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.

On a similar note, the author describes “slumming” as a century-old sport of the middle class. But how did this search for authenticity among the poor, and often non-white, relate to fantasias about women of color? And how did both of these cultural constructions relate in turn to something like minstrelsy, the popular entertainment of the day in which whites (and sometimes blacks) covered their faces in burnt cork and trafficked in a dizzying assortment of racial stereotypes?

Minstrelsy might seem like a bit of a departure from the narrative. But surely passing as black, even with the most respectful of intentions, has something in common with the practice of blackface. In any case, these caveats are a testament to the broad and deep resonance of Sandweiss’s story, which sets the mind whirring, even as we continue to struggle with fundamental ideas about race and culture.

Passing Strange is not only a lesson in the intricacies of class, race, and gender relations. It also demonstrates how to write a particular kind of history—how, that is, to reconstruct lives in the absence of historical records.

This absence is glaring in the case of Ada Copeland, whose very birth was never recorded. Yet it also exists, albeit more subtly, in King’s life. Sure, Clarence King was a public figure with a generous paper trail, but what of James Todd? The great care King took to obscure that part of his life reverberates down the years, so that even an assiduous researcher (take a look at the rigorous footnotes) finds only small shards of information.

And so Passing Strange is dotted with lacunae, many of them marked with such phrases as, “No anecdotal stories from Ada’s own childhood survive,” or “It is not entirely clear just how Clarence King’s double life began.” Sandweiss fills in at least some of these gaps with careful speculation. In other words, she takes us to the point where facts disappear, and then offers well-researched possible scenarios. (It’s the research, and the disavowal of omniscience, that divides the historian from the novelist.)

The larger point, though, is that society, and thus history, values certain lives over others. Some are chronicled in newspapers, biographies, and archives; others pass into obscurity. The challenge to the present-day historian is to resurrect as much as possible of those rich, yet undervalued lives—and in Passing Strange, Sandweiss more than rises to the challenge.

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