When the anonymously written novel Primary Colors was riding high on the bestsellers' list, speculation ran wild about the identity of the author. During the frenzy, an editor at New York Magazine saw a story about a Shakespearean professor at Vassar College who had shown by linguistic analysis that William Shakespeare was the author of an anonymously written poem. The magazine then engaged Professor Don Foster to examine Primary Colors to see if he could determine who had written it. Foster analyzed various samples of published writings, and finally saw in the articles of Joe Klein, a columnist at Newsweek, various distinguishing characteristics in his literary style that to his satisfaction identified Klein as the author of Primary Colors. When Foster began his investigation, he had never even heard of Joe Klein, but after he had failed to uncover the identity of Anonymous by analyzing the writings of various political insiders, he broadened his search and finally discovered in Klein's articles the clues he had been looking for.
After Foster announced his conclusion, Klein appeared on television on February 15, 1996, and denied that he had written the book. "It's not me; I didn't do it," Klein said. "This is silly." Foster, however, stuck by his guns and insisted that the stylistic evidence was too apparent to deny. Finally, on July 17, 1996, Klein appeared on television again to announce that he was indeed the author of Primary Colors. Literary sleuth Don Foster, who had found himself the butt of ridicule after Klein's denial, had been vindicated.
In April, the TV news magazine Dateline interviewed Professor Foster, who explained to reporter John Hockenberry the methods he had used to trace an anonymously written work to Joe Klein. He explained that he first did a textual analysis of Primary Colors to identify words, phrases, and expressions that were repeatedly used and to look for "quirky expressions" and peculiarities of punctuation. Afterwards, he simply analyzed writing samples until he located a consistent usage of the same "telltale" signs of authorship. Sample after sample was rejected until finally he happened onto the writings of Joe Klein and found what he had been looking for. The literary quirks and features that Foster had isolated in Primary Colors occurred with such frequency in Klein's articles that despite Klein's initial denial, Foster knew he was Anonymous.
To test Foster's literary forensic methods, Foster was challenged by Dateline correspondent John Hockenberry to find a sample of his own writing in five samples that he submitted to Foster. After analyzing a book that Hockenberry had written, Foster then looked for Hockenberry's literary quirks in the five samples. He found not only the sample that Hockenberry had written but also identified the other samples as the writings of P. J. O'Rourke, Henry David Thoreau, Jack Kerouac, and an unknown person, possibly Hockenberry's wife, who had been influenced by Hockenberry's style. He was right in every case. Dateline announced that Foster's work had been so impressive that he is now being consulted by police departments to assist them in solving puzzling cases that require the identification of writing styles. Foster has received so many of these requests that he is taking a leave of absence from Vassar next academic year in order to work on police cases.
The work of scholars like Don Foster confirms that textual criticism is a valid science, yet when biblical scholars who analyze the Bible and find linguistic signs of forgery, interpolations, multiple authorships, and such like, biblical fundamentalists invariably dismiss their opinions as the efforts of "liberal" or "radical critics" to discredit the Bible. On page 12 of this issue is a letter from Broderick D. Shepherd, the author of a book that disputes the traditional dating of the book of Daniel, and he reports that he too often finds biblical fundamentalists quick to dismiss his critical opinion of Daniel by simply labeling it "liberalism." In past issues of TSR, fundamentalist views about the authorship of the books of Jeremiah and Daniel have been challenged by documentation from the works of reputable scholars only to be dismissed by fundamentalist spokesmen as just the conclusions of "radical" or "liberal" or "atheistic" critics, as if these fundamentalists are completely unaware of a universally recognized principle of logic that says the truth or falsity of a claim is independent of its source. So whether the proponent of a critical theory is conservative, liberal, or somewhere in between has nothing to do with whether his theory is true or false. Critical theories must be evaluated on the basis of their merits or lack of the same and not on the basis of who proposes them.
Professor Don Foster proved that writers leave in their works signs of their identity that are just as telling as fingerprints or DNA that may be left behind at a crime scene. If the identify of the person who left the fingerprints or DNA is not known, forensic experts could still determine that the same person was involved in crimes A and B if the same prints or DNA should be found at both scenes. If the fingerprints and DNA found at both scenes are different, this would give investigators reasonable cause to conclude that the crimes were committed by different persons. Literary analysis works the same way. If the identity of a writer is not known, experts can still determine that documents A and B were written by the same person if the same stylistic patterns and other literary imprints are found in both documents. Likewise, if the style, vocabulary, and other literary imprints are very different in both documents, scholars can be reasonably sure that the documents were written by different persons.
These are the methods that biblical critics use to determine
such matters as the probability that the same person who wrote the
epistles to the Corinthians and Romans did not write the pastoral
epistles, even though all of these documents claim that they were
written by the apostle Paul, or the likelihood that noticeable internal
differences in style, vocabulary, and theme within such books as Isaiah
and Jeremiah point to multiple authorships rather than the tradition
that both books were each written by just one person. Although textual
critics undoubtedly reach some wrong conclusions, there is certainly no
reason to doubt the general reliability of the critical methods that
they use to make these determinations. If it is true, as Professor Don
Foster proved, that those who write in English put identifying
linguistic markers in their works, there is no reason to believe that
this is not true of those who write in other languages. So if
linguistic analysis of ancient Hebrew and Greek documents indicates
that there are "primary colors" in the Bible that dispute traditional
views of authorship, Christian fundamentalists who don't like these
scholarly conclusions are going to have to do more in defense of their
position than just yell, "Liberalism!"