Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Literary Ruralism (Part III): Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow

I'm in the midst of reading my first Wendell Berry novel, Jayber Crow (The Life Story of Jayber Crow, Barber, of the Port William membership, as Written by Himself).  Port William is the fictitious setting of many of Berry's novels, and it is widely held to be based on Berry's home town, Port Royal, Kentucky, population 64.  The vast majority of the novel is a depiction of rural America, its residents and its ways, and I have been frequently struck in reading it of the similarities between Port William and my home community, not least in the uses of language, the lack of anonymity and other characteristics of the community, the move away from subsistence agriculture.  I anticipate that I will feature various excerpts of the novel in this column in the coming months.

For now, I've just finished reading the part where Jayber describes the decision to close the the Port William School and bus the kids to the county seat 10 miles away.  Jayber (although one really has the sense it is Berry himself talking to the reader) also elaborates on the consequences of that decision.
In 1964, acting on the certified best advice, the official forces of education closed the Port William School.  It was a good, sound building, with swings and see saws and other playthings on the grounds around it, and they just locked the doors and sent the children in buses down to Hargrave.  It was the school board's version of efficiency, economy of scale, and volume.  If you can milk forty cows just as efficiently as twenty, why can't you teach forty children just as efficiently as twenty?  Or for that matter, a hundred or two hundred?   
Having no children of my own, I may have no right to an opinion, but I know that closing that school just knocked the breath out of the community.  It did worse that that.  It gave the community a never-healing wound. 
It was a great personal loss to me, for I had loved seeing the children gathered and let loose, as if the schoolhouse breathed them in and out.  I liked hearing children's voices suddenly set free at the end of the school day.  Some of the teachers, of course, had been bad and some good.  But how good or bad they were Port William knew, and knew without delay.  Whether the parents interfered for good or ill, the school was right there in sight and they at least could interfere.  The school was in the town and it was in the town's talk.   
When the school closed, the town turned more of its attention away from itself.  If people are driving down to Hargrave on school business or for school events, they might as well shop at Hargrave, or get their hair cut there.  Port William lost business.  I did.  I don't want to sound mercenary, but of course a community, to be a community, has to do a certain amount of business within itself.  Did someone think it could be different?   
pp 279-280.

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