Monday, April 09, 2012

Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line by Martha A. Sandweiss

Geologist Clarence King was a famous man in post-Civil War America. He led the 50th Parallel Survey, helped establish the U. S. Geological Survey and was its first head, and penned the bestselling book Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada. His close friends included historian Henry Adams and Abraham Lincoln's former secretary John Hay. He toured Europe, started an art collection, and belonged to prestigious clubs. But, according to author Martha A. Sandweiss in Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line, King never really liked being a part of high society. He escaped to far flung places whenever he could and when he could not, he slipped away from his high class hotel and enjoyed the company he found in poor ethnic neighborhoods. He even pretended to be a mulatto Pullman porter named James Todd and married a former slave named Ada Copeland.

Passing Strange is a dual biography of Clarence and Ada that investigates their secret relationship. With a rich dose of 19th century history to give her story context, the author recounts how Clarence led a double life by being a person who was often "away," keeping a distance from people in both of his worlds. For at least thirteen years and until his death, he succeeded in keeping his secret, but at a tremendous cost to his career and fortune.

Instead of stopping at King's death, as many biographers have before, Sandweiss follows the lives of Ada and the children that she bore for King, showing the successes and failures of his idealistic plans. A subsequent court case for King's estate heard thirty years after his death reveals much about the state of racial relations at the time. Read by Lorna Raver, it is a great audiobook for listeners wanting a mesmerizing epic. Those who enjoy Passing Strange may also like The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed.

Sandweiss, Martha A. Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line. Penguin, 2009. 370p. ISBN 9781594202001.

Tantor Media. 12 compact discs. 14.5 hours. ISBN 9781400141517.

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