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Passing Strange
Martha A. Sandweiss
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Passing Strange

3.32  ·  Rating details ·  745 Ratings  ·  183 Reviews
The secret double life of the man who mapped the American West, and the woman he loved

Clarence King is a hero of nineteenth century western history; a brilliant scientist and witty conversationalist, best-selling author and architect of the great surveys that mapped the West after the Civil War. Secretary of State John Hay named King “the best and brightest of his generat
Published (first published 2009)
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David Monroe
Listened to the interview with the author on The Diane Rehm show ( and have to read more about this fascinating story.

"Martha Sandweiss: "Passing Strange" (Penguin)
Clarence King was a famed explorer, scientist, and hero of late nineteenth century history. But the blue-eyed and fair-skinned King also led a secret double life passing as a black man. A historian examines the secret King only revealed on his deathbed to his black wife of thirteen years."

Mar 03, 2010 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
True story: a wealthy aristocratic brilliant white guy in the late 1800's falls in love with a former slave and marries her. They set up housekeeping and have 5 children together. The catch? He tells her he is black and that he works as a Pullman porter, which explains why he is gone most of the time. Meanwhile, he leads a double life, just across the Brooklyn Bridge, traveling the world over and hanging out with his best friends who are all upper level government leaders, including secretary of ...more
Jun 16, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: american-history
Clarence King was a man who moved in elite social circles, an internationally-renowned explorer and geologist, friend to men such as President Theodore Roosevelt, Secretary of State John Hay, writer Henry James, historian Henry Adams. He was considered by his friends to be the brightest and best of his generation and great things were expected of him. And yet King had a secret life that no-one, not his family, friends, colleagues or admirers, knew about. King, to all the world a confirmed bachel ...more
Oct 04, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Just upfront I have to say that I rarely read historical biographies; I always associate it with my graduate research. It's been a while since grad school, so I thought why not, I'll give this one a shot. The premise is intriguing: a famous white geographer secretly marries a black woman, fathers four children with her, and dies with only a handful of people knowing his secret. I was amazed at the amount of time and research that went into this book, that's why I am disappointed that the author ...more
Jun 29, 2009 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, 2009
Somehow this fascinating story of a mixed marriage at the end of the 19th Century was a big slog. The story picks up after King dies, but the first half, especially before he met Ada was a full of the kind of writing that gives non-fiction a bad reputation.

Sandweiss wrote this book to shed light on Clarence King's marriage to a black woman at the end of the 1800s. She spends the first half detailing King's life as scholar, explorer, gentleman, and geologist. I had no idea King was so important i
Barbara Mader
Feb 07, 2010 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I felt this might have made a pretty interesting magazine article but that it was too slight and had far too much conjecture in it to build a book upon. Interesting idea, but too much about everything dull--too much about his debt, too many mentions of his reputation as a brilliant talker, and dear heaven, too much detail about the lawyers contacted--a whole mini-biography of one lawyer who didn't even take the case to trial. A case of an author wanting to include every bit of research done.

Rebecca Johnson
Meh. I just couldn't get interested in this. The subject matter is interesting and gives the reader a well-researched glimpse into the race-relations of the time from a perspective that isn't very common (a white man passing as a black man and marrying a black woman), but since there was so little material that documented the Kings' relationship, I found the entire book to be somewhat speculative and therefore uncompelling. I would rather read a documentary about something that definitely happen ...more
This is an interesting story of a turn of the century, bi-racial, clandestine marriage. The work shows significant research, but after 300 pages both Clarence and Ada Copeland King remain a mystery.

King's public life is well documented and dizzying. He criss-crosses the country and the globe, dines with presidents, buys valuable art, discovers glaciers and maps California, writes a book....

Ada, born a slave, leaves Georgia for NYC, learns to read, meets a man with blue eyes who claims to be blac
Clarence King (1842-1901) is a man known to few Americans today. Yet when he lived, he had enjoyed a high regard and reputation as a geologist, explorer, first director of the United States Geological Survey (USGS), and writer of "Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada." King also had friends in high places (such as Henry Adams and John Hay, who, in his early 20s, had served as a social secretary to President Lincoln and later served as Secretary of State under President McKinley) and was much love ...more
Apr 10, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
There is a lot to consider in this book - - it is the story of Clarence King, a renowned and respected scientist in the early part of the 20th century, who “passed” as a black man and married a black woman named Ada Copeland. He and Ada had 5 children in the 13 years they were together (before he died). He kept the life with Ada a secret - - telling her his name was James Todd and that he was a Pullman porter, which provided supposed proof that he was black (although he looked white), and also p ...more
Jul 13, 2010 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jun 19, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I guess I read the back of the book too quickly in the airport bookstore because I thought it was about a black man passing in white 19th century America and having a brilliant career. In fact, it is about an upper-middle-class white man, a prominent geologist and scholar, passing as a black man to marry a black nursery maid. It is a fascinating story though one with little documentation for the historian author to build upon. The book provides insight into the historian's craft as the author st ...more
Jun 13, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, nonfiction
This book really hits close to home, because I still haven't told my wife that I'm actually an 86-year-old Korean woman, so I very much empathize with King's position.

When I first read the description of this book, I figured he was putting on makeup or whatever to pretend to be black, but apparently in the late-19th/early-20th century, a blue-eyed white guy could just say, "I'm black" and no one would question it. Kinda understandable, considering that Thomas Jefferson's children by Sally Hemmin
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
Aug 18, 2010 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
It is not surprising to find that a lot about this marriage has to be inferred from other stories of the time. It is a good book on the history of mapping the west and the development of the science of geology. It's a fascinating look at how people did "pass" and what race and interracial relationships meant through time. I was, however, disappointed in how little was really known about the marriage of the main character. It is not surprising that records don't exist, given that this was a secre ...more
I gave this book 2 stars mostly because I couldn't get myself to finish reading it. The author's research alone probably deserves more.
The basis of this book is the true story of Clarence King. A well-known geologist for the U.S. in the late 1800's. Besides being known as a white man, he also lead a double life as a black steel-worker, married to a black woman. The author has done an incredible job in researching this story- most chapters have 100 or more references.
My problem in trying to r
I have never been so deceived by a title, subtitle, cover photo, and interview as I was with this book. It is not what it appears or claims to be, there is nothing of the romance so boldly spoken of. OH wait there are some of his love letters to her still in existence (somewhere) but most of their "life together" is speculation based on current events in newspapers and census records. The research is remarkable and deep - this was more a history lesson than anything. This is a documentary - plai ...more
May 26, 2009 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
A true story, it suffers from little fact and much conjecture. In New York, 1892, a prominant white man marries a black woman, and does not reveal his true identity until 13 years later, on his death bed. His wife thinks he is a Pullman Porter working on the railroads, and he is actually having dinner at the White House, or surveying newly acquired western lands. Surprisingly, she believes him to be a black man, though he has no black features, and even has blue eyes. He was so careful to cover ...more
Liz Vega
The story of a white man who chooses to pass as black. is definitely 5 stars but it is told in the most boring way possible. A true look at the life of Clarence king , a white man who lived a double life and told his wife he was a black man working as a Pullman porter and therefore had to travel a lot. He would then go on to experience notoriety surveying the American west as a white man. This is a fascinating study on the fluidity of race and race as a social construct so that I gave it three s ...more
it was an interesting bit of history. a white man who was well known in high social circles keeps the secret from them that he is passing as a black man with a different name and married to a black woman who doesn't know his true identity. it seems weird, even after reading his proposed reasons.

sad for his wife and children and him too.
Sep 20, 2011 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I read about this in the NY times book review and it sounded very good but when I got into the book, I found it was filled with...well...nothing. Things like "It might be supposed..." or "one can imagine..." I couldn't wait to finish it thinking it would go out with a blaze of glory but no, it ended on the same boring note. One of the worst books I've read.
Mar 05, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoir-bio
I thought this would be one of those books I just skimmed to get the gist of, but it turned out to be truly fascinating and enjoyable; I read every word.
Saleh MoonWalker
Passing Strange is one of those books with precisely the right title. It is indeed a story about passing, in every sense of the term, and historian Martha Sandweiss tells it with a scholar's rigor and a storyteller's verve. . . . Passing Strange is not only a lesson in the intricacies of class, race, and gender relations. It also demonstrates how to write a particular kind of history -- how, that is, to reconstruct lives in the absence of historical records.
Aug 16, 2017 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Where to begin?

All of Part 1 is pointless; it could have been 1 chapter, not 5. My dismay with this portion ended up reflecting the entirety of this book. I went into this believing the book to be a sociological comparison of King's life as a white man and his life when he posed as a black man (if you can even call it that--Google a picture of King. I've seen black men and women who could pass as white if they so chose. I've also seen white--usually Italian--men and women who could pass as blac
Interesting. About the USGS surveyist and his life.
Jul 24, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Sara by: Jay
Shelves: non-fiction, 2016
This chronicles the double life of Clarence King, who served as the first director as the U.S. Geological Survey and was well regarded as a geologist and writer, good friends with many well-known people of the day, including Secretary of State John Hay. Although his friends believed him to be a bachelor, King actually created a double life for himself, passing as a black man named James Todd, marrying a black woman, Ada, with whom he had a number of children. He only told Ada his true identity o ...more
May 19, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Passing Strange grew out of historian Sandweiss's discovery that Clarence King, a famous 19th century geologist (the first director of the US Geological Survey), raconteur and man about town led a secret life as a James Todd; a black Pullman Porter married to black woman named Ada and father of four mixed-race children. Past King biographers have failed to acknowledge the marriage or if they did allude to the relationship they dismissed Ada as a deceived and deluded old mammy at best and as a wi ...more
Aug 02, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Issues of race have been in the news a lot lately (hello, Paula Deen?) so reading this book now felt particularly timely to me. I had picked it up almost on a lark and thoroughly enjoyed it

Clarence King was a scientist who helped map out the West (as a way to get out of serving in the Civil War) and became pretty famous in the late 1800s, especially after he exposed a hoax involving a supposed diamond mine and saved a lot of important and rich people a lot of money. He spent time with his famous
I had looked forward to reading this book, but it was not as interesting as I had hoped it would be. I forced myself to keep reading for the first half or more of the book because I don't like to quit a book once I have started.

Although I think the author did a good job of researching the life of Clarence King, there wasn't enough material to make Clarence's (or James Todd's) relationship with Ada a romantic story, which is what I had expected to find. From the facts presented in the book, I
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“King abhorred slavery. But he struggled over how to fight it while remaining true to the religious pacifism he had inherited from his grandmother.” 0 likes
“But if mixed-race people in the United States in the late nineteenth century found themselves legally classed as “black,” mixed-race people in the West Indies more often found themselves classed with “whites.” In the 1855 census of Grand Cayman Island, for example, “blacks” constituted one category; “white and coloured” another. “It was found impracticable to distinguish between the white and coloured population,” explained the missionary census takers. “The greater proportion of these…are persons of colour, but, of course, of various shades of complexion.”15” 0 likes
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