Passing Strange

Passing Strange

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

Book - 2009
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Penguin Putnam
Read Martha A. Sandweiss's posts on the Penguin Blog

The secret double life of the man who mapped the American West, and the woman he loved

Clarence King was a late nineteenth-century celebrity, a brilliant scientist and explorer once described by Secretary of State John Hay as "the best and brightest of his generation." But King hid a secret from his Gilded Age cohorts and prominent family in Newport: for thirteen years he lived a double life-the first as the prominent white geologist and writer Clarence King, and a second as the black Pullman porter and steelworker named James Todd. The fair, blue-eyed son of a wealthy China trader passed across the color line, revealing his secret to his black common-law wife, Ada Copeland, only on his deathbed. In Passing Strange, noted historian Martha A. Sandweiss tells the dramatic, distinctively American tale of a family built along the fault lines of celebrity, class, and race- a story that spans the long century from Civil War to civil rights.

Baker & Taylor
Traces the secret double life of a nineteenth-century scientist and surveyor of the post-Civil War American West, revealing how he was able to cross color lines and live a second life with an African-American wife and five multiracial children.

Publisher: New York : Penguin Press, 2009
ISBN: 9780143116868
Branch Call Number: 305.896 SAN
Characteristics: 370 p., [8] p. of plates :,ill., ports. ;,22 cm.


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CRRL_MegRaymond Nov 10, 2017

The white Clarence King was a nineteenth-century scientist and scholar. The black Clarence King was a Pullman Porter. They were the same man.

Apr 02, 2015

I agree with hmcgivnerny, interesting and troubling. As I was reading it i was wondering is this guy narcissistic? sociopath? absent father, yes, compulsive liar, yes.
The historical view of division of the races right after the Civil War was interesting. And here we are, still divided.
Why would a friend lend him a million dollars knowing he would never get a penny back?
Why would his wife trust him and all his stories which could not ring true? Just because she was better off financially and had her own family? Maybe, life as a domestic and living in her aunt's apartment was not a good option but probably her best until he came along.
Interesting read.

Dec 04, 2012

Interesting and troubling story. It's really hard to know what in the heck was really going on, and the fact that the author speculates so much (because of lack of documentation) is less than ideal. The person with the most documentation is Clarence King, and I can't quite decide if he's a sociopath, or just a guy who was so scared to give up the privileges of his upper-class existence that he created an elaborate double life. It's also hard to reconcile the witty, loving, scientific genius that his friends describe with a man who would deceive the person he professes to love, live so far beyond his means that he borrowed the modern equivalent of millions of dollars from a friend, and who held such snobbish and patronizing ideas about those less fortunate than himself (his fascination with "slumming" is particularly vexing).

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