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Margaret Jewett Bailey’s 1854 novel ‘The Grains’ is a flawed success about frontier Oregon

The autobiographical novel suffers from jumbled organization but nevertheless provides a revealing look at 19th-century Oregon life.


Margaret Jewett Bailey’s The Grains, an early Oregon novel and one of the first written on the Pacific Coast, remains a flawed success.  Despite its jumbled organization and one-sided authorial approach, it is a memorable and revealing picture of important facets of frontier Oregon life. Bailey tells an intriguing story about the frontier and her personal life from the 1830s to the 1850s. This is a book that Oregonians should know about — and read.

Bailey was born Margaret Smith in 1812 and raised on the East Coast. As a young woman from a religious home, she early on felt called to do missionary work. In 1837, she came west to work in Jason Lee’s Oregon mission. She served as a teacher at the Lee mission for a short time, then as a wife in the Champoeg and Salem areas, and finished her life in the Washington Territory.


The Grains (full title: The Grains or Passages in the Life of Ruth Rover, With Occasional Pictures of Oregon, Natural and Moral) is a book of diverse parts.  It is part autobiographical, part historical happenings, a catalog of letters, documents, and poetry, and still something of a novel — all of these. Renaming herself Ruth Rover, the author also gives new names to several of the leading characters.  The first half of the book deals with Smith/Rover’s life from girlhood through her first years as a missionary.  The heroine’s assertive personality is showcased early on.

She disobeys her father, who asks her to remain at home caring for the family, she disagrees with a missionary leader on the way to Oregon, and soon finds herself at odds with most of the mission leaders, including Lee.  At the mission, her major activities reflect her overarching desire to help the Indians, teach Native children, provide clothing for the wives and mothers, and look after the health needs of entire families. Because several of the mission leaders think Ruth too self-directed and unwilling to follow their commands, they disagree with her endeavors, leading to ongoing friction.


Oregon Cultural Trust

The second half of The Grains moves in new directions. The focus is on Ruth’s personal life, especially her relations with men, an unsatisfactory marriage, and trying to deal with an unhappy life. When Margaret/Ruth arrives in Oregon, she is one of a few single women at the Lee mission. That status puts pressure on her to marry. The assertive Mr. Wiley (William H. Willson), urges Ruth to marry him.  When she refuses, he accuses her of sexual intimacies with him.  Ruth denies the charge but, under pressure, admits that it happened. 

Those charges push her out of the mission, but coercion to marry continues. So, she does — to Dr. Binney (Dr. William J. Bailey) in 1839. It is an ongoing marital disaster. Hard-headed, alcoholic, and disloyal to his religious commitments, Dr. Binney remains a heavily flawed and ultimate failure as a husband. Ruth tries to keep the marriage together in the ups and downs of the next 15 years but fails despite her consistent efforts. As the narrator of these happenings, Ruth defends her actions and claims she did her best in an impossible situation.  Ruth’s divorce from Binney ends the book.

The Grains grabbed the attention of several newspaper reviewers in Oregon. The most outspoken — and negative — was the anonymous Squills for The Oregonian. Disliking a work by a woman author, Squills criticized the novel’s “school mam” style, “intolerable” autobiographical contents, and over-emphases on piety. He hesitated to dismiss the work as “trash,” but reminded readers it was the product of an overly ambitious woman writer. Other Oregon critics were equally negative; none gave the work a positive review.

After her divorce from Dr. Bailey and the publication of The Grains, Margaret’s life was largely filled with more disappointments. In 1855, one year after her first union ended, Margaret married Francis Waddle in Salem; they divorced in 1859. Thereafter, Margaret’s name rarely appeared in Oregon newspapers. She left Oregon, probably in the 1870s, and moved to Washington Territory, where she married a third time, to a Mr. Crane. She died penniless from lung fever in the Seattle area in 1882.

What should be the major takeaways from M.J. Bailey’s The Grains? We should recognize and accept its shortcomings: its disorganization, the author’s excessive self-appreciation, and its lack of a strong introduction and conclusion. But more important are its achievements.  Here we have a revealing work of fiction by a woman writer. It discloses much about the limitations of the Jason Lee mission, about women’s roles at the mission, and the treatment of Native Americans. Even more revealing are the personal elements of an ambitious, idealistic woman who must live with and try to overcome a series of disappointments.

The achievements of The Grains remain noteworthy for modern-day readers. The work continues as a wonderful beginning place for those interested in classic Oregon books.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Richard W. Etulain, a specialist in the history and literature of the American West, is the author or editor of 60 books. He is professor emeritus of history and former director of the Center for the American West at the University of New Mexico.  He also served as editor of the New Mexico Historical Review. Among his best-known books are Stegner: Conversations on History and Literature(1983, 1996) and Re-imagining the Modern American West: A Century of Literature, History, and Art(1996). Etulain holds a PhD from the University of Oregon (1966) and taught at Idaho State University (1970-79) and the University of New Mexico (1979-2001).  He served as president of both the Western Literature and Western History associations.  He now lives in the Portland area with his wife, Joyce, a retired children's librarian.


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