Jessie Benton Fr'emont. Biography of a popular 19th century American woman

Jessie Benton Fr'emont, American Woman of the 19th Century, by Pamela Herr, New York: Franklin Watts. 496 pp. $24.95. THE facts of Jessie Benton Fr'emont's life sound like details of a romantic historical novel: passion; politics; adventure; American history encompassing Westward expansion, California gold, the Civil War; great wealth spent lavishly, lost foolishly; a handsome, flawed, popular hero and his lovely, loyal, resourceful wife. But Pamela Herr has written a solid, thoughtful biography that is sensitive, never sentimental.

Favorite daughter of a United States senator, Thomas Hart Benton, Jessie eloped at 17 with the glamorous Western explorer John Charles Fr'emont. She helped him write readable and widely acclaimed reports of his discoveries, discovering in herself a talent she used in later years. She followed him to California - a perilous trip across the isthmus of Panama by dugout, mule, and steamer.

When Fr'emont was the first Republican Party candidate for the US presidency in 1856, she campaigned at his side, inspiring eager crowds to shout, ``Jessie! Jessie! Give us Jessie!'' and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child to write: ``What a shame women can't vote! We'd carry `our Jessie' into the White House on our shoulders, wouldn't we.'' During the Civil War, she was called ``General Jessie'' for her active - and controversial - role while her husband was a major general.

Made wealthy by gold from John's California exploits, the Fr'emonts lived in great luxury. When they were impoverished by John's financial mismanagement, Jessie supported her family by writing for a popular children's magazine. Despite her husband's wanderings, failures, and infidelities, she was always a loyal wife. Jessie conformed to the conventions of 19th-century society and at the same time escaped some of its constraints.

Herr sets off each chapter with quotations from contemporary writers that aptly characterize Victorian attitudes toward women and 19th-century women's own aspirations. She sees Jessie as ``shaped - and warped'' by ``the repressions and reticences of her time,'' speculating about what her talent and drive might have achieved had she lived 100 years later.

This carefully researched, balanced account of an ``American woman of the 19th century'' takes her life off the semi-fiction shelf and puts it where it belongs: in the serious history of women.

Ruth Johnstone Wales is on the Monitor's staff.

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