The Township School
This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.
When the American poet, William Cullen Bryant, traveled to the Illinois prairie in 1832 to visit a brother in Princeton, he was already famous and influential in New York. No doubt school children were already having to memorize long sections of "Thanatopsis": To him, who in the love of nature holds/Communion with her visible forms, she speaks/A various language..."
Critics called Bryant "the American Wordsworth," a tribute to the way in which he romanticized nature. The Illinois prairie, that vast sea of grass, fueled Bryant’s romantic imagination. Except for one disturbing thing. As he and his brother toured the prairies around Princeton, they could not help but notice the little district schoolhouses every few miles, sitting by themselves in treeless crossroads corners, unpainted and little cared for.
The bleak schoolhouses contrasted with the fine farmyards, with their painted houses and barns, decorated with trees, shrubs, and vines. And with the lush prairie itself. There was simply not enough money to support this multitude of one-room pioneer schoolhouses.
When Bryant returned to New York, he used his influence to set up a fund to build a township high school there, a school consolidating the smaller, poorer schools in a grander building.
Meanwhile, his brother John back in Princeton caught his brother's vision. Although Princeton at the time was no more than an inn, three stores, and several log cabins, and although all of surrounding Bureau County had no more than three dozen families, John's efforts soon resulted in construction of the first township school in Illinois.
None of this freed school children from having to memorize "Thanatopsis.” Even now, if you are over fifty, the last few lines are likely emerging from your memory: "So live, that when thy summons comes to join/The innumerable caravan, which moves/To that mysterious realm..." But at least the poet saw to it that you memorized it sitting at a comfortable desk in a well-lit, pleasant classroom.
Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.