"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 journalistic fakers invent backstories and falsehoods to sell us lies about themselves and about the world in our own time, from pretend Native Americans like 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 pervasive cynicism that damages our ideas of reality, fact, and art."--Dust jacket flap.
Young's other focus is race, and he argues that race is usually an essential component of American hoaxes. Honestly, it's sometimes difficult to tell whether Young wanted to write a book about the history of race in America or about notable American deceptions. While this gives the book a welcome personal tone -- as young tells us that he personally has experienced many of the strange situations in which both hoaxers and their marks have found themselves in -- some of this book's readers may feel that he's stretching his arguments a bit too thin and perhaps losing his focus. The book also loses some points for being a bit too long, and not as tightly organized as it could have been. Even so, even while providing an entertaining history of notable frauds, the author never loses sight of the damage that these frauds do. He argues that they not only hurt the people that are fooled, and the artists whose work is lifted, they also do injury to the truth and to our ability to relate to each other honestly. At a time when a lot of people seem to take it for granted that we live in a "post-truth" era where facts simply don't matter, this is an important reminder that ferreting out pernicious falsehoods is still a worthwhile endeavor. Recommended as a survival guide for our times.
Long and earnest.