Frémont, the West's Great Adventurer

by Allan Nevins. Harper & Bros. 2 vols. 8vo. xiv+ 708 pp. Illus. $10.00.
MR. NEVINS subtitles his Frémont elaborately: ’Being a Biography from certain hitherto unpublished sources of General John C. Frémont together with his wife Jessie Benton Frémont, and some account of the period of expansion which found a brilliant leader in the Pathfinder.'
Later the author substitutes ‘ Pathmarker’ for ‘Pathfinder’ — a significant distinction. Frémont’s best geographical work was done as topographical engineer; when he left that rôle for independent exploration he was less fortunate in result. While his leadership held as firm in the wilderness as on the trail, his judgment sometimes went awry, with melancholy results, when he faced the utterly unknown. His impetuosity led him into straight bucks against snow-clogged ranges when an end run would have provided a safer, easier route. The more important of Frémont’s discoveries, indeed, came in short ‘aside journeys from the known trails he was charting; when he struck out into the unknown on a long route of his own choosing he was usually headed straight for trouble. Like most ardent men, how Mr. Nevins loves that adjective, — Frémont needed someone to do his long-view planning for him.
A vast amount of American history hinges on the fact that Frémont knew how to seize opportunities but did not know how to make them. Quick in decision, he could make his will effective from day to day over men under the immediate spell of his vibrant personality; yet in projects which required years of consecutive effort his decisions were usually at fault. It would not be fair to one of the most appealing characters in American history to say that he lacked bottom for a long pull; his explorations would refute that. Rather I would say Frémont would go on forever when a task had been set him, as tasks were set him by Nicollet, Benton, and others in the early stages of his career. Under such circumstances his vigilance was almost superhuman, his attention to detail superbly efficient. But if the enterprise was his own, if he was responsible to no one else, his attention flagged. Thus he lost his Golconda fortune; thus he fell into the unsavory fiasco of the Memphis & El Paso; thus he failed of the Presidency.
It was Frémont’s misfortune, too, that he lacked political finesse in a highly political generation. His personality appealed to the masses, but he was forever affronting the leaders without quite knowing how. Moreover, he was too little the intriguer to be quite the complete statesman. He could win, with substantial help from other quarters, California for the Union in 1846, but he was too trusting a nature to hold his feet in the chaos which followed. His court-martial, demanded by the implacable Kearney, was the first setback for a career which ran from poverty to poverty over a succession of victories and defeats, honors and rebuffs.
Nevins tells this wonder tale well and heartily. The story marches; does it march too fast? I think so. While the world is weary of new-style biographies in which heroes are taken apart in order that the reading public may see what makes their souls tick, still Frémont’s soul deserves, in my opinion, rather closer attention than it gets from Mr. Nevins. After all, Frémont’s must have I been a quite unusual soul, judging from the things il caused its possessor to do and the things it caused him to leave undone. A glorious spirit, with a blind spot here and there, for which his biographer apologizes as best he can In the last chapter there is a brave effort to make amends for the objectivity of the tale, but the effort hardly succeeds in answering the ‘whys’ which pop into the reader’s mind as the story of this eventful life draws to a close. A possible diagnosis is that Frémont was at bottom an artist whose whole canvas was a continent. But because the book is so largely a straightforward story of events it ought to win a large and admiring audience among those who like action and dote on ‘Westerns.’ The times were ripe for a judicially fair life of Frémont; and Nevins has answered that call with his usual clarity and competence.