Humanities / Essay
BUNK: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News
by Kevin Young
November 2017 – Graywolf Press
Has the hoax now moved from the sideshow to take the center stage of American culture?
Award-winning poet and critic Kevin Young tours us through a rogue’s gallery of hoaxers, plagiarists, forgers, and fakers―from the humbug of P. T. Barnum and Edgar Allan Poe to the unrepentant bunk of JT LeRoy and Donald J. Trump. BUNK traces the history of the hoax as a peculiarly American phenomenon, examining what motivates hucksters and makes the rest of us so gullible. Disturbingly, Young finds that fakery is woven from stereotype and suspicion, race being the most insidious American hoax of all. He chronicles how Barnum came to fame by displaying figures like Joice Heth, a black woman whom he pretended was the 161-year-old nursemaid to George Washington, and What Is It?, an African American man Barnum professed was a newly discovered missing link in evolution.
BUNK then turns to the hoaxing of history and the ways that forgers, plagiarists, and journalistic fakers invent backstories and falsehoods to sell us lies about themselves and about the world in our own time, from pretend Native Americans Grey Owl and Nasdijj to the deadly imposture of Clark Rockefeller, from the made-up memoirs of James Frey to the identity theft of Rachel Dolezal. In this brilliant and timely work, Young asks what it means to live in a post-factual world of “truthiness” where everything is up for interpretation and everyone is subject to a pervasive cynicism that damages our ideas of reality, fact, and art.
Graywolf Press Non Fiction Prize winner and both Quill- and American Book Prize-winning poet, Kevin Young is the author of a previous book of nonfiction, THE GREY ALBUM, and eleven books of poetry, including BLUE LAWS, which was long-listed for the National Book Award. He is the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.
PRAISE AND REVIEWS
“There Kevin Young goes again, giving us books we greatly need, cleverly disguised as books we merely want. Unexpectedly essential.”―Marlon James
“Young chronicles a distinctly American brand of deception in this history of hoaxers, fabricators, liars, and imposters. . . . [He] astutely declares the hoax a frequent metaphor for a ‘deep-seated cultural wish’ that confirms prejudicial ideas and stereotypes. . . . Young’s remarks on race and his comparison of Trump and Barnum, both of whom gained power from spectacle, in the book’s coda are well worth sifting through.”―Publishers Weekly, starred review
“A fascinating, well-researched look at the many ways Americans hoodwink each other, often about race.”―Kirkus Reviews
“As we adjust to life with a president who plays fast and loose with the truth and whose backstory arouses growing skepticism, this examination of the long and colorful history of hoaxes and cons is most welcome. . . . Compelling and eye-opening.”―Booklist, starred review
“Fake news and alternative facts have a long and complex history in American culture. Young, an award-winning poet and director of the New York Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, explores the deep roots of hoaxing in entertainment, literature, journalism, sports, and public life. . . . The final chapter touches on the current ‘post-fact’ world and its rejection of expertise, raising important questions about how we can know the truth. This dense and wide-ranging critique offers a fascinating view of the impact of fraud on truth.”―Library Journal, starred review
“A wild, incisive, exhilarating tour through Western culture’s sideshows and dark corners. Like a sideshow barker, Young writes with unbridled enthusiasm, a showman’s conviction, and a carny’s canny, telling a story that at times defies belief. And every word of it is true.”―Los Angeles Times
“Kevin Young . . . reflects on hoaxers and events as diverse as P.T. Barnum, Rachel Dolezal, the forged Hitler Diaries, Binjamin Wilkomirski’s fabricated Holocaust memoir, James Frey, Stephen Glass and Lance Armstrong. What could be timelier in the age of post-truth politics, science denial and fake news?”―Newsweek
“Riveting. . . . Young covers, and uncovers, America’s long and varied history of deceptive practices.”―Elle
“[A] thorough examination of two centuries of hoaxing. . . . Original and illuminating.”―BBC Culture
“BUNK is a fiercely intelligent account of the lies public figures tell us and the lies we tell ourselves, and it’s one of the mostimportant books you’ll read all year.”―Nylon
“[A] profoundly erudite new study of the ways truthiness, as Stephen Colbert used to call it, travels through America’s fabric.”―Literary Hub
“In chronicling the history of hoaxes in the United States, Young illuminates the sobering role of fake news today.”―Paste
“[Kevin Young is] second to none in his ability to make unlikely pop cultural connections and bring in a vast and complex sense of history.”―Vol. 1 Brooklyn
“As exhaustive as its subtitle: part survey of modern imposture, part detective story about the origins of American fakery. . . . It’s an important book for 2017, not only because ‘fake news’ is a part of the zeitgeist, but because public discourse about white supremacy and political hucksterism suffers from citizens’ short memory. . . . BUNK is a consistently incisive look at the nature of American imposture and epistemology itself: How do we know what we know, how do we learn? How do we undo what we learn, and how do we avoid making the same mistakes?”―Harvard Magazine