Cover image for Bunk
Title:
Bunk

The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News
Author:
Young, Kevin
Subject:
History
Sociology
True Crime
Nonfiction
Description:
Longlisted for the National Book Award for Nonfiction"There Kevin Young goes again, giving us books we greatly need, cleverly disguised as books we merely want. Unexpectedly essential."—Marlon JamesAward-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.
Publisher:
Graywolf Press
Date:
2017/11/14
Digital Format:
Adobe EPUB

HTML

Kindle
Language:
English

Summary

Summary

Longlisted for the National Book Award for Nonfiction

"There Kevin Young goes again, giving us books we greatly need, cleverly disguised as books we merely want. Unexpectedly essential."--Marlon James

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.


Author Notes

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.


Reviews 5

Publisher's Weekly Review

Actor and audiobook veteran Willis demonstrates a large capacity for vocal nuance in his reading of Young's history of fraud and fakery in American history. The early chapters cover dense historical topics that may be esoteric to a general audience, but Willis renders the material as approachable as possible. As the book's focus shifts to more recent instances of fraud, journalistic fabrications, and outright lies by public figures, Young's overall thesis-that hoaxes often reflect an agenda to manipulate or hijack larger conversations about such issues as race, class, and gender-becomes easier to follow. The highlight of Willis's performance is his projection of Young's indignation at Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who posed as African-American and became a civil rights organizer. This is a satisfying audiobook that hooks listeners in the latter half. A Graywolf hardcover. (Nov.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


Booklist Review

*Starred Review* 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. Well before the Internet helped fuel and spread half-truths and outright deceptions, people have perpetrated frauds in various forms. Award-winning poet, scholar, and writer Young (Blue Laws: Selected and Uncollected Poems, 1995-2015, 2016) examines the American roots of fraud and its particular ties to racial anxieties, from P. T. Barnum's display of Joice Heth, the alleged 161-year-old nursemaid to George Washington; to Susan Smith's tale of a black man kidnapping and killing her children; to Rachel Dolezal's masquerade as a black woman. Young traces the history of freak shows, séances, spirit photography, fake memoirs, and reality TV, exploring the motives of hoaxers (fame, greed, thrill) and the anxieties of each era that led to believers' gullibility. Young presents a rogue's gallery, including Grey Owl, Bernie Madoff, and Lance Armstrong, paying particular attention to the especially heinous frauds of journalists, including Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair. Young closes with an examination of today's constant bombardment of intertwined facts and factoids and the need for each of us to try to suss out the truth. Compelling and eye-opening.--Bush, Vanessa Copyright 2017 Booklist


New York Review of Books Review

NOTES ON A FOREIGN COUNTRY: An American Abroad in a Post-American World, by Suzy Hansen. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $15.) Over her years living in Istanbul, Hansen, a journalist, became keenly aware of America's enduring influence in the Middle East - and, as she put it, Americans' "active denial of their empire even as they laid its foundations." This pointed memoir reconciles her personal idea of the United States with its political realities. THE SEVENTH FUNCTION OF LANGUAGE, by Laurent Binet. Translated by Sam Taylor. (Picador, $16.) This high-minded detective novel is a semiotic romp. Binet treats the death of the critic Roland Barthes as a possible murder with political undertones. Heaps of real-life figures crop up along the way, including Julia Kristeva, François Mitterrand and Michel Foucault. The sendups of academia are frequent and gleeful. THANKS, OBAMA: My Hopey, Changey White House Years, by David Litt. (Ecco/HarperCollins, $16.99.) Litt joined the Obama campaign as a volunteer, eventually rising to become a senior speechwriter for the president. This optimistic account centers on Litt's coming-of-age at the White House (in a job where "every audience is the entire United States"), and assesses the president's legacy along with the political processes that shaped it. BLUEBIRD, BLUEBIRD, by Attica Locke. (Mulholland/Little, Brown, $15.99.) In East Texas a ranger goes searching for the killer of a black man and white woman, whose bodies were fished out of a bayou. As he rushes to solve the crime, secrets, betrayals and racial tensions across generations threaten to erupt. Our columnist Marilyn Stasio listed the book as one of the best crime novels of 2017, and wrote, "Locke writes in a blues-infused idiom that lends a strain of melancholy and a sense of loss to her lyrical style." BUNK: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, by Kevin Young. (Graywolf, $18.) This timely history delves into America's enduring fascination with the apocryphal, touching on everything from P.T. Barnum to fabricated memoirs. Our reviewer, Jonathan Lethem, called the book "a panorama, a rumination and a polemic at once," which "delivers riches in return." THE UNDERGROUND RIVER, by Martha Conway. (Touchstone, $16.) In the 1800s, a young seamstress is abandoned by her sister, and is taken in by a traveling theater company based on a flatboat. Soon, she becomes involved in the dangerous work of ferrying children born into slavery across the Ohio River. This novel follows along as she evades slave catchers and other perils, and offers a host of quirky characters.


Kirkus Review

Is flimflammery, like jazz, a pure product of America? So wonders New Yorker poetry editor Young (Blues Laws: Selected and Uncollected Poems 1995-2015, 2016, etc.), adding another Americanism to the mix: Jim Crow.For whatever reason, Americans have always thrilled at being conned: thus televangelists and bullshit artists. Thus Herman Melville's great novel The Confidence-Man, and thus the result of the most recent presidential election. By Young's vigorous, allusive account, the suckerdom whose numbers are added to every minute has no end of choices when it comes to shopping for bunkum. What makes this book a valuable addition to the literatureotherwise, it might just be an update to Daniel Boorstin's half-century-old study The Imageis Young's attention to the racial component: P.T. Barnum built his fortune, after all, on the backs of people like Joice Heth, billed as a supposed 161-year-old wet nurse to George Washington, and putative cannibals from the South Pacific, and the like. Much bunkum had to do with the clash of cultures and races, from the mundane to the fabulous. Young's wide-ranging text takes in not just circus sideshows, but also the literary/journalistic fabulations of JT LeRoy, Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, Lance Armstrong, and other exemplars of what Young calls the "Age of Euphemism." Oh, and Rachel Dolezal, too, who infamously tried to pass as black not so long ago: "Did Dolezal really fool those black folks around her? I have a strange feeling she didn't, that many simply humored her. You have to do this with white people, from time to time." If that doesn't stir up identity-politics conflict, then nothing will.A little harsh here, a little overstated there, but all in all a fascinating, well-researched look at the many ways Americans hoodwink each other, often about race. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.


Library Journal Review

Young (director, Schomburg Ctr. for Research in Black Culture; The Grey Album) presents an important, timely history of hoaxes and journalistic duplicity. He begins with the 1835 newspaper story reporting winged men on the moon and carries into today's embarrassing preoccupation with blatant lies, hearsay, rumors, and ridiculous conspiracy theories spewed by the lunatic fringe. Listeners will learn about P.T. Barnum's creation of the huckster and the con man, spiritualist scams, unusual faked physical deformities, fairy hoaxes, bearded women frauds, and, of course, the never-ending litany of UFO and alien deceptions. The stories also cover the literary deceits of invented memoir, Rachel Dolezal's identity theft, and the purposeful abuse of history. The forgeries, swindles, cons, cheats, and plagiarism continue with today's current abuse of journalism by the blatant lies and the invention of fake backstories, as exemplified by the clearly biased coverage of Fox News. Mirron Willis's solid, clearly enunciated, and steady paced reading helps listeners focus on this deeply researched but embarrassing legacy. This densely detailed work will help listeners understand why people often form strikingly strong opinions from minimal information. Verdict Essential for all libraries, especially university libraries supporting journalism and public affairs curricula. ["This dense and wide-ranging critique offers a fascinating view of the impact of fraud on truth": LJ 9/15/17 starred review of the Graywolf hc.; a -National Book Critics Circle 2018 nominee.]-Dale Farris, Groves, TX © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.