Bunk the new collection by Kevin Young traces some of the best of American hoaxes, humbug, plagiarists, phonies, post-facts and fake news.
It’s an obviously relevant collection. But this examination of misinformation also describes some of the roots of current American ideas and fascinations.
Within this meditation is skepticism towards the privilege of flim-flam, and truth-making. It’s an expansive study, beginning with P.T. Barnum. One of the core tensions of the collection centers on the great American myth of race.
For decades, Young has produced incisive poetics, creative writing, and scholarship. He’s an editor at the New Yorker Magazine and director of the Schomburg Center for the NYPL. He is an early member of the Dark Room Collective, and an active supporter of the Cave Canem project. He has published many books over the years, many relating to music, and the moods of film noir. Young’s Black Maria, for example, remains one of the great resonant neo noir titles of the last 20 years. Like Robert Coover or Paul Auster, Young interrogates the way noir established major mainstream vocabularies and thought behaviors in American culture. A 2014 New York Times article described the Dark Room Collective as producing, “a boom in African-American poetry that’s arguably as aesthetically significant in the writing world as the work of the Beat Generation, the New York School, the Fugitives, the Black Arts Movement, even the Harlem Renaissance.” That’s fair, and yet it still feels like an understatement. Cave Canem has really changed the way contemporary poetics thinks and breathes. Nathaniel Mackey’s long songs, for example, From A Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, and the ongoing Song of the Andoumboulou, have spread out across decades. It is in this tradition, and in the larger context of the lyric analytic, that Bunk arrives.
Kevin Young shows all of the signs of begrudging love for the tradition of hoaxing. It’s obvious that he enjoys the humorous and wacky. But he’s not afraid to cast a critical lens on the implications of these compulsions. Bunk engages the persistent traditions that emerged with modernism, and the role of “the nondescript,” errata, hokum, bunk, and charlatanism in the creation of contemporary language institutions. Museums, circuses, mainstream cultural organizations, have roots in unabashed spectacle. Like Douglas Kearney’s expansive project, Young hones in on the way our language has changed and not changed over time. The weirdness of charlatan ribaldry can be startling, until you consider the myth of a totally deracialized history. Because explicit racism in advertising and mainstream culture is inexcusable today, its prevalence is sometimes dangerously excised from the record. Surely we don’t want to see Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in blackface, but it happened. Notions around civil discourse have changed over the past century; even as our language creaks with historical violence.
Beginning with Barnum, Young provides a brief survey of classic hoaxes. He draws on Benjamin Reiss’s 2010 account of this strange history The Showman and the Slave. Barnum employed a woman name Joice Heth, he promoted as “nurse to George Washington”; claiming her to be 161 years old. This piece of hokum was publically “debunked” after her death during a public autopsy, to which Barnum sold tickets, before later selling off her body parts. This kind of charlatanism informed the concept of race even as it magnified and distorted fears around difference.
In 1835, The Great Moon Hoax captured the imagination of the country. This hoax, involving aliens living on the moon, perpetrated by a man named Richard Adams Locke, used much of the same language used in pro-slavery circles. In a series of sensational articles published in The Sun, Locke describes alien creatures with “wooly hair” and dark countenances using a pseudonym Sir John Herschel. According to Young, “In the racial coding of the day they sound stereotypically black.” Race in America has always had less to do with reality than with non-reality.
As a concept, race emerged with the charlatan faux scientism of the American 19th century, and each tradition informs the other. In Young’s survey we see how “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 pseudoscience of the nineteenth century—particularly those that sought to create not just taxonomies but hierarchies between the races.” Whiteness had familiar carnival roots, with the Z’s of the Circassian Beauty sideshow: Zalumma Agra, Zobeide Luti, Zoe Meleke, Zera Zangritta, Zula Zelick, and Zoe Zuemella…” And blackface was famously a treatment that provided performers entre into whiteness.
Bunk is dizzy, and in each examination Young catches some of the ambivalence of history. Emphasizing the way that powerful voices ultimately decide what is reproduced. As an example, he describes the racist and chauvinist abuses of powerful hucksters. Some of the hoaxes are bizarre, and poignant: Virginia Woolf in black face, posing as an emissary from an orientalist fiction. His treatment of the faux memoir is similarly scathing. He talks James Frey and Margaret B. Jones. For Young, the brutality of fake memoir is centered on appropriation. Fake memoirs often involve appropriation across an obvious power difference: whites turn themselves into Native Americans; men become women in repressive states. The accounts are melodramatic, and ultimately wooden. More than this, it’s not enough that these strange fascinations are poorly written, they generally promoting a corrupt worldview. The simple, the straightforward, the moralistic, the melodramatic, leads to a flattening of understanding. This was Edward Said’s thesis so many years ago. And the noble savage will never produce anything besides disservice.
The segment of J.T. Leroy is similarly damning. As one of the most effective hoaxes of the alternative counter-culture plays out like a locker room prank. This was the phony darling of alternative literature.
It’s fascinating the way he unpacks “Leroy’s” Sarah. And it’s phony idiom of “white-Indian,” “bad black dialect” and “faux Southernness,” with the faux Southernness especially as a kind of “nondescript” racial marking.
“The history of the hoax is chiefly the hoaxing of history: a forgery pretending it has one, inevitably better and older than it really is; the plagiarist or impostor or spirit photographer insisting that no history exists except what I say there is.”
Young talks about the scandal of a poet named Hudson submitting under a false Chinese name for admission into a Best American Poetry anthology. He identifies Jenny Zhang’s thoughtful response, “They Pretend To Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist.”
Clifford Irving passed away earlier in December 2017. His obituary in the New York Times describes his legacy as “one of the biggest literary hoaxes of the 20th century in the early 1970s when he concocted a supposedly authorized autobiography of the billionaire Howard Hughes based on meetings and interviews that never took place.” Young captures some of the madcap hijinks of Clifford Irving and the forged Howard Hughes autobiography, also famously recounted by Orson Welles in F is for Fake. Bunk is liveliest in wry sendups of historical hoaxes. He calls the project that ended up as the fake autobiography of Howard Hughes, an “unauthorized autobiography.” There is a tangle of little known forgers. One man, Van Meegeren was caught forging Vermeers after it was revealed he had been selling paintings to Goering. Facing treason charges after the conclusion of WW2, he admitted the paintings were phony, admitting forgery in lieu of treason. Another forger of Emily Dickinson and antique Mormon writing is serving life in prison for sending letter bombs. “Always dangerous, the forgery is too often a symbolic letter bomb waiting to wound.” There are fake holocaust memoirs and the idea of childhood ritualistic abuse by “Satanists.” Young shows hoaxes turn nasty quickly. I am reminded of Dreyer’s Vampyr. In which the hoax around a witch hunt quickly snowballs into a mobbed bloodletting and settling of scores. Turning towards journalism there are accounts of reporters making up sources and passing off fiction as news. These tantalizing fabrications involve fake business meetings, fake sources, fake business cards, and real lunch receipts with unknown persons. Young is most penetrating in his disregard for the compulsion towards journalistic anecdote. And the way “stories” undermine facts in the service of art.
From these accounts, it becomes clear that journalist hoaxers often fall into the basest clichés, and in their anecdotes, reveal a reinforcing of prejudice. Unlike an author like Kathy Acker, the journalist of fake news is not exploring new frontiers through mashup, only reinforcing the explicit.
In 2017, the alternative fact has never been so obviously political. And yet Young is generous in his exploration of the manner in which all of our traded language affects become political. Young discounts the primacy of any history, and he is even more critical of histories that call upon idealized mythologies. Young demonstrates the tantalizing pleasure of telling lies, and reading lies, and enjoying lies. Even as these lies reveal truths, white lies are never innocent.
Above all the work is a clarion call for listening. The power of the spectacle, and the desire to pass judgment against spectacle, undermines the freedom of language and information, as conversations warp inside closed feedback loops.