Throughout this volume are vivid descriptions of the American landscape ... But Inskeep’s most powerful descriptions are of the man at the center of his story ... astute ... Steve Inskeep has performed a great service—to the Frémonts, and to history.
... absorbing ... Inskeep...deftly traces how the marriage mirrored the era’s ferment ... Vibrant and propulsive, Imperfect Union is by far Inskeep’s strongest book, reminiscent of work by Doris Kearns Goodwin and Jon Meacham. Inskeep re-creates the darker currents beneath Manifest Destiny while rescuing John and Jessie from the margins of history, seeing them as precursors to the epic struggles ahead ... a pure delight to read, but beneath Inskeep’s stylish sentences lurk astute insights, illuminating the outsized role celebrity plays in our culture, the outward triumphs and quiet pain it inflicted on two lives that left an indelible, if neglected, mark on our politics.
... 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 ... To Inskeep’s credit, it’s an open question whether the book’s true hero is Frémont or his wife ... Regardless of where your sympathies lie regarding the slippery Frémonts, there’s no denying the new importance Inskeep has given them ... written in a streamlined, occasionally biting style that successfully pares down potentially sprawling material and sends constant warnings that history can repeat itself. There’s not a lot of showiness here, but the material suffices. If the book’s purpose is to illuminate and chill, mission accomplished.
Certainly, [John Frémont] presents an awkward, and anticlimactic, subject for a biographer—a failure as a Civil War commander, after contesting Lincoln’s 1864 re-election, the balance of his life was a fortune-draining diminuendo of failed business ventures that left him and Jessie destitute. Rather than vilifying or lionizing John, Inskeep smartly situates him in his context. And here he yields his true significance: as a cipher for the forces at large in U.S. society ... Inskeep emphasizes (and perhaps belabors) parallels between the mid-19th century and today ... But some of his most arresting and affecting passages capture the deep strangeness of the period from a contemporary standpoint ... In skillfully telling the story of John and Jessie’s messy, flawed lives, Imperfect Union enriches our understanding of the messy, flawed nation they helped create.
One of the virtues of Steve Inskeep’s new book is that it tracks this American phenomenon back to something like a satisfying starting point ... Inskeep’s subtitle might be a bit showy, but the Frémonts turn out to be fine characters for a book, or a miniseries, for that matter ... The irony is that the Frémonts, pioneers of publicity as much as of the American frontier, are now largely forgotten, and in need of salvage operations like Inskeep’s good one.
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 ... 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.
Mr. Inskeep treads little ground unfamiliar to popular and professional historians. But his absorbing tale of the Frémonts and their marriage will fascinate readers, many of whom know John only as the namesake of a local school or street or even their hometown itself ... In addition to his riveting accounts of Frémont’s peregrinations, Mr. Inskeep is especially effective in bringing to life the challenges posed by mid-19th-century communication, which depended to a great extent on letters that could arrive months after their dispatch, like rays of light emitted from stars that might have burned out long ago.
[An] immersive tale ... Lurking in the background of this riveting, lavishly researched account is the defining, divisive issue of the times: slavery ... Inskeep tells the Frémonts’ story with razor-sharp insight and a narrative drive that draws in readers and keeps the pages turning ... Imperfect Union stakes their claim as leaders in the battle against slavery and as key players in the rapid growth and tumultuous politics of nineteenth-century America.
... [a] uniquely American story ... That the Frémonts’ story also embodied pre-Civil War America’s larger movements of women’s rights, opposition to slavery, and the 'manifest destiny' of westward settlement makes this an insightful and welcome biography of consequential Americans.
[Inskeep's] journalist’s eye for detail and nuance serves his readers well. His account of the dumb luck of the Frémonts in becoming insanely wealthy in California — a property that John bought for a ranch proved to sit atop the Mother Lode — makes clear how capricious fortune could be in that singular moment of American history ... And as a journalist, Inskeep recognizes spin when he sees it. He cross-checks the Frémonts’ accounts of the Western journeys with diaries kept by other members of the expeditions, who acknowledged John Frémont’s courage but saw it shade into foolhardiness that could have killed them all.
... [a] scrupulously researched history ... Inskeep...examines the era’s emerging political fissures over slavery and westward expansion with nuance ... This sweeping yet fine-grained account contextualizes the issues facing pre–Civil War America without losing sight of the interpersonal dynamics at the heart of the narrative. History buffs will savor Inskeep’s fluid, multifaceted approach to the subject.
... the book is highly readable, and the author draws renewed attention to these undeniably important historical personages, who are too often forgotten among the likes of Kit Carson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Horace Greeley. A lively introduction to a pair of flawed yet extraordinary figures in the nation’s movement westward.