Friday, February 19, 2016

Friday Finds: “The Passer”

Another in our growing line of vintage book covers we love.

The Passer, by Sam Merwin Jr. (Midwood Tower, 1962).
Illustration by Robert E. Schulz.

As Wikipedia explains, “Racial passing occurs when a person classified as a member of one racial group is also accepted as a member of a different racial group. The term was used especially in the United States to describe a person of multiracial ancestry assimilating into the white majority during times when legal and social conventions ... classified the person as a minority, subject to racial segregation and discrimination.” One of the most fascinating instances of “passing,” however, involved prominent 19th-century geologist, author, and surveyor Clarence King, who—despite being fair-skinned and blue-eyed—chose to portray himself as a black Pullman porter in order to commence a common-law marriage, in the late 1880s, with an African-American nursemaid in New York City. (At the time, interracial unions were very much frowned upon.) King kept up this charade for more than the last decade of his life (he died in 1901), only informing his wife of his true racial identity in a deathbed letter. (See Martha A. Sandweiss’ splendid 2009 book, Passing Strange, to learn more about King’s double life.)

Sam Merwin Jr.’s The Passer turns on a more conventional example of passing. As the back-cover copy reads:
He could have been lynched for what he did—
but women loved it.

Here is the compelling story of Fred Williams, a “passer,” working and playing the Hollywood-Las Vegas circuit as a theatrical agent. Women clamored for the ruthless savagery of his love—it was so much more satisfying than anything else they had ever experienced.

Here is a gripping story of emotion and intrigue with an explosive climax.
The association of “savagery” with a black or mixed-race male obviously skilled at the amorous arts can’t have been accidental, and in our more enlightened era, it seems altogether insulting. But The Passer came out in 1962, when racial segregation was still widely practiced in the United States, especially across the South.

By the way, Merwin (1910-1996) was a New Jersey-born journalist turned author who started out writing mystery novels after World War II. He had his debut with a standalone titled Murder in Miniatures (1940), but he followed that up in 1945 with Knife in the Back, the first of three books starring Amy Brewster, “a cigar-smoking, 300-pound lawyer-financier … Upper-class but unfeminine, she is enlisted by friends to solve crimes.” Merwin later edited Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine. However, some of his best-remembered work was actually in the science-fiction field. He edited a couple of SF magazines in the 1950s, and his “alternate history”/time travel novels, The House of Many Worlds (1951) and Three Faces of Time (1955), are considered genre classics.

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