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 following spring term. (It was later determined that his mind was unhinged, and he...
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