BY Jerome Boyd-Maunsell in Reading Between the Lines | 06 JUN 01
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Issue 60

Reading Between the Lines

Literary forensics

BY Jerome Boyd-Maunsell in Reading Between the Lines | 06 JUN 01

Several months before he was apprehended by the FBI in 1996, after a 17-year-long mail-bomb campaign targeting the finest minds in science, the 'Unabomber' Ted Kaczynski wrote a letter to the New York Times. He explained that he intended to kill as many university scientists and engineers as possible in his crusade to halt technological progress, but not 'to hurt professors who study archaeology, history, literature, or harmless stuff like that'. Nestling among the 22,000 pages of writing subsequently found in his Montana residence was his classification of literature as one of the 'bullshit subjects': a mass of benign misinformation in which no one can 'extract the kernels of truth from amongst the garbage'.

One wonders what Kaczynski thinks about Don Foster, an American professor of English whose new book Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous (2001) outlines the skills he has pioneered in the 'science' of what he calls 'literary forensics'. Should he be deemed worthy of an explosive missive? He clearly wasn't, but the evidence he brought to Kaczynski's prosecution helped put the 'Unabomber' behind bars for good.

Foster's entry into the lucrative world of identifying the authorship of anonymous texts seems to have been more or less accidental: while a graduate student, he stumbled across what he thought to be a lost Shakespeare poem from 1612, 'A Funeral Elegy' by 'W. S.'. His attribution, made after many years of research, is still hotly contested, but it made headlines around the world and kick-started his career in textual analysis. Soon afterwards, Foster was at the centre of a much larger media storm when, in 1996, he outed Newsweek journalist Joe Klein as the 'anonymous' author of the political satire Primary Colors (1996), which had been sitting at the top of the US best-seller lists for months. Klein denied authorship but was eventually forced to own up after a graphologist matched Klein's handwriting with a scrawled note on the original manuscript. Following this resounding public success, Foster worked for the FBI after they arrested Kaczynski.

How does he do it? Essentially, 'literary forensics' boils down to a grim combination of relentless computer-aided word-and-phrase searches, critical common sense and investigative hunches. The 'scientific analysis of a text' begins with internal or textual evidence - working on the assumption that each individual's writing style reveals 'features as sharp and telling as [...] fingerprints and DNA'.

Initially, Foster searches for unusual words and phrases, then moves on to equally revealing details: idiosyncrasies in punctuation, spelling, grammar, syntax and overall sentence construction. The next step relies on the notion that 'you are what you read', and that 'the mind of a writer [...] cannot be understood without first inquiring after the texts, including television, film, and even music CDs, by which that mind has been conditioned'. By tracing echoes of phrases and ideas cribbed from other sources, Foster builds up an informational profile of his suspect.

Once that profile becomes fairly in-depth, or refers to anything vaguely esoteric, then you're well on your way. It's reminiscent of the library scenes in the film Seven (1995), where Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt get their first lead by brushing up on Dante. Kaczynski, for instance, was a Joseph Conrad obsessive (he'd read The Secret Agent (1907) over a dozen times), as well as lifting huge chunks of ideology from the much more obscure writer Jacques Ellul.

The other chapters in Author Unknown range far and wide. One episode investigates the claim that the enigmatic American novelist Thomas Pynchon posed as an eccentric bag-lady called Wanda Tinasky to pen a series of scurrilous letters to a small newspaper in Mendocino County, California. Another concerns the authorship of the two famous 'apologies' to the UK, which surfaced in The Sun in 1998, by the prime minister of Japan and the Argentinian premier respectively. Although he can't prove it conclusively, Foster thinks spin doctor Alastair Campbell was responsible for them.

In fact, Foster's only major literary achievement remains the unravelling of the Primary Colors mystery. All of his textual adventures make for fascinating reading, but they aren't always entirely convincing. He may have made his name with Shakespeare, but his process seems to work best on the sloppy prose of journalists and serial killers.

Still, it certainly makes a change from the mixture of pomposity and idiocy that so often passes for literary criticism. One beautiful howler Foster mentions makes an eloquent case for Kaczynski's view of humanities professors. F. O. Matthiesen, waxing lyrical on Herman Melville's White Jacket (1850), wrote: 'Hardly anyone but Melville could have created the [...] "soiled fish of the sea". The discordia concors, the unexpected linking of the medium of cleanliness with filth, could only have sprung from an imagination that had apprehended the terrors of the deep, of the immaterial deep as well as the physical.' Sadly, Foster tells us, 'soiled fish' was a misprint. Melville actually wrote 'coiled fish'; he was talking about a dead eel.

Jerome Boyd-Maunsell is a writer and critic based in London.