Foster, Donald W(ayne) 1950-

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FOSTER, Donald W(ayne) 1950-

(Don Foster)

PERSONAL: Born June 22, 1950, in Chicago, IL; son of David C. and Dorothy (Garasha) Foster; married Gwen Bell (an artist), 1974; children: Richard Blake, Eric W. Education: University of California, Santa Barbara, M.A., 1983, Ph.D., 1985. Politics: Independent.

ADDRESSES: Office—P.O. Box 388, Vassar College, 124 Raymond Ave., Poughkeepsie, NY 12601. E-mail—[email protected].

CAREER: University of California, Santa Barbara, visiting lecturer, 1984-86; Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY, assistant professor, 1986-89, associate professor of English, 1990-91, Jean Webster chair of dramatic literature, 1992—. Visiting lecturer, College of Creative Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara.

MEMBER: American Association of University Professors, Modern Language Association of America, Shakespeare Association of America, Renaissance English Text Society, Folger Shakespeare Library, Society of Textual Scholars.

AWARDS, HONORS: William Riley Parker Prize, Modern Language Association of America, 1987, for article "Master W. H., RIP"; Delaware Shakespeare Prize, University of Delaware, 1987, for Elegy by W. S.: A Study in Attribution.


Elegy by W. S.: A Study in Attribution, University of Delaware Press (Newark, DE), 1989.

(As Don Foster) Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous, Holt (New York, NY), 2000.

Contributor to The Bible and Narrative Tradition, edited by Frank McConnell, Oxford University Press, 1986. Also contributor of articles to literary journals.

SIDELIGHTS: "For Don Foster," wrote Brian Vickers in the Times Literary Supplement, "1996 was a pretty good year." Some years before, Donald W. Foster—a professor of English at Vassar College and a literary "detective" who specializes in tracing the identities of anonymous authors—revealed his evidence that a little-known 1612 poem called "A Funerall Elegye" ("A Funeral Elegy") was written, anonymously, by William Shakespeare. The news sent ripples through the scholarly community, with Foster attracting both detractors and defenders. He published his findings in the 1989 monograph Elegy by W. S.: A Study in Attribution. In 1996 the media picked up on Foster's research to assert their own evidence that the verse suggested Shakespeare's alleged homosexuality.

In the wake of the resulting media frenzy, Foster became a celebrity, invited to identify the secret author of the bestselling political roman à clef, Primary Colors. After researching the wording of the book, and comparing it with the literary stylings of numerous journalists, Foster correctly fingered the "Anonymous" author as New York and Newsweek columnist Joe Klein, who at first denied it, then eventually owned up to the authorship. The professor was called on again in 1997 to examine the so-named "Unabomber Manifesto," a lengthy tract written by the suspect in a series of mail-bomb attacks that killed and injured several victims. He participated in the investigation of a ransom note tied to the murder of child beauty-queen JonBenet Ramsey; Foster also assisted the FBI in finding the perpetrator of the bomb set off in Atlanta's Olympic Centennial Park. Foster then made headlines again when he unmasked the author of the classic verse A Visit from St. Nicholas (the poem that begins, "'Twas the night before Christmas . . .") not as Clement Moore, "but rather a bon vivant named Henry Livingston," as David Roberts remarked in a Smithsonian article.

Foster recounted his adventures in what he called "literary forensics" in his 2001 book Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous. In his view, no two people use words exactly the same way. Thus through careful examination of word choices and syntax patterns—a process that involves intricate reading combined with modern technology—Foster can ascertain the identities of those who have written documents either anonymously or under a pseudonym. In the Primary Colors case, for example, Foster noticed that "Anonymous" shared with Klein some similar turns of phrase, such as "scruffy," "squishy," and "talky." As well, Klein's work and that of Anonymous used "mode" frequently, as in "listening mode," "explain mode," and "campaign mode."

Times Literary Supplement writer Brian Vickers commented on "Foster's egotistical self-presentation" in Author Unknown, saying that the volume "falls easily between a scholarly and a popularizing approach, too often giving anecdotal accounts of fairly trivial incidents instead of solid linguistic analysis." London Review of Books contributor John Lancaster commented, "Author Unknown tells a story a little different from the one it thinks it is telling. . . . The reader sees Foster as a much more bumptious, aggressive, disingenuous, insensitive, on-the-make figure than the country-mouse-cum-fearless-quester-after-truth he presents himself as being." But the same work was cited by Spectator critic Philip Hensher as "a deeply entertaining book on an original subject, which seems to me sound and convincing."

The dust had barely settled on Author Unknown when Foster made a stunning announcement. The poem A Funeral Elegy, which had launched him into the spotlight, the author said, was not in fact written by Shakespeare. In a message dated June 12, 2002, and posted on the Internet site, Foster wrote that "another poet and dramatist was more likely author of the poem," as New York Times reporter William Niederkorn stated. Foster and associate Richard Abrams went on to say that a Shakespeare contemporary named John Ford was the most likely author of "A Funeral Elegy." This theory had been put forward by Gilles Monsarrat, a professor of languages at the University of Burgundy in France. "I know good evidence when I see it," Foster posted on the Web site, "and I predict that Monsarrat will carry the day. No one who cannot rejoice in the discovery of his own mistakes deserves to be called a scholar."

In his Smithsonian profile of Foster, Roberts called the literary sleuth "a modest man, and celebrity has not come easily to him. He has tried hard to keep his public persona separate from his Vassar life. As I sat in on his Shakespeare class, one of his students . . . told me that in a weary moment, a week or two after his book had been published, the professor had said, 'I wish this were all over and I could go back to being a quaint old English professor.'"



Barron's, March 5, 2001, review of Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous, p. 40.

London Review of Books, August 23, 2001, John Lanchester, "Lumpy, Semi-Dorky, Slouchy, Smarmy," review of Author Unknown, pp. 7-8.

New Statesman, May 28, 2001, Robert Macfarlane, "Reading Tony Blair," review of Author Unknown, pp. 55-56.

New York Times, June 20, 2002, William Niederkorn, "A Scholar Recants on His 'Shakespeare' Discovery," p. E1.

Publishers Weekly, November 6, 2000, review of Author Unknown, p. 84.

Smithsonian, September, 2001, David Roberts, "Dan Foster Has a Way with Words," p. 100.

Spectator (London, England), May 5, 2001, Philip Hensher, "Who Done It?," pp. 35-36.

Sunday Telegraph (London, England), June 23, 2002, Charles Laurence, "U.S. Literary Sleuth Admits Error over Discovery of 'Lost Shakespeare' Poem," p. 30.

Times Literary Supplement, June 8, 1990; July 6, 2001, Brian Vickers, "Retrieving It," p. 27.


Shaksper Web site, (November 1, 2003), material addressing author's research.*

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Foster, Donald W(ayne) 1950-

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