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Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line Hardcover – February 5, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

During America’s Gilded Age, Clarence King was a famous geologist, friend of wealthy, famous, and powerful men. He was a larger-than-life character whose intellect and wanderlust pushed him to survey far-flung regions of the western U.S. and South America and develop an abiding appreciation of non-Western culture and people. What his family and wealthy friends did not know was that for 17 years, King lived secretly as James Todd, a black Pullman porter with a black wife and mixed-race children residing in Brooklyn. Devoted to his mother and half-siblings, restless and constantly in need of money, King relied on the largesse of his wealthy friends to help him support both families, never revealing his secret until he was near death. Sandweiss relies on letters, newspaper accounts, and interviews to chronicle the extraordinary story of an influential blue-eyed white man who passed for black at a time when passing generally went the other way. An engaging portrait of a man who defied social conventions but could not face up to the potential ruin of an interracial marriage. --Vanessa Bush


It reads like fiction, but it isn't. At the end of the nineteenth century, Clarence King led a double life. To his mother and friends, like statesman John Hay and author Henry Adams, he was a well-known geologist who helped map the American West. To his African-American wife, Ada, he was James Todd, a Pullman porter and the father of her five children. Lorna Raver reads with enthusiasm and a deliberate delivery. There isn't much opportunity for characterizations as Ada and Clarence/James don't speak, but Raver makes sure you don't miss a word of this well-researched story. At the end of his life Clarence/James confessed to Ada, and his friends took care of her. A feel-good story well presented. J.B.G. © AudioFile 2009, Portland, Maine --AudioFile

[Audio Review] Sandweiss (history, Princeton Univ.) presents a stunning look at the complex nature of race relations in America from the post-Civil War years through the turn of the century in this story of Clarence King, a celebrated white scientist and writer who lived a double life as a black Pullman porter and steelworker in order to marry the woman he loved. Audie Award nominee Lorna Raver (The Age of Innocence) does a credible job with this story, giving a solid but unobtrusive performance well suited to the subject matter. Recommended for listeners of historical nonfiction. Gloria Maxwell, Metropolitan Community Coll.-Penn Valley Lib., Kansas City, MO --Library Journal

“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 was on 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.’”
Kirkus Reviews

“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.’ A remarkable feat of research and reporting that covers the long century from Civil War to Civil Rights, Passing Strange tells a uniquely American story of self- invention, love, deception and race.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review Feb.)

Passing Strange tells an astounding true story that would beggar most novelists’ imaginations… A fine, mesmerizing account.”
—Janet Maslin, The New York Times

“[Sandweiss is] a curious, talented writer… she tells [Clarence King’s story] with a scholar’s rigor and a storyteller’s verve… A sophisticated work of scholarship.”
Columbia Journalism Review

“Elaborate --Various --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The (February 5, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594202001
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594202001
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.3 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (68 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #488,937 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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86 of 88 people found the following review helpful By mojosmom VINE VOICE on April 2, 2009
Format: Hardcover
When Clarence King died in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1901, he was eulogized by friends like John Hay, private secretary to Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State under McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, and historian and memoirist Henry Adams. He was remembered as the first director of the United States Geological Survey, the man who exposed a diamond hoax that threatened the economy of the United States, a devoted son and confirmed bachelor.

He was all those things, except the last. The man who, in 1880, said that he had lost the only woman he had ever wanted to marry through too much attention to duty, in 1888 married a woman so far outside his social circle and standing that he did so under a false name, a false occupation, a false identity and a false race. For Clarence King, son of a prosperous China trader, interlocutor of Ruskin and Turner, guest at the White House, had fallen in love with Ada Copeland, an African-American woman born into slavery. He courted her under the name "James Todd", and told her he was a Pullman porter, a job which must mean that he, too, was African-American.

How this blond, blue-eyed man passed as black is more than a story of love and deception. It is the story of how this nation has interpreted race and how social and cultural assumptions translate into racial "certainties". It was interesting to compare how King used those assumptions to pass as black with way in which Belle da Costa Green used them to live as white (see An Illuminated Life: Bella da Costa Greene's Journey from Prejudice to Privilege).
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34 of 35 people found the following review helpful By L.A. in CA on February 15, 2009
Format: Hardcover
In about 1888, a successful, well-known, and white, Clarence King met the woman who would shortly thereafter become his wife. Her name was Ada Copeland. Because she was black, King convinced her that he, too, was of black ancestry. He claimed that he worked as a Pullman porter and that his name was James Todd. He kept the truth a secret from her, and he kept HER a secret from his many distinguished friends.

If you are looking for a love story, though, this book may disappoint you. The book tends to be rather dry and academic.

The book is very well researched - (there are no less than 45 pages of notes) - and it does delve into the interesting subject of race relations during the last part of the 19th century in the US. The story is made more interesting due to the social status of King (This was a man who dined with the President).
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Kcolorado on March 31, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Martha Sandweiss is an academic and an historian. That description might drive away some readers and attract others. I knew about Clarence King as one of the early explorers who mapped the West. I had read something of his double life in Patricia O'Toole's book Five of Hearts, about the charmed circle around Clover and Henry Adams in the late 19th century.

Clarence King dined with presidents and knew most of the East coast intelligentsia of the day. And yet his life, as depicted in this biography, was a classic double life- appearing successful but with a personal life in shambles- filled with debt and difficult family relationships, most notably with his mother and wife. Ms. Sandweiss weaves the story of his secret marriage to a black woman with the facts about American views and laws surroundings race in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is not a pretty story, and King who was admired by many of his illustrious peers is ultimately portrayed as a man who left a wife and 4 children in dire straits. She presents his decision as very much a product of his times. The book is carefully referenced, but she has to make many assumptions because of a lack of facts concerning his relationship. While that could have doomed the book, I admire her ability to bring the information and tie it to the mores of the age, so that we come away with a better understanding of his double life as an example of costs of the tortuous racial history in the US.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Sam Sattler on May 6, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Historians, and history itself, have not treated Clarence King kindly. King was at one time one of the most famous and admired people in the United States but, if you are like me, you likely have never heard of the man. Born into a wealthy family in 1842, King became famous as the geologist responsible for surveying and mapping diverse regions of the western United States. Always the self-promoter, he published a book about his adventures, "Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada," that became a best seller of its day and made him into a national figure. Two of his closest friends were author Henry Adams and career politician John Hay, former secretary to President Abraham Lincoln. King traveled in the highest circles of society, even dining in the White House on at least once occasion.

All of which makes even more astonishing the fact that Clarence King lived a secret life that even his closest confidants knew nothing of until King was near death or had actually passed. King's friends were well aware that King, the sole support of his elderly mother and an extended family, was hard pressed to meet his financial obligations. His financial difficulties were so serious, in fact, that King was only able to maintain his standard of living by accepting repeated loans from John Hay and others of his friends, often offering items from his personal art collection as collateral for the money loaned to him.

What King's benefactors and admirers did not know was that, for some thirteen years, King was living two lives: one as the famous explorer of the American West and another as the husband of a woman who, in 1861, had been born into slavery in Georgia.
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