Donald Wayne Foster

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Donald Wayne Foster (born 1950) is a professor of English at Vassar College in New York. He is known for his work dealing with various issues of Shakespearean authorship through textual analysis. He has also applied these techniques in attempting to uncover mysterious authors of some high-profile contemporary texts. As several of these were in the context of criminal investigations, Foster was sometimes labeled a "forensic linguist". He has been inactive in this arena, however, since Condé Nast settled a defamation lawsuit brought against one of his publications for an undisclosed sum in 2007.

Shakespearean scholarship[edit]

Foster first achieved notice for addressing the mystery of the dedication of Shakespeare's sonnets. In the edition published by Thomas Thorpe, a dedication appears to "Mr. W.H." as the "onlie begetter" of the sonnets, and the identity of W.H. has aroused much speculation over the years. While in graduate school at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Foster formulated a theory that it was a typographical error. Though not the first to articulate the possibility, his article appeared in the Publication of the Modern Language Association in 1987, after he joined the Vassar faculty. Foster argued that the initials were meant to read either "W.S." or "W.SH." for Shakespeare himself, the dedication presumably having been written by Thorpe. Foster pointed to Shakespeare's initials being similarly abbreviated in other documents, as well as contemporaneous publications that misspelled authors' initials in the error-filled manuscripts of the time.

While pursuing his research into these initials, Foster came across another work that led him to believe he had identified a previously unknown Shakespeare piece. This was a 1612 poem, A Funerall Elegye in memory of the late Vertuous Maister William Peeter, and would have been the first new Shakespeare identification in over a century. Thorpe, the publisher of the sonnets, had registered this work with the London Stationers, giving the author's initials as "W.S.".

Relying on the internal evidence of the text, Foster argued that Shakespeare could be the author and submitted a manuscript about the Elegy to Oxford University Press, but two experts recommended against publication on the grounds that such evidence was insufficient to establish authorship. Foster was not given their names, following normal practice for peer review, although he later related that he was able to identify the reviewers based on the language of their reports. The book was published instead by the University of Delaware Press in 1989.

Initially Foster did not claim that his identification was definitive, but in 1995 another Shakespeare scholar, Richard Abrams of the University of Southern Maine, published an article strengthening Foster's claims of the Elegy's Shakespearean authorship. Foster then claimed publicly that the Elegy "belongs hereafter with Shakespeare's poems and plays" and gained international media attention. He supported his identification with computer analysis based on a database he called SHAXICON, used to compare the poem's word choice with that of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. The Elegy was subsequently included in some editions of Shakespeare's complete works, though with qualifications, and it was never considered to be of great quality.

After considerable debate, Foster's theory was eventually rejected by other Shakespeare scholars. In 2002, Gilles Monsarrat, a translator of Shakespeare into French, published an article arguing that the poem's true author was John Ford, a younger writer whose works Monsarrat had also edited. Foster conceded that Monsarrat had the better case in a post on the SHAKSPER listserv, saying, "No one who cannot rejoice in the discovery of his own mistakes deserves to be called a scholar." Foster said he had not previously analyzed Ford's works closely enough and had erroneously dismissed him as a possibility.[1]

Literary analysis in contemporary cases[edit]

Meanwhile, the publicity surrounding Foster's analytical skills led to him being called upon to track down the authors of various anonymous and pseudonymous texts. Using a mixture of traditional scholarship and computers to perform textual comparisons, Foster looked for unique and unusual usage patterns. Computer-based statistical techniques for textual analysis had been used by historians before Foster, most notably with the Federalist Papers. As Foster has pointed out, however, such methods are not definitive: "The notion has been perpetuated that there's a computer program that can identify authorship, and there isn't".[2]

In 1996, Foster was one of the people who helped reveal Joe Klein as the author of the "anonymous" bestseller Primary Colors. Foster named Klein in an article for New York magazine, following the lead of a former Clinton speechwriter, David Kusnet, who had fingered Klein in the Baltimore Sun a few weeks earlier. Klein objected, partly because the theories cited similarities between the book and Klein's writings on racial issues, and he disliked the way his attitude was being characterized. The matter subsided after additional revelations forced Klein to acknowledge that he wrote the book.

In some instances, Foster has raised arguments challenging whether the person traditionally identified as the author of a text was correct. He has pointed to an obscure Beat writer, Tom Hawkins, as the author of the Wanda Tinasky letters, which some had previously speculated to be the work of Thomas Pynchon. Foster also joined a long-running effort by descendants of Henry Livingston Jr. to show that their ancestor, and not Clement Clarke Moore, wrote the famous poem A Visit from St. Nicholas.[3] Here Foster followed in the footsteps of an earlier Shakespeare scholar at Vassar, Henry Noble MacCracken, a former president of the college.

Foster provided his account of sleuthing out these and other identifications in his book Author Unknown (including the Shakespeare-Elegy connection, which he still supported at the time). The chapters on Shakespeare and Klein were praised as particularly lively, although the rest of the book was considered less substantial. One reviewer[citation needed] suggested that he spent too much time on the personal character of the writers he analyzed, such as Klein's alleged "issues" with blacks and women, or Moore's support for slavery. The reviewer still found Foster's arguments about authorship, based on the textual analysis of their writing styles, convincing.

Assistance to criminal investigations[edit]

On several occasions, Foster has participated in criminal cases that required literary analysis. He was brought into the case of Theodore Kaczynski to compare the "Unabomber manifesto" with other examples of Kaczynski's writing. Originally approached by defense attorneys, hoping that he might rebut an FBI analysis and the identification of the writing by Kaczynski's brother, Foster ultimately concluded that the evidence of authorship was even stronger than the FBI was claiming.[4]

Ramsey murder case[edit]

In 1997, Foster became involved in the investigation of JonBenét Ramsey's murder, a case in which a ransom note played a significant role. He began by looking for the child's killer on the Internet and identified a poster he believed was the killer. He wrote a letter to JonBenet's parents, John and Patsy Ramsey, telling them he knew they were innocent and was ready to help law enforcement expose the killer. What he did NOT tell them was that he intended to accuse their son, John Andrew, of the crime. He incorrectly had identified an Internet poster, jameson, as the killer and had further determined jameson was John Andrew. He was wrong on both counts.

Foster was later hired by Boulder police to conduct analysis of the ransom note, and in this context he came to re-examine Patsy's involvement in order to produce a report the Boulder police could use against her. He cited her habit of creating acronyms (the note was signed with the mysterious acronym SBTC) and said that she changed a number of habits in her handwriting after being shown a copy of the note. He appeared on the TV news show 20/20 to share his insight when it became public he would be a witness against Patsy Ramsey in front of the grand jury. But he never did appear as a witness in the Ramsey case. However he did privately suggest his report could still be used by Special Prosecutor Michael Kane in the grand jury proceedings.

In a book about the investigation, the lead detective, Steve Thomas, defended Foster's work while admitting his work had been tossed aside after jameson told her story to the DA's office. Online, Foster found he was discredited on most if not all linguistic sites. He retired from that sideline and remains at Vassar as a teacher.

Anthrax case[edit]

Foster returned to advise the FBI during the investigation of the 2001 anthrax attacks. He later wrote an article for Vanity Fair about his investigation of Steven Hatfill, a virologist who had been labeled a "person of interest" by Attorney General John Ashcroft. In an October 2003 article for Vanity Fair, Foster tried to match up Hatfill's travels with the postmarks on the anthrax letters, and analyzed old interviews and an unpublished novel by Hatfill about a bioterrorist attack on the United States. Hatfill was identified as a possible culprit. The Reader's Digest published a condensed version of the article in December 2003. The perpetrator of the anthrax attacks turned out to be another government bio-weapons scientist.

Hatfill subsequently sued Donald Foster, Condé Nast Publications, Vassar College, and The Reader's Digest Association, seeking $10 million in damages, claiming defamation. The case was settled by Condé Nast in 2007 for an undisclosed amount. Foster ceased any public discussion of the case.


Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ Foster's message conceding Monsarrat's case
  2. ^ New York Times, November 19, 1997, by Terry Pristin, "From Sonnets to Ransom Notes; Shakespeare Sleuth Helps Police in Literary Detection"
  3. ^ Personal account by a Livingston descendant regarding the authorship of A Visit from St. Nicholas.
  4. ^ Pristin, Terry. "From Sonnets to Ransom Notes; Shakespeare Sleuth Helps Police in Literary Detection", New York Times, 19 November 1997.

External links[edit]

  • Chapter 1 of Donald Foster's Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous.