Garrison Keillor Keillor, Garrison - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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."

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

John E. Miller (essay date Fall 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 Schorer, one of his biographers.

Main Street launched a series of novels that were intended to provide a panoramic view of American society. Having been honed during his journalistic apprenticeship, Lewis's forte was a remarkable capacity for detailed observation and description. Joseph Wood Krutch admiringly observed in Lewis's novels "a completeness of documentation not less than amazing" and "a power of mimicry which, so far as I know, no living author can equal." Lewis resisted such appraisals, saying of himself: "He has only one illusion: that he is not a journalist and 'photographic realist' but a stylist whose chief concerns in writing are warmth and lucidity." But most critics agreed that his genius lay in limning the surface realities of life, not in probing character or in developing plot. It was the "amazing skill with which he reproduces his world" that impressed T. K. Whipple, who viewed the novels as "triumphant feats of memory and observation."

The memory of his home town—Sauk Centre, Minnesota—provided the basis for the writing of Main Street, but he drew on his observations of other towns as well, places like Melrose, Faribault, St. Cloud, Mankato, Rochester, and Fergus Falls. "It is extraordinary how deep is the impression made by the place of one's birth and rearing, and how lasting are its memories," Lewis wrote in "The Long Arm of the Small Town," an essay for the Sauk Centre high school yearbook in 1931. After being absent for more than a quarter of a century, except for a few visits lasting only several months' time, the town remained, he said, "as vivid to my mind as though I had left there yesterday."

Lewis called upon his marvelous powers of observation and memory to create perhaps the most celebrated fictional walk in American literature—Carol Kennicott's thirty-two minute stroll around Gopher Prairie's main business thoroughfare, which in the words of Lewis's preface, was "the continuation of Main Streets everywhere." On her walk through town, she saw places like the Minniemashie House, a "tall lean shabby structure" catering to traders and traveling salesmen"; Dyer's Drug Store, with its "greasy marble soda-fountain with an electric lamp of red and green and curdled-yellow mosaic shade"; the Rosebud Movie Palace, showing a film called "Fatty in Love"; Howland and Gould's Grocery, with Knights of Pythias, Macabees, Woodmen, and Masonic lodges in second floor rooms; Dahl and Oleson's Meat Market; a jewelry shop with "tinny looking" wrist watches; several saloons; a tobacco shop; a clothing store, its dummies like "corpses with painted cheeks"; The Bon Ton Store; Axel Egge's General Store; Sam Clark's Hardware Store; Chester Dashaway's House Furnishing Emporium; Billy's Lunch; a dairy; a produce warehouse; Ford and Buick garages; an agricultural implement dealer; a feed store; Ye Art Shoppe; a barber shop and pool room; Nat Hicks's Tailor Shop, on a side street off Main Street; the post office; the State Bank; the Farmers' National Bank; and a score of similar stores and businesses.

To Carol, they were drab, ugly, uninviting. But it wasn't the overwhelming ugliness that distressed her so much as "the planlessness, the flimsy temporariness of the buildings, their faded unpleasant colors." Only one building held any aesthetic appeal for Carol—the Ionic-styled Farmers' National Bank. Lewis's picture is almost unrelievedly squalid: storage tanks are "grim," train depots are "squat," lawns are "parched," leaves are "sickly yellow," bay windows are "lugubrious," cars sound like they're "shaking to pieces," smells are "sour." Carol's impulse was to flee back to the security of the city. No wonder: "Oozing out from every drab wall, she felt a forbidding spirit which she could never conquer."

Measured in terms of physical distance, Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon can't be far from Gopher Prairie, but in terms of time and imagination it lies at great remove. Keillor provides plenty of clues about Lake Wobegon's location, indicating it is near St. Cloud, northwest of St. Cloud, and, more specifically, thirty-two miles from St. Cloud. That would put it almost exactly at Freeport, the town Keillor lived in when he started inventing stories about Lake Wobegon as a radio announcer for Minnesota Public Radio during the early 1970's. It could hardly be closer to Sauk Centre, which is just ten miles up Highway 52 from Freeport.

Lewis's strikingly detailed visual images capture one kind of reality; Keillor's carefully wrought word images evince another. The former's strength lies in visual description, photographic in its effect; Keillor's is aural, finely tuned to subtle tones and gestures. Lewis was not deaf to the sounds of the town. If Carol Kennicott's thirty-two minute walk is described almost entirely through visual images, the simultaneous tour of Bea Sorenson, a country girl come to town to work as a maid, climaxes with her bewilderment at all the noises around her: "The roar of the city began to frighten her. There were five automobuls [sic] on the street all at the same time—and one of 'em was a great big car that must of cost two thousand dollars—and the 'bus was starting for a train with five elegant-dressed fellows." Later in the book Lewis catalogs a series of sounds that impress upon Carol the tediousness of the street in front of her house, rendering it "a street beyond the end of the world, beyond the boundaries of hope." Now, at dusk, it was "meshed in silence. There was but the hum of motor tires crunching the road, the creak of a rocker on the Howlands' porch, the slap of a hand attacking a mosquito, a heat-weary conversation starting and dying, the precise rhythm of crickets, the thud of moths against the screen—sounds that were a distilled silence."

Like Lewis, Keillor catalogs the sounds heard in his town—the hum of an air conditioner on a sweltering August evening, the "memorable sound" of a rotten tomato splatting on the projecting rear of his older sister, the distant faint mutter of ancient combines operated by Norwegian bachelor farmers. Keillor's superior sensibility comes through in a passage describing his impressions of a cold snowy evening when he was sixteen: "So still on a cold night. I could hear his boots crunch in the snow, could hear a car not quite starting a long way away, and then the door slamming when the guy got out and him hitting the hood with his fist. The volume of the world was turned up so the air molecules hummed a deep bass note. If the fire siren went off it would knock a person into the middle of next week." Keillor excels not so much in straight description as in the evocation of mood. Usually he's describing people feeling or meditating or experiencing and not simply acting.

The authorial presence constantly weaves in and out of Lake Wobegon Days as Keillor varies stories about himself with those about other people in town. While Lewis kept his readers guessing about whether Carol Kennicott's view of the town was his own, Keillor begins with a straightforward description of his town as he knows it. Now, approximately seventy years after Carol first viewed Main Street, Keillor guides us on a tour of a town about one-third the size of Gopher Prairie. Lewis calls his a "wheat-prairie town of something over three thousand people" while Keillor says his town contains "the homes of some nine hundred souls, most of them small white frame houses." It is significant that he refers to "souls," a term that the antireligious Lewis would have used only ironically or satirically. For Keillor, a backslidden member of the fundamentalist Plymouth Brethren who still values much in that heritage, "soul" carries a heavy burden of meaning.

Viewing people as more than mechanical toys, Keillor also perceives the structures they live in not simply as houses but as homes. Even granting that seven decades have wrought a revolutionary transformation in American material life, the contrasting visions of Lewis and Keillor are necessary to explain why the former (through his protagonist, Carol Kennicott) sees "huddled low wooden" houses on the plains, "prosaic frame" houses with "small parched" lawns, and "square smug brown" houses, "rather damp," while the latter observes "small white frame houses sitting forward on their lots and boasting large tidy vegetable gardens and modest lawns, many featuring cast-iron deer, small windmills, clothespoles and clotheslines, various plaster animals such as squirrels and lambs and small elephants, white painted rocks at the end of the driveway, a nice bed of petunias planted within a white tire, and some with a shrine in the rock garden, the Blessed Virgin standing, demure, her eyes averted, arms slightly extended, above the peonies and marigolds." Imagine what Lewis would have done with that statue and those elephants!

There isn't as much to see in Lake Wobegon as in Gopher Prairie. In his initial tour of the town, Keillor mentions only several business places—Ralph's Grocery, Bunsen Motors, and the Chatterbox Cafe. Interestingly, as we are taken from place to place it is with a child kicking an asphalt chunk down the street, and we are introduced to other people—the mayor, Clint Bunsen, peering out from a grease pit; his brother Clarence, wiping the showroom window; an old man sitting on Ralph's bench; and Ralph, leaning out of the back of the store to get a breath of fresh, meatless air.

The picture Keillor paints is much brighter and cheerier, while less distinct, than Lewis's, though it does not lack shades of gray and black. If Lewis is a master of shape and form, Keillor excels with color. Perhaps what distinguishes his portrait most from his predecessor's is its unpredictability. Lewis, who admitted that his own views were wrapped up in the persona of Carol Kennicott, also put much of himself into the disillusioned lawyer, Guy Pollock, who, at one stage of the novel's development, was going to be its major character. Their criticisms of the town were balanced by the positive...

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Spalding Gray (review date 4 October 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Dan Sullivan (review date 11 October 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Michael Kline (essay date 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Alison Lurie (review date 24 November 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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")....

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Stephen Wilbers (essay dale Spring 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Bill Henderson (review date 9 April 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Elizabeth Beverly (review date 10 April 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Lisa Zeidner (review date 12 December 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Judith Yaross Lee (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert M. Adams (review date 13 January 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Sam Walker (review date 26 January 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Sonja K. and Karen A. Foss (essay date November 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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....

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