Northern Illinois University Press

Who Wrote That? Establishing Authorship

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People have asked me what my biggest surprise or unexpected discovery was in researching and writing Who Wrote That?: Authorship Controversies from Moses to Sholokhov. Since the book is methodologically oriented, especially in terms of trying to determine across-the-board principles for establishing authorship in any particular case, this question is an excellent one.

Perhaps, the biggest surprise to me in doing the book was finding out that the James Macpherson-Ossian cycle controversy had been revived during the last few decades in a different incarnation. Devoting a chapter to Ossian (chapter 8) was not part of my draft of the book, but I went back to double-check to make sure my understanding that the issue had already been resolved in the scholarship was correct. Good thing I did because I then found that some scholars recently have not been so willing to dismiss Macpherson as a mountebank but argue, instead, that he was someone who indeed was drawing on Scottish Gaelic traditions to a great extent. Coincidentally, at that point, a colleague of mine, who I was talking with about the book, asked, “Are you including Ossian?” That sealed it. I asked my editor at the Northern Illinois University Press if it would be okay to add a chapter on the Ossian cycle to the book for final draft copy, and she agreed. Including it  provided a slightly different approach on authorship issues that were discussed in the other chapters. From my perspective, that was most welcome because I was looking specifically for as wide a variety of methodological points to discuss in the book as possible.

Perhaps, the biggest surprise to me in doing the book was finding out that the James Macpherson-Ossian cycle controversy had been revived during the last few decades in a different incarnation.

The second biggest surprise was to find that four detailed articles had been written discussing whether Rashid al-Din wrote the collection of letters attributed to him (chapter 5). Initially, I was preparing to devote that entire chapter to whether he wrote the work titled Jami al-Tawarik (Compendium of Chronicles), but I could not pass up discussing and analyzing those four articles—two for and two against—his writing the letters. They allowed a very nice almost point-by-point comparison and provided the structure for the chapter. In the process, I learned a great deal about the Ilkhanate (1256–1357) that I would not have otherwise known.

The third surprise was to find out that scholars are now seriously disputing whether the Analects of Confucius was an accretion text (what had been the prevailing view) or written at one time during the early Han Dynasty (a recent proposal). In the first case (accretion), the controversy was over how much of the text could be dated to the time of Confucius (551-479 B.C.) and then added to over the centuries until the earliest extant manuscript (ca. 50 B.C.). Recently, a Yale University professor (who did his PhD dissertation at Princeton on the topic) concluded that the Analects was written no earlier than ca. 150 B.C. In other words, there was no accretion because there was no text in existence earlier to accrete to. There may have been separate sayings attributed to Confucius before then floating around. But it was only in the reign of Emperor Wu (156–87 B.C.) that someone drew on them as well as other things people had said about Confucius to create the Analects. I was able to tie this in very nicely (I think) with the oral traditions of Jesus (Q) and Muhammad (the Hadith).

I suppose if one is not surprised in doing one’s research, then one is not doing it correctly. There were any number of other smaller surprises along the way. I had not realized that identifying the characteristics of a proposed author on the basis of the written work (profiling) was as widespread as it was (chapters 5, 6, 7, and 9). I was a bit dismayed, however, in finding that my goal of determining principles of authorship was not as easy as I had hoped. I did eventually arrive at seven general principles that I am satisfied with (Afterword), but a great deal of further research awaits.


Don Ostrowski is Research Advisor in Social Sciences and Lecturer in Extension Studies, Harvard University.

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