Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News by Kevin Young (Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, 2017)
In the new book Bunk, long and with a long subtitle, Kevin Young relates the origin story of mainstream American popular culture and its love of fraud, injustice, fakery, racism, and sexism. He traces the whole mess forward through the decades, fair and balanced. Poet, editor, poetry editor of The New Yorker, and author of The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness (finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction), Young has written a provocative study that is no easy read.
He begins with a look at New York in the 1830s, as the national character first expressed its fondness and aptitude for hoaxing, misinformation, scandal, and crime—and for “bunk”, defined as “phoniness that barely believes what it says.”
Until the late 1820s (unaddressed in Bunk) American newspapers tended to reflect a rational, thoughtful (perhaps imaginary) citizenry: these earnest journals reported with rectitude on public events and policy and on science, manufacturing, commerce, and agriculture. Little space was given to the interests and activities of street life. Then came the incendiary vituperation of the Adams-Jackson campaign of 1827-8 and the onslaught of bully-boy “Jacksonian democracy”.
Young describes the rise of the “penny press,” cheap cynical newspapers (aimed at “ordinary” white males), and their profound effect on the general culture, usually at the expense of women and minorities. Published in New York and widely copied elsewhere, they were jammed with fake news, propaganda, and tales of crime, smut, and scandal. Some (though northern) were overtly pro-slavery.
Right alongside, P. T. Barnum’s American Museum (on Broadway in NYC) made its debut in 1841 as a street-front showcase presenting human beings as freaks and pandering to the voyeuristic, racist, titillated strains of the public taste.
The reader is invited to relate these then-new developments to almost everything and everyone (Poe to Trump) since, and to their current giant mutated influence across many media. Prepare for some queasiness, and much enlightenment, in comprehending the depth, breadth, and duration of a sordid history. If you stick with Young and Bunk (don’t ignore your i-phone’s news feeds), he will eventually deliver you to the cultural landscape of 2018 America with a better appreciation of how we got here.