• Imperfect Union

  • How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War
  • By: Steve Inskeep
  • Narrated by: Steve Inskeep
  • Length: 13 hrs and 48 mins
  • 4.5 out of 5 stars (292 ratings)

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Imperfect Union  By  cover art

Imperfect Union

By: Steve Inskeep
Narrated by: Steve Inskeep
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Publisher's summary

Steve Inskeep tells the riveting story of John and Jessie Frémont, the husband and wife team who in the 1800s were instrumental in the westward expansion of the United States, and thus became America's first great political couple.

John C. Frémont, one of the United States' leading explorers of the 19th century, was relatively unknown in 1842, when he commanded the first of his expeditions to the uncharted West. But in only a few years, he was one of the most acclaimed people of the age - known as a wilderness explorer, best-selling writer, gallant army officer, and latter-day conquistador, who in 1846 began the United States' takeover of California from Mexico. He was not even 40 years old when Americans began naming mountains and towns after him. He had perfect timing, exploring the West just as it captured the nation’s attention. But the most important factor in his fame may have been the person who made it all possible: his wife, Jessie Benton Frémont.

Jessie, the daughter of a United States senator who was deeply involved in the West, provided her husband with entrée to the highest levels of government and media, and his career reached new heights only a few months after their elopement. During a time when women were allowed to make few choices for themselves, Jessie - who herself aspired to roles in exploration and politics - threw her skill and passion into promoting her husband. She worked to carefully edit and publicize his accounts of his travels, attracted talented young men to his circle, and lashed out at his enemies. She became her husband’s political adviser, as well as a power player in her own right. In 1856, the famous couple strategized as John became the first-ever presidential nominee of the newly established Republican Party.

With rare detail and in consummate style, Steve Inskeep tells the story of a couple whose joint ambitions and talents intertwined with those of the nascent United States itself. Taking advantage of expanding news media, aided by an increasingly literate public, the two linked their names to the three great national movements of the time - westward settlement, women’s rights, and opposition to slavery. Together, John and Jessie Frémont took parts in events that defined the country and gave rise to a new, more global America. Theirs is a surprisingly modern tale of ambition and fame; they lived in a time of social and technological disruption and divisive politics that foreshadowed our own. In Imperfect Union, as Inskeep navigates these deeply transformative years through Jessie and John’s own union, he reveals how the Frémonts’ adventures amount to nothing less than a tour of the early American soul.

©2020 Steve Inskeep (P)2020 Penguin Audio

Critic reviews

"This is one of those listens that makes you wonder how people like Jessie and John Frémont can have escaped history - and a Hollywood treatment. It also makes you wonder how authors and narrators like Inskeep find the time to do what they do - and do it so well.... Not surprisingly, [Inskeep is] an effective and engaging narrator. His enthusiasm for his main characters is apparent but never approaches hagiography. Since he's a professional broadcaster, you'd expect his reading to be crisp and his inflections just right. And they are. This is an engaging and rewarding listen." (AudioFile Magazine)

“Revelatory...a fresh look that brings 21st-century vision to bear on the 19th-century story. In writing about both Frémont and his wife, Jessie, the aggressive promoter of his career, Inskeep does two important things. He shines an unsparing light on his subjects, and he finds unnerving similarities between the Frémonts’ America and our own. Like Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic, an improbably thrilling book about the Garfield assassination, Imperfect Union finds a big, resonant, star-studded subject that has been hiding in plain sight.... If the book’s purpose is to illuminate and chill, mission accomplished.” (The New York Times)

"In the hands of National Public Radio journalist Steve Inskeep, the Frémonts become a vehicle to explore media, the making of modern celebrity, and the fascinating world of mid-nineteenth century American politics ... [Inskeep’s] contribution is to frame these disparate threads through the lens of a widened Frémont circle, masterfully weaving the narratives together in highly readable prose. What emerges is a rich tapestry of not only the Frémonts’ relationship (an “imperfect union”), but also their imperfect midcentury United States as well.” (Missouri Historical Review)