Donald Foster

From Academic Kids

This page is about the American professor, who uses "Donald W. Foster" in his academic writing and "Don Foster" in his popular writing. See Don Foster for the UK politician.

Donald W. Foster, born 1950, is a professor of English at Vassar College in New York. He achieved instant academic notoriety with his 1985 doctoral thesis, which tentatively identified Shakespeare as the author "W. S." of an obscure 1612 poem, A Funerall Elegye in memory of the late Vertuous Maister William Peeter, the first new Shakespeare identification in over a century. The scholarly community widely rejected the claim, but as the controversy subsided, the idea gained small amounts of acceptance, most notably with some publishers who included the poem in their Complete Shakespeare editions. In 1995, Foster went further by announcing that "A Funerall Elegye belongs hereafter with Shakespeare's poems and plays". [1] ( In 2002, Gilles Monsarrat and Brian Vickers came to the conclusion that John Ford was more likely to be the correct author, and Foster accepted this new attribution.

In the mid-nineties, the academic controversy began to attract popular attention, leading to numerous requests for Foster to apply his "literary detective" skills to various anonymous and pseudonymous texts. Using a mixture of traditional scholarship and computers to perform textual comparisons, Foster looks for unique and unusual usage patterns. At his best, he is perhaps the closest literary scholarship gets to proving something "by algebra".

It should be noted that computer based statistical techniques for textual analysis had been used by historians long before Foster developed his own, most notably with the Federalist Papers, with very little controversy.

High points in Foster's detection include:

Foster has garnered controversy for his techniques. In particular, his involvement in the JonBenét Ramsey murder case aroused criticism when it emerged that the scholar had offered his services to both sides, initially lobbying passionately for Patsy Ramsey's innocence, but then going on a few months later, having been spurned by Ramsey's lawyers and hired by the police, to argue dispassionately for the opposite verdict.

Foster has taken an interest in the 2001 anthrax attacks. Initially he argued that the perpetrator was likely a foreigner, but later wrote an article for Vanity Fair naming Steven Hatfill as a prime suspect (Hatfill had already been labeled a "person of interest" by Attorney General John Ashcroft). Hatfill is suing Foster for defamation. [2] (

Foster is the author of two books: Elegy by W.S.: A Study in Attribution (1989) ISBN 0874133351 and Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous (2000) ISBN 0805063579.

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