Garrison Keillor 1942–
(Born Gary Edward Keillor) American novelist, essayist, scriptwriter, and short story writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Keillor's career through 1995. For more information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 40.
Garrison Keillor is best known for his creation of the fictional Minnesota town of Lake Wobegon, and for the trademark opening statement of his radio show, "It's been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my hometown." His stories from Lake Wobegon appeared on his syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion" and in two collections of short stories. Keillor's down home humor and gentle satire have endeared him to listeners across America. His radio show evokes the feeling of family-oriented programs that were popular during the 1930s and 1940s, and his written work retains the qualities of oral storytelling found in his monologues.
Keillor was born in Anoka, Minnesota, in 1942. After attending high school in his hometown, Keillor left to attend the University of Minnesota. In 1969 he began writing for The New Yorker, a publication he had always admired. In 1974 he was sent to cover a story about the Grand Ole Opry, and it inspired him to create a live variety show for radio. The result was Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion," which ran from April 1974 to June 1987. The program steadily gained popularity and became nationally syndicated in 1980, making Keillor a celebrity. Keillor wrote his first book, Lake Wobegon Days (1985), a collection of short stories based on the monologues from his radio show. Keillor ceased production of the show in 1987 and moved with his wife to Copenhagen, Denmark, where they lived a short time before returning to America and settling in New York. Keillor once again worked for The New Yorker and continued to write stories about Lake Wobegon in Leaving Home (1987). He also published additional collections of short stories, essays, and a novel. After a change of editors, Keillor left The New Yorker, but continues to contribute pieces to The New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly. In 1990 Keillor resurrected his radio program as "American Radio Company," and in 1993 he changed the name back to "A Prairie Home Companion." In addition, Keillor hosts a poetry program, "The Writer's Almanac."
Much of Keillor's written work derives from his radio show, "A Prairie Home Companion." The premise of the show, originally done for Minnesota Public Radio, is based on Keillor's fictional hometown of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. The format of the show featured Keillor sharing news from the town interspersed with an eclectic variety of music. The stories are obtained from the town's fictional residents with whom Keillor ostensibly remains in touch. The show's authenticity extends to fictional sponsors from Lake Wobegon businesses such as the Chatterbox Cafe, Ralph's Grocery, and Bunsen Motors. The residents of Lake Wobegon resist change and technology and live a simple life. Keillor's narratives of town life are often rambling, unformed, and full of sensory detail, and he creates his imaginary world by adding layer upon layer of convincing detail. He typically uses a first-person central narrative voice. Keillor's descriptions of the town include a great deal of negativity, but he always reaffirms the town's values. The stories in both Lake Wobegon Days and Leaving Home are based on the monologues from the radio show. Keillor has attempted to extend his talent beyond the sphere of Lake Wobegon. His short-story collection We Are Still Married (1989) contains celebrations of life, love, and simple pleasures. His first novel, WLT: A Radio Romance (1991) is written in the form of radio segments and tells the story of life behind the scenes at a radio station. Keillor's The Book of Guys (1993) is a collection of stories about middle-class, middle-aged men struggling to survive in the contemporary world. The stories are tilled with quips about domesticity, demanding women, and bodily functions.
Reviewers often focus on the oral quality of Keillor's work, from his radio monologues to his written fiction. Michael Kline states that, "One of Keillor's greatest skills as a narrator is to use both oral and literate discourse features in complement, a practice which supports the view that there is no absolute dichotomy between written and spoken forms of language." Critics also note the folksy, down-home nature of his themes, which tend to celebrate and uphold the values of small-town America. However, some critics complain that Keillor represents an overly sentimental and nostalgic view of small-town life. Reviewers often compare Keillor to Mark Twain, Will Rogers, and James Thurber. Many discuss Keillor's use of humor, including his ability to laugh at himself. Philip Greasley states, "Aside from the interest factor, Keillor's humor functions regularly as a leavening, softening agent, easing the harshness of criticism and heightening audience acceptance of his social commentary." WLT: A Radio Romance, Keillor's his first novel, did not receive the approval that his shorter works garnered. Reviewers conclude that the structure of the book, based on radio segments, is too limiting to the create a full story. Elizabeth Beverly says, "[Keillor] is learning to work in a medium which, in this case, has resisted him."
G. K. the D. J. (short stories) 1977
The Selected Verse of Margaret Haskins Durber (poetry) 1979
A Prairie Home Companion Anniversary Album (recording) 1980
The Family Radio (recording) 1982
Happy to Be Here (short stories) 1982
News from Lake Wobegon (recording) 1982
Prairie Home Companion Tourists (recording) 1983
Ten Years on the Prairie: A Prairie Home Companion 10th Anniversary (recording) 1984
Gospel Birds and Other Stories of Lake Wobegon (recording) 1985
Lake Wobegon Days (novel) 1985
A Prairie Home Companion: The Final Performance (recording) 1987
Leaving Home (short stories) 1987
We Are Still Married (short stories and letters) 1989
WLT: A Radio Romance (novel) 1991
The Book of Guys (short stories) 1993
Cat, You Better Come Home (children's literature) 1995
The Old Man Who Loved Cheese (children's literature) 1996
The Sandy Bottom Orchestra [with Jenny Lind Nilsson] (children's literature) 1997
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SOURCE: "The Distance Between Gopher Prairie and Lake Wobegon: Sinclair Lewis and Garrison Keillor on the Small Town Experience," in Centenniel Review, Vol. 31, Fall, 1987, pp. 432-46.
[In the following essay, Miller compares and contrasts Keillor's and Sinclair Lewis's portrayal of small-town life.]
When Garrison Keillor took stories and characters which he's been developing for a decade on his radio program, "Prairie Home Companion," and expanded and reworked them into a book, the resulting Lake Wobegon Days quickly shot up to the top of the best seller lists and earned the tall (6′4″), lanky Minnesota humorist cover stories in such publications as Time, Saturday Evening Post, and The New York Times Book Review. Like another tall, skinny writer who came from a town just up the road a ways, Keillor has become an unmistakable presence on the American scene. At age thirty-five, Sinclair Lewis was eight years younger than Keillor when he burst on the literary scene in 1920 with Main Street, a novel that, more than any other literary work of its time, redefined the way in which Americans thought about their small towns. "Main Street broke into the literary atmosphere like an explosion, like something absolutely new and absolutely devastating, not only unlike anything Sinclair Lewis had done before but unlike anything that anyone had done before," according to Mark...
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SOURCE: A review of Leaving Home, in The New York Times Book Review, October 4, 1987, p. 9.
[In the following review, Gray states that, "At their best these stories are contemporary folk tales of American comic-karma … [a]t their worst many of these stories are like honey-coated breakfast cereal."]
For years I have listened to National Public Radio's evening news program "All Things Considered," and often on Saturdays I would forget that it was cut from 90 to 60 minutes to make room for a show called "A Prairie Home Companion." Not being one to turn off my radio until I'm outright offended, I passively left it on, and that's how Garrison Keillor slowly crept into my life. He seemed if not a remedy to the news at least a soft escape, an alternative to a third martini. Like Mr. Keillor, I perform monologues myself for a living, so I would often force myself to stay tuned through all that tacky sexless music to try to find out why that golden voice was, if not better than, then at least more popular than mine.
To be both true to yourself and at the same time capture the American imagination was something for me both feared and desired. So after my second martini I would sit back in a proper receptive haze and begin to listen. But always somewhere at the beginning, just after Garrison Keillor got warmed up, my girlfriend, Renée, would charge into the room yelling, "Turn that...
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SOURCE: "Goodbye, Garrison," in The Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 11, 1987, pp. 1, 12.
[In the following review, Sullivan discusses the picture of Lake Wobegon which emerges from Keillor's Leaving Home, and how one realizes in many of the stories that the place does not exist.]
In his introduction, written from his new home in Copenhagen, Garrison Keillor recalls his monologues on the "Prairie Home Companion" radio show as "seances." Exactly, and there must have been some nervousness about committing them to print.
But the spell holds. Those who enjoyed hearing the news from Lake Wobegon, Minnesota—how Wally's pontoon boat sank with the 24 Lutheran ministers on board; how Florian Krebsbach absent-mindedly left his wife Myrtle behind at the truck stop, to the refreshment of their marriage; how Lyle Krebsbach, Florian's son, finally came to an understanding with himself about getting his roof fixed, although this would mean consulting his handy brother-in-law, Carl; how Clarence Bunsen found a new enlightenment after suffering a near-near-death experience (possibly) in the shower—will also enjoy reading about these adventures.
Keillor doesn't ramble as much in type as he did on the air. That won't bother everybody. But he still likes to head the story down a gravel turnoff and then, just when nothing at all looks familiar, hook up with the main...
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SOURCE: "Narrative Strategies in Garrison Keillor's 'Lake Wobegon' Stories," in Studies in American Humor, Vol. 6, 1988, pp. 129-41.
[In the following essay, Kline analyzes the different narrative approaches Keillor uses in his monologues about Lake Wobegon.]
Garrison Keillor's immensely popular Lake Wobegon episodes, recounted for thirteen years (1974–1987) on his "A Prairie Home Companion" radio show, constitute a comic soap opera masterfully crafted by an expert storyteller. Given its radio format, Keillor's humor is managed by the strategies of oral presentation, differentiating it from written versions of the tales in Lake Wobegon Days, or even the modified radio monologues of Leaving Home, since oral presentation entails different modalities of grammar and rhetoric, elements of style, and paralinguistic features such as voice quality. Yet, in our print-based, literate culture, so far removed from the artistic traditions of societies in which the oral mode predominates, it is unlikely that a story-teller would achieve popular success merely by adopting the techniques of the bard. Alongside oral narrative techniques there exist in Keillor's monologues narrative strategies that we usually associate with written texts by virtue of their complexities of voice and mode. One of Keillor's greatest skills as a narrator is to use both oral and literate discourse features in complement, a...
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SOURCE: "The Frog Prince," in The New York Review of Books, November 24, 1988, pp. 33-4.
[In the following review, Lurie discusses Keillor's work as a humorist in his books and in articles for The New Yorker.]
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.
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SOURCE: "Lake Wobegon: Mythical Place and the American Imagination," in American Studies, Vol. 30, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 5-20.
[In the following excerpt, Wilbers traces the common features of a mythical place exhibited by Keillor's Lake Wobegon.]
… At a time when live radio programs are an anomaly and there seems little time for all the things we busy Americans have to do, much less for listening to slow-moving tales of small-town life in rural America, the phenomenal popularity of Garrison Keillor's weekly radio program and the remarkable success of his best-selling books seem baffling. How can one account for this unexpected popularity? And what does America's enthusiastic response to Keillor's imaginary world tell us about ourselves as Americans?
When "The Prairie Home Companion" was broadcast live from the World Theater in St. Paul for the last time on June 13, 1987, it was the nation's most popular radio show. Two hundred seventy-nine United States public radio stations carried it, as did the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. According to estimates from Minnesota Public Radio, between 3 and 4 million of us were tuning in for our weekly dose of entertainment and companionship.
Lake Wobegon Days, Keillor's book comprised largely of vignettes and anecdotes from the show's monologues, won acclaim in its own right as a work of fiction. Considered "the...
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SOURCE: "Ordinary Folks, Repulsive and Otherwise," in The New York Times Book Review, April 9, 1989, p. 13.
[In the following review, Henderson states, "The worst I could probably say about the 11 poems and 61 prose pieces brought together in We Are Still Married … is that I liked some pieces better than others, but—and this is more than one can say for most such collections—I liked them all."]
Garrison Keillor is the first author, poet, composer or singer to have ever caused me to drive off the road and stop the car in tears. A friend had sent me a tape that I played on the car stereo—a tape of Mr. Keillor singing a birthday song to his son, who had almost died at birth. It was a sentimental subject, but somehow the man captured it all—all the terror, the wonder, the joy of birth—and in that one brief song he turned me into a traffic menace.
Expect no distance or dispassion here. I admire Garrison Keillor. The worst I could probably say about the 11 poems and 61 prose pieces brought together in We Are Still Married (many previously published in The New Yorker) is that I liked some pieces better than others, but—and this is more than one can say for most such collections—I liked them all.
A few of my favorites: "Laying on Our Backs Looking at the Stars" is an essay about just that, a subject that in less capable hands might turn out...
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SOURCE: "Static on the Page," in Commonweal, Vol. 119, April 10, 1992, pp. 26-7.
[In the following review, Beverly asserts that Keillor's style is not successful in the novel form in his WLT: A Radio Romance.]
On page 12 of Garrison Keillor's mocking and rowdy first novel WLT: A Radio Romance, which tells the story of the rise and fall of a radio "empire" in mid-century Minnesota, "Roy [pays] Leo La Valley $10 to tell a raw one on the 'Noontime Jubilee,' to get a rise out of Ray." Here's the joke: "So Knute told Inga he loved her so much he wanted to buy her a fancy new bed—he said, I want one with that big cloth thing up over it? She said, a canopy! He said, no, that's under the bed and we're going to keep it down there."
The book tempts me as critic to advise simply, "If you like this sort of joke, you'll like the book. Read it." And with that partial recommendation I could dismiss it. But I find Keillor's novel to represent such a troubling failure, one which raises so many fundamental questions not just about the art of writing, but also about the art of reading, that I want to linger with the joke, and the set-up, a little longer. Here we have it all: what is most intriguing, frustrating, tantalizing, and ultimately disheartening about this first novel.
What intrigues me is simple. Our eyes alone cannot get this joke. We must hear it. We...
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SOURCE: "Why Is Marriage Like the Electoral College?" in The New York Times Book Review, December 12, 1993, p. 13.
[In the following review, Zeidner calls Keillor's The Book of Guys "an endearingly acerbic collection of 22 stories about men with women trouble."]
With his sixth book, Garrison Keillor spices up his act for those who might be tiring of the "Prairie Home Companion" routine that made him famous. The Book of Guys is an endearingly acerbic collection of 22 stories about men with women trouble. Though Mr. Keillor's woeful guys hail from an impressive range of times and places, from the Old West to ancient Rome, they're all middle-class, middle-aged and miserable.
"We're selling out our manhood, bit by bit," a speaker complains at the convention of a men's movement group called the Sons of Bernie. Don Giovanni, a two-bit piano player at a bar catering to hard hats on their lunch breaks, offers a similarly grim view. "A woman takes over a man's life and turns it to her own ends," the Don warns. "She heaps up his plate with stones, she fills his bed with anxiety, she destroys his peace so that he hardly remembers it."
Women are dour and demanding. They're bad cooks. They drag you to pretentious plays and strong-arm you into heavy talks about The Relationship. Even on a romantic cruise, the whiny wife in "Marooned" is hunched over a magazine quiz...
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SOURCE: "Five Ways of Looking at Aprille (with Apologies to Wallace Stevens): Analysis of Storytelling in the Twenty-First Century," in Eye on the Future: Popular Culture Scholarship into the Twenty-First Century, edited by Marilyn F. Motz, Bowling Green State University, 1994, pp. 91-106.
[In the following essay, Yaross Lee uses Keillor's story "Aprille" to analyze the effect of medium on a story.]
A slippery problem facing scholars of popular culture involves how to analyze examples that exist as multiple texts or performances rather than as a single stable artifact. Stable artifacts include the texts of popular fiction, tapes of radio or television broadcasts, and theatrical films or videotapes. The comic strip or book is somewhat less stable, since a scholar may have to grapple with the historical authority of the newspaper feature page versus the narrative authority of the anthology or comic book, but one can make a case for studying either version or both. A similar problem exists for some television series, which broadcast videotapes of live performances before a studio audience. All in the Family (1971–79), for instance, exists in two video forms: the master tapes of the live performances and the edited tapes of the broadcast series. Although the edited tapes captured most of the live performance's spontaneity—various pratfalls and glitches in performance became evidence of the taped...
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SOURCE: "Boys Will Be Boys," in The New York Review of Books, January 13, 1994, p. 19.
[In the following review, Adams asserts that, "It's not likely that [The Book of Guys] will give rise to much prolonged reflection, but it can hardly fail to provoke a number of chuckles."]
Though in colloquial usage it's become something else, a guy began as a dummy, something to kick around, and out of a number of such masculine boobies, Garrison Keillor has made a book. Keillor has done sketches of this nature for recital on television—he is best known as the laureate of Lake Wobegon—and many of these fantasies-satires-diatribes would not be out of place in the saga of that freshwater metropolis. One thing The Book of Guys is not is a comprehensive report on the state of guydom in America. Keillor's guys are a hen-pecked, downtrodden bunch, to be sure, not quite at the level of Dagwood Bumstead, but sheepish and oppressed and inarticulate after the fashion of George F. Babbitt. There was, if memory serves, quite a flurry in the earlier years of the century about the spiritual castration of the American male. Philip Wylie denounced the trend with Old Testament indignation, and James Thurber played on the theme, bringing to it, as one would expect, a delicate vein of irony. Keillor is a great deal closer to Thurber than to his other predecessors, but in either mode it is an interestingly...
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SOURCE: "Two Authors Grade the Inner Guy," in The Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 86, January 26, 1994, p. 14.
[In the following excerpt, Walker praises Keillor's comic talents, but criticizes The Book of Guys for a lack of focus, consistency, and its vulgarity.]
After years of quiet confusion. American men are telling their stories. Sometimes the result is invigorating. Other times it's like aiming a mirror at a group of angry gorillas. Nevertheless, the dialogue has made it out of the sweat lodge and into the mainstream.
The Book of Guys, by Garrison Keillor, and Working Men, by Michael Dorris, are the latest initiates into the fraternity of "male" literature. Both writers have men on their minds, but that's where the similarity ends.
Keillor, host of a weekly radio show and author of Radio Days, uses The Book of Guys to flex his funny muscles. Throughout the book, his talent for exposing societal absurdities shines, and one doesn't have to be a Midwesterner to appreciate his biting satire of the region. If you like to mark memorable passages by folding down corners, beware: Keillor can be funny on both sides of the page.
His best story is "Lonesome Shorty," an account of a cowboy who gets fed up with life on the range and decides to settle down. "That Old Picayune-Moon," the tale of a mayor harassed by a zealous...
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SOURCE: "The Construction of Feminine Spectatorship in Garrison Keillor's Radio Monologues," in The Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol. 80, No. 4, November, 1994, pp. 410-26.
[In the following essay, Sonja and Karen Foss delineate the ways in which Keillor's radio monologues uphold a feminist epistomology.]
Interest in the role played by cultural texts in subject formation has contributed to the development of the notion of spectatorship, a preferred viewpoint from which to view the world of the text. A text, this notion suggests, constructs a position the spectator must occupy in order to participate in the pleasures and meaning of the text. This position requires a participatory cultural experience in order to make sense of the text and is the result of the structures of characters, meanings, aesthetic codes, attitudes, norms, and values the author projects into the text. Despite its origin in film theory, the notion of the spectator need not be confined to cinematic texts. Gledhill's term, "textual spectator," suggests a position that may be held in regard to any kind of text. Mulvey also suggests that spectatorship occurs in various types of cultural material, both verbal and visual.
Most popular representations structure a masculine position for the spectator; they assume and construct a "male protagonist … free to command the stage … of spatial illusion in which he...
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Brennan, Geraldine. "Hung Up With the Strings." The Times Educational Supplement (4 July 1997): 7.
Calls The Sandy Bottom Orchestra, by Keillor and his wife Jenny Lind Nilsson, "a rewarding study of what it means to live in a small community as the gifted only child of arty, liberal, eccentric parents."
Cooper, Ilene. "It's Not as Easy as It Looks." Booklist 92, No. 19 (1 and 15 June 1996): 1732.
Asserts that authors of adult books often fail in their attempts at children's fiction, including Garrison Keillor in his The Old Man Who Loved Cheese.
Doan MacDougall, Ruth. Review of Lake Wobegon Days, by Garrison Keillor. The Christian Science Monitor 77 (6 September 1985): B4.
Praises Keillor's Lake Wobegon Days.
Michelson, Bruce. "Keillor and Rolvaag and the Art of Telling the Truth." American Studies 30, No. 1 (Spring 1989): 21-34.
Argues that Keillor "is engaged in an old, paradoxical art which no ideology has ever stamped out or explained away, the expression of cultural truth through the telling of tales, and the transformation of American mythology as the surest way of keeping it alive."...
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