Passing Strange

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Martha A. Sandweiss’s Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line presents one man’s story in an effort to crystallize the state of U.S. race relations at the end of the nineteenth century. An enigma of vast contradictions, Clarence Rivers King loved aristocracy’s trappings but struggled all his life, unsuccessfully for the most part, to remain financially solvent. An idealist who despised the United States’ “Peculiar Institution” of slavery, he nonetheless traveled to the Western frontier to escape service in the Civil War. Robust and peripatetic, yet often nagged by illness and melancholia, he valued respectability but found pleasure “slumming” in the so-called tenderloin districts of big cities, where, like many voyeurs of his day, he delighted in the exotic and the unconventional.

Born into fashionable Newport, Rhode Island, circles on January 6, 1842, King first laid eyes on his father, a China trader, at age three. The elder King died when Clarence was six. Florence, his sickly, overprotective, financially strapped mother, was a burden to him most of his life. Until he met Ada Copeland, King reserved his love for male friends. As he reached puberty, he formed intimate bonds with adolescents Daniel Dewey and James Gardiner. In the summer of 1859, they went camping in the Green Mountains of Vermont. Three years later, the lusty threesome took off on a rowing expedition into Canada with a couple of King’s Yale classmates. A customs inspector detained them briefly at the border, suspecting them of being draft dodgers.

Dewey was killed in battle at Irish Bend, Louisiana, during the Civil War. Gardiner remained a lifelong friend of King. In a letter to Gardiner written while at Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School, King wrote: “My heart is taken up with you.My love for you grows always and is a most absorbing passion.”

King rose to the apex of his scientific profession by making numerous contributions to the mapping of the West. The self-promoter published Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada (1872), a sometimes-embellished narrative of his adventures working with the California State Geological Survey. Charming and successful in obtaining funding from the frugal federal government, he was the envy of fellow geologists, including John Wesley Powell. Surveying the Fortieth Parallel was entirely King’s idea, and it laid the groundwork for other valuable expeditions.

In 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed King to be the first director of the United States Geological Survey. Eight years earlier, while in Estes Park, Colorado, he had had a chance encounter with presidential scion Henry Adams. This is how Sandweiss writes of their night together: Riding through the park in search of his crew, King had paused for the night in a cabin with “a room and one bed for guests” when a small, frail, mustached Harvard history professor rode into camp on a mule, lost after a day of fishing. It was Henry Adams. “As with most friendships,” Adams later wrote, “it was never a matter of growth or doubt.They shared the room and the bed, and talked till far towards dawn.”

“A new friend is always a miracle,” Adams recounted in the memoir The Education of Henry Adams (1907), “but at thirty-three years old, such a bird of paradise rising in the sage brush was an avatar.” The normally hard-to-please Adams believed King brilliantly combined action and intellect. Adams, John Hay, and their wives Clover and Clara welcomed King into a ménage called the Five of Hearts (complete with stationery and tea service). The name was a reference to King’s nickname, King of Diamonds, obtained by exposing a fraudulent mining company stock scheme. Like many bachelors, King lived mainly in hotels, such as the Brunswick and Albert in New York City. He entertained friends at such exclusive clubs as the Metropolitan, Century Association, the Tuxedo, the Union League, the Knickerbocker, and the American Geographical Society. (Entertaining was his greatest talent, biographer Harry Herbert Crosby once sneered; otherwise he was the “most overrated” man of his era.) Frequently absent on business or pleasure, King invented plausible excuses to keep his acquaintances in the dark about his double life.

Sandweiss skillfully pieces together the details of that life, in which King would assume the identity of an African American Pullman porter named James Todd. It was as Todd that he met Ada Copeland. From what meager evidence exists, Copeland was a determined seeker of independence and economic security, no easy task during the nineteenth...

(The entire section is 1907 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Booklist 105, no. 11 (February 1, 2009): 20.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 23 (December 1, 2008): 1247.

Library Journal 134, no. 1 (January 1, 2009): 108.

The New York Times Book Review, March 8, 2009, p. 11.

The New Yorker 85, no. 4 (March 9, 2009): 70.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 48 (December 1, 2008): 39-40.