Thursday, September 09, 2010

"One imagines": A review of Passing Strange

The cover of Passing Strange, by Martha A. Sandweiss. Image found here.

Try to imagine, if you will, a nineteenth-century American man who was regarded by his peers--among them being the grandson of Presidents and another who would serve as a secretary of state--as being an exemplar of the best and brightest that America had to offer, whom his friends thought could have been a full-time man of letters had he chosen to be, whose geological survey work would be instrumental in the building of the Transcontinental Railroad and, more broadly, the settling of the West after the Civil War, who but for a few bad financial breaks could easily have been as wealthy as he was esteemed by his peers. Imagine that this man had business and scholarly interests that caused him to travel, it seemed, incessantly across the U.S. and into Mexico. Imagine, moreover, that this man never married, despite the efforts of his friends, though he was clearly interested in women and, when younger, was briefly engaged.

Now: Imagine learning upon this man's death that, for the last two decades of his life, he had not only been secretly married to a black woman and fathered children by her, he had also hidden all his (very) public life from her by passing as a black man whose jobs (which required frequent and extended absences from home) were a Pullman porter and a travelling steel-worker.

This all reads like a fanciful romance novel, but it is, in fact, all true. The man was publicly known and, it seems, universally admired as Clarence King; but he was known to his wife Ada and their children as "James Todd," and it's the story of their relationship that is the subject of Martha A. Sandweiss's book Passing Strange, which I recently finished reading.

The story of this marriage is so extraordinary that I am glad that Sandweiss felt compelled to tell it: as she notes, stories of whites passing as black during the post-Reconstruction era are less well known (and less common) than those of blacks passing as white; and it's through the contemplating of this story of a white man who risked an extraordinary amount to maintain two fictitious lives that we can perhaps see more clearly what even the allegedly-privileged had to go through in order to be with someone they loved who inconveniently happened not to be members of their own race. Another way to put this: King gained zero material or social advantage via his marriage to Ada--indeed, he put his already-considerable advantages at extraordinary risk because of that marriage; as his letters to her make clear, though, he gained "only" the deep, passionate love of this woman and their children.

All that said, this book reads a bit strangely: Sandweiss wrote this book to tell the story of "James Todd" and his wife, yet very little extant documentation of that relationship exists. There are the common-law marriage certificate, census records, birth records of the children (from which she can determine, more or less, when "James" had visited his wife and family), and some of his letters to her (none of hers to him exist), and that's about it. Moreover, Ada was born around 1860 somewhere near West Point, Georgia--in other words, she was born into slavery, and so next to nothing certain is known of her until her arrival in New York in the late 1870s. Sandweiss is honest about all this; she mentions in her prologue that she will have to read between the lines of the historical record and what was generally known about the lives of blacks of Ada's generation, both those who lived in the South and those who migrated North or to the Midwest and the Plains. A favorite phrase of Sandweiss's, as she describes Ada's and "James's" home life, is "One imagines." But none of this is Sandweiss's fault, and it's not a shortcoming. It's just that in those sections devoted to Ada's life and her relationship with her husband, the book reads a little more like recreated history than straight history.

But it's the very sketchiness of her subject that proves what I take to be her book's larger implicit point: people indeed defied anti-miscegenation laws, going, as in the case of Clarence King, to extraordinary lengths to do so. The fact that someone as prominent as King left such a meager paper trail regarding his own illegal marriage can't help but cause one to imagine all those others we may never know of who were also living such lives. This is one very odd and most unfamiliar story--but also very, very American.

EDIT: I forgot to mention that I owe knowing about this book to Sandweiss's recent NPR interview.


R. Sherman said...


I've been away and am trying to catch up, but I'm going directly to Amazon to buy this book right now.

Thanks for the tip/review.


John B. said...

Sorry for the delay in responding. Thanks also for the testimonial. When I heard the Sandweiss interview on NPR, my response was exactly the same as yours . . . well, I wanted to read it instead of buy it. But the whole premise was so astounding, even apart from my academic interests, that I couldn't resist.

King comes off in the book as being an extraordinarily complicated person. Even a good novelist would have a difficult time dreaming up such a character.