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Inquiring Columnist Wants to Know . . .

August 04, 1996|ROBIN ABCARIAN

Hello, professor. This is Joe Klein. You're going to say that I wrote this thing. You know, when I read this book I noticed that whoever wrote it probably read my column and borrowed some words and phrases. But what are you, a time expert? I'd like you to tell me when I could have written this. I'm busy covering the presidential campaign. Goodbye.

--Transcript of a message left Feb. 15 on the answering machine of Donald Foster.


As it happens, Don Foster is not a time expert. He is a text expert, a 46-year-old professor of English at Vassar College who has made headlines in a field one might think had no room left for front page news--the poetry of William Shakespeare.

In 1987, his solution to an enduring literary mystery was given front page play in this newspaper. Foster, in his doctoral dissertation at UC Santa Barbara, theorized that the mysterious "W.H." to whom Shakespeare had dedicated his sonnets in 1609 never existed. Instead, said Foster, "W.H." was a misprint of the great writer's own initials, "perhaps the most well-honored typographical error in the history of world literature."

Nine years later, on Jan. 14, he made news again, this time on the front page of the New York Times for seeming to have proven that an obscure Elizabethan elegy mourning the murder of a young man on horseback was authored by Shakespeare. More than a century had passed since anyone had performed such a convincing feat of Shakespearean scholarship.

"This poem will never be Shakespeare's greatest hit," Foster said the other day from his office in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "But because he is such a huge icon, it was very big news."

Instantly, Foster was swamped with requests for literary sleuthing of a different sort. Could he not apply the same techniques to the political roman a clef "Primary Colors"? Could he not, with the help of the computer program he used to analyze Shakespeare's text, identify the recalcitrant author?

He wasn't sure. The names of so many possible authors had been bandied about.

After being pestered by a reporter for New York magazine, he finally agreed to give it a try. At best, he thought, he might be able to come up with a "sliding scale of probability." But in February, many months before the Washington Post took credit for unmasking Newsweek columnist Klein by comparing revisions on a draft of the manuscript with a known sample of Klein's writing, Foster laid his credibility as a scholar on the line. In New York's Feb. 26 issue, Foster made as unequivocal a declaration as can be made: "Joe Klein wrote 'Primary Colors.' "

Klein continued to deny.

To a New York Observer reporter, Klein said: "He's an Elizabethan expert speculating on 20th century politics. When you use a powerful tool like a computer and combine it with expertise, it might get you somewhere. When you use it without expertise, then you're off the deep end."

The vasty deep, as the Bard himself would say.

What if Foster had erred? Would his academic reputation be soiled? Would his methodology be suspect? Would his peers start to doubt their acceptance of his work on the elegy?

"I didn't care who wrote 'Primary Colors,' " Foster said, "but when the world was telling me I made a mistake in my own academic field, in which I had worked so long and hard to establish credibility as someone who can do textual analysis of a very specific kind. . . . I felt Klein's denials put me in a rather difficult position."

Events began to take a comical turn. After the New York magazine story broke, CBS News sent a helicopter to land on Vassar's hockey field to fetch Foster for an interview in Manhattan. Foster said he found out later from sources at CBS that while he was being interviewed for a news program, Klein was on the phone with his good pal Dan Rather, vehemently denying authorship.

No wonder Klein "resigned" from his other job as weekend political commentator for CBS.

"Given the book's success," he wrote last week in Newsweek, "it would be fatuous to complain."

No lie.

Nineteen printings have produced 1.2 million copies of the novel. Warner Books bought the paperback rights for $1.5 million. Mike Nicols bought the movie rights for more than $1.5 million. Klein, it is said, has earned $6 million so far.

As far back as May, however, Foster received information about Klein's finances from someone who had no business talking about them. The information persuaded Foster he'd been on the mark all along.

And here, I fear, is where one can separate the professors from the pundits: "I felt like I needed to have this question of identity resolved," Foster said, "and I now had the means to do it. But would it be right?"

To publish confidential information, or not to publish, that was the question.

In the end, the professor decided 'twas nobler to keep his own counsel.

"Anyway," Foster said, "I was confident it was only a matter of time. . . . Klein was going to come out of the closet soon enough."

All well and good, but the solving of one mystery gives rise to what must now be considered the other compelling literary question of the season: How did Joe Klein find time to write the novel?

A columnist I'd prefer not to name wants to know.

* Robin Abcarian's column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.

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