A great friend of the blog shared a fascinating book recently. The Grains, or, Passages in the Life of Ruth Rover, with Occasional Pictures of Oregon, Natural and Moral was published in 1854.
|Original 1854 title page|
via Wikipedia/Oregon Encyclopedia
The book is many things.
For one, it is a candidate for one of the very first novels written in Oregon. I say candidate because while some critics and historians stretch call it a "novel," I can't read it as one. It's thinly disguised (if at all) autobiography and really has the form of a kind of literary scrapbook. It's a pastiche of letters, journal entries, commentary on other published documents, and finally some episodic narrative. There's not really a story. It's not picaresque even in the tradition of Don Quixote or Huckleberry Finn. Or fully epistolary like Pamela or Clarissa. Maybe in form it anticipates (as in theme it surely must) something like Lessing's Golden Notebook, which I have not read. Earlier this year the obituaries for Bel Kaufman highlighted Up the Down Staircase, which also sounds similar.
Readers who have read more widely may know more about mid-19th century forms, especially those written by women, and about innovative 20th century forms, and might have more incisive things to say.
Apart from ways in which the book might be interesting formally, in a normal readerly experience, as a whole it's not a satisfying aesthetic work.
It's ranty, is what it is.
Maybe that shouldn't be surprising. In the pre-settlement and very early settlement eras, you had to be a little crazy to give up everything, get on a ship for half a year or more, and to settle in a strange country with a handful of fellow missionaries, whom you didn't know and might not even have liked.
In January of 1837 Margaret Jewett Smith left Boston on a ship and traveled with David Leslie to join Jason Lee at the Willamette Mission.
Her time at the Mission was not pleasing. It was more like a disaster for her. Between the intensely sexist patriarchal social structure at the Mission and her own propensity for self-sabotage, things didn't work out and Margaret was miserable.
After a bit more than a decade of additional experiences outside of the Mission, culminating in a bold and very rare divorce proceeding, Margaret composed The Grains with a view towards defending and vindicating herself.
Published in 1854, it's a rare peek into pre-Statehood settlement and society (such as it was), but it also is a testament to Margaret's tremendous sense of being wronged. It is a difficult work in many ways, but it also complicates our picture of Salem's origins.
And Jason Lee is one of the central figures.