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

  • November 2017
  • Graywolf Press
  • Hardcover, eBook, Audio
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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 frauds 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. 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 contagious cynicism that damages our ideas of reality, fact, and art.

Reviews & Praise 

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. . . . Compelling and eye- opening.

Booklist, starred review

Young chronicles a distinctly American brand of deception in this history of hoaxers, fabricators, liars, and imposters. . . . [He] astutely declares the hoax a frequent metaphor for a ‘deep-seated cultural wish’ that confirms prejudicial ideas and stereotypes. . . . 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.

Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Fake news and alternative facts have a long and complex history in American culture. Young, an award-winning poet and director of the New York Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, explores the deep roots of hoaxing in entertainment, literature, journalism, sports, and public life. . . . The final chapter touches on the current “post-fact” world and its rejection of expertise, raising important questions about how we can know the truth. This dense and wide-ranging critique offers a fascinating view of the impact of fraud on truth."

—Library Journal, starred review

A] vigorous, allusive account. . . . What makes this book a valuable addition to the literature . . . is Young's attention to the racial component. . . . A fascinating, well-researched look at the many ways Americans hoodwink each other, often about race.

—Kirkus Reviews

Bunk is an essential book. It unpacks myriad hoaxes embedded in American history, from spiritualism to the fake news espoused by Donald Trump. As Young explores these hoaxes, he finds that there is darkness at the heart of our country, a malignant seed, that finds expression in fakery. Young writes with humor and wit, and during this moment when alternative facts are sanctioned and willful ignorance is celebrated, this is a necessary read.

— Jesmyn Ward, author of Sing, Unburied, Sing

Brilliant! Kevin Young’s incredible tour of deception reveals an American love affair with lies. The dangerous intersection of commerce and identity is illuminated by his lucid meditation on the long con that we call race.

— Eula Biss, author of On Immunity

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

— Marlon James, author of A Brief History of Seven Killings