What if truth is not an absolute thing, rather a muscle that grows weaker with neglect?
Poet and scholar Kevin Young poses that question in his timely new book, “Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News” (Graywolf Press, 2017), a sprawling exploration into fakery, falsehoods and the hucksters who perpetrate them.
As much an expansive history lesson as a cultural critique, Young’s latest work carefully tracks the phenomenon of the hoax in the United States, from P.T. Barnum’s circus sideshows to the current political arena. Yet despite recent dialogue surrounding so-called “fake news” and “alternative facts,” Young’s interest in the topic actually took root long ago.
“I worked with someone who kind of hoaxed us when we were in college and working together,” recalls Young, Emory University Distinguished Professor, who now serves as director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem and is the newly named poetry editor of the New Yorker magazine.
“Like many people, I find that kind of deceit and con artistry fascinating," he says. "Just look at Hollywood, it seems like every other movie is about another con artist or ne’er do well."
What began as “a slim meditation on a few hoaxers I’ve known” ended up as a deep, six-year dive into the world of deliberate deception and what drives it.
And much of that research was conducted at Emory, where “a sabbatical first helped me see what the book could be,” he says, adding that the university's Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library “provided an important home.”
“One of the things that helped me, and I think it is important to mention, is that I did so much research using Emory’s collections, both the special collections, where I was curator, and regular collections,” says Young, former curator of literary collections for the Rose Library and Charles Howard Candler Professor of English and Creative Writing, who taught at Emory from 2005 to 2016. "To write about hoaxes in full … is to track down the books that often contain them."
And so he did, drawing from an expansive well of iconic hoaxes that includes Barnum’s sideshow figures, turn-of-the-century spiritualists, racial fraud, journalistic plagiarism, made-up memoirs and outright identity theft.
“I set out to track down a lot of hoaxes in as original form as possible,” Young explains.
“Most of the books I could find in the library, which was a big boon,” he says. “Libraries like Emory’s and the Schomburg Center are some of the best places to start looking for good information from a multitude of sources, tracking down primary materials, which are often complicated.”
Along the way, Young practiced what he preaches. His chapters are supported by a thick trove of documentation, including 69 pages of notes and a 26-page annotated bibliography.
In a “post-fact” world — he dubs it “the Age of Euphemism” — the ability to prove your point with the support of primary evidence has become more critical than ever.
Race: The most dangerous hoax of all?
Early in his research, Young had a hunch about hoaxes, suspecting they were often about race. Was it possible, he wondered, that race was “the most dangerous hoax of all?”
The more Young read, the more obvious it became: hoax was “racism’s native tongue.”
Con artists may draw upon gaining your confidence, but a hoax builds upon assumptions, suspicion and stereotypes, he found. In fact, “hoaxes often depended upon race to accomplish a lot of what they wanted to get done,” Young contends.
He writes of how circus promoter P.T. Barnum used ethnic sideshow figures such as Joice Heth, a black women presented as the 161-year-old nursemaid of George Washington; the supposed “Fiji Cannibals”; and “What Is It?”, an African American man said to be “a newly discovered missing link in evolution.”
Then there was the Great Moon Hoax of 1835 — newspaper reports that blazed through New York that identified “lunar man-bats” living on the moon. In the racial coding of the day, descriptions of the hairy humanoids sounded stereotypically black, Young notes, citing the research of Emory English professor Benjamin Reiss in his book “The Showman and the Slave: Race, Death and Memory in Barnum’s America.”
“Racism is one of the more pernicious hoaxes of our time,” Young explains. “It’s built on shaky ground to begin with — not as a biological thing, but a social one. But as a fake thing, it has life and death consequences, and so do hoaxes. Racism makes use of hoaxism, quite literally.”
Studying examples throughout history, Young was less surprised by the sheer quantity of hoaxes that have permeated the American landscape as he was “by how people would write entire books about hoaxes and not have a single footnote, which duplicates the problem,” he asserts.
“Mainly, I had a hunch that hoaxes were now more frequent and indeed, worse,” Young says. “I’m sad to report that is entirely true.”
Hoaxes: Overexposed, underexplored
Why has the American public been, as Young puts it, so willing to deceive and believe? Does it mark a profound cultural shift? Or is it just who we are as humans — both gullible and deceptive?
“It’s a little of both,” Young says. “I think that hoaxes are as old as writing, which isn’t to say they weren’t there before writing. But I do think their flavor has changed now. In the past 20 years, the past century, the hoax has become more nefarious and tragic.”
Today Young finds hoaxes are both “overexposed and underexplored,” coming at us faster and faster, he notes, as we move from a world of half-hoaxes to a full-time one. “Today’s hoaxes rely less on human nature or collective memory than cultural amnesia,” Young writes.
Technology — from the faceless accessibility of the internet to impulsive tweets — makes it all the easier for us to lose our “radar for truth.” “The thing that becomes troubling when it comes to perpetuating a hoax is that retweeting something can be just as bad as creating it,” Young says.
“What responsibility do we have? As soon as a hoax is revealed it can seem pretty ludicrous, which tells us something about ourselves and what we choose to believe about each other.”
Maybe, “truth isn’t like a pure thing but a muscle you have to exercise,” Young concludes. “I do think there is a way of building it back up, which is what the book is about.”
Released this month, “Bunk” has already garnered enthusiastic reviews and was recently longlisted for the National Book Award for Nonfiction. Young’s next book, due out in April, is a collection of poems titled “Brown,” which explores “different kinds of brown-ness, from James Brown to John Brown,” he says.
As part of his publicity tour, Young will speak about “Bunk” at Emory’s Rose Library on Jan. 18.