As a native of the Great State of Texas (™), I grew up on tales of Western heroes. But even outside of Texas, our country has a tendency to lionize those who embodied the Wild West mythos of America: white men who did stupid or awful things at least as often as they did brave ones, whom frontier legend has polished and absolved. The trouble is, our history hurts us when we make it into a self-congratulatory story. It can only teach us if we also include the moments when we failed.
Steve Inskeep, particularly aware of our current cultural moment in his role as the host of NPR’s “Morning Edition,” has given us a history to learn from in his book Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War. Present are all the things we like in an American tale: frontier adventure, fame and a conflict that’s cast as tragic and romantic. But Inskeep, wise to the lure he has set out, doesn’t give us the story we expect. Failures and near misses are rife. John Frémont was a famed explorer who delivered California to the United States, true. But he was indecisive and short-sighted, and though he came down on the right side of the slavery argument, he was unapologetically racist. His wife was the brilliant political force behind him—an abolitionist who was wildly popular with the American people but, because she was a woman, was barred from achieving her own ambitions.
Inskeep deepens the tale beyond the traditional American narrative, giving us an insightful look at two people who seem familiar even all these years later: an ambitious and brilliant woman shackled by her gender and an imperfect dreamer who often comes close to doing the right thing. Within the political theater of this pre-Civil War drama, we just might find ourselves.