Lumpy, Semi-Dorky, Slouchy, Smarmy
- Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous by Don Foster
Macmillan, 340 pp, £14.99, April 2001, ISBN 0 333 78170 8
In January 1957 the New York Police Department arrested a man called George Metesky, whose activities over the previous 16 and a bit years had earned him the sobriquet ‘the Mad Bomber’. The Bomber had planted more than thirty explosive devices, favouring public places such as cinemas, train stations, libraries and phone booths. He hadn’t killed anyone but his bombs were becoming bigger and the injuries they were inflicting were growing worse. In their desperation the cops had in December consulted a New York psychiatrist called James Brussel, described by John Douglas as ‘the father of behavioural profiling’. Douglas is the FBI man who inspired Thomas Harris to invent the character Jack Crawford in the Hannibal Lecter novels, so he should know. This is the psychological portrait Brussel came up with of the Mad Bomber:
He’s symmetrically built … neither fat nor skinny … a co-operative worker … punctual and neatly dressed … a virgin [living] in Bridgeport, Connecticut … with a female relative who reminds him of his mother – either an aunt or a sister … Not only European but Slavic (a Slav would be more likely to use a bomb than a gun to settle his scores) … Roman Catholic … heart disease, cancer, [or] tuberculosis … middle-aged … when you find him, chances are he’ll be wearing a double-breasted suit. Buttoned.
Metesky, when arrested, was wearing pyjamas, but apart from that the profile was on the money: he was a mild-mannered Lithuanian in his fifties from Connecticut who dropped out of high school and had been unemployable since an industrial accident in 1931 – the accident, it turned out, which was the source of his grievance.
This would be an impressive early victory for the nascent ‘science’ of profiling if it weren’t for one tiny difficulty: the actual profile Brussel gave the police was nothing like the one he tarted up for his memoirs. Brussel’s real advice was to search White Plains, New York for an egomaniacal German high-school graduate in his forties with a facial scar; an expert in bomb-making; a man who had ‘a classic textbook case of paranoia’, rather than a genuine beef. Whoops. The evidence which led to the capture of the Mad Bomber came not from a psychological profile but from Alice Kelly, a clerk at the utility company Con Ed, who was struck by phrases used in some open letters sent to the press by ‘FP’ (as the Mad Bomber signed himself). She checked old files, and came across Metesky, who had been injured at work at Con Ed on 5 September 1931. His subsequent claim for disability payments had been disallowed because the statute of limitations had expired. He was angry, and his letters to Con Ed showed it. Kelly noticed that Metesky’s letters had similarities in phrasing to the Mad Bomber documents, so she mentioned his name to the NYPD, who at that point were concentrating their efforts on White Plains. On the day the cops picked up Metesky’s Con Ed file (three days after Kelly’s call) the Journal American published another letter from the Mad Bomber, this time giving the exact date of his injury: 5 September 1931. The NYPD hightailed it over to Connecticut, and Metesky confessed straightaway. ‘FP’ stood for ‘Fair Play’. Kelly declined the $26,000 reward on the grounds that she had only been doing her job. Autres temps, autres moeurs.
This terrific story is told by Don Foster halfway through Author Unknown. Foster is the inheritor or professionaliser of the common-sense insight acted on by Alice Kelly: the fact that writing can give a clue to its author’s identity. Foster, a good example of the contemporary academic as entrepreneur, has used these techniques to advance on three fronts: in an academic career, mainly through the (contested) attribution of a late poem of (maybe) Shakespeare’s; as a media star, wheeled out to comment on anonymous, or would-be anonymous, texts of all sorts; and as an expert witness in law cases. By the end of the book he is complaining about his e-mail: ‘in one recent year, thirteen thousand messages were addressed to my Vassar account.’
When these cases hit the press, it is often assumed that the method of textual attribution under discussion somehow involves the use of a computer. Some boffin feeds the text in, the machine crunches it up, and spits out the answer. At a couple of points in the book Foster grumbles about this received idea, which I have to admit was pretty much exactly my notion of how attributional work tended to be done. But his method is more commonsensical and less technological than that, and the main use of computers is to search large text files for specific words. The computer speeds up the process of comparison and of digging for evidence, but is not a primary source of evidence in itself.
Foster’s clues can be provided by non-standard spellings, offbeat syntax or punctuation, rare words, an addiction to particular compounds or ways of forming adverbs, as well as by citations and references. (The thing which first rang a bell in Alice Kelly’s mind was Metesky’s use of the plural word ‘injustices’, accompanied by a threat ‘to take justice in my own hands’; both the word and the phrase also occurred in the Mad Bomber letters.) Some of the evidence in these cases is straightforward – such as Metesky’s 5 September 1931 give-away – some of it more elusive, or allusive. Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, sent some of his bombs to his victims using a stamp carrying a portrait of Eugene O’Neill, author of The Iceman Cometh; one of his victims was sent a bomb in a hollowed-out book called Ice Brothers; another of his victims, Edward John Smith, had the same name as the captain of the Titanic. Kaczynski believed that the ship of modern technology was heading for an iceberg. Foster thinks that a close study of this evidence might have helped the authorities home in on Kaczynski earlier than they did. The Unabomber, incidentally, was also obsessed with The Secret Agent, a novel about an anarchist bomber by his close namesake Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski.
The Unabomber case helps point up the ways in which text-based evidence can be more reliable than other, more familiar types of forensic material. Kaczynski gave several clues to his age and identity – not least his use of the initials ‘FC’, among other tasteful acts of hommage to Metesky. This might have given the Feds something useful to go on, if it weren’t for the fact that an eyewitness sighting of the Unabomber outside a computer shop in Salt Lake City put him in his late twenties. In reality Kaczynski was a skinny 45; a mistake which meant that even when the cops were looking in the right place (the University of Michigan and UC Berkeley class lists, yearbooks from suburban high schools in the Northwest), they were looking at the wrong time. The big break in the case came when the New York Times and Washington Post published the Unabomber’s 30,000-word manifesto, and Kaczynski’s sister-in-law, a professor of philosophy, recognised his writing. These and similar cases all lead to Foster’s conclusion, as laid out in Author Unknown’s penultimate sentence: ‘The words on the handwritten or printed page are more indelible than fingerprints, and more dependable, if carefully assessed, than eyewitness testimony.’ In Britain, of course, ‘profiling’ and eyewitness evidence lead only to heroic successes, as in the murder trials of Colin Stagg and Barry George.
That sentence of Foster’s sounds like a modest proposal; indeed, it is a modest proposal. But Author Unknown is less modest, which is one of the things that prevent it from being as good as it should be, given that Foster’s methods, anecdotes and areas of concern are all highly interesting. There is an early warning right at the start of the book, when Foster is studying the dedication to Shakespeare’s Sonnets. What the general reader needs to know is that Shakespeare, as well as being deathlessly great etc, is also highly useful as a literary-biographical Rorschach test. There is a frustrating conundrum about the Bard: we know quite a lot about his life, but none of what we know seems to tell us anything. This causes people to project all sorts of theories and fantasies onto him, which in turn was what led Samuel Schoenbaum to publish his blockbusting Shakespeare: A Documentary Life, a work which simply sets out the (for an Elizabethan private citizen) considerable documentary record, in an attempt to make everyone calm down and stick to the facts. (If one had to reduce Schoenbaum’s book to two words they would be ‘Enough, already.’) Nonetheless, there are still plenty of Shakespeare-biography nutters out there.
Foster is not one of them, but his Shakespeare-Rorschach test does nonetheless throw up some useful data. He starts with the dedication to the Sonnets. This notorious crucible for loony speculation runs, in full:
TO. THE. ONLIE. BEGETTER. OF.
THESE. INSUING. SONNETS.
Mr W.H. ALL. HAPPINESSE.
AND. THAT. ETERNITIE.
OUR. EVER-LIVING. POET.
This has been used to float all sorts of theories, identifying ‘Mr W.H.’, the apparent dedicatee of the volume, as everyone from a man called William Harvey to the Earl of Southampton (whose name was Henry Wriothesley – sneaky, eh?) to Britney Spears. My own view – the alert reader will here detect my own mad gleam and rustling plastic bags – is that it probably doesn’t matter, since the dedication seems to be by T.T., i.e. Thomas Thorpe, the Sonnets’ publisher, and therefore is not a vital conundrum. Foster agrees that the dedication is by Thorpe but thinks he has worked it out by finding that: a. the ‘ever-living poet’ is God, b. the ‘onlie begetter’ is Shakespeare, c. Mr W.H. is the product of a typo by the printer George Eld, and should be Mr W.SH. Armed with these deductions, Foster is in a position to state that ‘Thorpe’s wish to the only begetter of Shakespeare’s Sonnets seemed no more original or mysterious than the greeting on a Hallmark card.’ He paraphrases it thus: ‘To Mr W.SH., the sole author of this text, I wish happiness in this life and eternity hereafter, as promised in Holy Scripture by our Maker, the ever-living poet.’ The reader is inclined to shrug and grimace at the cockiness of this. Foster’s theory isn’t a bad one as they go, but it’s only one of very, very, very many, and depends on many unprovable assumptions. His certainty about having cleared up this conundrum – ‘forests might have been spared’ – merely shows up a tendency to over-confident tone-deafness.
Still, the dedication started Foster off on his career. It led him to a funeral elegy of 1612, printed and published by the same team of Eld and Thorpe, and signed by one ‘W.S.’. He became convinced that the (not very good) poem was a late, unattributed work by Shakespeare, and set about proving it. The difficulty was that all the evidence for the authorship was internal; it consisted for the most part of the poem’s strikingly high incidence of Shakespearean phrases. When Oxford University Press turned down a proposal for a book on the elegy, partly on the grounds that internal evidence could not make a reliable case for authorship, Foster cheekily wrote to the anonymous author of the reader’s report, on the basis that his style was indistinguishable from that of Samuel Schoenbaum. He was right, though no one was especially impressed by the stunt; Schoenbaum had the English Department secretary reply to the letter. When Foster finished the book, he submitted it, was turned down again, and pulled the same trick again, this time identifying the anonymous reader as Stanley Wells. Foster wrote to Wells, without letting on how he had worked out who wrote the reader’s report, and Wells wrote back, thanking Foster for his letter and expressing surprise that his editor at OUP had let on who he was. ‘I wrote back, explaining to Dr Wells with imperfectly concealed glee that … it was by relying on methods employed in “Elegy by W.S.: A Study in Attribution” that I had established Dr Wells’s authorship of that anonymous reader’s report. Dr Wells was not amused.’ No surprise there. What is amusing is that Foster would think this piece of detective work might in any way advance his case over attributing the elegy. Wells was, as Foster points out, co-editing the OUP’s new complete Shakespeare, and establishing him as the author of the anonymous report was close to a no-brainer; a very different business from establishing a highly contestable 17th-century attribution with no external evidence. Here as elsewhere, 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.
Elegy by W.S.: A Study in Attribution was published in 1989, and in November 1995, with a gradual body of opinion growing behind the idea that the poem might be by Shakespeare, the elegy was made the subject of a session at the MLA. A reporter on the Chicago Tribune wrote a piece about that, and it was picked up by the New York Times, which followed up with a front-page story: ‘A Sleuth Gets His Suspect: Shakespeare’. This set in motion a media hoo-hah. ‘The London Times, caught flat-footed, followed the next day with a story that described the 578-line elegy as a “sonnet” (which it isn’t) … assigned to Shakespeare by computer (which it wasn’t), and “homoerotic in tone” (which it isn’t, though I wish it were – W.S.’s funeral verse is no more erotic than cold cabbage).’ Foster doesn’t know that by British standards, three major factual mistakes in one news story isn’t too bad.
A week later, on 22 January 1996, Random House published Primary Colors by Anonymous, thus kicking off an even bigger hoo-hah, and leading to the most interesting section of Author Unknown. Since Foster was newly famous as an expert in attributions, he was latched onto as the man who might be able to crack the puzzle of Anonymous’s identity; and he finally agreed to have a go at doing so, in the pages of New York magazine.
The next day, by FedEx, I received from New York a hard copy and electronic text of Primary Colors, with a list of the [Washington] Post’s 35 nominees for Anonymous, all of whom had declined the nomination; together with blocks of electronic text from what were then the leading suspects; also, a ream of printed articles, interviews and op-ed pieces; and a promise of more writing samples yet to come.
I was in the US at the time, and remember with great vividness how worked up media-political people were over the identity of Anonymous. Primary Colors was clearly the work of some sort of insider, and the Anonymity device – a marketing gimmick of genius – made it look as if the person writing it had an urgent reason to conceal his identity. (As, it turned out, he did: if people knew who wrote Primary Colors the book would seem less interesting, and sell fewer copies.) An editor in New York assured me that the book was the work of Lisa and Mandy Grunwald – a novelist and a former Clinton aide, respectively. Another editor told me, sotto voce, that the book was in fact the work of their brother Peter Grunwald. A Washington insider told me the smart money was on Chris Matthews, a former Congressional aide, author of a study of the dark arts of politics called Hardball. It was all good fun.
Foster’s job – though he doesn’t see it quite this way – was to spoil the fun. He worked his way through the list of suspects, and came to Joe Klein, Washington correspondent of Newsweek, disillusioned former Clinton fan, and, according to the Post, 50-1 outsider. This is one of the few detailed glimpses Foster gives us of his method:
Bingo! Anonymous’s vocabulary was all over Joe Klein’s journalism, and vice versa. Here, at last, was a writer who set the lights flashing and the bells ringing. None of these adverbs is particularly unusual – entirely, fiercely, incredibly, mortally, particularly, precisely, profoundly, reflexively, relentlessly, seriously, subtly, surprisingly, ultimately, utterly, vaguely, wistfully – but all of these were used repeatedly by Klein and Anonymous, while other familiar adverbs, even common adverbs, were avoided by these two writers. I found that Klein and Anonymous loved unusual adjectives ending in -y and -inous: thus cartoony, chunky, cottony, crackly, dorky, snarly (Anon.); loony, clunky, flunky, fluttery, lumpy, semi-dorky, slouchy, smarmy (Klein); giddy, jittery, mushy, scruffy, squishy, sleazy, slushy, talky (both); rectitudinous, oleaginous (Klein); slimetudinous, vertiginous (Anon.); gelatinous (both), to name a few … Like Anonymous, Klein favours adverbs made from -y adjectives: crazily, eerily, goofily, handily, huffily, juicily, scarily, spottily, uncannily etc. Both Klein and Anonymous added letters to their interjections: ahh, aww, naww. Both were into ‘modes’: listening mode, opaque mode, mega-explain mode, filial mode, mega-vulture mode (Anon.); uplift mode, crisis mode, campaign mode (Klein).
Foster was convinced that Anonymous was Klein. He wrote his conclusions up for New York. The editors did a certain amount of ‘point-sharpening’. They took out his perhapses and maybes, his ‘If not, then’s’. He wrote: ‘How can we know the author?’ They added: ‘We can. And I do.’ He wrote: ‘Joe Klein wrote Primary Colors. Or else it was an incredibly clever imitator of Joe Klein.’ They cut that to: ‘Joe Klein wrote Primary Colors.’ The result of the editing – all done with Foster’s consent – was to turn his piece into a punchier, better-written article; but one with a problematic side-effect. Because Foster’s academic reputation rested on his work in the field of attribution, he was effectively betting his career on being right. When Klein firmly, loudly and repeatedly denied being Anonymous, Foster’s article didn’t look like such a good idea after all.
It was a long, worrying six months before Random House called a press conference at which Klein appeared wearing a false nose and false moustache, to announce that he was Anonymous after all. That went down like the proverbial cup of cold sick with the US media, who treated him with orgiastic sanctimoniousness. After it all blew over, the question of litigation – never slow to come up in the land of the free – was raised. ‘When various commentators opined that I should take action … the suggestion was not overlooked by libel attorneys, whose offers rained down on me like manna from heaven, promising a big settlement, $10 million minimum, if I’d sue Klein for defamation and libel per se, with Random House and Newsweek named as co-defendants, the “deep pockets”.’ Foster decided not to sue.
Five years on, the rights and wrongs of this don’t seem quite as clear cut as many people appear to have found them at the time. (Though some individual incidents were clearly bad. The editor of Newsweek should not have published a news story naming Luciano Siracusano as Anonymous if – as Foster categorically states – he knew it ‘was a load of hooey’.) Surely it ought to be possible to publish a book anonymously? If we concede that, then we concede the author’s right to lie about being the author; don’t we? Obviously it’s better not to have to lie, or to come out with some line like Siracusano’s deeply cool non-denial: ‘I haven’t confirmed it, and I haven’t denied it, but I am interested in having the book sell.’ But if the man who would be anonymous is asked point-blank he has to be able to lie, or there’s no point being anonymous in the first place. It wasn’t Klein’s fault that Foster had gone so far out on a limb about the attribution; did the fact that he had done so make it incumbent on Klein to tell the truth?
Our culture, however, has an uninflected attitude to lying, which has been reified as some sort of secular Ultimate Sin, regardless of the gravity or context of the porkie in question. Perhaps this is yet another symptom we should chalk up to the widely touted Death of God: when people believed that they could be jeopardising their immortal souls by lying on oath, society did not have to make such a fuss about The Lie. In any case, this is the way we live now; and it is bad news for all Anonymouses. (Anonymi?) The methods of textual detection outlined by Foster are bad news too. In Author Unknown he uses those methods to track down Wanda Tinasky, author of pseudonymous letters to a Northern Californian newspaper, thought by some (erroneously, it turns out) to be Thomas Pynchon; the author of the 19th-century ditty ‘’Twas the night before Christmas’; the author of a document which attracted some attention during l’affaire Lewinsky; the author of newspaper articles by ‘Tony Blair’. (This last chapter, which seems to have been a bright idea by the British publisher, is a mistake. Is there a single sentient being anywhere in the UK who for a second thinks they were written by anyone other than Alistair Campbell? It would have been more interesting to show the links between the guff Campbell writes for Blair and the work he used to do for the wank magazine Forum.)
Anonymous should not despair. The publication of Author Unknown will alert anyone who needs to keep her identity secret to the kinds of method which might be used to track her down. Foster thinks that ‘most writers … are largely oblivious to their own stylistic preferences, giving no conscious thought to the position of their adverbs or to the frequency of the use of passive voice.’ Most, perhaps, but by no means all. At least one writer has used – indeed, written – a computer program to check that the three different narrators in a book used different syntax, covering all the points mentioned by Foster in that list and a few other besides: Richard Powers, in Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance. But the writer who wants to remain anonymous doesn’t have to go to those lengths; since many of the methods Foster uses are so simple, evading them will prove to be simple, too – a matter of concentration and discipline rather than any kind of brilliance. Let’s hope that the people who profit from this knowledge are the good kind of Anonymous, rather than the kind who bomb and blackmail and kidnap, and who keep Foster busy in his capacity as an expert witness. There is a risk that the baddies will learn to be as careful with textual evidence as they already are with other kinds. Ted Kaczynski made his bomb parts by hand, because he knew that would make them more difficult to trace. Somehow I don’t think the next Unabomber will be asking anyone to publish a manifesto.