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PASSING STRANGE by Martha A.  Sandweiss


A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line

by Martha A. Sandweiss

Pub Date: Feb. 9th, 2009
ISBN: 978-1-59420-200-1
Publisher: Penguin Press

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.”