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Summary and book reviews of Passing Strange by Martha Sandweiss

Passing Strange

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

by Martha A. Sandweiss

Passing Strange
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2009, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2010, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Megan Shaffer

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Book Summary

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

Clarence King is a hero of nineteenth-century western history. Brilliant scientist and witty conversationalist, bestselling author and architect of the great surveys that mapped the West after the Civil War, King was named by John Hay “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—as the celebrated white explorer, geologist, and writer Clarence King and as a 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 King, only on his deathbed.

Noted historian of the American West Martha Sandweiss is the first writer to uncover the life that King tried so hard to conceal from the public eye. She reveals the complexity of a man who while publicly espousing a personal dream of a uniquely American “race,” an amalgam of white and black, hid his love for his wife and their five biracial children. Passing Strange tells the dramatic tale of a family built along the fault lines of celebrity, class, and race—from the “Todds” wedding in 1888 to the 1964 death of Ada, one of the last surviving Americans born into slavery, to finally the legacy inherited by Clarence King’s granddaughter, who married a white man and adopted a white child in order to spare her family the legacies of racism.

A remarkable feat of research and reporting spanning the Civil War to the civil rights era, Passing Strange tells a uniquely American story of self-invention, love, deception, and race

An Invented Life

Edward V. Brown, the census taker, moved slowly down North Prince Street, knocking on each and every door in this Flushing neighborhood of Queens, New York. It was June 5, 1900, a mild and sunny day in the first spring of a new century. And as federal census agents had done once a decade for more than a hundred years, he was counting Americans, compiling a mosaic portrait of the nation. Who lives here, he asked at each residence, and what is the occupants’ “color of skin,” their sex, their marital status, their age? For each of the inhabitants he recorded a birthplace, as well as the birthplaces of their parents, and for the foreign born he noted when they had emigrated and whether they were citizens of the United States. He wrote down everyone’s occupation, asked whether he or she could read and write, and separated the renters and boarders from the home owners. In his careful, neat hand, Brown dutifully recorded the data on the...

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Introduction

Clarence King was one of the most widely admired and talented men of his generation. Friend to Secretary of State John Hay and eminent historian Henry Adams, King was a brilliant conversationalist and spellbinding storyteller, a visionary geologist who did more than anyone to map the American West, and a man who seemed to embody the American ideals of powerful intelligence wedded to manly vigor and adventurous spirit.

But as Martha Sandweiss shows in Passing Strange, King led a double life, passing as a black man in order to marry Ada Copeland, who was very likely born a slave and who was as far outside King's social and intellectual circle as a woman could possibly be. King created an alternate identity as James...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

Sandweiss takes a mountain of information and transforms it into a smooth, captivating narrative. Interspersed with the grand and poetic language of the day, the documented dialogue of King's correspondences lends literary panache to this captivating tale of love and the expansion of the American west.   (Reviewed by Megan Shaffer).

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Media Reviews
The New York Times - Janet Maslin

Passing Strange tells an astounding true story that would beggar most novelists’ imaginations… A fine, mesmerizing account.

Columbia Journalism Review

Passing Strange is one of those books with precisely the right title. It is indeed a story about passing, in every sense of the term, and historian Martha Sandweiss tells it with a scholar's rigor and a storyteller's verve. . . . Passing Strange is not only a lesson in the intricacies of class, race, and gender relations. It also demonstrates how to write a particular kind of history -- how, that is, to reconstruct lives in the absence of historical records.

The Washington Post - Annette Gordon-Reed

[T]here 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...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.

Kirkus Reviews

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.'

Library Journal

Her literary references add to a historical narrative that should catch the attention of both specialists and the reading public.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Sandweiss 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.'

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Beyond the Book

Pullman Porters
Clarence King presented himself to Ada Copeland as Pullman porter James Todd with good reason; at the turn of the 20th twentieth century, only black men were hired as sleeping car porters. Introducing himself as a man of this profession would leave no doubt of his race, regardless of the color of his skin.

Developed by George Pullman in the mid-nineteenth century, the Pullman sleeping car was a luxurious addition to rapidly proliferating rail travel. Compartments outfitted with bunks allowed passengers to sleep during the night, making long trips far more comfortable.

Pullman PorterMany of the attendants, or porters, who serviced these new rail cars were freed slaves, making the occupation of Pullman porter one of the most ...

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