Perils of Posing

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The couple cynically stage-managed their Western exploits for propaganda value.
Illustration by Christian Northeast. Source images from Chronicle / Alamy (woman); Bettmann / Getty (man)

Adam Gopnik’s book review illustrates the roots of today’s Instagram culture, and the perils of posing:

Pioneers of American Publicity

How John and Jessie Frémont explored the frontiers of legend-making.

Legendary development can happen with astonishing speed after a life is past. Gore Vidal, in his 1992 novel, “Live from Golgotha,” made sport of the notion of television coverage of the Crucifixion, as the kind of thing that would happen only in contemporary America, but in truth Jesus’ body was hardly cold, or gone, before the apostle Paul, in a single generation, had made the desert rebbe into a demigod. The special American contribution to legend-making has not been speed so much as absolute simultaneity, with the life and the legend developing together. The American frontier, the Wild West, was not burnished and made epic in memory. It was made epic even as its very brief life was taking place. Buffalo Bill was only twenty-three when dime novels about him began to appear in New York, and early accounts of Billy the Kid’s life read “like a press agent’s yarn,” as one biographer says, because they were. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were robbing banks and posing for mock formal photographs all at the same time. This national truth remains constant even in our own time. The Apollo missions were genuine acts of daring—and were also, as everyone knew at the time, scripted television programming, with well-wrought lines delivered live.

This habit, of legend unfurling alongside history, has some oddly perverse effects. First, it can make an event itself dubious. If it was so obviously orchestrated and cynically exploited, might it not be real at all? And so we get the loony theories of a faked moon landing, just as Billy the Kid’s killing is now said to have been faked as part of a conspiracy—and we get, too, the still hardy story that Butch and Sundance never really died in Bolivia and Butch came back and thrived out West. The habit can also delay our genuine perception of an event until after the mythical parts have faded. Apollo 11, a triumph of human audacity—think of going in a telephone booth to the moon under the guidance of a 1969 computer—was in its time dismissed by Norman Mailer as a dull example of Wasp engineering efficiency. We had to wait fifty years to get a movie saying, Yes, it really was a remarkable thing! Attempting to puff adventures, we can increase their immediacy and diminish their significance. Billy the Kid may have been a publicist’s token, but he really did live, and Pat Garrett really did kill him dead.

One of the virtues of Steve Inskeep’s new book, “Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War” (Penguin Press), is that it tracks this American phenomenon back to something like a satisfying starting point—the life of the Frémonts and their pursuit, in the eighteen-forties, of the Oregon Trail, the very first real American adventure that was cynically stage-managed for propaganda (and commercial) value. Even before the ubiquity of speed-of-light communication, which one might have thought essential, John Frémont’s westward travel was rapidly shared, with Jessie helping to ghostwrite the exploits. It was almost as if he became famous for trekking the Oregon Trail before he ever made it to Oregon. “Celebrity” and “celebrity culture” are parts of modern life itself, and tracing them to a single source is silly—no celebrities could have been more popularly celebrated than the aristocrats of eighteenth-century French courts—but this particular American phenomenon, in which being a striver and becoming a star flow together in one field of action, really does seem to get started here.

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. Pretty much the entire dramatic matter of America before the Civil War passes through their lives: the gold rush, the way west, the taking of California, the Donner Party, the growth of abolition, and the coming of the war. But it is their relation to publicity that seems most current. There were towns called Fremont and a street in newly minted San Francisco named for them while the couple were still trying to make their fortune with dubiously acquired property elsewhere in California. John Frémont emerges as one of those characters—like Aaron Burr or, in another way, Charles Lindbergh—who seemed born to end up with their face on currency but instead inspired only the names of streets whose origin the people who walk on them no longer know. An antislavery Republican candidate for President, Frémont also played a crucial role in what is in retrospect one of the most astonishing parts of the American story: the inclusion of California as part of the United States, and not as the separate, perhaps Spanish-speaking country—the North American Chile—that its geography and history would seem to dictate.

Inskeep, a reporter and NPR host, puts Jessie on equal footing with John, not just because of contemporary feminist tastes but also because his life really was dependent on hers. His marriage to her was hypergamous, with her lifting him up socially. A good-looking Army officer with a French background, he was twenty-eight when, in 1841, he eloped with Jessie, the pretty, super-bright, and ambitious seventeen-year-old daughter of Senator Thomas Hart Benton, of Missouri. Accepting his new son-in-law, more or less grudgingly, as a fait accompli, Benton did a great deal to promote Frémont and the cult of celebrity that his life embodied. A onetime newspaperman, a ferocious self-publicist, and a resolute expansionist, Benton decided to send his son-in-law out West and to, Inskeep says, “make John C. Frémont the leading character in a news story.”…

Read the whole review here.

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