Study Guide

Lake Wobegon Days

by Garrison Keillor

Lake Wobegon Days Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 808 words.)

Lake Wobegon Days Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

In Lake Wobegon Days, Garrison Keillor provides a humorous glance at the religious influences that shape small-town life in Minnesota. In doing so, he makes extensive use of mock autobiography to project a series of idiosyncratic accounts of events by various Wobegonians as they clumsily seek to supplant their humdrum lives with something more dramatic and fulfilling. Keillor’s protagonist—a fictional version of himself—mediates these stories by setting their banal details against an idealized image, often literary or spiritual in origin, and the result provides a comic paradox that consistently shows how small-town life falls short of idealized versions posited by scripture, frontier myth, and history.

Structurally, Lake Wobegon Days more closely resembles a collection of literary pieces than a conventional novel. As such, it does not follow a traditional plot progression, but instead relies on a three-tiered, episodic narrative to unify the stories it contains. The first strand consists largely of the author’s reminiscences, which include a chapter that describes Lake Wobegon’s main street and its landmarks, including the water tower, Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery, the Sidetrack Tap, the Chatterbox Café, the churches, Adam’s Hill, and the lake. Another chapter chronicles the Protestant roots of Keillor’s Christian upbringing and provides observations about his early experiences as a member of the fundamentalist sect, the Sanctified Brethren, as well as reflections about his secret childhood admiration for other Wobegon denominations, especially the splendid music and vestments of the Lutherans and the regal and gorgeous pomp of the Catholics. Later, Keillor adds a chapter entitled “School,” which affords an ironic commentary about teachers and the trio of Wobegonian educational virtues: work, effort, and conduct. Finally, Keillor complements his childhood narrative with four additional chapters—“Summer,” “Fall,” “Winter,” and “Spring”—to capture comedic seasonal glimpses of the...

(The entire section is 837 words.)