare debate have no earthly hopes of reaching it: “It wasn’t even the notations that absolutely proved authorship. It was the living author saying, I was lying, it’s me.”
Check out the other stories in the Winter 2001 Voice Education Supplement.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 16, 2001