Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News

by Kevin Young

Hardcover, 2017





Graywolf Press, (2017)


"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.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
A fascinating and timely book that functions simultaenously as an entertaining history of American hoaxes, an academic examination of the meaning of hoaxes and plagiarism, and a personal account of how the narratives that drive them have affected the author and black Americans in general. In a sense, "Bunk" is entertaining for the same reason that Lawrence Wright's "Going Clear" is: the stories of American "humbugs" from P.T. Barnum to Donald Trump are astonishingly, endlessly strange and entertaining. And most of these stories are complex and bizarre enough to be worth revisiting in full: one comes off amazed at how complicated some hoaxes can be (they almost always involve more than one person) and how easy it can be to get people to fall for a likely story. But the author's also very good at highlighting what connects these stories through the years. The book functions as sort of a history of the development of the American hoax and how it's changed: while old-time carnival owners sought to amaze their audiences, modern hoaxers tend to want to horrify them. He digs into the political implications of hoaxes, which is something most people who write on scandal don't, as most reporting doesn't tend to go too far beyond psychological speculation about the person who perpetrated the hoax. He's got a very good eye -- and a deep understanding -- of the various ironies and contradictions that most hoaxes involve.

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.
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LibraryThing member marshapetry
Loved this book, it's amazing what people believed, and I suppose in 100 years readers will be saying the same about our era of online hoaxes. The old hoaxes were more fun to read about, I guess since I'm tired of living thru the Trump hoax the new stuff just want as appealing to read about.
LibraryThing member themulhern
Too long and scholarly for the amount of interest I bring to the subject.
LibraryThing member BraveKelso
A review of hoaxes in the media, and the popularity of carnival shows, back to the 19th century. Largely literary sources, as opposed to other historical material. The American hope to learnng or see something new, exiting and inspiring and to feel shame and indignation blended with admiration for a clever con when cheated. That thing that Fritz Freling & Mel Blanc satirized when Yosemite Sam demanded Fearless Freep and the high diving act in the classic Loony Tune animation High Diving Hare.
Long and earnest.
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