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Authors of the Mind: Some Notes on the QSUM Attribution Theory

From: Studies in Bibliography
Volume 57, 2005-2006
pp. 263-286 | 10.1353/sib.0.0011

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Attribution matters. Many of us who study literary texts care who wrote what. Even if we are not engaged in biographical research, we often want to know which author or authors were involved with writing a work. Did Swift write A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet (1721)? What exactly did Defoe write? Can we determine if a particular work was the result of collaboration? Even scholars not directly involved with matters of attribution want a dependable basis from which to make further arguments. How did an author treat a particular topic in one work compared to another? How does a previously unknown and newly attributed work display the author’s interests shown elsewhere? How does a new attribution alter our impressions of other works we know the author to have written? These kinds of questions—as well as their proposed answers—are rendered moot if we lack reliable evidence to support the attribution in the first place. Without this dependable knowledge, we run in circles, asking (and sometimes answering) irrelevant questions.1

Because attribution study lays foundations for others to build on, those who attribute authorship should be cautious. If and when these foundations crumble, the scholarly labor already performed is proven to be a waste of time and effort for all of us. Witness the energy expended to argue that Shakespeare wrote A Funerall Elegye (1612): the attribution resulted in the poem’s appearance in standard Shakespeare textbooks, from which it has begun to vanish now that some specialists believe that John Ford wrote the poem. But who knows how long it will take for this poem to become fully dissociated from Shakespeare. Perhaps never.

The lesson is a simple one: as difficult as it is to insert a newly attributed work into an author’s canon, it is perhaps more difficult to remove an erroneously attributed work. It thus seems well worth spending time on the larger problem of attribution, and the role that non-specialists play or ought to play. As I am suggesting, we all have a stake in the matter, and therefore the importance of the subject deserves critical, even skeptical discussion.

The demand for this skeptical approach is perhaps greater now than ever before. The emergence of large, textual databases and the growth of micro-computing power make statistically based (or at least numerically based) theories particularly appealing. And all too unfortunately, the quantitative approach is accorded an enormous amount of deference from the stereotypical humanists who are mathematically challenged. Or it might be more appropriate to say that such humanists either accept these theories at face value or reject them in toto without ever fully grappling with what such theories might have to offer. Journals such as Literary and Linguistic Computing and Computers and the Humanities publish material on the topic of attribution, but the methods and conclusions of these discussions rarely seem to reach “traditional” literary scholars.

I do not wish to revisit the “two cultures” debate waged a long time ago. But given that quantitatively-based theories have already begun to shape our understanding of authorship, it seems well past due to test them in a critical fashion, determine how well they hold up to scrutiny, and consider what implications we can draw. This is what I propose to do here with the attribution theory known as cusum analysis, often abbreviated as QSUM.2

The QSUM Attribution Theory

The fullest discussion of QSUM appears in Analysing for Authorship: A Guide to the Cusum Technique by Jill M. Farringdon with contributions by A. Q. Morton, M. G. Farringdon, and M. D. Baker.3 This book contains a number of case studies that argue that: D. H. Lawrence did not write the short story “The Back Road” (1913); Muriel Spark’s essay “My Conversion” (1961) was partly edited by journalist W. J. Weatherby; and Henry Fielding was the anonymous translator of Gustavus Adlerfeld’s The Military History of Charles XII (1740). In a separate SB article, Jill Farringdon presents additional grounds to attribute the poem A Funerall Elegye to John Ford not William Shakespeare.4 Another QSUM analysis argues that The Dark Tower, a fantasy novel attributed to C. S. Lewis...

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