Do we each have literary DNA? Is our writing style unique?
Vassar College professor, Don Foster, whose book, Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous, argues that no two people use language in precisely the same way, our identities are encoded in our own language, a kind of literary DNA. Combining traditional scholarship with modern technology, Foster has discovered how to unlock that code and, in the process, has invented an entire field of investigation–literary forensics–by which it becomes possible to catch anonymous authors as they ultimately betray their identities with their own words.
I first heard about Foster’s book through Lawrence Scanlon at an AP workshop a few summers back. An activity that can promote close-reading skills, Scanlon suggested, was to have students become literary detectives by investigating multiple poems with the poet’s name removed to determine who wrote what.
Since we are in the second week of a Romantic poetry, I thought it was time for the students to be Sherlocks and Watsons and use the deductive power of close observation to determine identity. Students were given four poems — all of the Romantic era. While each poem had a title, none were attributed to a poet. I gave them time to define unfamiliar terms and annotate each poem. Three of them (One First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, To Sleep, and When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be) were written by a single poet, John Keats, the fourth (Bright Star) was from PB Shelly. The students’ task was to work in pairs and look at all the factors of composition — word choice, punctuation, meter, figurative language, image, form, etc. — to determine which poem bore different literary DNA.
Circulating the room, the conversations, were so pleasing to hear. The students talked, conversed, and even argued. The discussions were passionate and full of the language of literary analysis. The were looking closely for indicators of literary DNA, collaborating on evidence, and making judgements based on what the texts revealed.
While only 40% of the pairs were correct in their judgement, it was the process that mattered most. It was a fine way to spend 42 minutes of a period.