Niela Orr in Harvard Magazine:
For me, it’s not the commemorative McDonald’s commercials, nor the reverent social-media hashtags, nor simply the calendar that signals Black History Month: it’s February when the Sophia Stewart Matrix Hoax recirculates around the Web. The legend goes that Stewart, who’s black, pitched a short story to the Wachowskis back in 1986, which they plagiarized and turned into the Matrix franchise and, inexplicably, The Terminator saga. Supposedly Stewart sued them and Warner Bros. for copyright infringement and won a multibillion-dollar judgment. That this story has been debunked on Snopes.com and elsewhere does not keep it from finding an audience. Although the misinformation allegedly began in 2004, with an article published in a Salt Lake City student newspaper, the Stewart hoax persists more than a decade later because some of us want to believe it.
Kevin Young’s new book, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, is as exhaustive as its subtitle: part survey of modern imposture, part detective story about the origins of American fakery. Though he detours in Europe, profiling art forgers like Han Van Meegeren and a few other non-American figures, the focus is mostly on the history of artifice in this country. It’s an important book for 2017, not only because “fake news” is a part of the zeitgeist, but because public discourse about white supremacy and political hucksterism suffers from citizens’ short memory. With Bunk, Young ’92 brings this collective amnesia into relief. P.T. Barnum, JT LeRoy, Rachel Dolezal, Donald Trump, and many other figures are all subject to his analysis.