Over the last few years Lake Wobegon, Minnesota (population 942), has become the best-known town of its size in America. Millions of people are sentimentally familiar with its rival Lutheran and Catholic churches; its Chatterbox Cafe, where the specials are always meatloaf and tunafish hotdish; Bertha’s Kitty Boutique (“for persons who care about cats”), and Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery (“If you can’t get it at Ralph’s, you can probably get along without it”).
Lake Wobegon, of course, does not exist; it is the invention of Garrison Keillor, former radio variety-show host and occasional short-story writer. It is known to the world through his show, “Prairie Home Companion,” and the books that grew out of it, Lake Wobegon Days and Leaving Home. Keillor describes his imaginary home town with Balzacian energy and detail. Everyone and everything there interests and excites him, from Father Emil’s hay fever to Irene Bunsen’s attempts to grow the biggest tomato on record (twenty-five ounces). He knows so much about the town and is so eager to share it that Lake Wobegon Days keeps breaking out into long informative footnotes.
A memorable council meeting was that of 5/16/62 to discuss a motion to hold a special election to vote on a bond issue to repair sidewalks and install new streetlights. It was the late Leo Mueller who suggested that with a little more inner light (“Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet”), fewer people would need assistance walking home. He hinted that it was Lutherans who were walking into trees.
At first glance Lake Wobegon is an American pastoral in the comic tradition of Twain and Booth Tarkington, with an occasional slide into the romantic idealism of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. It is a dream of a vanishing America where life makes sense and neighbors know and care about each other, even if they aren’t always speaking. They endure the freezing prairie winters and broiling summers with philosophical stoicism, and express themselves in highly characteristic speech and gesture:
Mr. Berge said to Wally in the Sidetrack [the local bar], “Shees, it’s bin cool out, don’t you think. I thought dey said it was supposta warm up a little, fer crine out loud.” Wally said, “It’s almost October, Berge. It’s going to be getting a lot cooler from here on out right through the end of the year and into the next. It’s not going to warm up any time soon.”
It’s easy for Wally to be a realist. He spends his days in the Sidetrack like a bear in a cave—a cave with green and orange and blue neon beer signs and a bevy of older bears leaning against the bar and belching beer breath.
One of Garrison Keillor’s greatest gifts is his ability to modulate like this from realism to fantasy, or from low farce to high comedy. The range of Keillor’s sympathy is wider than Twain’s, however. It includes not only children and outsiders, but also the most conventional citizens of Lake Wobegon: people like the local Lutheran pastor, David Ingqvist, and his wife:
Advent exhausted them—so much joy and great tidings proclaimed while inside they felt crummy—and before the candlelight service they stood in the vestibule, he in his vestments and she at the head of the children’s choir, and they got in a fight and hissed at each other. “How could you say that to me?” she said.
“I never said any such thing.”
“You certainly did.”
“Oh shut up.”
In this little town, as winter descends, we depend on marriage to get us through, because we can’t be attractive every day on a regular basis, we need loyalty, money in the bank, and if it’s the Church that stands behind marriage, then the Ingqvists’ marriage is crucial to everyone. So then they tried hard to be nice to each other, and that was almost worse. To treat your true love like they are a customer. “Good morning, how are you? What can I do for you today?” They needed to sit in the sun and hear birds cry, paradise birds, non-Lutheran birds, with their sharp cries. Lutheran birds wear brown wool plumage and murmur, “No thanks, none for me, I’m fine, you go ahead,” but these paradise birds in their brilliant orange-and-green silks are all screaming, “MORE MORE MORE! I want MORE MORE MORE!”
Keillor’s attitude toward his imaginary neighbors is affectionate but hardheaded. After a series of comic disasters, the Ingqvists do get away to Florida at the last minute, but their lives are not transformed. At the end of the chapter they are “at Château Suzanne, in the sunshine, listening to birds cry: MORE. But that’s all there is.”
Sometimes a darker chord is sounded. Characters and events appear that recall the grotesques of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. People are obsessed by the fear of cancer and injured in freak accidents; they desert their wives and children. Plump, prim little Mr. Geske misses his dead mother so much that he goes to the cemetery and digs up her grave.
They found her body on a chair in the kitchen. He had set a cup of coffee in front of her and a piece of lemon meringue pie. There was meringue on her lips.
Keillor, in an interview, has said that this incident is based on a true story he heard in North Dakota. “These stories are not common, but still they’re not utterly strange, they happen sometimes. The perils of that little town on the prairie have to be set out: boredom, loneliness, alcohol, self-hatred, and madness.”
Small-town religion, which Keillor usually treats with amused nostalgia, is sometimes shown to have a harsher side. He was brought up as a member of a splinter sect called the Sanctified Brethren, which he describes in terms that recall Samuel Butler and Edmund Gosse. (“We were ‘exclusive’ Brethren, a branch that believed in keeping itself pure of false doctrine by avoiding association with the impure.”) Lake Wobegon Days contains a long, angry outpouring of rage: “95 Theses 95,” which its author (described only as a Lutheran and a “former Wobegonian”) originally intended to nail to the door of his church. The manifesto acccuses his elders of having ruined his life with their teachings:
- You have taught me to worship a god who is like you, who shares your thinking exactly, who is going to slap me one if I don’t straighten out fast. I am very uneasy every Sunday, which is cloudy and deathly still and filled with silent accusing whispers.
- You have taught me to feel shame and disgust about my own body, so that I am afraid to clear my throat or blow my nose. Even now I run water in the sink when I go to the bathroom. “Go to the bathroom” is a term you taught me to use….
The task of the humorist is in its nature contradictory. He (or, less often in our history, she) both destroys and defuses. He can rail at and expose pretensions and lies so that they lose their power; or, by affectionately mocking our flaws, he can encourage us to smile and accept rather than change anything.
The greatest American humorists can be roughly located along this continuum from destroyer to defuser. But if they are to be widely popular they must avoid both extremes. When they become obsessed by the evils of the world, their mockery grows bitter and corrosive; middle-of-the-road audiences reject them as self-righteous moralists or spiteful scolds. Mark Twain in his later years and more recently Lenny Bruce were eventually sucked into the dark whirlpool of constant rage.
Humorists who have too much love for the smiling side of life, on the other hand, may grow lazy and soft. Their wit is blunted, and they begin to reassure their audiences rather than challenge them; they tell the sort of jokes that excuse rather than excoriate evil. Will Rogers, who “never met a man [he] didn’t like” (including, presumably, Warren G. Harding and Benito Mussolini), sometimes seems to be drifting in the direction of these deceptive shallows. Many other lesser humorists have drowned there.
At the moment Garrison Keillor, too, seems nearer to the latter danger than to the former. Like Will Rogers, with whom he shares a rural frontier background, he began with a distrust of the rich and the conviction that most ordinary Americans are decent folks. Also, like Rogers, Keillor is most himself in front of an audience; he does not regard the role he plays on stage as an act, but as his true self.1
Keillor, like Will Rogers, creates an immediate emotional relationship with his listeners:
You can get into a range of powerful feelings with an audience [he recently told an interviewer]: feelings that bring you up to the edge of your endurance, to where you are about to weep and be unable to continue. It’s not pathos, it’s loyalty to the audience and a sense that these people are the people you’re talking about. You must be true to them and true to their lives.
Will Rogers grew up before broadcasting, and always preferred performing on stage; but radio is Keillor’s natural habitat:
A storyteller reaches something like critical mass, passing directly from solid to radio waves without going through the liquid or gaseous phase. You stand in the dark, you hear people leaning forward, you smell the spotlight, and you feel invisible. No scripts, no clock, only pictures in your mind.2
By 1987 Lake Wobegon had made Keillor famous. He was no longer the gangling six-foot-five teen-ager of his reminiscences, a Frog Prince obsessed by acne and sexual guilt, but a media celebrity. He broke up with his long-time girlfriend, Margaret Moos, the producer of his show, and married the beautiful Danish exchange student he had admired when he was a shy, unathletic, self-confessed “dork.” After the last broadcast of “Prairie Home Companion” he left Minneapolis and moved with his wife to Copenhagen. Three months later he was back in America—not in Minnesota, but in New York, and writing for The New Yorker.
It was in some ways a strange move, though Keillor has always had a fascination with the magazine, which he first read at the age of fourteen.
My people weren’t much for literature, and they were dead set against conspicuous wealth, so a magazine in which classy paragraphs marched down the aisle between columns of diamond necklaces and French cognacs was not a magazine they welcomed into their home. I was more easily dazzled than they, and to me The New Yorker was a fabulous sight…. What I most admired was not the decor or the tone of the thing but rather the work of some writers.
When Keillor discovered The New Yorker in the Fifties its portrait of New York had considerable relation to reality. The magazine itself has not changed much, but now it presents a strange, skewed version of the city. To judge by its editorial pages, cartoons, and advertising, New York is still a kind of glorified small town, full of interesting and eccentric persons. Most of its citizens are decent people, its streets are safe, and the scenery is pretty. The New Yorker covers, with their views of Central Park, colorful flower and vegetable stalls, and commuters planting bulbs or raking leaves, underline the illusion.
Meanwhile the real New York is turning into one of the most dangerous, ugly, and corrupt urban centers in the world—and one of the most expensive. It is no longer a place where most of its readers can afford to live; it belongs more and more to the very rich and the destitute. The tense mood of New York in the Eighties seems better represented by New York Magazine.
As yet the change is not complete. There are still pockets of The New Yorker’s city here and there; and Garrison Keillor has set out to find them. His essays in the magazine, and his pieces for its “Talk of the Town” section—unsigned, but recognizable from the down-home diction and wry self-mockery—maintain the fiction of New York as a glorified small town. In the same tone he used in describing Lake Wobegon, Keillor writes of messages left on a department store typewriter, of baseball games, of drives to the country on weekends. Like E. B. White he is a delicately accurate humorist and a brilliant but wholly unpretentious stylist; though he speaks as an educated country bumpkin rather than a New England gentleman of letters, it is White’s place that he now seems to be filling at The New Yorker.
Though Keillor abandoned Lake Wobegon in June of 1987, the town did not die: instead it became a popular tourist attraction. Replays of “Prairie Home Companion” are still broadcast every week on over two hundred stations to large audiences, and Minnesota Public Radio puts out a catalog from which Keillor’s fans can order tapes of the entire show or of his monologues. The catalog also sells T-shirts with the emblem of Keillor’s imaginary sponsor, Powdermilk Biscuits, and others advertising Bertha’s Kitty Boutique (brilliant fuchsia, with a picture showing four monumental cats carved into Mount Rushmore). A Prairie Home Companion Folk Song Book, (from “Billy Boy” to “The Beer was Spilled on the Barroom Floor”) will appear later this month with a foreword by Keillor.
One of the most discouraging things about America today is our tendency to simplify and commercialize whatever is most genuine in our art and literature. A writer who is widely known only as the source of a T-shirt, or the celebrant of a city that no longer exists, is unlikely to attract serious readers. It would be a shame if Garrison Keillor’s originality, his humor, and his understanding of American small-town life were over-looked because of his popularity. But of course Keillor’s story is not over: he may return to Minnesota, or become a partisan political commentator like Will Rogers; he may travel around the world and produce a new version of Innocents Abroad; or he may complete the downbeat novel he is currently working on, in which strangers—perhaps New Yorkers, he says—will invade Lake Wobegon, and there will be a real-estate boom.
Money is there to be made, and the strangers will have all kinds of money to pay for bits of land that nobody thought was particularly valuable. They will bring their lives with them, and the townspeople will also have that to deal with.
Maybe, after all, Garrison Keillor needs to live in New York for a while, as a spy in the camp of the invaders.
November 24, 1988
Rogers was shrewd enough to realize that his success depended on preserving his uneducated cowboy persona. When his wife, just after their marriage, offered to help him correct his mistakes in grammar, his reply was: “Never mind, that’s our bread and butter” (Donald Day, Will Rogers, David McKay, 1962, p. 65). ↩
Though the last performance of “Prairie Home Companion” was televised, Keillor has little sympathy for TV or those who are addicted to it. Describing a walk through Lake Wobegon on a winter night, he writes: “In this big white house are the Kruegers, in their dark living room, watching television, poor things. They sit in the bluish light and from their faces it’s hard to tell if they’re alive or in a persistent vegetative state—maybe it’s time to pull the plug.” ↩