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Imperfect Union

How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War
Narrated by: Steve Inskeep
Length: 13 hrs and 48 mins

Non-member price: $43.89

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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)

"An insightful and welcome biography of consequential Americans." (Booklist)

"Highly readable.... A lively introduction to a pair of flawed yet extraordinary figures in the nation's movement westward." (Kirkus

"Imperfect Union is a fascinating, complex love story, a riveting adventure, and an important, carefully researched history, told with incredible power and skill by one of the country’s best nonfiction writers. What else could you want in a book?" (Candice Millard, author of Hero of the Empire

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  • Edward P. Cerne
  • 25-06-2020

The issues confronting Freemont presaged today's.

If you think the issues of racism and xenophobia America is confronting today, you are wrong. Read this riveting tale of issues confronting America as it was more than 150 years ago.

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  • Kevin Keller
  • 08-02-2020

A delightful yarn of a complicated story

This was fantastic. Steve Inskeep’s narration keeps the listener engaged through a story that develops slowly and ends with a clearer picture of whom the hero in the story is. Thoroughly delightful in its entirety.

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  • Hugh C.
  • 18-01-2020

I'm just here for the stuff on the Know Nothings

This book takes a great examination of the political forces which have long sought to deteriorate, disrupt and dissolve our United States of America. No sooner had the ink dried on the Constitution that certain Americans began having "Dis-union Dinners" to plot and support a path to ensuring slavery, xenophobia, and white Anglo political control for their states.

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  • Gary L. Baker
  • 29-09-2020

some things never change

informative and well presented. struck by the political similarities between that period and now. recommend

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  • Adrienne Hosek
  • 25-08-2020

Perfect balance

Inskeep knows exactly when to draw out the story and when to condense. He brings to life the Freemonts and their time. I enjoyed learning about the politics leading up to the Civil War as much as the descriptions of Freemonts great Western expeditions.

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  • M. Neeley
  • 31-05-2020

Great view into a key part of our history

Steve brilliantly brings history to life. It’s always good to learn more about how the country was formed and how it connects to how we are today. Steve is the perfect reader for his own book with his well-honed radio voice.

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  • SusanO
  • 13-04-2020

A Cunning Couple Pursues Celebrity

Growing up about 30 miles from Sutter's Mill in northern California, school gave me a vague notion of James Fremont and his wife Jesse. This book taught me that the historic and histrionic behavior of the man who named the Golden Gate and his ambitious wife tells us a lot about the celebrity worship of our current age. This fascinating, informative tale of the Freemonts is packed with the people of their time: Kit Carson, Frederick Douglass, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to name just a few, Ralph Waldo Emerson even makes a brief appearance, as does Abraham Lincoln, whom Jesse confronts in his office with a losing argument. Find a bonus in the fact that with the invention of the telegraph, newspapers played an important role in a presidential election, The author delivers on the subtitle: How Jessie and John Fremont mapped the west, invented celebrity, and helped cause the Civil War.

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  • Bruce B. Burton
  • 05-04-2020

Great story of USA leading up to the Civil War

I love the indepth story and analysis of life in the USA leading up to the start of the civil war using the life of Jessey and John Fremont. Author provides the same objective truth seeking methods you find on NPR today. Well done story. Clarity on history is difficult to find, this book is a jewel.

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  • Hervé DuThé
  • 01-04-2020

Plus ça change

This is a well told story, made clear but never oversimplified by Steve Inskeep. What is remarkable is the extent to which politics has remained the same over the years. When John Fremont ran for president in 1856 he was first accused of being a Catholic (he wasn't), then a Mohammedan (he wasn't), then not a legal US citizen (he was). Freemont was born out of wedlock to a Frenchman (gasp!), a fact which emerged during the dirty tricks campaign conducted by Democrats against Freemont. So basically all the gutter accusations and innuendo were already baked in. What we are now seeing is merely a continuation of the process. I enjoyed listening to this. There are times when Inskeep's default tone of incredulity wears thin, but mostly he is the right man for the job of reading this. This is scholarship done right, made understandable by careful research and editing.

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  • J. K. Freedman
  • 28-03-2020

A reminder how history can be forgotten and how it repeats

I selected this book because I appreciate Steve Inskeep’s reporting for NPR and also enjoy his voice. His book “Imperfect Union” taught me history I was unaware of provided a reminder how aspects of history repeat themselves over and over. If you are inclined to learn more about American history or past women that helped form our country and certainly were not given their due, this is an excellent audio book to choose.