Garrison Keillor Essay - Critical Essays

Garrison Keillor American Literature Analysis

With the publication of his third book, Lake Wobegon Days, Keillor was crowned the new Mark Twain. He has consistently disavowed the epithet, insisting that he has no such grand illusions about his work. He has turned the comparison aside with a jest by remarking that the Eastern literary establishment considers any humorist from west of Eighth Avenue the new Mark Twain.

Still, the comparison is understandable. Keillor, like Twain, is the product of a small town in middle America. Twain’s best work features the mighty Mississippi River, which he had known intimately from boyhood, and off and on for years Keillor’s popular broadcasts have emanated from St. Paul, Minnesota, on the banks of the Mississippi. For The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Twain created the idyllic river town of St. Petersburg, and Keillor portrays life in the mythical hamlet of Lake Wobegon. Like Twain, Keillor is at his best in the short story or sketch, and his long works, like Twain’s, are often a stringing together of such shorter pieces. Both men eventually moved to the East after making their reputations in the West (although Keillor eventually returned to Minnesota). In the latter stages of their careers, both men became more satirical in their treatment of the politics of their day. Some of these parallels are superficial, others less so. It can be said, at least, that Keillor follows in the tradition of Mark Twain and Will Rogers—writers also widely known as performers.

Twain attempted several times to give up his lecture tours but was forced to resume them because of financial need. In 1987, Keillor gave up the radio program that had made him famous with the stated intention of devoting himself exclusively to writing. Although the decision took his fans by surprise, it probably should not have. On his show, he repeatedly referred to himself as a writer, suggesting clearly that his performance on stage was a subsidiary, not his primary, activity. He is, however, a brilliant monologuist with a rich speaking voice and impeccable comic timing. His old-fashioned, leisurely style of storytelling, which does not rely upon gags and never rushes in order to elicit laughter, is unique in modern show business. His regular listeners were understandably unwilling to see him give up something he did so remarkably well. After a few months, he announced that he would resume occasional performances of A Prairie Home Companion. These eventually led to a resumption of the show as again a Saturday night staple of public broadcasting. Keillor, who also has a pleasant singing voice, has regularly sung with his musical guests. He declared that this singing was what he had missed most during his brief absence from radio.

Keillor’s humor has a characteristically gentle tone, but it ranges from good-natured farce to satire that is not always so gentle. He was selling whimsical pieces to The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly as early as 1970. His usual method was to take some American practice bordering upon absurdity and embellish it into hilarity. His spoofs seemed to have no particular political orientation, no ax to grind. The satire was Horatian, gently chiding and essentially free of animus. Stories and sketches from this early period, from 1970 to 1982, were collected in his first successful book, Happy to Be Here.

Keillor’s period of great popularity, both as a writer and a performer, was inaugurated by an article he did on the Grand Ole Opry in the spring of 1974. This piece, which appeared in The New Yorker, was the biggest sale he had made up to that time, but, more important, it started him thinking about the possibility of doing a radio show modeled after the original Grand Ole Opry. Keillor believed that over the years that program had strayed from its original simplicity and lack of pretension. He would attempt to recapture these qualities in a live broadcast done before a theater audience and directed toward whatever group of people would stay home on Saturday evenings to listen to the radio. The result was A Prairie Home Companion.

The show has had an anachronistic quality about it from the beginning. It features old bluegrass and gospel numbers. The central segment of the show has come to be Keillor’s long monologue on the week’s happenings in his imaginary hometown, Lake Wobegon. For many listeners, A Prairie Home Companion is a repository of traditional midwestern—and, by extension, American—virtues. Such adjectives as old-fashioned, wholesome, clean, and decent have been frequently applied to Keillor’s humor.

Lake Wobegon Days was, among other things, a history of the hamlet from its founding to the present day. The book was greeted with overwhelming approval by both the reading public and the critics. In Leaving Home, Keillor rewrote and collected thirty-six Lake Wobegon monologues from the show. We Are Still Married is composed of stories, sketches, letters, and light verse. Although the Keillor persona of the preceding three books still dominates the text, it is fair to say these pieces are more urban, more personal, more political, and more caustic than the earlier work. This book strikes a tone which would evolve and become more pronounced in the books to follow.

To return to the comparison that Keillor resists, it may be that he has attempted to do what Mark Twain also attempted (without much success). Twain eventually became somewhat embarrassed by his frontier persona and wished instead to be remembered as the author of Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896). Keillor’s appealing humor and literary craftsmanship certainly predate his creation of Lake Wobegon, but many of his readers have come to love the residents of that little town and are reluctant to give them up.

Happy to Be Here

First published: 1982

Type of work: Short stories

The fads, fashions, and everyday absurdities of contemporary American life are treated in roughly thirty short comic pieces.

Happy to Be Here is subtitled Stories and Comic Pieces. The original version contains twenty-nine selections and is divided into five parts. An expanded edition appeared the next year. Most of the selections can be classified as short stories, although some are parodies of other genres or brief comic sketches. Most are humorous, although a few are mood pieces that scarcely rely upon humor at all. The book’s title story, which originally appeared in The New Yorker under the title “Found Paradise,” is a monologue by a writer who has left the city for the dubious paradise of a Minnesota farm. It is an example of the polarity found in so much of Keillor’s work: the narrator’s being tugged at simultaneously by the charm—and often the absurdity as well—of rural and small-town life on one hand and the glamour of the city on the other.

The reader meets quite a gallery of characters: The title character in “Jack Schmidt, Arts Administrator” is a private eye who has turned to grantsmanship on behalf of such clients as the Minnesota Anti-Dance Ensemble (they do not believe in performance). Don of “Don: The True Story of a Young Person” is the leader of Trash, a punk-rock band; Trash becomes famous—or notorious—for eating live chickens during its act. Slim of “The Slim Graves Show” presides over a country and western radio program that evolves into a singing soap opera, with the listening audience voting for its favorite member of the love triangle.

In “Friendly Neighbor,” Walter “Dad” Benson is the star of a curious radio show on which the fictional Benson family listens to another show, piped in from an adjoining studio. The show within the show is a dramatization of the family life of the Muellers, equally fictional. Mr. Mueller’s indiscretion at Christmastime, 1958, shocks the midwestern audience by setting such a poor example for Christian listeners, especially during the holy season. Dad strongly states his disapproval of Mr. Mueller’s decision to spend Christmas at his girlfriend’s house rather than with his wife and children. Dad’s audience is not placated, however, having decided that the Bensons probably should not have been listening to The Muellers to begin with; on New Year’s Day, 1959, the parent show, Friendly Neighbor, leaves the air. Keillor’s many years as a broadcaster in the Midwest are apparent throughout Happy to Be Here.

Keillor’s interest in baseball, evident in all of his books, is reflected in several pieces from Happy to Be Here. “Around the Home” is a parody of a sports column, the subject of which is a losing baseball team, the Flyers. Bill Home is sick, and his substitute columnist is a psychologist, much under the influence of I’m OK, You’re OK, a popular self-help work published in 1969. Ed Farr managed the team from a Fourth of July doubleheader until the end of the season, giving the players intense one-to-one and group therapy all along the way. He explains that the problems of the pitching staff resulted from their having suffered “pitcher’s block.” Similar problems in hitting and fielding resulted from the fans sending a clear message that the Flyers were not OK. Farr looks to the coming season with high hopes for his charges’ personal growth and increased self-esteem.

“Attitude” outlines the proper approach to playing slow-pitch softball. One should chatter continuously, spit frequently, pull up tufts of grass, and become involved with dirt. These mannerisms represent real ball and will compensate for any amount of inept play. “The New Baseball” argues that the existential response to modern life is altering the traditions of the game. The emphasis upon performance, the use of umpires, the keeping of the score—all will ultimately disappear. The static conventions of three strikes and three outs will wither away as players become more concerned with experiencing at-batness than with getting hits. The final salutary development will be the abandonment of the arbitrary distinction between player and spectator. “How Are the Legs, Sam?” examines the baseball career of the narrator, who played one game in 1965 and one game in 1966 and has been inactive from 1967 to 1970.

The final section of the book—containing the pieces “The Drunkard’s Sunday,” “Happy to Be Here,” and “Drowning 1954”—is more melancholy or wistful than humorous in tone. The collection represents the sort of work Keillor had been doing as a freelance contributor to The New Yorker; most of the pieces in the book, in fact, appeared originally in that magazine.

Lake Wobegon Days

First published: 1985

Type of work: Short stories

The novel is a portrait of the fictitious Minnesota town—its history and its current inhabitants.

The narrator is Garrison Keillor, but, like Dante in La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), he must be understood to be a fictional character created by the author, not the author himself. The many small narratives are skillfully connected by means of association. The history of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, population 942, is interwoven with present-day events, the narrator’s childhood and adolescence, and his musings on the significance of being a Wobegonian. The two qualities that have defined Lake Wobegon life down through the years are happenstance and patience.

There are two contenders for the title of first European to arrive at what is now Lake Wobegon. In 1836, an Italian, Count Carlo Pallavicini, searching for the headwaters of the Mississippi River, took one look around and decided he was not there. The previous year, a French priest, Father Pierre Plaisir, had visited what the voyageurs came to call Lac Malheur, but, as he mentions nonexistent mountains in his memoir, he may well have been farther to the west.

Next, in the early 1850’s, came a party of Unitarian missionaries from Boston, led by Prudence Alcott, who intended to convert the Indians to Christianity by means of interpretive dance. The New Englanders gave the name New Albion to the village they settled. One of Miss Alcott’s companions, a poet named Henry Francis Watt, composed the first account of Lake Wobegon to reach the East, a poem of 648 lines titled “Phileopolis: A West Rhapsody—Thoughts Composed a Short Distance Above Lake Wobegon.” Watt, armed with the spurious degrees of Ph.D., Litt. D., and D.D. (all conferred upon him by a coffee broker and land speculator named Bayfield), established New Albion College. The college eventually boasted an enrollment of thirty-six but, after a bear ate one of the scholars, only one student remained for the...

(The entire section is 5312 words.)