Criticism & Features

Year 2009: 30 Books

Passing Strange, by Martha A. Sandweiss

By Elizabeth Taylor

Each day leading up to the March 11 announcement of the 2009 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights one of the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Elizabeth Taylor discusses biography finalist Martha A. Sandweiss's Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line (Penguin)

History is an act of creation and in Clarence King, Martha Sandweiss found an invented life, a man who had created a separate identity, one only revealed to his wife on his deathbed. In Passing Strange Martha Sandweiss re-creates these alternative universes, evoking a world in which boundaries are porous and reality were was stranger than fiction.

Known as a great adventurer, an explorer who mapped the American West, sandy-haired, blue-eyed King moved easily in the social elite of Newport and New York but he lived a double-life, that of James Todd, African-American Pullman porter. In this capacity, he married Ada Copeland, likely a former slave. They lived together for thirteen years and brought five children into the world, and Ada Copeland did not learn of her husband’s double life until he disclosed it on his deathbed.

In hands other than those of Sandweiss, this story could be a quirky, prurient tale. In placing it in the context of the Gilded Age, she evokes the time and explores how the segregated city allowed King to engage in this double life. Sandweiss creates portraits of King traveling across the bridge from Brooklyn and Queens and transforming himself in ways that allowed him to travel the fault lines of race and class. An erudite, convivial King, descended from signers of the Magna Carta, solves geological detective cases out west and then cavorts with high society but then just as easily morphs into a plainspoken working man, clad in Pullman attire and serving the white train passengers, mimicking a dialect so effectively that he was never exposed.

So, how could a white man pass as black? Why would a man move away from legal and social privilege? These questions are at the heart of Sandweiss’s book but are not limited by them. Instead, in King, Sandweiss found a story about a character who creates his own story at a time when the city was both segregated and fluid. King’s story, of course, is refracted through that of his wife, Ada Copeland Todd, and Sandweiss deftly depicts her, despite the paucity of evidence, fully realizing that without King—or Todd—Ada Copeland would have been entirely invisible. In the end, though, Ada Copeland was left penniless, forced to wage a legal battle to her husband’s estate.

Martha Sandweiss situates this story, which would have been the stuff of tabloids and twitter today, during the time of westward expansion, urbanization, racial politics, and an economic downturn. In so doing she tells the story not only of a couple but of the times. Sandweiss rescued this story from traditional accounts of King, the brilliant explorer, friend of presidents, because she was able to understand King when he wrote to Secretary of State John Hay: “Respectability lets the human pendulum swing over such a pitiful little arc.”

Click here to read an excerpt from Passing Strange.

The NBCC awards ceremony is free and open to the public, as are the readings by NBCC finalists on Wednesday, March 10. To purchase tickets to the reception following the awards ceremony, click here.