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.
Paranoia and Persecution
Even before you start the book proper, on the cover the epigraph announces its theme:
Thou monster Evil—stand forth!It's a nearly Manichean fight.
And in whatever garb thou mayst appear,—
Whether harlot,—villain,—priest or Pope,—
I challenge thee to single combat.
Though there's a one-page preface, The Grains proper starts with Chapter 1, and the first words take up the theme of persecution and fight, this time with less ringing confidence. You can also see the layered, not-quite Kierkagaardian but still labyrinthine, composition as the third person alter-ego cites her own letter, presumably an actual one of Margaret's:
On the subject of this publication, Miss Rover, in a note to a friend, dated June 13th, '54, after referring to some insults and opposition to which she had lately been subjected...saysThe combination of excessive precision in dating and the persecution complex suggests a kind of derangement that today would probably have a psychiatric diagnosis!
...My conscience asserts most positively and approvingly, that, in all my dreadful trials, I have endeavored to perform my duty, faithfully and perseveringly...burying within my own bosom the injustice and injuries which have been done me; and there the remembrance of them would have remained had my enemies been content to have suffered me to pursue my course in peace. But...I am avoided, and shunned, and slighted, and regarded with suspicions in every place, till my life is more burdensome than death would be.
But Margaret is canny, too, not at all completely unhinged, and the book is constructed so it seems nearly impossible to have a nuanced and complex understanding of it - that is, Margaret successfully forces a reader into an either-or dualism, either with her or against her, and by her own authorial strategies excludes the middle grey of ambiguity and ambivalence that are almost certainly closest to "the truth."
Consequently, her alter-ego, Ruth Rover, is not a reliable narrator and rather than drawing my sympathy towards her, it causes me to approach her and her claims with caution. Not surprisingly, like most of us she sees herself much less clearly than she sees others.
Still, many have read her with great sympathy, chiefly as innocent victim of the patriarchy:
Increasing domestic troubles and daily associations with squaw wives of Champoeg district farmers, are believed to have moved her to writing, much of which reflected the loneliness of her life....A sensitive and personal study of married life, [The Grains] early disappeared from public attention...And she was a victim in this sense also. The loneliness would be intense in ways hardly imaginable for our facebooked society today. And the first wave of missionaries and pioneers were so independent and cemented in a patriarchal social order they were often downright anti-social, not very nice at all. The line between "rugged frontier individualist" and sociopath might not be as clear as we'd like!
Jason Lee was Incompetent
In Margaret's telling, though, some things stand out as probable. One of them is that those first Missionaries and founders of Salem were neither paragons of virtue nor of character.
|Worthy of Respect or "deficient in judgment"?|
The Original Pioneer of Empire, who scaled the Rocky Mountains and tracked the desert plains that he might save the Red Man of the Pacific Coast! Blessed Man more honored in Heaven than on Earth!Today we can only read this with irony, but local hagiography, the same urge behind the statue, continues at least some of it:
Lee’s humble and farsighted leadership, and his determined strength, make him unique... These characteristics of self-sacrifice and exceptional leadership set him apart as worthy of [the statue in Washington, DC].Margaret's description rings more truthfully. She describes Jason Lee and sketches reasons for the failure of the Mission:
The Rev. Jason Lee was a good man, and possessed the true missionary spirit. He was devotedly pious, ardent and dauntless, but deficient in judgment; easily influenced by those whom he considered his superiors, but obstinate and unyielding to his inferiors. His great forte was in talking. He could keep the whole body of the people around him, listening to his conversation and waiting for his nod, but he could not set them to work or decide on any work for himself which gave him satisfaction...Margaret was writing this, of course, a decade after the Missionary Board replaced Jason Lee with George Gary in 1844, and it's likely her writing reflects this.
The fact was, he could not with a glance see what should be done, and resolve upon it. He had located the mission in a wrong place and was unable to determine how to get out of it, and being too easily influenced by others his mind was ever vascillating [vacillating] and fluctuating.....
Mismanagement and waste both operated to the ruin of the enterprise. There was very little done because there were so few to labor—nobody labored because the work belonged to no one.
But the fact is, Lee was "fired." Today we'd probably say he was a great talker and "sales guy," maybe even a bit of a con, and not a manager.
If Lee was Incompetent, William Willson seems kinda Evil!
Not surprisingly in this very early stage of settlement, there were many more men than women, and in the patriarchal order, unmarried women were not exactly allocated as property but were in demand and pressure was high. After initially refusing, Ruth accepted Mr. Wiley's suit, but things got complicated. As "Reverend Mr. Leland" and "Mr. Wiley" David Leslie and William Willson try to resolve things by accusations of "fornication." This is a striking passage in the book.
IT cannot be supposed, considering the scarcity of females in Oregon in the days of its early settlement, that Ruth Rover, even with as few fascinations as she possessed, could be long in the country without receiving an offer of marriage—whether it were dictated by love or as a matter of convenience—consequently, she had been but a few days in the Willamette settlement when a very officious gentleman said to her, "Well, sister Ruth, I suppose you will have no objections to marry? it is pretty generally understood that the young ladies come out ostensibly on that errand, although they profess to be teachers"....It is impossible to know what exactly happened. Housing was also scarce, and it seems William and Margaret had been sharing the same room during an engagement period. She writes, "Boarding with him for several months has given me an opportunity to become thoroughly acquainted with him." Whether this means they shared the same bed it's not possible to say. As Edmund Morgan wrote about the Puritans, "the number of cases in which couples confessed to fornication during the period of their espousals suggests that Puritans possessed no more restraint than other human beings." And, back to Margaret's time, that there were "two methodist ministers who were guilty of that error" suggests the Methodists were no different.
...Rev. Mr. Leland, pastor of the church, who called on Miss Rover, in company with Mr. Wiley, and said he had come on an unpleasant errand, but if she would take the proper steps it might be soon passed over, and then asked her, as he said, "'in the authority of her pastor, if she had committed the crime of adultery or fornication with Mr. Wiley?"
She, astonished, replied quickly, "No!"
He then asked Mr. Wiley if he had "been guilty of committing that crime with Miss Rover?"
He attempted to answer, but his deeply wrought feelings choked his utterance, and he only articulated, "O! dear!—I—I—am in the hands of my brethren—they—they—may do as they ple—ple—ase with me!"
Mr. Leland then told Ruth that "her best course would be to confess her fault, and 'twould be all over—'twould not hurt her at all—the brethren would forgive her—he knew of two methodist ministers who were guilty of that error—before marriage, but they confessed it and it was all passed over. But he would have her remember that if she refused to confess, it was in his power to suspend her labors in that mission."
Ruth replied that she was not at all disinclined to make confession of any wrong act of which she was guilty—that she fully and freely confessed she had done wrong in keeping company with Mr. Wiley after he had proposed improper intercourse with her, but the crime of which he spoke she never had committed with him nor with any other.
Mr. Leland added: "'Twill not do—you must acknowledge it, for the brethren will be satisfied with nothing else!" and having told her he should call again, he went away.
In a few hours he came again with a paper on which was written:
"To the M. E. Church in Oregon:
"DEAR BRETHREN—With deep regret I have to acknowledge to you that I have been guilty of the crime of fornication.—hoping God to forgive me," &c.
He asked Ruth to sign it. She read it and gave it to him again, saying she was not guilty.
But apart from the unknowable question of "what really happened," the coercive nature of the attempt at a forced "confession" is very troubling. Even if there was consent in the past, there was no consent going forward.
This probably shouldn't surprise us. In this isolated very early-settlement society there were many acts of both impersonal and intimate nature that were likely secured with some kind of coercion. Independent women in the 19th century were hardly known. Just look at the career of someone as profoundly great as George Elliot. Outside of the city and outside of the 26 states of the United States, pioneer society could be brutish, nasty, and short. Both of Jason Lee's wives died very young, one in childbirth, for example.
Later on in The Grains, Ruth Rover suggests Mr. Wiley's lack of piety, and even religious hypocrisy, confirms her own innocence:
Fourteen years have elapsed since the occurrences we have named. Mr. Wiley has been urged and encouraged by Rev. Mr. Leland to the occupancy of the pulpit and offices in the church, as well as to public offices, for which, however, he was totally inadequate, on every possible occasion, and he may be seen on every Sabbath day, in the methodist church in Salem, sitting in the altar, leaning his head upon the pulpit, with as much complacency as the loved disciple leaned his head on the bosom of his Lord—or hurrying officiously through the aisles of the church into the pulpit or gallery, with all the apparent consciousness of superior piety and influence.Margaret's Fantasy of Justice
While on the other hand, Ruth Rover, although her life since that period, as well as before, has been unimpeachable; lately passed six months in that town, and in their very midst, and not one individual of that mission family spoke to her during the time. Once Ruth extended her hand, gratuitously, to Mr. Leland, feeling grateful that he had not attempted to injure her cause in court—although, perhaps, had he been interrogated he would have been glad to have done it. Aside from this, the prisoner "Sellers" was not treated with more contempt than herself.
And she goes further. Mostly powerless, Margaret might have felt she could obtain justice only through a fantasy. As Ruth, Margaret seems to blame divine Providence for showering, even punishing, David Leslie with misfortune on account of his mistreatment of her.
She had relied on Rev. Mr. Leland, in leaving home and sacrificing her father and inheritance, as on a "father." She was an orphan in a strange land. Her suspicions against his character for veracity were well supported in the mission, as well as elsewhere—and if Mr. Leland was not guilty in this not Heaven, who befriends the up right, have protected and befriended this man?Margaret can't let bygones be bygones. Not only does she have to prove her own innocence over and over, but she feels impelled to secure punishment against those who have wronged her. On the one hand this is mean and low, but on the other hand, fairness in "higher" forms of justice are not available to her. It cannot be overstated that she doesn't have other recourse.
It is written: "It were better for a man that a mill-stone were hung about the his neck and he were drowned in the depths of the sea, than that he should offend of these little ones which believe in me." If Ruth Rover could not claim to be one of the "little ones" who served her God in strict purity of life, she could claim to be one who did "believe" in Him, and his belief was ever the guiding star of her life. But for this belief—this super-human existence—no mortal could have endured the intense burdens which me, nor been her lot to bear for a term of sixteen years.
But what have been the indications of providence towards Mr. Leland? While we feel disposed to "lay our finger upon our lips and distrust our own judgment," we will say, in our humble opinion, they have been that of disapprobation. When we consider the burning of his house and property—the loss of his wife—three children carried over into the chasm of the falls—another daughter dying at Oahu—his barn burnt—another child buried—and sickness and infirmity on every hand, we cannot, even while we feel disposed to extend sympathy and commisseration [commiseration] for his afflictions, we cannot help coming to conclusion.
Then you have to ask, does Margaret's fantasy of punishment here compromise readings that ascribe veracity to details elsewhere? If you think she's unhinged on this, how much does that compromise her other details?
I'm inclined to read her with a lot of sympathy. I think you have to hold two things in mind at the same time, things that stand in decided tension, close to contradiction, but which ultimately do not cancel each other:
- She was nuts, a little or a lot crazy
- She had hugely important and true things to say about the Mission and its men
The Ambiguity of History and its Refinement in Heritage
Ruth Rover goes on to discuss Margaret's departure from the Mission and her subsequent unhappy marriage to Dr. William Bailey. William participated in the Provisional Government, but he was also pretty clearly an alcoholic and a brute, and used episodes of domestic violence to dominate Margaret. He was not nice at all. In a highly unusual move, she finally divorced him after a decade of marriage.
So here we have two "founders" of Salem, Lee and Willson, and another of the wider area in Bailey, who don't after all seem like they merit so much respect. (Not to mention "Ass-a-Hell" Bush, as nicknamed by Thomas Jefferson Dyer.) They weren't nice to the indigenous peoples, and they weren't nice to women. Maybe they weren't nice to anyone. It's not just that by our standards today we might critique them, a move a historian won't endorse, it's that by a contemporary, a peer, they seemed so wrong, so profoundly unfair and hurtful.
Jason Lee's second home, the one he built in Salem in 1841, is with us, relocated and restored, at the woolen mill.
|1841 Jason Lee House, now relocated and restored|
at the Willametter Heritage Center
For more see Virginia Green's "Moving History"
(Image: Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives
via Wikimedia Commons)
We can't know all the ways that Ruth Rover is truthful and fictional. But reading it is a powerful corrective to the hagiography of Salem's Pioneer Heritage.
So maybe Mark Hatfield is a better candidate than Jason Lee for a statue - though my vote would go to Tom McCall, who was a greater force for transformation and for the Oregon of today than Hatfield.
|Tom McCall's Official Portrait - Henk Pander|
Full text of the Grains
Bailey at the Oregon Encyclopedia
Bailey at Wikipedia
Chloe Clark Willson and William Willson and Jason Lee and David Leslie at Salemhistory.net