Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line

Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line

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by Martha A. Sandweiss
     
 

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The secret double life of the man who mapped the American West, and the woman he loved

Clarence King was a late nineteenth-century celebrity, a brilliant scientist and explorer once described by Secretary of State John Hay as "the best and brightest of his generation." But King hid a secret from

Overview

Read Martha A. Sandweiss's posts on the Penguin Blog

The secret double life of the man who mapped the American West, and the woman he loved

Clarence King was a late nineteenth-century celebrity, a brilliant scientist and explorer once described by Secretary of State John Hay as "the best and brightest of his generation." But King hid a secret from his Gilded Age cohorts and prominent family in Newport: for thirteen years he lived a double life-the first as the prominent white geologist and writer Clarence King, and a second as the black Pullman porter and steelworker named James Todd. The fair, blue-eyed son of a wealthy China trader passed across the color line, revealing his secret to his black common-law wife, Ada Copeland, only on his deathbed. In Passing Strange, noted historian Martha A. Sandweiss tells the dramatic, distinctively American tale of a family built along the fault lines of celebrity, class, and race- a story that spans the long century from Civil War to civil rights.

Editorial Reviews

Annette Gordon-Reed
…there was another side to King that neither the public nor his glittering friends knew, a side that Martha A. Sandweiss explores with great sensitivity, insight and painstaking research in Passing Strange. The title of this immensely fascinating work provides a broad hint: King lived a racial double life…Passing Strange is ultimately a book about a couple, and Sandweiss has used her formidable skills as a researcher to reconstruct as much of their lives as possible.
—The Washington Post
Janet Maslin
Passing Strange tells an astounding true story that would beggar most novelists' imaginations…Ms. Sandweiss offers a fine, mesmerizing account of how one extremely secretive man, "acting from a complicated mix of loyalty and self-interest, reckless desire and social conservatism," could encapsulate his country's shifting ideas about race in the course of one family's anything but black-and-white history.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Sandweiss (Print the Legend) serves a delicious brew of public accomplishment and domestic intrigue in this dual biography of the geologist-explorer Clarence King (1842-1901) and Ada Copeland (c. 1861-1964), a "black, working-class woman" who was "born a slave." Rendered as fiction, this true tale, would seem quite implausible-"a model son of Newport and one of the most admired scientists in America," Clarence kept secret for 13 years his marriage to Ada and their apparently contented domestic life. He kept his patrician past and celebrated present concealed as well from his wife, who believed herself the wife of James Todd, a black Pullman porter. Sandweiss provides a fascinating account of King's "extraordinary double life as an eminent white scientist and a black workingman"; Ada's struggle "through the legal system to assert her rightful name, give her children their true familial history, and [unsuccessfully] claim the trust fund she believed to be hers"; and rich insights into the "distinctive American ideas about race" that allowed King to "pass the other way across the color line, claiming African ancestry when he had none at all." (Feb.)

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Library Journal

American West historian Sandweiss (American studies & history, Amherst Coll.; Print the Legend) utilizes archival, newspaper, and a panoply of digitized resources to analyze the personal and social complexity of the life of noted surveyor and geologist Clarence King (1842-1901). King, the scion of a storied white New England family, passed as the purported Pullman porter James Todd in order to espouse his African American common-law wife, Ada Copeland Todd King. Unlike previous King biographers (e.g., Robert Wilson, The Explorer King), Sandweiss treats in detail the challenges and dilemmas that King confronted in post-Civil War America, even in relatively tolerant New York City. Balancing scholarly exploration with readability, she focuses on King's 13-year secret (until he was on his deathbed, King kept the fact of his actual race from his wife), which produced acute psychological strains. History learned of it with a legal claim for his trust fund in 1933. Sandweiss demonstrates just how racial identity and inequality circumscribes behavior, adding both general background and individual perspectives on the conundrum of race in America. Her literary references add to a historical narrative that should catch the attention of both specialists and the reading public. A welcome choice for both academic and public libraries.
—Frederick J. Augustyn

Kirkus Reviews
One of the best-known men of his time crosses the racial divide-in reverse. Well-born traveler, scientist, explorer and writer Clarence King enjoyed great privilege. In the words of Western historian Sandweiss (American Studies/Amherst Coll.; Print the Legen: Photography and the American West, 2002, etc.), he went through life "tempted by risk and attracted to the exotic but fearful of losing the social prerogatives that defined his place in the world." When King returned from his globetrotting expeditions and settled down in New York to enjoy his fame as the bestselling author of Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, he embarked on a romance with an African-American woman named Ada Copeland. A young nursemaid who moved north from Georgia in the mid-1880s, she apparently met King sometime in 1887 or early 1888 while he was out "slumming." That word, the author explains, denoted a class-crossing "fashionable amusement," according to the Saturday Evening Post. King was serious about his courtship of Copeland, but it was fraught with peril for all concerned, presenting threatening possibilities for blackmail on the one hand and abandonment on the other. He decided to present himself to her as a Pullman porter named James Todd, an invented identity that "hinged not just on one lie but a cluster of related, duplicitous assertions." As Sandweiss notes in this sturdy work, which blends elements of social and intellectual history with biography, thousands of light-skinned blacks in that era tried to pass for white, but the number of those who did the opposite must have been tiny. Yet King married Copeland and gave up his cherished social privileges. She had borne him five children, and he wason his deathbed in 1901, when he finally told her the truth. An intriguing look at long-held secrets, Jim Crow, bad faith-and also, as Sandweiss observes, "love and longing that transcends the historical bounds of time and place."
From the Publisher
"Ms. Sandweiss offers a fine, mesmerizing account." —The New York Times

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780143116868
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
01/26/2010
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
384
Sales rank:
679,448
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"Ms. Sandweiss offers a fine, mesmerizing account." —-The New York Times

Meet the Author

Martha A. Sandweiss is Professor of History at Princeton University. She began her career as a museum curator and taught for twenty years at Amherst College. She is the author of numerous works on western American history and the history of photography, including Print the Legend: Photography and the American West, winner of the Organization of American Historians' Ray Allen Billington Award, and Laura Gilpin: An Enduring Grace, and is the co-editor of the Oxford History of the American West.

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Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm more used to reading novels, which are lighter reading than this. But it was very interesting overall, and informative, and loaded with American history. It was descriptive of the attitudes of the times. It might be a good book to put on a college reading list. I'm going to lend it to a close friend who's in a happy interracial relationship and see what she thinks of it.
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apart from the Book Club I would not finish the book. It reads slow and is a bit boring. The main character left very little factual proof of a relationship with his family so the author has written hearsay.
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Fenix More than 1 year ago
Passing Strange is a good read. I had thought it would be a light read, it turned out to have interesting historical facts regarding one of America's prominent citizen's Clarence King, a noted scientist, bestselling author and surveyor that mapped the West after the Civil War. What I enjoyed about the book was Mr. King's secret life. he was a prominent man in society. Adventurer, author, world traveler, witty, he had friends that were well regarded in American history, who helped shape some of America's policies and author's who wrote great american novels and histories. Mr. King was admired and love by all who met him and his friends who thought they knew his heart and mind did not realized he carried a deep and enduring love for a woman he kept secret throughout his whole life. America has a beautiful, bittersweet history of what makes this country great and as more historians uncover more of our history our country becomes even greater for it.
deserteyes More than 1 year ago
This book was very difficult for me to read emotionally. It is more on the line of the Invisible Man. At one point I put the book down to decompress myself from what I was reading and to relax just a little bit. The writer clearly took her time to investigate and check her sources. I found myself having a bookmark in the back of the book (work cited pages) and the page I was reading just to read her sources. If you are like me -- African American and still looking, searching for more information and stories about our history and those who make up our history this is a good read. It solidifies unfortunately a time in history where despite efforts and alleged unconditional love, the welfare of this relationship, this woman, their children was cast aside and abandoned because of the color of ones' skin.