Book Review: The Clamorgans

BookReviewLogoReview by David Kilgannon

Julie Winch opens her book The Clamorgans: One Family’s History of Race in America (Hill & Wang, 2011) bemoaning the failure of Charles Dickens to visit the Clamorgan family’s “bathing saloon” during his visit to St. Louis, Missouri in 1842. If the Victorian novelist had attended, Winch speculates, there may have been another Dickens novel as the story of the Clamorgan clan provided a range of the archetypally Dickensian tropes of “hapless orphans, wily villains, women seduced and betrayed by the men they trusted, imposter of one kind or another, with an unscrupulous lawyer or two thrown in the mix” (3). Comparing an actual family to a novelist’s work sets a high standard for any tale, but is more  than surpassed in Winch’s engrossing narrative history of one biracial American family.

10308115Through the life and times of the Clamorgan family of St. Louis, Winch traces the development of the idea of race and its role in family life, the law and broader American society from 1781 to the early decades of the twentieth century. The narrative begins with the clan’s progenitor, Jacques Clamorgan, whose uncertain origins and even murkier ethics set the stage for more than a century of contention. Specifically, this tension centred on Jacques’ questionable investment in large tracts of land in the upper Louisiana territory alongside the fact that “over the years he lived openly with a succession of black women, all of them at some point his slaves, and several of these women bore him children” (39). Clamorgan’s provision for these children, his mixed-race illegitimate heirs, went on to produce more than a century of often bitter litigation. Winch is sympathetic but clear sighted in showing how Jacques’ less than scrupulous business methods, as well as the racist sentiment inherent within the United States’ justice system, conspired to leave a legacy of unfulfilled riches that occupied generations of Clamorgan’s descendants.

Each chapter opens with a genealogical chart, a feature that becomes increasingly critical to the reader in attempting to understand the complex familial legacy of Jacques Clamorgan. It also underscores the scale of Winch’s research, as she manages to cogently trace the lives and descendants of the four African-American former slaves who shared Jacques’ bed, Ester, Susanne, Hélène and Julie. Early chapters describe, in fascinating detail, how these women formed lives for themselves with their children who could “pass” for white. “Passing” becomes a continued trend throughout the nineteenth century, with the family’s use of race as a flexible construct reaching its zenith in Jacques’ grandson Cyprian — a man who, as Winch demonstrates, “passed”  as black or white depending on the prevailing political and economic conditions.

Winch’s prodigious primary research lends this book a fascinating level of detail into individual lives, serving to verify her claim that the life of the Clamorgans surpasses any of the melodrama in Dickens. There is the story of Jacques’ lover Ester, who sued him for the return of the land that Jacques had originally placed in Ester’s name to prevent its seizure by creditors. There is the life of Jacques’ and Susanne’s daughter Apoline, who at various times served as a money lender or the permanent mistress to an influential white man. Apoline’s son Cyprian had an even more varied life, working in a series of jobs including that included writer, soapmaker, banker, politician, lawyer (despite never having passed the bar), and caterer. Indeed, Cyprian could even be credited as a (failed) assassin, having attempted to kill a political rival in 1868.

The long ranging scope of the book allows Winch to effectively explore the changing conception of race as it affects each generation of Clamorgans, showing how wider developments in U.S. society come to bear on this one family. Undoubtedly, Winch’s research was aided by the family’s notable proclivity for engaging in litigation, which allows her to trace family members with remarkable detail. Viewed as an entire work, The Clamorgans presents a fascinating tapestry of one mixed-race family’s experiences within the American “melting pot.”

Yet, the book’s strengths are, in many critical respects, also its most prominent flaws. The decades of litigation and the wide ranging cast of Clamorgans can cause Winch’s wider points about race to become lost within the often byzantine conflicts specific to the Clamorgan family. Additionally, the book seriously handicaps itself by failing to engage with the wider historiography on race and the family in America. The story of the Clamorgans is presented on its own, absent what seems like an obvious comparison to Annette Gordon-Reid’s groundbreaking The Hemingses of Monticello (2008). This contextualizing or comparative information is also absent from Winch’s footnotes, which solely lists secondary sources directly related to the Clamorgan clan. Inevitably, this feels like a missed opportunity to further interrogate this niche of American history. Nevertheless, these issues should not denigrate from Winch’s immense achievement in uncovering the story of this fascinating family.

pictureDavid Kilgannon is a Wellcome Trust PhD researcher in the History Department of the National University of Ireland, Galway.He was previously a Hardimann Scholar, a Kirkp and a Wellcome Trust MA student. His research looks at the varied experiences of persons with intellectual disabilities in Ireland from 1947 to 1996. His previous research looked at the experience of AIDS activists in Ireland from 1983-9.

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