In Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line, Martha A. Sandweiss manages to take a mountain of information and transform it into a smooth, reader-friendly boon. Covering a century of American history, including geographical expansion, economic trends, and social values might prove too plodding for one read, however, Ms.Sandweiss seamlessly pulls it off. With its thorough, straightforward style, Passing Strange manages to streamline an era of historical data into an enjoyable, intriguing account of the unlikely love story of Clarence King and Ada Copeland.
To untangle this intricate story, Sandweiss methodically walks us through the arbitrary and ever shifting rules of race during the Gilded Age. “The practice of passing generally involves adopting a particular identity to move toward greater legal and social privilege,” Sandweiss states. “It might mean taking on a different gender, or ethnic or national identity, but it most often involves the assumption of a different racial identity.” As many light-skinned blacks attempted to cross into the white world of opportunity, few whites opted for the reverse. Sandweiss continues, “The laws that pinned racial identities on ancestry rather than appearance paradoxically made it possible for a light-skinned Americans like King to claim a black identity.”
What makes this story so compelling is that in the late 1800’s there would be no comprehensible reason for a prominent white man of King’s stature to want to “pass” as a black man. This was, after all, an Ivy League man who both “dined at the White House” and “belonged to Manhattan’s most elite clubs.” While many freed slaves had migrated north in search of a better life, they continued to suffer from gross injustice and severely restricted social and economic mobility. The level of prejudice was extreme: If Mr. King’s secret was discovered, he stood to lose not only his social position, but his close family, friends, and business relationships as well. Regardless, when Clarence King crossed paths with slave-born Ada Copeland, he was willing to risk it all.
Though little is known about Ms. Copeland, one can infer that she was a woman who certainly could stand on her own. After leaving her loved ones behind to flee the Jim Crow south, Sandweiss surmises that Ada likely “embraced New York less as a place that acknowledged her past than as the place that let her leave it behind.” Hence, when the talented and captivating Clarence King introduced himself as Pullman porter James Todd, Ada likely had fresh hopes of starting a new family of her own.
Passing Strange cites psychologists as saying that to be a successful liar, one needs three attributes: the ability to plan ahead, a talent for managing one’s own emotions, and the capacity to read the needs of other people. Though the word liar implies malicious intent, King doesn’t come across as a scoundrel, but rather a man of deep spirituality with a profound love of family and nature. Always leading with his heart, his many correspondences reveal a man both passionate, yet emotionally strained as he tried to hold his opposing worlds together. During one extended absence he penned to Ada, “My darling, tell me all about yourself. I can see your dear face every night when I lay my head on the pillow and my prayers go up to Heaven for you and the little ones. I feel most lonely and miss you most when I put out the light at night and turn away from the work of the day.” Living as both renowned geologist Clarence King and Pullman porter James Todd, King’s dual life and lengthy absences were easily defensible. Nevertheless, such constant deception only exacerbated his recurring bouts of melancholia and fatigue which had dogged him since childhood.
Passing Strange is a solid work which pieces together the exotic life of an eccentric man. Differentiating fact from supposition, Ms. Sandweiss delivers her material with a cool, even hand, allowing the reader to step back from the fury of prejudice and interpret the material relevant to the times. 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.
-By Megan Shaffer