In August, PEN Center USA withdrew its prize nomination of John Smelcer’s young-adult novel “Stealing Indians,” citing concerns that Smelcer’s claims to be a member of the Ahtna tribe were fraudulent, and that his writing was, in the words of one critic, “rife with stereotypes and riddled with errors.” As novelist Marlon James asked on a public Facebook post (more or less rhetorically), “Why does this always happen? Why do these people keep making the same stupid mistakes?”
Kevin Young’s new work of nonfiction, “Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News” offers a rich and thorough answer to James’ question. Chronicling the history of such fakers as Smelcer, Young offers a long history of the hoax, beginning with a series of famous humbugs from P. T. Barnum’s sideshow. Barnum began his career by exhibiting a woman named Joice Heith, whom he claimed had once been George Washington’s nanny (putting her age at 161 years old) — an early example in a long line of black Americans put on stage to be gawked at by whites for who they were and, crucially, who they were not.
Barnum’s humbugs set the stage for a long and winding tour of impostors and forgers: from 19th century Spirit photographers like William H. Mumler and Barnum, to Clifford Irving’s hoaxed “Autobiography of Howard Hughes” in the 1970s to recent newspaper fabulists Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass, and on and on right up to Rachel Dolezal, who resigned her position at a local NAACP in 2015 when it was revealed she was a white woman who had been portraying herself as black. And while it can be tempting sometimes to see hoaxes as more or less victimless crimes (certainly Barnum thought they were), Young’s litany instead makes clear that there’s far more at stake here.
“Bunk’s” examples demonstrate that again and again, the archetypal hoax involves a white person adopting the posture of a minority figure. In literary (and sometimes literal) blackface, plagiarists ventriloquize voices from the hood that never existed: Margaret Selzer, for example, who renamed herself “Margaret B. Jones” in her fictionalized 2008 memoir “Love and Consequences,” transforming herself into an orphaned half-white, half-Native child raised in South-Central Los Angeles by a black foster family.
Meanwhile, other whites adopt Asian guises (Michael Derrick Hudson publishing poetry under the name “Yi-Fen Chou”), or claim to have survived the Holocaust, as Swiss Gentile Bruno Grosjean did when he reinvented himself as child Auschwitz survivor Benjamin Wilkomirski in his faked memoir “Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood.” John Smelcer’s deceptions are hardly original in this regard.
Why this persistent need among some white people to imagine themselves as marginalized? Young suggests that these hoaxes, in some way, may be necessary for white supremacy: inevitably, it takes white people pretending to be black, Native American, and Jewish in order to fulfill the stereotypes that white people have about those communities. Take Archibald Belaney, for example, a white Briton who in the 1920s wrote a series of works as Grey Owl, either an Apache or Ojibwe (the story kept changing). Even after he was unmasked, defenders still claimed he was honoring the Native American tradition he was imitating, or that his environmental message was valid even if the messenger was not. But as Young points out, to render Belaney “an environmentalist ahead of his time, or his hoax as somehow honoring Native ways, is to ignore the ways in which Grey Owl’s very ideas of extinction and ‘the Wild’ are tied up not only with each other but also with white stereotypes about Indigenous peoples.”
Just as hoaxes like Jones’ play up ghetto stereotypes, a hoax like Belaney’s stokes “the suspicion that Natives are just fake whites.” The hoax, Young’s examples reveal, “is rather a kind of coded confession, revealing not only a deep-seated cultural wish … not of what’s true but of what we truly believe.”
But it is not just a history of hoaxes Young is after; “Bunk” also offers a tour of the “hoaxing of history”: how the hoax threatens to overwrite actual history in favor of its pablum and nonsense. “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.”
When Grosjean’s fabulism was called out, he responded by appending an afterward to “Fragments” stating that while his memoir may bear little connection to actual facts, there was value in it nonetheless — not as fiction but as a true picture of faulty memory. Such spurious contortions do real damage to how we see and understand the world, offering consolation to Holocaust deniers and those who are unwilling to face history as it is.
Young compares a work like “Fragments” to another Holocaust memoir, Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” noting that it, too, involved some deal of artistic license — but that “this is not the same as untruth.” As opposed to hoaxers, artists enlarge, rather than reduce the world: opening up possibility and imagination, breaking stereotypes rather than embodying them. “The hoax,” Young writes, “is the very absence of truth, which usually means art is absent too — hoaxes regularly substitute claims of reality for imagination, facts for form, acting as if artifice is the antithesis of art…. Besides the cost to truth, and to lived and lost lives, a collateral yet not insignificant cost is to the idea of fiction.” A hoaxer takes the strange and wondrous world and reduces it to pre-packaged goods, because the hoaxer knows they’re easy to swallow that way. By not risking anything new, “hoaxes actually diminish experience as not big enough to sustain us.”
Young is perhaps better known as a poet, his most recent collection “Blue Laws” was longlisted for the National Book Award, and he was named poetry editor of the New Yorker earlier this year. “Bunk,” like his previous nonfiction book “The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness,” which won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize in 2012, is long, overstuffed with anecdote and argument, a stylistic counterpoint to his spare, minimalist poetry. Its 477 some pages (plus another hundred of notes and sources) may seem daunting to some readers, but it’s a wild, incisive, exhilarating tour through Western culture’s sideshows and dark corners. Like a sideshow barker, Young writes with unbridled enthusiasm, a showman’s conviction, and a carny’s canny, telling a story that at times defies belief.
And every word of it is true.
Dickey is the author, most recently, of “Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places.”