Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News by Kevin Young
Kevin Young is the author of a previous book of nonfiction, The Grey Album, a New York Times Notable Book, and of eleven books of poetry. He is the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the poetry editor for The New Yorker.
Has the hoax now moved from the sideshow to take the center stage of American culture?
The award-winning poet and critic Kevin Young traces the history of the hoax as a peculiarly American phenomenon--the legacy of P. T. Barnum's "humbug" culminating with the currency of Donald J. Trump's "fake news." Disturbingly, Young finds that fakery is woven from stereotype and suspicion, with 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 frauds invent backstories and falsehoods to sell us lies about themselves and about the world in our own time, from the 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. This brilliant and timely work 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 contagious cynicism that damages our ideas of reality, fact, and art.
"[Young's] scrupulous feel for archival traces -- for the urgent materiality of memory -- is one of the superpowers he brings to both his poems and nonfiction. The newest example is Bunk, Young's enthralling and essential new study of our collective American love affair with pernicious and intractable moonshine. . . . Bunk is a sort of book that comes along rarely: the encompassing survey of some vast realm of human activity, encyclopedic but also unapologetically subjective. . . . Bunk, a panorama, a rumination and apolemic at once, asks more of the reader. It delivers riches in return. . . . Bunk is a reader's feast, a shaggy, generous tome with a slim volume of devastating aphorisms lurking inside; it also shimmers with moments of brief personal testimony."--Jonathan Lethem, The New York Times Book Review
"In Bunk, Kevin Young exhaustively tracks our longtime ambivalence toward 'hoaxes, humbug, plagiarists, phonies, post-facts, and fake news.' In these pages our founding father isn't George Washington, who supposedly couldn't tell a lie, but rather showman P.T. Barnum, who brazenly exhibited an old black woman as Washington's 161-year-old childhood nurse. . . . There's so much to enjoy and learn from in this encyclopedic anatomy of American imposture and chicanery."--The Washington Post
"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
"[A] fascinating, dense, and hyper-referential look into the strange forms and contours of our indigenous cultural b.s."--O, The Oprah Magazine