Jessie Ann Benton Fremont (1824-1902). (Legacy Profile)

By Petrulionis, Sandra Harbert | Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, June 2001 | Go to article overview

Jessie Ann Benton Fremont (1824-1902). (Legacy Profile)

Petrulionis, Sandra Harbert, Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Much as she was regarded during her own lifetime, nineteenth-century American author Jessie Benton Fremont is still viewed primarily as the wife of adventurer and politician John Charles Fremont. John Fremont's entry in Merriam-Webster's New Biographical Dictionary (1995) notes that he was "saved from dire poverty by [his] wife's writings." The biographical sketch goes on to relay the following details: "His wife (in. 1841) Jessie Ann ... was a writer; author of The Story of the Guard (1863), Far-West Sketches (1890), The Will and the Way Stories (1891), etc." ("Fremont, John Charles"). Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature also assesses Jessie Fremont the wife, rather than the writer. In the 1991 edition, the name "Fremont, Jessie Benton" directs one to "see next entry," where the listing for "Fremont, John C." includes the aside that "his wife, Jessie Benton Fremont, managed to support him and their family by writing" ("Fremont, John Charles").

Scholars cannot dispel the drama that accompanies Jessie Fremont as the popular wife of an American explorer-hero. But her literary career deserves its own appraisal. Notwithstanding her relegation to the role of wife by many of her contemporaries as well as by some critics (and compilers) today, the author Fremont published over fifty stories, articles, and essays, and she carried on a vast correspondence throughout her life with influential figures such as Horace Greeley, James T. Fields, Rebecca Harding Davis, Elizabeth Peabody, and John Greenleaf Whittier. Mary Lee Spence characterizes Fremont as "an extremely intelligent and talented writer, able with humor and verve to dramatize, embellish--and indeed, on occasion, to distort--the historical record" (70). To be sure, Fremont does idealize the history in which she, her husband, and her father took part, but her literary legacy also confers a glimpse of an ambitious nineteenth-century woman who thrived in the spotlight, a savvy would-be politician destin ed to be "an activist cast in a supporting role," according to her biographer Pamela Herr (3). Primarily within the genres of domestic and moral tale and personal reminiscence, Fremont sketches an American woman's life--living on the California hinterland, battling political enemies, socializing in Paris with European dignitaries-and in nearly all of her writing, she portrays and attempts to triumph over perceived injustices.

Jessie Ann Benton Fremont was born to Elizabeth McDowell and her husband, the popular Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, on May 31, 1824, on the McDowell family plantation in Virginia. From her mother, Fremont learned to despise slavery, a conviction reinforced by Fremont's own glimpse of it in Virginia (Letters 122). Her childhood was divided between Virginia, President Andrew Jackson's Washington, and border-town St. Louis. Fremont had a pampered, intellectually stimulating youth and matured into an assertive and determined young woman who enjoyed flouting convention. Much to her family's disapproval, she eloped in October 1841 with the dashing explorer John Fremont, who had become acquainted with her father and was furthering Senator Benton's goal of opening up the West.

In the early 1840s, the Fremonts collaborated to produce for Congress two reports detailing John Fremont's most recent excursions. Although a few critics claim that Jessie Fremont merely took her husband's dictation, most agree that she enlivened his story, particularly embellishing descriptions of scenery. The editors of a twentieth-century reprint of The Expeditions of John Charles Fremont praise her writing skills, and Herr concurs that "Jessie's hand can be seen in the graceful style, the skillful pacing, and the vivid scenes and vignettes that make it so readable" (Herr 82-83). These reports became a best-seller when issued together in a one-volume trade publication; even Henry Wadsworth Longfellow yearned to "go west" after reading them (Jackson and Spence xviii-xix). …

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