Martha A. Sandweiss, Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line (Penguin Press, 2009)
Clarence King (1842-1901) was a well-to-do, Newport-born, Yale-educated geologist famous for mapping the Western United States after the Civil War. He drank tea with Queen Victoria, collected fine art, and counted the novelist Henry James as a close personal friend. But these worldly details function as a mere backdrop for Martha A. Sandweiss’s engrossing biography Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line, which follows King’s extreme measures to attain true happiness.
For thirteen years, King led a double life as James Todd, a black Pullman porter. Under this assumed identity, he married a former slave from Georgia named Ada Copeland, avoiding the stigma of interracial marriage by inventing a life that placed husband and wife on the same side of the racial divide. And strangely enough, despite his blue eyes and fair complexion, his secret life was left undiscovered by everyone, including Ada, until his death-bed confession. It is a classic Romeo and Juliet tale of love overcoming all obstacles and bridging all divides—that is, if Romeo forgot to tell Juliet he was actually born a Montague.
The logistics of such deception are mind-blowing. The fact that King appeared unambiguously white only exacerbates an already labyrinthine tale of racial politics. How could a man with blue eyes and fair skin convince his wife that he was actually African American? As Sandweiss explains, the “one drop rule”—which stated that even one black great-grandparent defined someone as black—meant that the color line was surprisingly porous. By simply identifying himself as a Pullman porter, which was then an all-black career, “James Todd” could lead others to believe he was black without ever saying so directly. Though Passing Strange is essentially the legend of a world-class con-man, Sandweiss imbues the tale with so much pathos that we forgive King’s indiscretions. He is forced into the lie not for his own gain or self-interest but to avoid scorn for himself and the woman he loved.
Sandweiss, a professor of American Studies at Amherst College, frequently frames the triumphs and travails of her protagonist within the wider historic narrative of westward expansion, urbanization, racial politics, and eventual economic crisis. That such a work can read like an intimate romance rather than a sprawling cumbersome epic is a testament to Sandweiss’s mastery as a storyteller. Love letters between husband and wife, for example, seem more important to the life of Clarence King and this biography than his major scientific discoveries or published works. Sandweiss also deals effectively with creating a full portrait even where details are slim. Because one of the focuses of her book is a former slave, records of Ada’s youth are understandably impossible to ascertain. Sandweiss fills in these gaps in description and chronology by using the narratives of people with similar socio-economic backgrounds. It may be a slight reportorial bluff, but it is an ultimately persuasive tactic that leaves the reader with a richer portrait of the age.
There is something immensely satisfying in discovering an all but forgotten historical figure, someone outside the usual Big Business of Big Biographies (Lincoln, Hitler, Kennedy, Napoleon). Martha A. Sandweiss observes that, while Clarence King has been the subject of two previous full-length biographies, historians have treated his secret marriage to Ada Copeland as something to be swept under the editorial rug. At a time when many believe that America has finally begun to reckon with its centuries-long history of racial injustice, there is no story more powerful or relevant than a man and woman overcoming the constraints set in place by an intolerant society, no matter the cost.