Bunk: The True Story of Hoaxes, Hucksters, Humbug, Plagiarists, Forgeries, and Phonies by Kevin Young

Bunk: The True Story of Hoaxes, Hucksters, Humbug, Plagiarists, Forgeries, and Phonies

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 Americ...

Title:Bunk: The True Story of Hoaxes, Hucksters, Humbug, Plagiarists, Forgeries, and Phonies
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Bunk: The True Story of Hoaxes, Hucksters, Humbug, Plagiarists, Forgeries, and Phonies Reviews

  • Stephanie

    Fascinating (and possibly reassuring) look at the American history of faking it when it comes to information. Definitely not for the casual reader -- the book is dense, full of footnotes, and delves deep -- it is nevertheless quite a ride into the unbelievable.

  • Kathleen

    My review for the Chicago Tribune:

    Most people probably know that the word “bunk” is short for “bunkum,” meaning insincere talk, claptrap or humbug. Fewer people are likely familiar with the word’s etymology, coined out of racial unrest in 1820 in relation to the Missouri Compromise, which admitted Missouri as a slave state. That year, on the floor of the 16th Congress, even though an immediate vote had been called, North Carolina Rep. Felix Walker insiste

    My review for the Chicago Tribune:

    Most people probably know that the word “bunk” is short for “bunkum,” meaning insincere talk, claptrap or humbug. Fewer people are likely familiar with the word’s etymology, coined out of racial unrest in 1820 in relation to the Missouri Compromise, which admitted Missouri as a slave state. That year, on the floor of the 16th Congress, even though an immediate vote had been called, North Carolina Rep. Felix Walker insisted on filibustering in favor of Missouri’s slave state status in the name of Buncombe, his home county.

    If there’s bunk around, then it probably needs debunking, and Kevin Young does the job admirably in “Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News.” Drawing on incidents and etymologies such as the one above, he anatomizes the lengthy American and international history of entertaining deceptions — from P.T. Barnum to Rachel Dolezal, from Edgar Allan Poe to Nasdijj, from the Hitler Diaries to Jerzy Kosinski — and does so in a way that reveals and critiques the racist underpinnings of many such notorious fabrications.

    Young acknowledges various European hoaxes while raising the central question: “Is there something especially American about the hoax?” Exploring the answers, he continually returns to the multifarious ways in which “an eighteenth-century Counter-Enlightenment, with its mistrust of science and history of hoaxes, could actually join with the Enlightenment and its love of systems to spawn the pseudosciences of the nineteenth century — particularly those that sought to create not just taxonomies but hierarchies between the races.”

    Young — the author of 11 collections of poetry, as well as the nonfiction book “The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness” — serves as the poetry editor of The New Yorker and the director of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. His copious research, his talents in literary analysis and his associative skills as a poet are on acrobatic display as he argues convincingly that the hoax is all too often an underrecognized mechanism for maintaining white — and to a concurrent extent, male — supremacy.

    He writes, for instance, about Joice Heth, the black woman that P.T. Barnum exploited for an act in 1835 in which “she pretended to be George Washington’s nursemaid, which would have made her 161 years old,” and points out later how, “Simultaneously celebrated and denigrated, often through the very body she supposedly nurtured and wet-nursed with, Heth stands as one of a long line of black women forced to prove their womanity.”

    Throughout, Young makes elucidating comparisons across the ages, such as how the “penny press,” which fanned the flames of hucksterism in the 1800s, finds its parallel in the internet today insofar as “it too implements chaos as a going concern.” Or how the fraudulent “girl wonder” Opal Whiteley — who self-published “The Fairyland Around Us” at 22 and “dressed as an obligatory ‘Indian’ ” in the 1920s — has her parallel in the plagiarism case of novelist Kavya Viswanathan in the early 2000s.

    Admittedly, hoaxes are a shaggy subject, yet one wishes that Young’s book were a bit more trim, as he turns and returns to subjects across chapters in a nonlinear and at times perplexing and repetitive fashion. As a result, brilliant as its parts are, Young’s book as a whole comes off as less of a spotlight illuminating its dim-by-design subject in a cohesive glow and more of a sparser set of Christmas lights — bright spots placed along a strand with perhaps a bit too much murkiness in between for the pattern to come through as clearly as might be desirable.

    Nevertheless, his profound assertion that “the hoax changes history and also the future” shines through; he writes: “It’s the worst kind of twofer: the hoax is ultimately a matter of life and death.”

    Young’s groundbreaking study of spectacles and spectacular falsehoods reaches its audience roughly one year after the election of Donald Trump. Obviously, Young was hard at work on this book well before it became clear that a man who routinely denigrates minorities and women and blithely dismisses inconvenient aspects of reality would hold the highest office in the United States.

    Although the book doesn’t center on the Trump presidency, Young does analyze how significant portions of Melania Trump’s 2016 Republican National Convention speech were stolen from Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech at the Democratic National Convention, and how Mrs. Trump’s status as an immigrant from Solvenia was “championed in a way the candidate would explicitly deny Muslims and Mexicans.”

    As we enter the second year of the Trump administration — with its railing against “fake news,” its failure to unilaterally condemn white supremacists in Charlottesville and its assertion that climate change is itself a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese — this book could scarcely be more timely or useful.

  • Karen

    Do you think fake news is the "new thing"? Well, think again. Kevin Young's book, Bunk, explores the history of falseness in America, looking at everything from past memoir and journalism scandals to the Humbug exhibits once displayed in America. A fascinating, but sometimes daunting, read.

  • Jason Diamond

    A masterpiece. How do you get this into the hands of every high school student?

  • Katie

    I find that in my professional life, I spend a lot of time encouraging people to not believe everything they read on the internet. That just because someone somewhere says something is true doesn't necessarily make it so. That the idea that it sounds like it could be true doesn't mean that it is. I try to teach people to be wary of their sources, to gain a basic understanding of source material and help people learn how to check those sources. It doesn't have to be something as outlandish as Naz

    I find that in my professional life, I spend a lot of time encouraging people to not believe everything they read on the internet. That just because someone somewhere says something is true doesn't necessarily make it so. That the idea that it sounds like it could be true doesn't mean that it is. I try to teach people to be wary of their sources, to gain a basic understanding of source material and help people learn how to check those sources. It doesn't have to be something as outlandish as Nazis on the moon for something to be false. It can be a celebrity telling people to not vaccinate their children, or a well hidden advertisement promoting a health regiment, or a president proclaiming that his inauguration crowds were the biggest in history. It is my job to steer people to reliable sources that can help them confirm or deny whether any particular item in backed in fact. While, the proliferation of internet articles, photoshopped photos, demagoguery, and sheer media bombardment make it particularly easy for an undiscerning public to be duped by false information, this book makes it clear that fakery has always been out there and people have been getting fooled for centuries for a variety of reasons.

    As the subtitle suggests, Bunk is a fascinating history of hoaxes and fakes of all kinds, and the often racially minded intentions behind them. Beginning with the famed Moon Hoax of the Sun paper in the 1800s and ending with our (post-fact) era of "truthiness," "alternative facts," and fake news, this book explores the motivations of deception.

    In my own scholarship regarding sideshow history, many of these stories were familiar: Joice Hethe - Barnum's proclaimed 160-year-old wet nurse of George Washington, Ota Benga - the young man kept as an exhibit at the Bronx Zoo, and the Zip the What is It? - all racially motivated hoaxes, Young enlightens readers to many more modern day hoaxes. While at times, this book can be a bit dense and sometimes repetitive to show that we as a society have seen all these things before, it is the most thorough exploration I have seen of this topic.

    He covers everything from Clark Rockefeller the so-called "Man in the Rockefeller Suit," Ted Hughes's fake memoir, Rachel Dolezal, J.T. LeRoy's secret identity, and the complete insanity that is our current administration.

    I recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in the historical precedence of our current media age, and will be using several examples in this book in my Fighting Fake News course coming up this spring.

  • Olena Churanova

    "Especially when we are at our most disconnected, virtual, and unverifiable, we need to fight the disembodiment and invisibility that is its own inequality. What we need is not more immediate news - which we seem to crave, faster and faster - but more relliable information. We need less local color, or ideological coloring, and more depth; fewer people covering the same story than discovering a new one. We should write like no one is looking over our shoulder - except the future".

    "Online, we are

    "Especially when we are at our most disconnected, virtual, and unverifiable, we need to fight the disembodiment and invisibility that is its own inequality. What we need is not more immediate news - which we seem to crave, faster and faster - but more relliable information. We need less local color, or ideological coloring, and more depth; fewer people covering the same story than discovering a new one. We should write like no one is looking over our shoulder - except the future".

    "Online, we are all ghostwriters and spirit photographers. In that haunted place that is the Web, filled with dead ends, links "not found", and what a friend fruitfully called "digital litter", hoaxes are both overexposed and underexposed".

    "When friend is merely a verb, not a person; when apocalypses too are computer based and costly, like Y2K, then turn out to be mostly paranoia, or worse, marketing; when you can fall in love not with television or through television but on television through a series of dates you couldn't really afford in a rented mansion that seems specifically designated for reality TV, is a set really, a soft-core porn palace, and then wonder why it doesn't work when cameras are off; when your first instinct at the sign of national tragedy is to tell your phone, not tell someone using that phone; than you have become as fictional as the world that you've created".

  • Beukenick

    Interesting take on and overview of hoaxes, however the repeated reference to racism seems forced and is never essential to any argument made in the book.

  • Mike

    Our critical faculties seem neutralized by the lie we are ready to swallow. Bradlee said it: Beware of the lie you want to believe. The old ones are funny; the current ones are terrifying.

  • Grace Tenkay

    History, written in a fairly entertaining way.

  • Llamaark

    The book was listened and perhaps I should listen again.

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