Bunk : the rise of hoaxes, humbug, plagiarists, phonies, post-facts, and fake news

by Young, Kevin, 1970-

Format: Print Book [2017]
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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.

Published Reviews
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"
From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Publisher's Weekly Review: "Poet and author Young (The Grey Album) chronicles a distinctly American brand of deception in this history of hoaxers, fabricators, liars, and imposters. Young traces the tradition of journalistic duplicity from an 1835 newspaper story reporting winged men on the moon to the fabrications by the New Republic's Stephen Glass in the late 1990s. He explores forgeries and falsifications in literature, including the exaggerated claims of James Frey in his memoir A Million Little Pieces and the wholesale creation of false identities, providing the example of J.T. LeRoy, allegedly a child prostitute turned novelist but later revealed to be the literary persona of writer Laura Albert. While many of these hoaxes will be familiar to those with a decent grasp of American history and current events, there are plenty of obscure examples as well, such as the 1941 emergence of the nine-year-old poet-prodigy Fern Gravel, charmingly declared "the lost Sappho of Iowa" by the New York Times, who was later revealed to be the brainchild of author James Norman Hall. Young explores the many instances where the hoax intersects with race and racism, notably P.T. Barnum's exploitation of the supposed centenarian Joice Heth, a black nursemaid of George Washington, and the more recent instance of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman pretending to be black, who led her local chapter of the NAACP. Using these examples, Young astutely declares the hoax a frequent metaphor for a "deep-seated cultural wish" that confirms prejudicial ideas and stereotypes. While the book suffers a bit from its glut of examples, Young's remarks on race and his comparison of Trump and Barnum, both of whom gained power from spectacle, in the book's coda are well worth sifting through the drier material. (Nov.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved."
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Additional Information
Subjects Truth.
Hoaxes -- History.
Deception -- History.
Publisher Minneapolis, Minnesota :[2017]
Language English
Description 560 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Bibliography Notes Includes bibliographical references (pages 509-533) and index.
ISBN 9781555977917
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