Does Garrison Keillor come out of literature or radio? He’s now filled at least five books—two of them very good books—with stories, monologues, vignettes, anecdotes, poems, letters, and snippets describing life in the small Minnesota town he calls Lake Wobegon. But a fair portion of this material was delivered live on the Satur-day night radio show A Prairie Home Companion, surely one of the enduring triumphs of public broadcasting. Here’s Mr. Keillor describing how that worked:
The last live show on June 13  was pretty typical. Chet Atkins and Leo Kottke played guitar, a Hawaiian school choir sang in Hawaiian, Jean Redpath sang and Stevie Beck played the Autoharp and I sang with Rich Dworsky’s Orchestra, Tom Keith and Kate Mackenzie starred in an episode of “Buster the Show Dog,” and Vern Sutton sang “Stars and Stripes Forever,” with the mighty white Wurlitzer played from the pit by Philip Brunelle as Tom made excellent rocket sounds and the audience clapped and at the climax Vern crashed a pair of cymbals—classic American entertainment, in other words—and in the third half hour I strolled out and told a story as per usual. I stood at the microphone, looked up into the lights, and let fly. If the crowd got restless, I sat down on a stool, which caught their interest, and if they rustled again, I stood up. After twenty minutes or as soon as the story came to an extremely long pause, I stopped and said, “That’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and all the children above average,” and walked off.
Then he adds this:
Standing at stage center with your toes to the footlights, you’re as close to a thousand people as you can conceivably be. Out there on the prairie where even close friends tend to stand at arm’s length, such intimacy on a grand scale is shocking and thrilling and 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 spotlights, and you feel invisible. No script, no clock, only pictures in your mind that the audience easily sees, they sit so close.
Let fly he did, on and on, year after year, and from the stories that flew out of those evenings came Lake Wobegon Days, Leaving Home, We Are Still Married, Wobegon Boy, Lake Wobegon Summer 1956, and a few others that have slipped by me.
From the passages just quoted it might be argued that the student of Garrison Keillor needn’t bother seeking his origins among the usual suspects: Winesburg, Ohio, the Spoon River Anthology, O.E. Rolvaag, Hamlin Garland, or, more distantly, the rural stories of Chekhov, Gogol, or Turgenev. Keillor’s earlier masters were more likely Arthur…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.