Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line
By Martha Sandweiss | The Penguin Press | 384 pages, $27.95

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. More specifically, it is a story about a white. nineteenth-century scientist and explorer, famous in his day, who both hobnobbed with the most prominent figures of his era and created a second, secret identity for himself as a working-class black man. In a word: strange.

Shockingly—at least from the viewpoint of the twenty-first century, with all of its peering eyes—the twain never met. Not, at least, until the prominent white man who passed as an obscure black one was on his deathbed. Knowing just this much, the reader will be asking a good many questions, chiefly variations on the basic How? and Why? Sandweiss rewards us with answers. Not to every question, of course, given the number of details that have slipped between the cracks of time. Still, the author builds the solid framework of two lives: that of Clarence King, the explorer, and Ada Copeland, the black woman he loved, married, and all the while deceived.

The story of King and Copeland, who lived together as James and Ada Todd, is a blessing for a curious, talented writer like Sandweiss. Not only are its details fascinating in and of themselves, but they advance a larger social understanding. By tracing the curves and improbable intersections of two extraordinary lives, Passing Strange offers a fresh look at the racial and cultural landscape of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America.

In many ways, the picture is disheartening. The late nineteenth century, the Gilded Age for some, also marked a nadir in U.S. race relations. And it was an age of deep anxiety about national identity. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner famously announced the closing of the frontier in 1893, causing widespread concern over what would replace the expansionist itch that seemed so central to the American character. Furthermore, a collapse shook the U.S. financial system that same year.

None of this is new information. What is novel, however, is the way that these two lives play out against the period backdrop. With considerable finesse, Sandweiss embeds Clarence King and Ada Copeland in their time. That way, we see how such an elaborate deception could have seemed, for a while at least, like a release from the constrictions of contemporary racial protocol. The author also, at least tentatively, navigates the inner terrain of her subjects. Her simultaneous investigation of both inner and outer worlds makes this strange story understandable—which is to say, human.

For example, Sandweiss makes it clear that Clarence King cultivated a kind of double life long before he met Ada Copeland. As a young man, he was already “divided”—not between two racial worlds, but between what we’ll call for the purpose of shorthand the wild West and the civilized East. He was, Sandweiss writes, “tempted by risk and attracted to the exotic but fearful of loosing the social prerogatives that defined his place in the world.” And so King already had a model for the bifurcated life that his racial passing would create.

Furthermore, King lived in a society that disapproved of interracial marriage. If he had made his union with Copeland public, he would have risked destroying “the web of friendships, familial connections, and business relations that sustained his world.” Equally at risk would be his wife’s ascent from slavery through Southern poverty to the Northern middle class. As Sandweiss smartly notes, the contemporary system of racial hierarchy and segregation was full of unexpected pitfalls: “To look white was good; it was more problematic to be white. The white boarders next door might harbor the common social prejudices against interracial marriage, and blacks might respond with equal discomfort.”

In part, insists Sandweiss, we are all social creations. She makes this argument extraordinarily well, in a sophisticated work of scholarship. There are only a few places where I wished she had pushed a little harder on received ideas: for example, King’s attraction to what his friend Henry Adams called “the archaic female, with instincts and without intellect.” We wince now at such a description of women of color. But this stereotype was deeply embedded in American culture, and I would have liked Sandweiss to tease it out a bit more.

Elinore Longobardi is a Fellow and staff writer of The Audit, the business-press section of Columbia Journalism Review.