By Mike Sula

Two weeks ago Vassar English professor Don Foster was planning to spend an entire day phoning and faxing his lawyer about a potential smear by the CBS newsmagazine 48 Hours. Foster gained world fame a few years ago for attributing a dreary funeral poem to Shakespeare, then for outing Newsweek columnist Joe Klein as the author of Primary Colors. Since then he’s been deluged with requests from police and scholars to lend his “attributional expertise” to their investigations, including the JonBenet Ramsey case.

The 48 Hours program Foster was worried about was titled “Justice for JonBenet.” “Supposedly they’re going to make some really outrageous charges,” he said three days before it aired. “The person who is likely to be indicted for this crime has various resources that are being directed against me at this time–legal and press and so forth. But I was warned long in advance that I was going to get slimed for assisting with the Ramsey case, because just about everybody involved has gotten injured in some way.” The producers had called Foster for comment, but he wouldn’t discuss his involvement in the investigation because he’d signed a confidentiality agreement with the Boulder police. Yet it was widely reported last September that he believed Patsy Ramsey was the author of the ransom note found in the family’s home prior to the discovery of JonBenet’s body.

Foster was born in Evanston, grew up in the northwest suburbs, studied psychology and sociology at Wheaton College, then began the kind of academic career that doesn’t ordinarily get a lot of attention. As a doctoral student in English at the University of California at Santa Barbara, he spent most of his time poring over everything Shakespeare publisher Thomas Thorpe had ever churned out, trying to understand the meaning of the mysterious dedication to the sonnets that has plagued scholars for centuries.

During his research Foster came across the poem “A Funerall Elegye In Memory of the late Vertuous Maister William Peeter,” which was privately published in 1612 in honor of a murder victim. “The writer was either imitating or pretending to be Shakespeare, because there were many little grammatical oddities that appear in Shakespeare and rarely anywhere else,” he says. “I spent a long time trying to track down the external evidence, and I wrote my graduate dissertation on it, saying even though this poem doesn’t add anything to Shakespeare’s reputation, there’s a good chance that he wrote it. In the meantime there had been a whole string of supposed Shakespeare discoveries in the press, none of which was widely credited. When my book was done I didn’t care to create one more controversy and look like the man with the bucket and broom at the end of the parade, so I published it [in 1989] with very little fanfare.”

By then Foster had taken a job teaching Shakespeare and Renaissance drama at Vassar, where, with the help of his students, he constructed a computer database containing thousands of words and phrases from 16th- and 17th-century literature. Using the database to compare the elegy to other works by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, Foster bolstered his claim that Shakespeare had written it. One by one, other scholars came out in support of the attribution, and the media caught on in late 1995, when the poem was the hot topic at a Modern Language Association conference in Chicago.

At that time, he says, “I also began getting calls about Primary Colors from journalists who had been unable to identify the author, wanting to know about the analytical techniques I used. At first I said, ‘Sorry, I have no time for this.’ But eventually the editors at New York persuaded me to take it on.”

Comparing the text of Primary Colors to the writings of more than 35 journalists, novelists, and politicos, Foster concluded that Anonymous–with his penchant for unusual adjectives (“rectitudinous,” “semi-dorky”), his love of compound constructions (“melanin-deprived”), and his “issues about blacks and women”–could only be Klein. For months Klein denied it, which cast a pall over Foster’s elegy attribution. He says some critics in the Shakespeare establishment had been offended by the inferior quality of the poem and had vowed to find another author. “In the end it was probably a good thing for the Shakespeare attribution that I was right about Primary Colors,” he says. “Being right wasn’t necessarily going to be taken as evidence to a scholar that Shakespeare wrote the elegy. But I did, in fact, feel that my credibility was at stake. It looked like I had made a very public mistake. I couldn’t call [Klein] a liar, so I had to pretty much bite my tongue and sit it out. But by the time he fessed up I was so weary of the whole business that I didn’t return any reporters’ calls, and I became simply ‘that college professor.'”

Foster began receiving many requests to examine literary texts, wills, and “a lot of crackpot stuff.” He turned down most of them, but in December 1996 Ted Kaczynski’s lawyers asked him to look at the text analysis the FBI had done identifying Kaczynski as the author of the Unabomber manifesto. Foster decided the FBI was on the money and ended up testifying as an expert witness for the prosecution, refuting the testimony of a Berkeley scholar hired by the defense.

“Most of us are unaware of the degree to which our language is a bricolage–a taking of this and that, little bits of language, phrases, and so forth,” Foster says. “If you watch a film or read a book, some of the material you’ve just consumed is likely to pop up in your writing. As writers we all like to think of ourselves and our muses as being isolated from that kind of influence. But it almost always happens inevitably, especially with the kind of unsophisticated writers I’m often asked to look at. In the Unabomber case, particular articles from Scientific American and Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society and a number of texts going back to the 70s or earlier were showing up in Kaczynski’s recent writings as well as the Unabomber’s writings. That kind of common source material for an anonymous text is pretty significant as attributional evidence.”

The Unabomber case led to more referrals from law enforcement. Foster does most of that work pro bono, though he occasionally takes private cases, usually from corporate clients who pay him “pretty handsomely.” He also accepts cases simply because he’s interested or because he feels sorry for someone; he’s now helping a woman who believes some threatening letters were sent by her ex-boyfriend.

But Foster is trying to stop taking so many cases because he wants to finish a book on attributing authorship. “I want the reader at my side as I puzzle over a textual problem and work it through to its conclusion,” he says. “I think it’ll provide something of the satisfaction one derives from a mystery novel.” In the course of working on the book, he says, he’s discovered the identity of Wanda Tinasky, the author of several satirical letters sent to Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley Advertiser in the 80s that were widely believed to have been written by Thomas Pynchon; Foster says they weren’t. He has also examined anonymous letters related to the car bombing of Earth First! activist Judi Bari in 1990 and believes he has ruled out the person widely thought to be responsible in favor of someone else.

“This isn’t something I want to do for a long time,” Foster says. “I really enjoy writing and teaching, and it would be in my interest to help other scholars develop their expertise.” He has continued to work on literary problems, such as measuring the extent to which Shakespeare “borrowed” from his predecessors, contemporaries, and himself. “There was a kind of game that used to be played in literary studies,” he says. “Someone said, ‘I think this is a really significant verbal similarity.’ And someone else said, ‘I think it isn’t.’ Now it’s possible to objectify some of that, to say that something like ‘ruby lips’ is likely to be a commonplace, while some other phrase or compound or invented word is likely to be unique. I don’t have a computer program that can identify authorship, but I can use the computer as a tool, because it reads words about a billion times faster than I can. It helps me establish unusual or certain kinds of language, lingo, or jargon.”

The 48 Hours that aired last Thursday, which looked into several aspects of the Ramsey case, made it again look like Foster had made a mistake. The program featured an interview with a JonBenet-junkie housewife who’d encountered Foster in an on-line chat room before he started working with the police. Foster had analyzed a series of pseudonymous postings and identified the author as the Ramseys’ older son, then postulated that he might be the killer. But the housewife had written the postings. 48 Hours announced–to the accompaniment of ominous bell clanging–that this misidentification had damaged Foster’s credibility and therefore any case against Patsy Ramsey. A reporter held up a letter and said that in it Foster had downplayed the misidentification as just speculation that had never been publicized. (That same day the grand jury, which was soon expected to hand down an indictment, extended its deliberations for another six months.)

The day after the broadcast Foster wasn’t worried. “I think my past work more than speaks for itself,” he said. “I watched the show, and I was fine with it. It turned out to be not as bad as it was rumored to be.” He isn’t likely to say much more about the Ramsey case Saturday night, when he lectures at the Arts Club of Chicago to benefit the Chicago Vassar Club’s scholarship fund (847-835-2730), but he does plan to discuss some of his other cases. “I’ll be closing with some kind of larger concern about the role of free speech and anonymity in our culture, and how anybody can say anything anytime about anyone and publish it on the Internet,” he added. “The Internet has been this huge experiment in radical free speech, and I don’t think it’s been entirely satisfactory. When you come across something on the Web there’s no way of knowing whether it’s a hoax or true or an opinion. But I have mixed feelings about it. I’m a great believer in free speech, and people have rights in our country. The truth has a way of working itself out.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Don Foster photo by Lee Ferris.