Martha Sandweiss’s Passing Strange: Excellent History at the Edge of Knowability

The first thing to know about Martha Sandweiss’s Passing Strange is that it is gripping. When I first cracked it open, in a Seattle hotel room last March, I found myself one hundred pages in before checking the time. This year, preparing it for our class discussion, I found other tasks repeatedly left undone as I read and re-read the passages, finding new angles and new intrigue.

The second thing to know is that our Writing of History class was enthralled. After weeks of exemplary and experimental history, of debating rules for what historians can and cannot do, and after testing new voices and styles for themselves, they found Sandweiss’s book had a perfect balance: the well-documented early career of Clarence King, and the mystery of his later years; the unknown origins of Ada Copeland Todd King, and her late-in-life descriptions and documentable life in New York; fame contrasted with privacy; traditional archival sources with the gems of the age of searchable-database research; and the great abstract American notions of race and class on display in intimate detail.

Having heard Sandweiss talk about the project when it was in development, I remember her enthusiasm about finding the Census description; finding the living descendents; and discovering a way to tell this seemingly impossible story of how a man who hobnobbed with Henry Adams and John Hay, across the street from the White House, could hide his ex-slave wife and their children in plain sight in Brooklyn, and how he could hide his other identity (“true” identity seems too much) from them.

Most of us will not have the opportunity to tell the story of a famous explorer with a secret family. But how can the lessons of its gripping success be generalized? Here are my suggestions:

1) Record your research experiences. I assume Sandweiss has a journal of her research days (as I do), and that she records the excitement of a new archival find, the experience of driving the streets of her history, and the questions that frustrate and then motivate. From the very beginnings of a project, it seems worth keeping such a journal, to inject those ideas that motivated the research into the writing.

2) Choose a story that resonates. As most narrative histories show, stories with modern resonances and sharply drawn characters attract the attention of both the writer and reader with greater attention. Some events are serendipitous—starting a book on racial passing and fame in the years before a certain Kenyan-American is elected President—but other trends and interests are predictable (as my course has seen in Rebecca Solnit’s connections from Eadward Muybridge to the “technological Wild West,” or the ways in which the Clinton-Lewinsky affair affected the sale of Debby Applegate’s book on the Beecher-Tilton scandal).

3) Most importantly, challenge yourself to write history on the edge of knowability. Sandweiss took on the challenge of documenting and describing a quirk about Clarence King often noted but never explained: the posthumous revelation of his mixed-race family. It provided a detective-story romp through the available sources; the passing references to addresses and locales; and the coincidental crossing of paths with others who wrote more, whether James Weldon Johnson about passing in New York or U.B. Phillips about growing up in Georgia. But then it involved stepping out further, beyond the sources, to trace the edge of the unknown, eliminating what was impossible and making guesses about the probable.

As Sandweiss said in an interview, “I often wished to be a novelist who could invent, with splendid omniscience, everything going on inside my characters’ heads. But I am not a fiction writer. I am a historian whose work rests firmly upon footnoted sources. When I don’t know precisely what happened at a particular moment, I signal to my readers that I am engaging in informed historical speculation by using words like perhaps, must have, would have, or likely. Two beliefs lay behind this. First, I imagine that since I know more about this story than my readers do, I have an obligation to give them my best hypothesis as to what happened. But second, since I am a historian I feel compelled never to assert something with certainty unless I have very persuasive evidence.”

Historians have created ever new ways to find data, to make inferences, to know more about the past than a previous generation would have thought possible. By tracing the edge of knowability, we advance the work of history in general, pointing out the edges and inviting new expeditions to determine what more can be mapped. Some, like Simon Schama, have chafed against these limits and all those perhapses, and jumped into the crevasse; but most historians seem to note the unknown (often internally, and not explicitly) staying away while leaving those who follow without a guide.

By tracing that edge so delicately, delineating what is known, what can be known, and what cannot be known, Sandweiss draws us into her work as a historian, and into the beguiling mysteries of Passing Strange. It is an intimate, powerful history—one made more powerful by the moments where Sandweiss highlights that which remains unknown.

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One Response to Martha Sandweiss’s Passing Strange: Excellent History at the Edge of Knowability

  1. Jana says:

    I keep a private blog to record my research experiences. What’s better about that than keeping my thoughts on paper, is that it’s searchable–so I can go back through and find all my thoughts on a particular topic quite easily.