Friday, April 3, 2009

Passing Strange by by Martha A. Sandweiss (a review)

Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line
4 out of 5: This biography tells the story of Clarence King, a Yale-educated geologist and explorer of the American West during the post-Civil War era. Dashing, charismatic, and beloved by New York's social elite, King was considered an honored dinner companion, witty conversationalist, and eligible bachelor. After his death, it was discovered King had a black wife and five children living in Brooklyn.

Apparently, social pressures and racial tensions compelled King to construct a complicated double life. To his Brooklyn family, King was known as James Todd. Despite his fair complexion and Western European ancestry, he convinced his family he was a black Pullman porter who spent much of his time away from home, crisscrossing the country on its railways. In New York City, King lived as an accomplished scientist and bon vivant who mingled with the best society as the white man he was. Eventually, King's double life tore him apart and resulted in the financial, physical, and mental breakdowns that led to his death.

Prior biographies of King have focused on King's professional achievements while mostly ignoring his complicated personal life. Sandweiss breaks this code of silence to tell the story of King's unlikely marriage to Ada Copeland, a woman born into slavery in Georgia. Sandweiss reveals this unknown side of King with engaging prose supported, but not suffocated, by thorough research. While giving a new perspective on a well-known American figure, Sandweiss also explores the complexities of race in late nineteenth century America.

6 comments:

nan said...

This sounds like a really interesting book -- King's life, including his secret marriage, is also examined in The Five of Hearts by Patricia O'Toole, an excellent group biography of the circle around Henry Adams (the Five were Adams, King, John Hay, Clover Adams and Hay's wife). King also shows up in a very interesting novel called The Open Door by Elizabeth Maguire -- it's a purported memoir by Constance Fenimore Woolson, a popular writer usually remembered as a pathetic figure with a big crush on Henry James.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Sounds really fascinating. Thanks for pointing out the book!

bermudaonion said...

King sounds like an interesting man.

mike mitchell said...

It really does sound interesting, doesn't it? I'm going to pick this one up.

Lisa said...

This sounds fascinating! I've read stories of blacks "passing" as white, but I don't think I've ever heard the reverse. Thank you for a great review!

Gwen Dawson said...

I rarely pick up a book based on a simple description of what it's about, but I picked this up after hearng a short NPR segment on King's story. Truly, it's a fascinating tale, and it's well written too.