Kevin Young headshot with his 2018 book cover Bunk

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

Tall tales and blurring the lines between fact and fiction is part of the American identity.

Fake news isn’t new but the latest variation on the theme. So argued Kevin Young in his 2017 book Bunk
The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News

The book came from a series of articles he wrote for The New Yorker. It mashes culture, journalism, cultural appropriation and Americana. It reads like a collection of interesting tidbits, which can be fun, though I put the book down and picked it back up a few times over the couple years since it was given to me.

It still adds to my understanding of my field and my country. As Young quotes poet Mary Karr as saying: “The American religion — so far as there is one anymore — seems to be doubt. Whoever believes the least wins, because he’ll never be found wrong.”

Below I share my notes from the book for my future reference.

My notes:

  • Adrienne Rich wrote: “In America, we have only the present tense.”
  • PT Barnum: Every crowd has a silver lining
  • “What the American public always wants is a tragedy with a happy ending” William Deal Howells
  • The penny press of 1830s was a hated format for chasing audience, a drastic change from the 6 cent newspapers that were primarily sponsored by political parties
  • The “Great Moon Hoax of 1835” of The Sun made the modern press: “Within months, Locke’s moon hoax not only created the most popular newspaper in the world, and practically the very industry of the modern press itself, it also helped galvanize a new national popular culture.”
  • Of the hoax, Ormond Seavey wrote: “It was a time when the tall tale was first recognized as a characteristically American narrative.” Historians disagree how much readers knew the hoax was a playful game; we didn’t have the same relationship to truth then as we do today.
  • Diddling by Edgar Allen Poe (similar to humbug by Barnum): Poe published a moon hoax story just weeks before Locke’s moon hoax but Poe’s was a banter-filled piece in a small literary journal. Locke’s used scientific language; it was as much science as fiction and may better be seen as the start of science fiction rather than Poe
  • The Age of Enlightenment of 1750s had A “Counter Enlightenment” as Isaiah Berlin named it, when the humbug and hoax terms coined in English, and mystification was coined in French. Poe’s Age of Imposture was second wave, and today’s disinformation against age of information
  • Barnum promoted Heth as a 161 year old Washington nursemaid and then sold $0.50 tickets to witness her autopsy, which proved she wasn’t that old at which point he took his bow as the master showman
  • Ralph Ellison: Blackface is an exorcism whites performed for the sin of slavery
  • Black Men are tied to fakery and women to freakery, how the word freak is used today conjures various feminity
  • “Bunk” itself was coined in 1820 from “bunkum,” a word shortened from Buncombe County where a North Carolina congressman came from who was filibustering the Missouri compromise
  • Zip the Pinhead was called the “dean of freaks.” long tenured sideshow
  • On the Natural Variety of Mankind (1775) by Blumenbach introduced five races and by third edition ranked white as first and original race from Caucasia, introducing the term:
  • “Caucasian doesn’t signify a place of an actual origin — not only is the term inaccurate, it is directly descended from racist eugenics.”
  • Early photography was all about death
  • The Coming of the Fairies by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Confidence man makes belief; the hoax exposes belief
  • “Letting yourself go is about weight and no longer about ecstasy.”
  • “Freaks, like fakes, are not born but made”
  • “On or about December 1910 human character changed.” Virginia Woolf
  • (The Economist: in the 1830s , Alexis de Tocqueville commended the “continual movement which agitates a democratic community” and argued it gave stability; Karl Marx said class consciousness was unlikely in the United States because our social classes “have not yet become fixed”)
  • Girl wonder became a trope in fin de siecle
  • Meet the grandmother of memoir fabricators
  • poet Arthur Rimbaud; Je est un autre (I is Somebody Else)
  • Brain of Last Yahi Indian Found at Smithsonian
  • Grey Owl hoax
  • “The hoax warns us without warning and informs us without informing.”
  • Timothy Patrick Barrus published three memoirs under the false Navajo identity Nasdijj
  • Nonfiction memoir is a radically subjective telling of events that objectively took place: Fiction is a technique, not freedom from truth but freedom in truths told in a different way.
  • Difference between a dialect and language? An army.
  • Author recounts that old Joke while describing fake memoirs adopting bad used of AAVE like Love and Consequences
  • Poetry is not the record of an event: it is an event. Robert Lowell
  • Forbidden Love (novel)
  • Mary Karr: “The American religion — so far as there is one anymore — seems to be doubt. Whoever believes the least wins, because he’ll never be found wrong.” (140)
  • “Failure is one of the hoax’s main muses”
  • Kevin Young piece for the New Yorker
  • Ern Malley hoax is Australia’s most famous literary hoax

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