Fraud, American Style

Review: 'Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News' by Kevin Young

P. T. Barnum / Getty Images

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Poor Buncombe County, North Carolina: home to Asheville, mountainous scenery, Vanderbilt's robber-baron Biltmore mansion—and along the way, the origin of words for chicanery, flim-flam, and deception. Bunkum, bunk, debunk, the Bunco Squads that police forces used to have: We needed a word for the patter, the polished spiel, of confidence swindlers, and the old British cozenage and French fourberie just didn't seem to have the oomph that Americans wanted. And so (by a strange path that begins with a bit of 19th-century political bombast), we borrowed Buncombe's name.

Kevin Young loves this kind of historical tidbit. In truth, to read his latest work, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, is sometimes to wonder whether he's ever encountered a historical tidbit he didn't like. The book is a mess, by modern publishing standards, 500 pages of this and that, and this and that, and this and that again. Do the names James Frey, JT LeRoy, and Nasdijj ring a bell? If you don’t remember the trio of literary hoaxers who made the minor edges of the news around 2005 and 2006, don't worry. Kevin Young will remember them for you wholesale.

You will either love the sprawl of Bunk—the personalization, the wandering trails, the scent of musty archives explored in part for their musty scent—or you will hate the book's odd character: essentially Sir Thomas Browne's Pseudodoxia Epidemica, hauled from 1646 into 2017. I hope you love it, for with Bunk, Kevin Young has produced a unique muddle, an eccentric masterpiece, and a slow-burn bonfire.

The thesis of the book is that there's something distinctively modern, and maybe distinctively American, about what we picture when we think of hoaxes and scams. Young is willing to acknowledge ancient and medieval frauds, just as he admits modern instances around the world. But he thinks the hoax found a new and different form—almost different in kind—in the 19th century.

P.T. Barnum occupies a central place in Young's mind, mostly because Barnum is such a clear exemplar of the New World's new world of fakery. As Bunk presents the historical change, the 18th century was home to both an Enlightenment boast of the superiority of science and a Counter-Enlightenment mistrust of science. The charlatans of the 18th century grasped in vague and inchoate ways the possibilities these two modern currents offered, but it was with the Victorian era's Americans that fully self-conscious fraudulence was born. The pseudo-sciences of the 19th century—from phrenology to racial eugenics—derived from a peculiar marriage of science and suspicion about science.

The hoaxers were ready to play both ends. You decide, Barnum would advertise in 1860 for his display of what was, in fact, a rather ordinary-looking man named William Henry Johnson. Man or Monster? Missing Link or Simple Freak? Monkey stitched to a fish, or a Mermaid from Fiji? "Barnum didn't simply evoke or resort to the basest assumptions of his day," Young insists. "His genius was to turn these into questions, spectacle as speculation." Barnum's patter, his buncombe, was filled with such science terms as "missing link" (astonishingly, only a year after the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species). By inviting audiences to decide, Barnum flattered the scientific acumen of the viewer and inverted skepticism to become a kind of scientific doubt of science: viewers made complicit in their own cozenage.

Bunk isn't a linear argument for its thesis, however. The book is more a sorites, the technical term in logic for the kind of argument that tries to extract a conclusion from a heap of propositions. And down at the bottom of the heap is a notion about race.

An African American with impeccable literary credentials—he's poetry editor of the New Yorker and Bunk is published by Graywolf, a stratospherically literary press—Young is participating, to some degree, in the great transformation of American historical writing over the past 20 years. A prior generation of historians had completed the first turn into race-conscious writing, arguing that racism tinges—influencing and soiling—everything in American history. The historians of more recent decades have taken the next and less convincing step of arguing that racism is the origin of everything in American history. And Young wants to see the modern hoax as essentially deriving from the racism that brought the nation John C. Calhoun's sort of pseudo-Darwinian racialist biology.

Bunk turns, for example, to Joice Heth, the aged-looking black woman whom P.T. Barnum offered as George Washington's 161-year-old nursemaid. The story, in Young's mind, runs directly through the years from Heth to "Jimmy," the 8-year-old drug addict invented in 1980 by Janet Cooke for the pages of the Washington Post.

For that matter, the story runs down to 2015, when a Spokane NAACP official named Rachel Dolezal was exposed as a white woman who had faked her race—like John Howard Griffin's 1961 Black Like Me turned on its head. Race and hoaxing "go hand in hand" in American history, Bunk argues, because race itself is "a fake thing pretending to be real." When the Counter-Enlightenment met the Enlightenment in the American hoax, it spawned new pseudo-sciences, "particularly those that sought to create not just taxonomies but hierarchies between the races."

In another way, however, Young's strong insistence on the fraudulence of race runs counter to the current line of race-conscious historians, as Bunk suggests continuity with older notions from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King Jr. And many of the hoaxes he describes have little obvious connection to race. The 1835 moon hoax, for example: a series of articles in which the New York Sun claimed that life had been discovered on the moon. Or the "girl wonder" Opal Whiteley, who invented her father and her abused childhood (although Bunk does suggest a surprisingly convincing parallel with Kaavya Viswanathan, the girl-wonder Harvard student whose 2006 novel turned out to be filled with plagiarism).

And then the Hitler Diaries, and then Jerzy Kosinski. And by the time we reach Herman Rosenblat—with his utterly implausible story of meeting on a blind date in later life the girl who had thrown apples to him over the fence of a concentration camp—Bunk has become nearly unbearable. The personal grief preyed on by psychics purporting to speak to the dead, like the social grief preyed on by race-hustlers and Holocaust fraudsters, allow us to be hurt—and not just in obvious and financial ways. They also diminish our pity and deaden our humanity.

Kevin Young argues that the internet is, in many ways, a recent parallel to the old yellow journalism, and only its speed and widespread nature make the internet different. He carries his history as far as the plagiarized elements in Melania Trump's 2016 speech at the Republican convention, and many readers will be determined to see in the Age of Trump something like the apex of the history of American swindling. But Bunk was clearly in the works long before the rise of Trump. Although the publisher is advertising the book under the newsy rubric of a history of "post-facts" and "fake news," Young has a bigger, more sprawling story to tell, in the pages of his big sprawling book.

Joseph Bottum

Joseph Bottum   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Joseph Bottum is a professor of cyber-ethics and director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University. His most recent book is An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.

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