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

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...

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Audacia Ray

    Kevin Young’s book is an exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) chronicle of the American history of hoaxing. He details many, many hoaxes and highlights the racist dimensions embedded in many of them - because the history of American bad behavior is always a history of racism. The book is dense stuff, injected with Young’s humor, and sometimes I found myself wishing that his editors reeled him in a little, but then a chunk of pages later I would understand why he was including alllllll the thing

    Kevin Young’s book is an exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) chronicle of the American history of hoaxing. He details many, many hoaxes and highlights the racist dimensions embedded in many of them - because the history of American bad behavior is always a history of racism. The book is dense stuff, injected with Young’s humor, and sometimes I found myself wishing that his editors reeled him in a little, but then a chunk of pages later I would understand why he was including alllllll the things. Really worth the investment of time to work through.

  • Grace Tenkay

    History, written in a fairly entertaining way.

  • Peter Mcloughlin

    Kaleidoscopic and wide-ranging but also rambling and unfocused. Young makes a myriad number of points and passing observations about hoaxes, race, history, otherness, conmen, hoaxing, default attitudes in America and elsewhere that play into hoaxers who tell us a story tailored to our preconceptions which revolve around ourselves, our place in the world, and the other. Young uses the idea of a hoax to talk about its place in our culture and its intersection with ideas about race and assumptions

    Kaleidoscopic and wide-ranging but also rambling and unfocused. Young makes a myriad number of points and passing observations about hoaxes, race, history, otherness, conmen, hoaxing, default attitudes in America and elsewhere that play into hoaxers who tell us a story tailored to our preconceptions which revolve around ourselves, our place in the world, and the other. Young uses the idea of a hoax to talk about its place in our culture and its intersection with ideas about race and assumptions about whites and nonwhites. Often hoaxes are about exotic others (think PT Barnum or the wild west shows of the 19th century) who are funhouse mirrors of ourselves. The book offers many incites and even brings the reader up to date on the bunkum we swallow in the age of Trump. I gleaned many things from this although I wish it was a little less rambling.

  • Leo Walsh

    A super-detailed and super interesting look into the history of bunk, confidence men, hoaxes and hokum. Young starts with P.T. Branum, who's famous quote sums up hoaxers at their best: "Every crowd has a silver lining."

    Get it? It's a clever, rhyming re-wording of an old wives tale.

    Anyways, Young traces the development of American bunk (which he calls BS, an apt label) through Donald Trump's run of four-Pinocchio ratings for his public distortions and outright lies about the facts. But this doe

    A super-detailed and super interesting look into the history of bunk, confidence men, hoaxes and hokum. Young starts with P.T. Branum, who's famous quote sums up hoaxers at their best: "Every crowd has a silver lining."

    Get it? It's a clever, rhyming re-wording of an old wives tale.

    Anyways, Young traces the development of American bunk (which he calls BS, an apt label) through Donald Trump's run of four-Pinocchio ratings for his public distortions and outright lies about the facts. But this doesn't descend into name-calling. Instead, he places Trump in context. Which makes for far more interesting reading than another anti-Trump screed. Because the focus is not on Trump, but his forebearers in the Blarney world.

    I enjoyed this more than I expected. The material was as fun to read as any novel. And Young's style, while thorough, never seems to drag.

    Four stars.

  • Tony

    BUNK: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News. (2017). Kevin Young. ***1/2.

    I have to admit up-front that I did a lot of skimming while reading this book. It was not that the book was poorly written or uninteresting, instead, it was caused by the determination of the author to get absolutely every example of all “Bunk” into his study. After a while, all of the examples began to sound the same. I have to admit that the author certainly did his homework, and pre

    BUNK: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News. (2017). Kevin Young. ***1/2.

    I have to admit up-front that I did a lot of skimming while reading this book. It was not that the book was poorly written or uninteresting, instead, it was caused by the determination of the author to get absolutely every example of all “Bunk” into his study. After a while, all of the examples began to sound the same. I have to admit that the author certainly did his homework, and presented enough examples to keep most all curious readers happy. As opposed to being a book for the general reader, this work falls into the category of An Encyclopedia of Bunk. It’s good to have at hand if, and when, the subject of Bunk in any of its forms arises. The author’s palette was wide; he was able to jump around in time and to a variety of “bunk performers.” After tens of examples of the various types of bunk, I found myself ready to push on to the next page.

  • Russell Fox

    Kevin Young's

    isn't, itself, "bunk," but there is a whole lot of posing and pretense in this long, ruminative, and ultimately unsatisfying study of "hoaxes, humbug, plagiarism, phonies, post-facts, and fake news." Young is a poet, and so very often he gets caught away in waxing clever or lyrical about some act of fakery that he is recounting, rather than carefully explaining and critiquing it. The first several chapters work pretty well; for a while, it really seemed as though Young was dev

    Kevin Young's

    isn't, itself, "bunk," but there is a whole lot of posing and pretense in this long, ruminative, and ultimately unsatisfying study of "hoaxes, humbug, plagiarism, phonies, post-facts, and fake news." Young is a poet, and so very often he gets caught away in waxing clever or lyrical about some act of fakery that he is recounting, rather than carefully explaining and critiquing it. The first several chapters work pretty well; for a while, it really seemed as though Young was developing an actual critical thesis, as he used P.T. Barnum and a plethora of 19th-century and early 20th-century examples of side-show attractions and carnivalesque nonsense to distinguish (as Barnum himself did) between "humbug" and outright lies, as well as tie the often-denied-yet-still-constant American affection for (and expectation of) fakes, outrage, and spin to our complicated (and just as frequently denied) racial and sexual suspicions and curiosities. But in order for this critical work to hold, Young would need to be stylistically consistent and thorough in his treatment of ridiculous tabloid stories, pretend mediums, and imposters of numerous sorts, and he wasn't, especially as the book went on. Frequently he'd jump from one con man to another act of forgery, and there wouldn't even be a minimally required amount of historical information to know who or what, exactly, we were talking about.

    In the end, Young's immense amount of research into this topic was obvious (the old playbills, news photographs, and drawings throughout the book are a delight), but while he obviously thought his presentation of it all added up to something, it didn't. Often--especially once he starts looking at literary plagiarists--it seems fairly event that Young is more interested in settling scores than anything else (his statement--for which he acknowledges his debt to

    --about Laura Albert, who punked much of America's sensationalist, low-brow literary set with her stories as "JT Leroy," is probably the truest thing in the book: "it offends me as a writer"--pg. 214). I learned a lot of trivia from the book, but I would have preferred, instead of the giant info dump, he'd really honed his arguments--or, failing that, he scrapped the huge sprawling mess in favor of some free-form which touch on the topic in a personal way (his chapter on Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who has apparently convinced herself--and long convinced others--that she is black, "Blacker than Thou," is written in this manner, and it's the best chapter in the book).

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