According to poet and critic Kevin Young’s latest treatise, there’s something more American than apple pie. Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News is a philosophical history of the hoax, from mid-19th-century circus sideshows to the baseless stories that circulate our social media feeds.
“People had for a long time thought of the hoax in a kind of pleasant way,” says Young, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, where we reached him by phone, “like they’re just these goofy things that happen that don’t tell us anything about ourselves. But actually, when they’re exposed, it tells us a lot about what we truly believe.”
Young, who was recently named poetry editor of the New Yorker, explores the language and logistics of two centuries’ worth of American hoaxing and divines a deep-rooted racism, undergirded by pseudoscience, at its core.
“Racial grotesques grow up around and cling to the hoax,” says Young, “and the hoax makes use of them. These figures, which I call ‘exoticist figures of the other,’ become also figures of trauma or pain. Then, the hoax plagiarizes that pain and says, ‘Hey, it’s mine.’ ”
Bunk begins with P.T. Barnum, whose exploitative exhibits included “What is it?” an African American man styled as the missing evolutionary link, and Joice Heth, a blind black woman promoted as the 161-year-old nursemaid of president George Washington. Audiences clamored to touch Heth’s body, which received no peace in death.
“Heth’s end and afterlife predicts how much the modern hoax would become about pain and its performance,” Young writes. “Barnum would order Heth’s body autopsied in a huge surgical theater, charging fifty cents admission to what turned out to be a sold-out show. Barnum parlayed the doctor’s unsurprising conclusion that she was not actually 161 years old but of ordinary advanced age into the sale of more papers and as proof of his first successful humbug.”
Penny papers, the forerunners of today’s tabloids, arose to chronicle and complement the steady stream of spectacle. They promised ready fame in what Young calls the “Age of Imposture.”
When hoaxers could no longer literally, legally own the bodies of marginalized peoples, they appropriated their trauma, heralding in the modern “age of euphemism.” Young guides readers through the inventions of Native American impostors Gray Owl and Nasdijj, fraudulent memoirists James Frey and Binjamin Wilkomirski, plagiarist journalists, and Rachel Dolezal—all heralds of the modern American “age of euphemism.”
“Our age of euphemism differs from Barnum’s age of imposture in that, while imposture merely masks, euphemism misunderstands and misspeaks going so far as to spite its own face,” writes Young, who names “fake news” as the book’s most sinister subtitular phrase.
“There is a real big difference,” he says, “between something created to fool us [like Barnum’s humbug] and something created almost cynically. With fake news, it’s not so much that it wants to have us believe [in it], as it wants to destabilize the very notion that there could be news, there could be a truth. That’s the tough place that this rise of hoaxes has led to.”
To survive and thrive in a post-factual, unreal—frankly, Trumpian—world, Bunk indicates the need for critical thought. That necessitates asking and answering some uncomfortable questions, Young says.
“I want [Americans] to think a bit about the stories we tell ourselves,” he says. “Why do we believe them, when things aren’t just what they seem?
“Some of the reasons we tell ourselves why people hoax are really deep-seated in us all. How do we negotiate that? How do we get honest about the hoax or race or history? How can we talk to each other? And how can we preserve the art that sometimes helps us understand things we otherwise might not?”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews and is the co-host of the Kirkus podcast, Fully Booked.