Columbia University historian Karl Jacoby unearths this remarkable story, skillfully casting Ellis as an exemplar of two archetypal figures: the self-made American who rises from rags to riches and the folkloric African-American trickster who runs circles around people alleged to be his superiors. Yet the book also reads like an American Odyssey, the larger-than-life story of a man who travels far in the wake of war and gets by on his adaptability and gift for gab ... You start off admiring Ellis: breathtakingly audacious, uncannily ambitious, smarter than the white supremacists whom he so easily deceived. But then you’re not so sure ... The biggest paradox, Mr. Jacoby reveals, is that even as Ellis battled discrimination at home, his schemes often worked to expand the global power of the United States and even its white-supremacist elements ... Sometimes I wanted Mr. Jacoby to probe further, speculate more; we learn what Ellis gained from passing, for example, but less about what he may have lost. Still, Mr. Jacoby goes beyond recent studies of passing by looking insistently abroad, entwining U.S. and Mexican history to reveal why national borders and racial borderlines were simultaneously fortified and permeable.
...it is a credit to Karl Jacoby’s scholarly detective work that we know anything about William Henry Ellis’ amazing and improbable life ... Because Ellis was mostly successful in concealing aspects of his past, this elegantly written book is actually both less and more than the biography of a remarkable man, which also makes its title somewhat misleading. Not only are there gaps in the information about Ellis, but Jacoby often has to speculate about what happened to him or what made him tick. And although Jacoby’s inferences are entirely plausible, what we get in the end is more like a fascinating silhouette of Ellis than a fleshed-out portrait.
The Strange Career of William Ellis is a work of admirable sleuthing in which Jacoby has assembled a portrait of a man who deliberately sought to cover his own tracks ... One of the most tantalizing threads in Jacoby’s biography is the evidence that the African-American intelligentsia—or at least many members of it—recognized Ellis’s racial charade for what it was ... Jacoby urges us to see Ellis as a trickster who trangressed the boundaries of nation and race, turning obstacles into opportunities. It’s a weak interpretation of such a complicated, even bewildering, biographical subject, but it’s certainly more appealing than treating him as a tragic figure.