Author Unknown

Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous
Don Foster

I like books and I like reading but, while I am capable enough of literary analysis to have graduated from high school, I admit to a somewhat patronizing attitude regarding the field. My reaction opinion has generally been: well, if you want your life’s work to be looking for “hidden meaning” in texts, go for it, but really, what’s the point?

In Author Unknown, Don Foster answers that (rhetorical) question with six anecdotes about the real-world application of literary analysis.

A couple of the chapters support (in my opinion) my previous stance of: who cares? It was interesting to see how Foster investigated the authorship of a particular poem written centuries ago, but in the end, what does it matter?

However, other chapters demonstrated much more immediate relevance: Tracking down the authors of terrorist manifestos can save lives.  Proving the authorship of witness tampering documents in the White House can threaten administrations.

Each chapter describes the process of literary investigation and analysis, of a piece of writing with the intend to prove or disprove the authorship of the piece, relying on internal evidence. While Foster does look for external evidence as well (could the author have known of events the piece is discussing?), the investigations in this book are all focused on internal evidence (what person would have written these words in this way?) The way Foster comes to his conclusions and the evidence he looks at is pretty fascinating. Each chapter can also be read alone, as an individual story.

Chapter 5, Wanda, the Fort Bragg Bag Lady, is my favorite of the stories. It may not demonstrate a great deal of real-world impact but it does present a real-world black-humor farce, involving multiple anonymous authors, obsessions, murders, suicides, Hells Angels, bad poetry, good poetry, beat poetry, and a complete absence of bag ladies.

Over all, the book is fun and Foster has a lightly humorous way of writing even as he delves into close readings of archaic documents. For anyone who has doubted the importance of literary analysis: read this. I feel a nice combination of convinced that literary analysis is important after all while still vindicated that a lot of the use it’s put to is pretty darn silly.

2 comments on “Author Unknown

  1. Kinsey says:

    You had me at “beat poetry.”

    • Anna says:

      Hee, you do love you some beat poetry! That’s always something that I feel like I should enjoy and I wish I did because it just sounds so cool, but I don’t. I still think this book sounds really interesting, though – literary mysteries and all that!

      Also, Rebecca told me that one chapter is about that Primary Colors book that was published anonymously and got all that attention years ago, and I totally remember that whole news story!

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