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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 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...
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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 viewpoints expressed by Will Kennicott, Bea Sorenson, and others. But if Lewis did create characters who represent opposing points of view about the town, their thoughts and actions are generally predictable. Carol's thought after first glimpsing Gopher Prairie is indicative of a lack of imagination: "The people—they'd be as drab as their houses, as flat as their fields."
Keillor, unlike Lewis, is willing to let his characters surprise him. Not that he is unaware of constraints operating on people's behavior, placed there by inheritance, conditioning, and habit. These are not wild, soaring, free spirits he is talking about but real human beings whose dreams and aspirations run head on into other people's desires and expectations, their own limitations, and the social bounds imposed by institutions and organizations. Still, one does not know what to expect from week to week from Pastor Ingqvist or Senator K. Thorvaldson or Johnny Tollefson. All have firmly rooted characters and habits; yet all are capable of surprise. Father Emil, for instance, may be a staunchly conservative priest dedicated to protecting his flock from the dangers of modernism, but who would predict his passion for bus tours of Civil War battlefields?
Keillor's ability to get inside of his characters is no trivial accomplishment. It betokens both a talent for listening and a faculty for imagining. Lewis's work suffers from deficiency of creative imagination; D. J. Dooley summarized the indictment by observing that "everything is lifelike, but nothing is real, especially the people." H. L. Mencken, who considered Main Street to be "good stuff," felt that the characters "often remain flat;… one seldom sees into them very deeply or feels with them very keenly."
Lewis, the Midwestern kid who went to Yale and spent most of his life gallavanting around the globe, viewed his own town through the lenses of the outsider and found it wanting. Keillor, the small town kid who went down the road to the University of Minnesota and returned home after failing to land a journalism job out East, remains more rooted. He looks at his home town and finds it wanting also, in some respects, but for him the defects lie in the human heart, not in some imagined "village virus" that condemns all small towns to narrow, twisted existences.
Lewis, in fact, undercuts much of the force of his indictment when, toward the end of Main Street, he has Carol ask herself why she rages at individuals so. Not individuals, but institutions, are the enemy: "They insinuate their tyranny under a hundred guises and pompous names, such as Polite Society, the Family, the Church, Sound Business, the Party, the Country, the Superior White Race; and the only defense against them, Carol beheld, is unembittered laughter." Such a sociological analysis can be defended, but by shifting the target from individuals to institutions, it undermines the force of the satire that has gone before.
Keillor grants no such pardon to Wobegonians. He holds them accountable for their actions. His view of human motivation is more complex than that of Lewis, whose inclination is to caricature people, which makes for good satire but not for empathic understanding. Keillor, at the age of forty-three, possesses a more mature acceptance of human foibles and inconsistencies than Lewis did when he published Main Street at the age of thirty-five.
Lewis's interests and thinking were wide-ranging, but just as he never found a place to settle down, he never seemed to find an intellectual resting place, flitting from a shallow socialism during his college days to the bourgeois satisfactions of job and family to a general cynical outlook that found many targets for satire but few, if any, objects to admire and identify with. To T. K. Whipple, Lewis possessed a multiple personality, being one who "shifts his point of view so often that finally we come to wonder whether he has any."
Garrison Keillor went east once too, looking for a writing job after college, but when none was forthcoming, he returned to live near the place where he grew up and has remained in the area ever since. Unlike Lewis, who was curiously unaware of himself, Keillor enters into his subject, sometimes in his own persona, sometimes partly hidden in the characters he invents. Being part of the story, he naturally experiences the same hurts and satisfactions, dilemmas and accommodations that his characters do. Therefore, he does not convert his characters into objects of scorn or satire in the way Lewis often did.
It is amazing in how many ways the two authors' lives overlap. Like Lewis, whose adoption of radical opinions at Yale gave his classmates a second reason to call him "Red," Keillor, if we believe Lake Wobegon Days, consciously redesigned himself in college. He, too, contested with a father "of the old regime." He, too, felt the sting of being ungainly and different as a kid growing up. If Lewis was laughed at as an amiable freak, friendless and isolated, stricken by an acne-ridden visage that, according to his second wife, would come to look like the "face of a man who had walked through flame throwers," Keillor, too, according to his book, felt rejected on the sandlots of youth, the "skinny kid with the glasses and the black shoes" who usually was chosen toward the end for pickup baseball games. Like Lewis, and probably like most of us who went through childhood, he wished he could be popular. Like Lewis, he had a rich fantasy life and is sometimes prone to delusions of grandeur, having crowned himself at the age of twelve "King of Altrusia," though at the age of fourteen his playmates sort of faltered in maintaining their play-act adoration. Now on his radio program, Keillor can at least in part fulfill his fantasy of being a singing star like Elvis Presley or George Beverly Shea. If Keillor still harbors over-inflated expectations of greatness, he is the first to prick the bubble, unlike Lewis, who lacked the ability to laugh at himself and others in the way that Keillor does.
Lewis's childhood miseries derived to a large extent from his failure to live up to expectations of his respectable doctor father and to compete successfully with his older brother Claude, who also became a doctor. Keillor's frustrations obtained more from living in a family that was judged to be different—one that would get up and walk out of a restaurant whose prices exceeded expectations. "This is humiliating," Keillor has himself saying after one such episode, "I feel like a leper or something. Why do we always have to make such a big production out of everything? Why can't we be like regular people?" Unwilling to carry a bookbag festooned with a Biblical verse to school, young Gary was afraid he'd be "laughed off the face of the earth." At the same age, Lewis had no friends and no interest in sports, and, according to John Koblas, was always an outsider. Sensitivities heightened by their positions on the fringes, both authors were able to perceive things about their towns that other residents either overlooked or took for granted.
Lewis compensated for his insecurities by diverting his animosities against society and other people. Keillor, on the other hand, makes light of his shyness by laughing at it and continually reminding people of it on his radio program. He refuses to extract himself from his condition. Whatever pain Wobegonians suffer, whatever crimes they commit, he is implicated in them. His characters are his constellation of neighbors; they also embody his own contradictions. He savors the triumphs of his life: a perfect rendition of the Twenty-third Psalm at Memorial Day exercises, a sharp throw from third base to catch a baserunner by a stride, making time with an older girl from Minneapolis. Juxtaposed to this, however, is a frequent tone of wistfulness, large ambitions only partially realized or not at all, ambivalences unresolved.
The tragedy of Lewis's personal life, and the fatal flaw that marred his literary vision, was his failure to imagine a higher goal than unrestricted personal freedom. Freedom was his obsession, and with the publication of Main Street he possessed the wherewithal to realize it. Eventually he carried the passion to escape social, intellectual, and marital constraints to absurd lengths. He worked so hard at smashing traditional standards and beliefs that he paid little attention to attempting to reconstruct a positive social philosophy that went beyond vague platitudes regarding a wiser, juster social order. Lewis was a man caught in a trap of his own making. Condemned to view the world and its inhabitants with a cynical and world-weary eye, he lacked the capacity for true commitment to people, place, or social program. That he desperately desired friendship, roots, and love can be seen in his befriending of young authors, his affair with an actress forty years his junior, his periodic returns to Sauk Centre, and his desire to have his remains buried there. The title of his last novel published during his lifetime, The God-Seeker, mirrored his own search, not for a conventional God that his irreligious nature refused to accept, but for a secular god that was embodied in a search for truth and the realization of personal freedom and individual fulfillment.
What Keillor's ultimate values and personal demons are we can be much less sure of, because he avoids self-revelatory interviews and has not had his life subjected to the kind of detailed scrutiny given Lewis's by a host of scholars. There are clues, however, to be found in the radio monologues and published work and some of the articles that have been written about him. Profoundly influenced by his conservative religious upbringing, Keillor has not joined Lewis in waging a fierce campaign against religion but rather seeks to understand the meaning of religious values in a secular age. Aware of the hypocrisies and inconsistencies attending religious (as well as any other kind of) values, Keillor pokes fun at them while maintaining his respect for the people who commit them. If a couple breaks a window while using a Bible for a missile during a domestic spat, Keillor treats it as just another episode in the lives of finite, fallen creatures. Though he is a backslidden church-goer, he integrates Christian insights into his value system. The Bible says, don't let the sun go down on your wrath, and that is good advice to follow. Living a good life is not an easy proposition. Reflecting upon his pleasure in hitting his sister with a ripe tomato, Keillor observes that "knowing right from wrong is the easy part. Knowing is not the problem." Life's inconsistencies do not become for him a target of stinging satire. Rather he tends to operate in the ironic mode. In high school football, it's kill or be killed, and the team needs some killers. "There is an animal in you and I intend to bring it out," the coach tells his players. "The new boys glance at each other—it isn't what they learned in Luther League."
In their own different ways the two authors, separated so far by time and mood, connected so closely in space and intent, teach us a great deal about the twentieth century small town. If Lewis is obsessed by a desire to smash the idols of tradition, complacency, prejudice, and provinciality, Keillor, living in the post-modern era, is searching for serviceable values and places of repose for people traumatized by culture in which all fixed principles and values are rendered problematical. Lewis, committed as he was to personal freedom, was not unaware of its elusiveness and the problems it entailed. Carol Kennicott's ambivalence reflected his own. Toward the end of the novel, as her train takes her away from Gopher Prairie toward Washington, she wants to run back to Will. "She had her freedom, and it was empty. The moment was not the highest of her life, but the lowest and most desolate, which was altogether excellent, for instead of slipping downward she began to climb." Lewis never managed to reconcile his desire for freedom and personal fulfillment with his wish to be part of community. His visit home in 1905 at the age of twenty persuaded him that neighborliness was a fake—that the "village virus" of prejudice, dull conformity, and hypocrisy ruled the small town, and while he did try to present both sides of the story in Main Street, the negative viewpoint clearly predominated his vision. Yet it oscillated with the one he expressed in the 1931 school annual that in no other place were people more friendly. "It was a good time," he said, "a good place, a good preparation for life."
What makes Keillor's approach more ultimately satisfying is that instead of wavering between diametrically opposed positions in his thinking about the small town, he integrates the light side with the dark side in his work as he goes along. Anyone who attributes to him a syrupy optimistic view of the small town need only refer to his "95 Theses 95," an unrestrained manifesto against the putative parents and neighbors of a former son of Lake Wobegon who still suffers from the results of his overly protective and repressive childhood. Nothing in Sinclair Lewis's work is more scathing.
The former Wobegonian who wrote these bitter recriminations is not the only resident who left or wanted to leave town: Fred Krebsbach up and left his family at thirty-four; Johnny Tollefson went off to college; two men at the Sidetrack itch to go away, if only for a moment, with two babes passing through from St. Cloud. Another escapee is Garrison Keillor, who at the end of the book is tooling down the road in a '56 Ford. A refugee whose heart never really left the town, Keillor brings an outsider's perspective to the subject and at the same time an intimate acquaintance with it. Unlike Brother Bob, the evangelist, he doesn't consider Lake Wobegon to be a Sodom or Gomorrah, although he might agree that "in our hearts we are guilty of every sin." Nor does he identify with the Norwegian bachelor farmers, whose behavior renders them outsiders in their own community because of their refusal to abide by society's rules and restrictions. They spit where and when they feel like it, blow their noses with one finger, let dirty dishes pile high on kitchen tables. "We are all crazy in their eyes. All the trouble we go to for nothing: ridiculous."
In their complete unwillingness to submit to societal norms, they resemble Sinclair Lewis. What he had that they don't have was enough money to allow him to take his freedom beyond the confines of the immediate area. Where Garrison Keillor differs from all of them is that he realizes that there is no escape. We all carry the burden of our history, our beliefs, our habits and customs. His stories are parables of patience rewarded, of adversity endured. These are the messages they teach: life is fraught with peril; doing without makes you appreciate things more; life is full of disappointments; it's good to wait; nothing should come easy, you'll appreciate it more if you work for it.
Keillor considers the hopes and fears, the fantasies and dreams of people to be legitimate. He seldom judges but rather accepts and affirms. He recalls in the book when Brother Louie retired after thirty years as assistant cashier at the First Ingqvist State Bank. He had grown old and fat and bald sitting there every day, enjoying ritual conversations with the customers: "Good Morning. You certainly look well." "How's Lena doing? And Harold? What do you hear from Elsie?" He knew everybody by name. Keillor writes, "It never occurred to me until he retired that once Louie had wanted to make something of himself in the banking business." It's an important revelation for Keillor.
We can imagine with what scorn Lewis would have treated such a "petty" ambition. And therein lies the distance between Gopher Prairie and Lake Wobegon. They are almost contiguous geographically and are products of the same culture and people, two generations removed in time. But time does not constitute the greatest gulf between the two towns. Keillor notes how much continuity exists between himself and his predecessors; when he entered school in 1948, it was on the same day, in the same brick school house, with the same misty paintings of Washington and Lincoln that had gazed down on his father and grandfather before him. What separates Lake Wobegon most from Gopher Prairie is that Garrison Keillor considers these facts to be important and worthy of respect. Brother Louie's original aspiration and eventual accommodation are equally human, equally estimable. Life in Lake Wobegon is not perfect, but it is whole. It is within this community that a collectivity of individuals find meaning and freedom, not in escape nor in quixotic efforts to remake society, but in the day to day transactions, resolutions, and interactions that make an individual a social being.
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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."
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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 garbage off! It makes me want to swear!" Then she'd threaten to throw my little KLH radio out the window and the whole broadcast would be wiped out by our great traditional Saturday night fight—me defending Garrison Keillor by saying things like, "But Renée, he's not all good. I hear he chain-smokes Camel regulars." By the time we thrashed it out, his monologue was over.
But all is not lost. Having missed the monologues on the radio, I've been able to catch up with them in book form and read them all with a flashlight under the sheets before Renée came to bed. In fact, I recommend that you read Leaving Home just that way because these are perfect bedtime stories. They are exactly the right length and mood to put you out at the end and not in the middle, so you can slip off with a well-rounded sense of joyful completion. Also, I was surprised to find that these little stories about the people of the mythical town of Lake Wobegon are not as much like milk toast as I had anticipated. They are primarily wholesome American images that often begin with a description of local weather and glide through a landscape of meat loaf, roasted wieners, homemade jam and unconditional love, all falling cozily into place like a Norman Rockwell painting. But they are also perversely peppered with such contrasting earthy items as the autoignition of flatulence, cutting the heads off chickens, cancer and 68 dead pigs all on their backs with their legs turned up toward the sun.
At their best these stories are contemporary folk tales of American comic-karma, always demonstrating that you reap what you sow. Each detail collapses onto another, and as with Rube Goldberg, Uncle Wiggily or James Thurber, the stories all fall together like a row of dominoes, leaving you more with a memory of motion than of content. When these tales work, as they often do, they are like American Zen, about "sweet single-minded people" who work when they work and eat when they sit down to eat. Many of these monologues echo Thoreau's idea of salvation through simplicity, that "we need pray for no higher heaven than the pure senses can furnish, a purely sensuous life."
At their worst many of these stories are like honey-coated breakfast cereal. They give you a sugar rush only to let you crash by midmorning. I realize they are pure fantasy, but that doesn't bother me so much as the style of the fantasy. They ring of a kind of apolitical false naïveté; they are a throwback to a time when America was genuinely innocent. In the face of America's contemporary complexities, the realities of Lake Wobegon seem stupefying, cloistering and overripe.
Somewhere under that overstuffed, hometown patchwork quilt I keep hearing someone screaming, "Help, I can't breathe! Let me out of here! Someone get me to the coast!" Everyone seems to be protected by living so far inland. America's worst traumas can be glimpsed only through the hazy mediation of their television tubes, a feeling poignantly expressed in "Aprille," one of my favorite stories. It is a beautifully constructed piece that reads like a perfect little sermon, about a girl who is about to be confirmed in the local Lutheran church. Suddenly, "she turned on the TV and lost her faith. Men in khaki suits were beating people senseless, shooting them with machine guns, throwing the bodies out of helicopters…. And she thought, 'This could happen here.'"
As with all movements in the realm of nostalgia—the longing for the thing that never happened—a sort of whitewash occurs here. That kind of cover-up often provokes the unchosen to hurl their radios out the window. As I read these stories I can't help wanting to lift the rug to see the other truth underneath. Perhaps Mr. Keillor's art would have been enough if he hadn't written such a tantalizing introduction, which for me proved to be the most interesting part of the book.
It's in this introduction, "A Letter From Copenhagen," that he expresses a more vital autobiographic truth and discusses his historic impulses as a storyteller, his disenchantment with Minneapolis and how he has rediscovered his sense of smell by giving up smoking after 24 years, along with details of his relocation in Copenhagen, another white homogeneous northern climate where, he tells us, eating corn is better than sex. I like Garrison Keillor when he talks about his "real" life. The only part I missed and wanted to hear more about was his personal reaction to what he calls "the collapse of an American career," and how he decided to walk away from so many years of a successful radio show.
There is an old saying, "Happy people don't make history." I have a feeling Mr. Keillor is more than happy, he's content. He has not left home but rather carries it with him in the form of a fertile imagination. I am sure he can't go home again. But I only wonder what he plans to do in Denmark. Whatever it is, it will have to be something new. There's no doubt in my mind that he has written one side of himself to completion. I'd love one day to read the other side, what he really feels about Copenhagen.
Leaving Home will most likely make Garrison Keillor's fans love him all the more. For you who don't like him or have not taken the time to shape an opinion, I recommend that you at least go to a bookstore and open the book to a story at random and read it while standing up. They're short enough to do that without getting tired. For some of you, they will make you remember the home you never had.
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G. K. the D. J. (short stories) 1977The Selected Verse of Margaret Haskins Durber (poetry) 1979A Prairie Home Companion Anniversary Album (recording) 1980The Family Radio (recording) 1982Happy to Be Here (short stories) 1982News from Lake Wobegon (recording) 1982Prairie Home Companion Tourists (recording) 1983Ten Years on the Prairie: A Prairie Home Companion 10th Anniversary (recording) 1984Gospel Birds and Other Stories of Lake Wobegon (recording) 1985Lake Wobegon Days (novel) 1985A Prairie Home Companion: The Final Performance (recording) 1987Leaving Home (short stories) 1987We Are Still Married (short stories and letters) 1989WLT: A Radio Romance (novel) 1991The Book of Guys (short stories) 1993Cat, You Better Come Home (children's literature) 1995The Old Man Who Loved Cheese (children's literature) 1996The Sandy Bottom Orchestra [with Jenny Lind Nilsson] (children's literature) 1997
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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 highway. A little test of faith.
All that a devout Lake Wobegoner really needs to know about this book is that it's out. However a few words may be in order for non-believers.
The objection seems to be that Keillor is the Norman Rockwell of the 1980s. I don't see it. To begin with, there's nothing picturesque about Lake Wobegon. It is your basic squat Minnesota hamlet, with its one blinking-yellow traffic light. In winter the typical vista is "a cold gray street lined with miserable yards." In summer, the leading natural feature is the mosquitoes.
Also, Lake Wobegon people are a little depressed because "living in Minnesota takes it out of you." Not just because of the climate, but because in a town this size (fewer than 1,000), everybody knows your least little mistake. Try to hide it and you may have the town snickering all winter.
Lake Wobegon residents would do anything for a person if they figured that he really had a problem, but on the small issues they can be mean; and for Keillor it's the small issues where life is decided—the little kindnesses as well as the slaps. Unlike most small-town satirists, he doesn't attack the religiosity of his characters as hypocritical. He sees this as something absolutely called for, given our fallen natures.
Marriage also is a necessity, "because we can't get attractive every day on a regular basis," especially in winter. When a man really feels himself getting ugly, he goes and hunkers in the fish house, possibly with a bottle.
The Gospel According to Peanuts does not go on Lake Wobegon. "Shame," for example, is as strong a force here as it is in Japan. And while Keillor wishes that his characters weren't so prone to feeling guilty about themselves—especially the young people—he nevertheless prefers this to letting it all hang out. Better repression than tackiness.
Take the "expert" from the city who screwed up a fireplace job for Clarence Bunsen and then insisted on sharing his feelings on this disaster with Clarence over the phone, rather than coming back to fix the thing.
The guy turned out to be from L. A. Lake Wobegon people know all about Los Angeles (they are on cable), and they pity anybody who would have to live there, except during late March.
Keillor approves his characters' distrust of facile emotion—of facile anything. But he worries that they are too wrapped-up in doing the next thing to see the big picture. Like Emily in Our Town, he wants them to see how wonderful it all is, while there's time. This leads to some praise-to-the-morning finales that don't work as well in type as they did on the radio, the listener not having been softened up by an hour of bluegrass guitar and hymns.
But something else comes across better on the page: the realization that Lake Wobegon does not exist. This is not news when you think about it, but usually we haven't thought about it. There's been something very solid about the Sidetrack Tap and the Chatterbox Cafe.
Here, though, every now and then, the whole town starts to waver, like a mirage, and you see Keillor, the Maker, wondering whether to send a character into her house to discover the mess that her kids have made, or to let her take a walk around the block first. It's a responsible job, running a universe.
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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 practice which supports the view that there is no absolute dichotomy between written and spoken forms of language. As Tannen has stated, "Both oral and literate strategies can be seen in spoken discourse. Written discourse is not decontextualized … it is possible to be both highly oral and highly literate."
While we would expect that in our literate society written strategies would influence oral form, it is also the fact that the features of literate style found in Keillor's oral narratives—sophisticated subordination, grammar dependency and a lexically complex relationship between ideas and expression—are frequently disturbed by oral structures that coexist with them incongruously, producing a discursive humor that is not totally dependent upon content. The Keillor monologues interlace oral and literate styles without homogenizing them to the point that they cease to retain their own character or fail to produce particular effect. The elements of oral and literate narration may be separated for purposes of contrast, but we should remember that they combine in the tales to form the complex strategies, developmental approach, and rich texturing of a composite narration which undergirds the deceptively simple humor of the town that "the decades cannot improve."
In listening to the Lake Wobegon monologues one is rapidly struck by the "additive rather than subordinative" elements of the discourse, a characteristic typical of oral narration. Many of the best passages marking typical Lake Wobegon predicaments are strung together by coordinate clauses linked by and, rather than by connectors that subordinate ideas, such as so or because. These two general types of relationships between clauses are either paratactic or hypotactic. Hypotaxis is the "relation between a dependent element and its dominant" while parataxis "is the relation between two like elements of equal status, one initiating and the other continuing." Because in parataxis no element depends on any other, there is no ordering other than the sequential. It is the narrator who chooses to coordinate elements by means of extension rather than subordination.
The reliance on the connective and in paratactic construction is the source of much narrative humor for Keillor, who builds long strings of coordinate clauses, allowing one clause to enhance the meaning of another by qualifying it. Overqualification, however, soon grows into hyperbole, exaggeration of insignificant detail, enumeration of obsessive tendencies, or incongruous contrast. Semantic relations between propositions are not always clearly delineated, such that the events recounted often collide in a connived discursive reciprocity. Some good examples of this paratactic humor are found in a series of Lake Wobegon episodes devoted to Lyle, Florian Krepsbach's inept son-in-law, a high-school science teacher:
So as he was thinking about this and what a rewarding kind of life this would be compared to what he's doing now, he looked and he noticed and he was a little bit surprised to see between his index finger and his middle finger a cigarette that was there between his fingers. Which wasn't really surprising considering that it had come from a pack of cigarettes which was in his shirt pocket and he had taken it out and put it in his mouth, and lit it and yet he couldn't quite remember having lit it and as he looked at this thing between his fingers he thought to himself, "I don't need these any more" and took the pack of cigarettes out of his shirt pocket and threw it out the window and at the same time took his foot off the gas and coasted to a stop and turned around at the cross roads and came back to about the point where he thought he had tossed those. (Emphasis is mine in all quotations.)
Another case of accretive style reveals Lyle's estrangement from Wobegonian society (he is suspect because he teaches science and has only lived there for twelve years). Given his exclusion, Lyle is eager for recognition, and so he is easily taken in, as in this scene:
… he got a letter in the mail in a beautiful creamy envelope and he opened it and it said, "Dear Fellow Teacher: Congratulations, you have been selected by our awards committee to be included in the 1985 edition of 'Who's Who in Minnesota Secondary Education.'" And he was so thrilled, he sat down right away with this form you have to fill out with biographical information about yourself and didn't notice until later that the return address was in Escondido, California, and that this form for him to fill out with biographical information about himself was also an order blank for one copy of 'Who's Who in Minnesota Secondary Education' and that by signing it you agreed to pay $39.95 for a handsome leather-bound edition of this work….
The consecutive clauses are all equal in importance, since there are no other rhetorical organizers like firstly or moreover, which is a style perfectly adapted to Lyle's inability to distinguish the authentic from the unauthentic. Coordinative style perfectly suggests the mimetic dimension of character here, as the first three instances of and are "inflationary," leading to the heights of vanity, while the second group of three serve the comic deflation of pretense.
Furthermore, Keillor marks and as a discourse coordinator in order to identify upcoming "idea units" that are coordinate in structure to prior units. Paratactic style thus clusters and maximizes detail, while helping listeners to stay attuned to the narration through the development of the story along slowly evolving parallel lines. However, as Schiffren notes, and does not provide information about what is being continued nor about what is being coordinated. This situation is a key to Keillor's humor, for if content is repetitive, and syntax changes little, then the accretion, repetition, and incremental parallelisms of coordinative style work to form hyperbolic metonymic chains where one thing leads to another, until situations lose their logic due to overbearing detail or break down under the weight of accumulated evidence.
Furthermore, facts, statistics, or other precise elements in oral narratives are relevant only to human activities, and particularly to those which are situational. Anne Amory Parry made the point in citing the epithet amymon applied by Homer to Aegisthus, which means not "blameless," as many had believed, but "beautiful-in-the-way-a-warrior-ready-to-fight-is-beautiful." We need but contrast Aegisthus to Lyle at the end of the story about guilt:
And Lyle is full of pain, full of shame, full of guilt and still not smoking…. And when he feels at his worst then he goes out and he runs, which makes him feel even worse than that which makes him feel better in a way. He's not a runner, and if you see him out there on the roads you can tell that he's not. He's overweight, he's kind of flat-footed and he moves slowly when he runs…. But if you see him out there, if you see him out there on the road in the dust, running down the road in his old grey warm-up pants and his old letter jacket from high school which doesn't fit anymore so that you can't zip it up but he's hoping to some day, and the two little bike reflectors on the heels of his sneakers, when you see him out there running down a gravel road, old Lyle, don't feel sorry for him, don't feel bad for him. He's in misery, he's suffering, he's in pain, but it's OK, he's just one of us, just one of us sinners, you know, trying to make his way home….
Lyle, the underequipped warrior in life's struggles, is a man who jogs to expiate guilt, remembered as such by virtue of considerable vestmental detail. The notion of guilt and expiation is made palatable for the listener through the pathetically humorous vision of the overweight man paying his dues by the mile. Keillor arrives at his moral through the characters' situations, never in spite of them, and thereby keeps his monologues in the realm of humor, rather than permitting them to slide into sermonettes.
Keillor returns often to the most basic narrative level, that of the word, where redundancy is copious, creating a framework for humor by accretion, as action is driven to frenetic levels of pointless activity. The sound of language being derailed by its own mass and velocity is analogous to Bergson's notion of "mechanical inelasticity." While the man who slips on a banana peel becomes involuntarily objectified by circumstances, Keillor makes language the butt of a kind of discursive practical joke in which the narrator plays the role of Bergson's "mischievous wag" who intervenes to remove a chair just as the subject is sitting. Burdened by its own weight, and careening out of control, language has no other recourse than to collapse from the strain of sheer repetition. Thus, in the narrative referred to earlier, Lyle is found searching desperately for a cigarette. In the following passage, the combination of coordinate clauses and repetitions of the verb "look" not only measures the beat of Lyle's growing frustration, but transforms him into a comically maniacal creature of habit. Language and action fuse in the service of humor:
… and he was looking around in the dirty clothes hamper, hauling clothes out of there hand over fist one after the other looking in pants pockets, shirt pockets, looking in the pocket of his bathrobe—anything. Even looked in the medicine cabinet, who knows, who could tell, there might be one in the medicine cabinet. He took everything out of the medicine cabinet, he looked behind everything, he didn't find anything, he looked around on the floor….
This "redundant or copious" nature of oral style owes its existence to the "disappearance" of oral utterances as they are pronounced. Since the mind cannot return to a prior reference affixed to a printed page in order to check on the continuity of the narrative, it is important for the storyteller to move forward with caution, always keeping what has preceded in the narrative in the mind's eye of the listener. The result is not the linear progression identified with literate discourse, but a tale marked of necessity by redundancy and repetition, serving to position the listener periodically within the development of the story. Redundancy may therefore exist as a thematic marker, acting as a common thread for narrative development, but existing independently of story content. In one monologue, for example, the theme of guilt ties together five or six different events or commentaries. Thus, when Florian Krepsbach is knocked off his feet by the Deener boy on his bicycle, the old fellow is not really upset because he feels guilty for having left Myrtle at the truck stop (this incident is related to a prior story, but for Keillor's regular audiences the mere mention of it evokes laughter and ties it to the communality of experience among the reappearing characters). This situation leads to a comment by Keillor in the role of public narrator on the subject of the pleasant reaction of a woman into whose car he had just crashed, because apparently she was feeling guilty about something else. In turn, the Deeners are said to show too much guilt, since they thought the awful smell in the dining room was coming from themselves, rather than from the cat that had been plastered into a wall. In contrast, there follows a brief reference to egotistical "yuppie scum" who have not enough guilt, and, finally, the guilt theme circumscribes the narrative by dredging up none other than Lyle, who returns to suffer the guilt of having knocked his daughter Becky against the radiator during his desperate search for a smoke. Whereas purely oral societies find in story-telling a way to conserve knowledge, Garrison Keillor modifies the griot's role by both celebrating and mocking unbending tradition, in part by undermining the importance of narrative as the guardian of conceptualized knowledge. In the tales of Lake Wobegon, as it is in those of Balzat, Chelm, Mols, Schilda, and other communities of idiots, knowledge is incomplete, fossilized or irrelevant, such as the question of who remembers how to make lutefisk (it's Ralph), and, even more importantly, who is willing to eat it. Or, there is the case of Wendel, a high-school classmate of the narrator, who was sent to Venice as a Lutheran missionary. Poor Wendel had not had much luck proselytizing there. Some time later, he received a letter from the Lutheran Missionary Board informing him that they had meant to send him to Vienna! Not everyone in Lake Wobegon is an idiot, of course, but neither do the Wobegonians seem to advance much. The place is fixed as "the little town that time forgot and that the decades cannot improve," the motto of which is sumus quod sumus. Wobegonians have civic virtue and moral rectitude, and they persevere, so that "all the women are strong, the men are good-looking and the children are above average." These epithets are used for ironically comic effect, since in spite of their virtues and talents, what Wobegonians know and what they do are often at odds, making them appear singular and not infrequently lunatic.
The humor of logically illogical characters as an operational mode of Keillor's style is carried over to another aspect of oral narrative, that which is "empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced." Since the nonlinear nature of oral narrative does not permit leisurely references to past events, causality, or justification for prior actions, narrator and audience must know where they stand in relation to each other at all times. Keillor practices a type of phatic communication which enables him to jog the listener frequently, as well as to bring him or her into the tale. If we look at the example of Lyle as comic Aegisthus with an eye toward the relationship between narrator and audience, we can count numerous references to the listener in the form of the pronoun you. This you is not synonymous with the general-reference pronoun one, for the listener is progressively drawn into the narrative, when, for example, the hypothetical "if you see him out there," repeated three times, changes to the indicative "when you see him out there," followed by an imperative. By maintaining contact with the tale, the listener is guaranteed (tongue in cheek) that the character's mimetic dimension will be assured. Moreover, the moral of the story, that Lyle is "just one of us, just one of us sinners, you know …" is inclusive of narrator, character and narratee, all adherents to the same non-exclusive club of guilt-burdened members. Thus, monologic and interactive discourse, usually thought of as opposing parameters, are brought into complement to bond the auditor of the tale to its speaker.
This intimacy is felt throughout Keillor's Lake Wobegon stories. One might think that such a close relationship to the audience would be impossible in a format which supposes broadcasting the news from Lake Wobegon. But Keillor is no objective reporter, as all listeners recognize, because the "news" from Lake Wobegon doesn't really have the characteristics of news. What comes from Lake Wobegon has little sensational value, nor does it have general interest beyond itself. After all, every week is a quiet week there, for time has forgotten the place. If there is no reason to narrate the news, of which there is none anyway, telling it makes the listener suspect the presence of another narrative strategy, this one having to do with the relationship between narrator and audience. The artifice of supposedly phoning a contact in Lake Wobegon weekly to catch up on the non-news is a means by which to maintain a close relationship with listeners. Keillor can participate in and narrate the tale at the same time, since as conduit for Lake Wobegon's events of the week he can relate them, but because he supposedly maintains contacts there he can also position himself within the story whenever he wishes. Since a characteristic of oral narrative is always some kind of coincidence between whatever posture the speaker adopts and the existence of the speaker as a biographical person, Keillor can play both roles simultaneously, telling the tale and acting in it when he desires. The listener is thus implicated at both levels of the narration.
If we refer to the continuing saga of Lyle, we find this example of the kind of narrative play by which Keillor assumes the role of both protagonist and witness in order to justify his participatory narrational stance. Here Keillor is validating the contention that friendship exists in Lake Wobegon, but that one has to have lived there far longer than Lyle's twelve years to recognize it:
I was in the Side Track Tap one night this winter playing pinball. It was that old baseball machine which I've always liked, the old kind that doesn't beep, you know, it dings and it keeps score in the hundreds and the thousands and not in the hundreds of thousands. Kind of my speed, and I was standing there and doing pretty well at it and making it ring pretty well and getting it up to 9,000 and was on my bonus ball when suddenly a hole opened up out of nowhere and just ate this thing. And I looked at it and I felt a hand on my shoulder, on my right shoulder, and I turned to my right and there was Carl Krepsbach, who had been standing beside me and who put his arm around me and I tell you it may not sound like much but I just about burst into tears and sat down because I've known him, you see, just about all my life, and I know that he does not go around doing that. It was an amazing thing. I felt so grateful to him for it.
Keillor's autodiegetic participation, both internal and external to the spoken text is also a strategy that functions to confer upon him the authorization of the listener to tell the tale, given the diegetic authority which derives from the conceit of privileged purveyor of information from Lake Wobegon. This narrative ubiquity appears symbolically as a comic synecdoche in the perennial Keillor favorite, "The Living Flag." In that story, the Wobegonians form a living flag by wearing red, white or blue beanies and by positioning themselves properly in Main Street. Of course, when the flag is complete it is not possible to see it unless one breaks ranks and goes up to the roof of the Central Building to look at it, which, naturally, incites others to break ranks so as to take a peek. The living flag becomes a "sitting" and a "kneeling" flag, deformed by those defectors who wish to cease participating in order to observe. The narrational analogy to the problematic of the flag is well expressed by Jean-Paul Sartre's dictum in Nausea, "… il faut choisir: vivre ou raconter." In theory, one can't be authentically involved in life and have sufficient objective distance from it to tell about it at the same time. While it is impossible to assume the posture of grammatical first and third person narrative voice simultaneously, Keillor's strategy permits him to shift from the position of narrator to that of participant in order to create the illusion of being both outside the tale and within it. The external narration of Lake Wobegon activities, foibles, and secrets is maintained, while the internal narration establishes a homodiegetic presence among the Wobegonians, foci that link storyteller to audience from different perspectives. This dual point of view is a feature of contemporary literary practice, all the more remarkable when it is found in oral narration. It bridges both the oral and literate narrational features of the texts.
By the same measure that he assumes different types of focalizing perspectives as both external and internal narrator. Keillor works at different levels of narration through embedding stories within stories. The impression that his sub-tales seem to wander away from each other is only apparent. Successive narrations, even embedded ones, are held together thematically as well as by replication of content. They usually evolve organically, each succeeding narrative arising from the preceding one. The main theme is typically rejoined at the end of the story. Nevertheless, given the nonlinear nature of oral presentation, it is difficult to maintain contact with the listener using embedding, a strategy not unknown to oral narration, but more coherent in literate narration. The example of Father Emil's preretirement visit from the Bishop of Brainard illustrates how the primary humorous theme is maintained through a series of embedded stories, each funny by itself. The narrative begins when Mr. Odegaard's old Ford pickup won't start outside the Side Track Tap on the kind of cold day that only Minnesota knows. As Odegaard attempts to hitch a ride home, Mr. Bowser's green postal Chevy passes him by, for Bowser is deep in thought about organizing a cross-country riding-mower competition from New York to California. This story is then melded into another, which is provoked by a team of young evangelists from a bible college in Georgia who pass Mr. Odegaard by in their blue motor home. Finally, we arrive at the main tale, that of the Bishop, who arrives at the rectory to talk to Father Emil. He pulls up in a long, black limousine, it too passing Mr. Odegaard by, not once but twice, which prompts the old Norwegian bachelor farmer to hit it with a clod scooped from the side of the road.
Each of the stories contains separate content, but the unifying element is the series of vehicles, each one passing Odegaard, but not stopping for him. The vehicles themselves are not the main point of the story. They are a literate reprise, neither aggregative nor redundant, as in the oral mode. They are denotative signifiers of embedding in a tale which has many components and which of necessity needs to conform to the requirement of wrapping its successive layers into a circular pattern graspable by the listener as an Ariadne's thread. What is clever in this is the fact that although each of the successive stories has different content, they all function metonymically to create a framework for the main story, that of the bishop's visit to Father Emil. The layers of stories within the story serve the explicative function of embedding, which elucidates the punch line of the first narrative: why poor old Odegaard threw filth on the bishop's car. Thus, Keillor's strategy is to blend literate narrative formats with the demands of oral performance to form a narrative that is richly complex but easy to follow.
Narrators must convince their audience to give authorization for the mimetic process to a mimetic authority. Literate narration frequently shifts the burden for establishing mimetic authority to the character, often assigning the role of speaking and seeing to internal focalizers, characters who function as cameras or recorders and who adopt a point of view. Keillor does this too, but he often creates humorous effect by limiting, rather than sharpening, the focalizing capacities of a character. In the case of the bishop's visit, for example:
Halfway into algebra, the long black car sat by the curb, its motor running, so that the children who went to the blackboard to work problems all looked out the window and down, watching that car, clouds of exhaust coming out, until sister Arvonne said, "Don't look at it, don't think about it, I'm watching it, I'll let ya know if anything happens." What happened, though she didn't know this and still doesn't, was that Father Emil had submitted his resignation as priest asking to be relieved of his duties—he's 74.
In this case, the comic effect is produced by a script switch in which the curious nun is left as much in the dark as her pupils. Sister Arvonne's limited knowledge causes her failure to perform as an effective focalizer. Her view of things is then transformed to direct discourse, which in turn serves as a stepping-stone for the external narrator to return in order to provide the needed information. That move in turn provides rationale for a "historical" explanation of the founding of Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility Church, yet another embedded story.
Characters' point of view is usually associated with literate discourse, but it can find its way into oral narrative through techniques such as the narrator's mimicry of the characters' voices or their intonation. In this vein, characters often speak directly in the Lake Wobegon monologues. It is unusual, however, to find oral narratives that not only include the direct and indirect discourse of characters, but also the literary device of free indirect discourse, in which the focalizing function of the character is blended with the syntax of the narrator. Keillor uses free indirect discourse effectively as a focalizing mechanism and as a strategy to vary the level of discourse from that of simple internal or external focalization. In this way, the narrator is not restricted only to what the character knows, or to what can be observed from outside, but a third dimension of focalization may be achieved, one that includes both perspective and level, in a melding of characters' discourse with narrator's point of view. The following example occurs in the episode known as "Tomato Butt," in which air conditioning has become a topic of some interest to Lake Wobegonians:
It was when Mrs. Deener got an air conditioner that people started to talk. There was nothin' wrong with her. Who did she think she was? She said that she got it for her daughter because her daughter would break into a heat rash, but her daughter only came to visit for a couple of weeks during the summer, and she always came in June. So what did she need it for? Mrs. Deener said, "Well," she said, "as long as I've got to have it I might as well get the use of it…." And I decided that air conditioning was something that I'd dearly love to have.
In this passage the external narrator's introduction leads into a discourse of gossip which is neither direct, as is Mrs. Deener's, nor indirect, in which case it would be introduced by the narrator, most commonly following a relative pronoun. In fact, the free indirect discourse contains within it indirect discourse as metanarrative ("She said that she got it …"). Moreover, the counterpoint of free indirect discourse and direct discourse then permits the shift to homodiegetic narration, in which the indirect discourse of the narrator as boy in Lake Wobegon is introduced, leading finally to the moral of the story and a laughter-provoking twist. The richness of this frame is based upon the tripartite view of the air-conditioning problem as seen in the three modalities of discourse.
Free indirect discourse is generally used by Keillor to evoke the presence of the character within the extradiegetic narration, thus affording a brief binocular vision as extradiegetic narration and intradiegetic narration fuse. In this example, Lyle has finally caught on that his insertion in "Who's Who" is merely a commercial venture, a vanity press seduction:
He filled it out all the way down to the bottom and then he saw little boxes down there to be marked "Check enclosed" or "Visa" or "Master Card." Oh, [snort] no wonder they mailed it to him at home, not at work. All the teachers in Minnesota probably got one, every single one. What a sucker! He felt like such a sucker.
The first paragraph, focalized externally, yields to free indirect discourse in the second. The paralinguistic snort is a concession to the oral format, as well as a marker for the change to free indirect discourse, which then continues as it would in a literate text. Lyle's vanity is underscored by his brief appearance at the moment of his epiphany, his words grafted onto the extradiegetical narrator's syntax. Finally, the external narration pulls away from the eruption of the character onto the scene by another bow to orality, as the narrator reestablishes himself extradiegetically in the last sentence through a redundant statement that merely repeats from his perspective what Lyle has already told us. The sequence thus begins in the oral mode then moves into the literate mode, finally returning to the oral mode. These focalizing displacements emphasize the superiority of listener over narrated subject, which is the source of humor in this instance.
Finally, in the same way that redundancy must be built into the oral narrative to remind the narratee of the development of the tale, so do oral cultures avoid abstract analytic categories per se, those having no relationship to activities in the real world. Oral style is "close to the human lifeworld," since in oral cultures the elements of the tale are never remote from lived experience. The same may be said for Keillor's stories, for even in their most complex configurations, they remain rooted in life experiences. In the story about guilt, for example, Keillor opens his narrative with a temporal marker:
Last Saturday, as a matter of fact, right about the time I was talking about him on the radio, last Saturday afternoon, Florian Krepsbach came out the door of the Side Track Tap in the early evening before supper, having gone in for a bump….
The notion of time here is fairly abstract, since Keillor is using a "split screen" technique to create a spacio-temporal distance between himself as external narrator and the character, who is seen to have an authenticated past and autonomy of action, given Florian's "presence" in Lake Wobegon, his presence in the preceding week's monologue, and Keillor's double presence on the stage, that of last week and that of this week. Moreover, the charm of Keillor's narration in this instance derives from the interplay of the spatial and temporal facets of focalization. Keillor plays at being a narrator with a limited point of view who is able to describe what characters do only because he gets "news" of them weekly. His true optic is panoramic, which allows the simultaneous description of events separated in space. In the same way, focalization here is panchronic, where it is possible to perceive all temporal distances together. The listener understands that Keillor, as narrator, controls the complete range of temporal distance through the past, present, and even future of the character, but what is "assumed" by the narration is a limited focalization in time, one that is circumscribed by the present tense of the character. Thus, while Keillor talks about Florian in the past, another Florian, one whose autonomy is assumed by the narrator, circulates in his own present moment at the very instant his past is being recounted. The character is therefore free to develop in a natural way, integrated into the time and space of Lake Wobegon's rhythms. All of this takes place, however, within the context of a familiar Lake Wobegon haunt. Florian's verisimilitude as a character is linked not to an abstract, literate notion of time and space (which is nevertheless present), but to a "real-world" situation which defines him as an old-time Lake Wobegonian who likes his afternoon pick-me-up after a slow day at the Chevy agency. The old fellow's bump is yet another example of the interlacing of the oral and the literate, for it marks his place in the spacio-temporal matrix of stories whose organicism in the form of continuously evolving situations is never calcified by the fact of their sophisticated narration.
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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."
Narveson, Robert D. "Catholic-Lutheran Interaction in Keillor's Lake Wobegon Days and Hassler's Grand Opening." In Exploring the Midwestern Literary Imagination, edited by Marcia Noe, pp. 180-91. Troy, New York: Whitston Publishing Co., 1993.
Discusses the representation of sectarian relations in Keillor's Lake Wobegon Days and Jon Hassler's Grand Opening, and the reality of Catholic-Lutheran relations in small midwestern towns.
Ostrem, William. "Nietzsche, Keillor and the Religious Heritage of Lake Wobegon." Midamerica 18 (1991): 115-23.
Analyzes the relationship between the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and Keillor's Lake Wobegon Days.
Parrinder, Patrick. "Last in the Funhouse." The London Review of Books 8, No. 7 (17 April 1986): 18-9.
Discusses the style of American fiction in the 1980s as seen in several novels, including Keillor's Lake Wobegon Days.
Sexton, David. "When Here is Nowhere." The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4327 (7 March 1986): 257.
States that, "Half memoir, half fiction, [Keillor's] Lake Wobegon Days is wholly a success."
Wilson, Gahan. "Cats and Their Discontents." The New York Times Book Review (21 May 1995): 20.
Discusses the Roaring Twenties mood of Keillor's Cat, You Better Come Home.
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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.
A memorable council meeting was that of 5/16/62 to discuss a motion to hold a special election to vote on a bond issue to repair sidewalks and install new streetlights. It was the late Leo Mueller who suggested that with a little more inner light ("Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet"), fewer people would need assistance walking home. He hinted that it was Lutherans who were walking into trees.
At first glance Lake Wobegon is an American pastoral in the comic tradition of Twain and Booth Tarkington, with an occasional slide into the romantic idealism of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. It is a dream of a vanishing America where life makes sense and neighbors know and care about each other, even if they aren't always speaking. They endure the freezing prairie winters and broiling summers with philosophical stoicism, and express themselves in highly characteristic speech and gesture:
Mr. Berge said to Wally in the Sidetrack [the local bar], "Shees, it's bin cool out, don't you think. I thought dey said it was supposta warm up a little, fer crine out loud." Wally said, "It's almost October, Berge. It's going to be getting a lot cooler from here on out right through the end of the year and into the next. It's not going to warm up any time soon."
It's easy for Wally to be a realist. He spends his days in the Sidetrack like a bear in a cave—a cave with green and orange and blue neon beer signs and a bevy of older bears leaning against the bar and belching beer breath.
One of Garrison Keillor's greatest gifts is his ability to modulate like this from realism to fantasy, or from low farce to high comedy. The range of Keillor's sympathy is wider than Twain's, however. It includes not only children and outsiders, but also the most conventional citizens of Lake Wobegon: people like the local Lutheran pastor, David Ingqvist, and his wife:
Advent exhausted them—so much joy and great tidings proclaimed while inside they felt crummy—and before the candlelight service they stood in the vestibule, he in his vestments and she at the head of the children's choir, and they got in a fight and hissed at each other. "How could you say that to me?" she said.
"I never said any such thing."
"You certainly did."
"Oh shut up."
In this little town, as winter descends, we depend on marriage to get us through, because we can't be attractive every day on a regular basis, we need loyalty, money in the bank, and if it's the Church that stands behind marriage, then the Ingqvists' marriage is crucial to everyone. So then they tried hard to be nice to each other, and that was almost worse. To treat your true love like they are a customer. "Good morning, how are you? What can I do for you today?" They needed to sit in the sun and hear birds cry, paradise birds, non-Lutheran birds, with their sharp cries. Lutheran birds wear brown wool plumage and murmur, "No thanks, none for me, I'm fine, you go ahead," but these paradise birds in their brilliant orange-and-green silks are all screaming, "MORE MORE MORE! I want MORE MORE MORE!"
Keillor's attitude toward his imaginary neighbors is affectionate but hardheaded. After a series of comic disasters, the Ingqvists do get away to Florida at the last minute, but their lives are not transformed. At the end of the chapter they are "at Château Suzanne, in the sunshine, listening to birds cry: MORE. But that's all there is."
Sometimes a darker chord is sounded. Characters and events appear that recall the grotesques of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg. Ohio. People are obsessed by the fear of cancer and injured in freak accidents; they desert their wives and children. Plump, prim little Mr. Geske misses his dead mother so much that he goes to the cemetery and digs up her grave.
They found her body on a chair in the kitchen. He had set a cup of coffee in front of her and a piece of lemon meringue pie. There was meringue on her lips.
Keillor, in an interview, has said that this incident is based on a true story he heard in North Dakota. "These stories are not common, but still they're not utterly strange, they happen sometimes. The perils of that little town on the prairie have to be set out: boredom, loneliness, alcohol, self-hatred, and madness."
Small-town religion, which Keillor usually treats with amused nostalgia, is sometimes shown to have a harsher side. He was brought up as a member of a splinter sect called the Sanctified Brethren, which he describes in terms that recall Samuel Butler and Edmund Gosse. ("We were 'exclusive' Brethren, a branch that believed in keeping itself pure of false doctrine by avoiding association with the impure.") Lake Wobegon Days contains a long, angry outpouring of rage: "95 Theses 95," which its author (described only as a Lutheran and a "former Wobegonian") originally intended to nail to the door of his church. The manifesto accuses his elders of having ruined his life with their teachings:
- You have taught me to worship a god who is like you, who shares your thinking exactly, who is going to slap me one if I don't straighten out fast. I am very uneasy every Sunday, which is cloudy and deathly still and filled with silent accusing whispers.
- You have taught me to feel shame and disgust about my own body, so that I am afraid to clear my throat or blow my nose. Even now I run water in the sink when I go to the bathroom. "Go to the bathroom" is a term you taught me to use….
The task of the humorist is in its nature contradictory. He (or, less often in our history, she) both destroys and defuses. He can rail at and expose pretensions and lies so that they lose their power; or, by affectionately mocking our flaws; he can encourage us to smile and accept rather than change anything.
The greatest American humorists can be roughly located along this continuum from destroyer to defuser. But if they are to be widely popular they must avoid both extremes. When they become obsessed by the evils of the world, their mockery grows bitter and corrosive; middle-of-the-road audiences reject them as self-righteous moralists or spiteful scolds. Mark Twain in his later years and more recently Lenny Bruce were eventually sucked into the dark whirlpool of constant rage.
Humorists who have too much love for the smiling side of life, on the other hand, may grow lazy and soft. Their wit is blunted, and they begin to reassure their audiences rather than challenge them; they tell the sort of jokes that excuse rather than excoriate evil. Will Rogers, who "never met a man [he] didn't like" (including, presumably, Warren G. Harding and Benito Mussolini), sometimes seems to be drifting in the direction of these deceptive shallows. Many other lesser humorists have drowned there.
At the moment Garrison Keillor, too, seems nearer to the latter danger than to the former. Like Will Rogers, with whom he shares a rural frontier background, he began with a distrust of the rich and the conviction that most ordinary Americans are decent folks. Also, like Rogers, Keillor is most himself in front of an audience; he does not regard the role he plays on stage as an act, but as his true self.
Keillor, like Will Rogers, creates an immediate emotional relationship with his listeners:
You can get into a range of powerful feelings with an audience [he recently told an interviewer]: feelings that bring you up to the edge of your endurance, to where you are about to weep and be unable to continue. It's not pathos, it's loyalty to the audience and a sense that these people are the people you're talking about. You must be true to them and true to their lives.
Will Rogers grew up before broadcasting, and always preferred performing on stage; but radio is Keillor's natural habitat:
A storyteller reaches something like critical mass, passing directly from solid to radio waves without going through the liquid or gaseous phase. You stand in the dark, you hear people leaning forward, you smell the spotlight, and you feel invisible. No scripts, no clock, only pictures in your mind.
By 1987 Lake Wobegon had made Keillor famous. He was no longer the gangling six-foot-five teen-ager of his reminiscences, a Frog Prince obsessed by acne and sexual guilt, but a media celebrity. He broke up with his long-time girlfriend, Margaret Moos, the producer of his show, and married the beautiful Danish exchange student he had admired when he was a shy, unathletic, self-confessed "dork." After the last broadcast of "Prairie Home Companion" he left Minneapolis and moved with his wife to Copenhagen. Three months later he was back in America—not in Minnesota, but in New York, and writing for The New Yorker.
It was in some ways a strange move, though Keillor has always had a fascination with the magazine, which he first read at the age of fourteen.
My people weren't much for literature, and they were dead set against conspicuous wealth, so a magazine in which classy paragraphs marched down the aisle between columns of diamond necklaces and French cognacs was not a magazine they welcomed into their home. I was more easily dazzled than they, and to me The New Yorker was a fabulous sight…. What I most admired was not the decor or the tone of the thing but rather the work of some writers.
When Keillor discovered The New Yorker in the Fifties its portrait of New York had considerable relation to reality. The magazine itself has not changed much, but now it presents a strange, skewed version of the city. To judge by its editorial pages, cartoons, and advertising, New York is still a kind of glorified small town, full of interesting and eccentric persons. Most of its citizens are decent people, its streets are safe, and the scenery is pretty. The New Yorker covers, with their views of Central Park, colorful flower and vegetable stalls, and commuters planting bulbs or raking leaves, underline the illusion.
Meanwhile the real New York is turning into one of the most dangerous, ugly, and corrupt urban centers in the world—and one of the most expensive. It is no longer a place where most of its readers can afford to live; it belongs more and more to the very rich and destitute. The tense mood of New York in the Eighties seems better represented by New York Magazine.
As yet the change is not complete. There are still pockets of The New Yorker's city here and there; and Garrison Keillor has set out to find them. His essays in the magazine, and his pieces for its "Talk of the Town" section—unsigned, but recognizable from the down-home diction and wry self-mockery—maintain the fiction of New York as a glorified small town. In the same tone he used in describing Lake Wobegon, Keillor writes of messages left on a department store typewriter, of baseball games, of drives to the country on weekends. Like E. B. White he is a delicately accurate humorist and a brilliant but wholly unpretentious stylist; though he speaks as an educated country bumpkin rather than a New England gentleman of letters, it is White's place that he now seems to be filling at The New Yorker.
Though Keillor abandoned Lake Wobegon in June 1987, the town did not die: instead it became a popular tourist attraction. Replays of "Prairie Home Companion" are still broadcast every week on over two hundred stations to large audiences, and Minnesota Public Radio puts out a catalog from which Keillor's fans can order tapes of the entire show or of his monologues. The catalog also sells T-shirts with the emblem of Keillor's imaginary sponsor, Powdermilk Biscuits, and others advertising Bertha's Kitty Boutique (brilliant fuchsia with a picture showing four monumental cats carved into Mount Rushmore). The Prairie Home Companion Folk Song Book, (from "Billy Boy" to "The Beer was Spilled on the Barroom Floor") will appear later this month with a foreword by Keillor.
One of the most discouraging things about America today is our tendency to simplify and commercialize whatever is most genuine in our art and literature. A writer who is widely known only as the source of a T-Shirt, or the celebrant of a city that no longer exists, is unlikely to attract serious readers. It would be a shame if Garrison Keillor's originality, his humor, and his understanding of American small-town life were overlooked because of his popularity. But of course Keillor's story is not over: he may return to Minnesota, or become a partisan political commentator like will Rogers; he may travel around the world and produce a new version of Innocents Abroad; or he may complete the downbeat novel he is currently working on, in which strangers—perhaps New Yorkers, he says—will invade Lake Wobegon, and there will be a real-estate boom.
Money is there to be made, and the strangers will have all kinds of money to pay for bits of land that nobody thought was particularly valuable. They will bring their lives with them, and the townspeople will also have that to deal with.
Maybe, after all, Garrison Keillor needs to live in New York for a while, as a spy in the camp of the invaders.
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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 publishing sleeper of the year," the hardcover edition was on the New York Times best-seller list for 48 weeks, making it the top selling hardcover fiction of 1985. The paperback edition appeared on the list for sixteen weeks. Altogether the book sold over 1.2 million copies. Its sequel, Leaving Home, appeared on the Times best-seller list for twenty weeks following its release in October, 1987.
Since he first got the idea to do a live radio show after traveling to Nashville in 1974 to write a piece for The New Yorker on the Grand Ole Opry, Garrison Keillor has become something of a national cult hero. He was featured in a cover profile in Time magazine, made TV appearances with David Letterman and Ted Koppel, led the singing of the national anthem at the 1988 Democratic national convention in Atlanta, and, to his only faintly disguised gratification, was designated as one of the ten sexiest men in America by Playgirl magazine.
Champion of the shy person and spokesperson for the small-town hick, Keillor has been described as exuding Minnesotan normalcy; yet beneath this folksy exterior one senses an unusually keen intellect and rare talent. In spinning his fanciful and gently satiric tales of life in Lake Wobegon, "the town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve," Keillor invites comparison with an earlier Midwesterner, James Thurber, and with the late E. B. White, whose stories evoke life in rural Maine so convincingly. Some find his spell-binding wit and humor reminiscent of Will Rogers. Others even compare him to America's greatest humorist, Mark Twain, a link that is perhaps invited by Keillor's propensity for wearing white suits.
One might argue that "The Prairie Home Companion" was simply a product of a particular historical period, that it was popular because it captured and gave voice to the animating spirit of its time. A more interesting and finally more revealing approach, however, is to examine the show's remarkable popularity in a broader historical context, one that raises fundamental questions relating to national identity and the collective American experience. The argument presented in this article is that Keillor's creation of a mythical place captivated the imagination of American audiences because it addressed a long-standing cultural need, one that has existed since the settling of the North American continent by western Europeans. That need is for a sense of community and belonging, for reassurance against social disruption and the threat of loss—the need, in short, for a sense of place.
Myth and legend are, by their nature, timeless. In depicting the town "that time forgot and the decades cannot improve," Keillor plays with the notion of timelessness. This is especially apparent in his rendering of character. Like most writers, Keillor defines and delineates his characters in relation to place. But what sets Keillor apart is that his characters seem not to respond to time. A good example of an unchanging character wedded to timeless place is Myrtle, who "is seventy but looks like a thirty-four-year-old who led a very hard life." She is
Carl Krebsbach's mother … who, they say, enjoys two pink Daiquiris every Friday night and between the first and second hums "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" and does a turn that won her First Prize in a Knights of Columbus talent show in 1936 at the Alhambra Ballroom. It burned to the ground in 1955. "Myrtle has a natural talent, you know," people have always told her, she says. "She had a chance to go on to Minneapolis." Perhaps she is still considering the offer.
Not only do Keillor's characters live in a town "that time forgot," but also they themselves are timeless. On the one hand they are representations of unchanging human nature, which partly explains their appeal, and on the other they are more or less exempt from the vicissitudes of time, which partly explains why it feels comforting and secure to be around them. By their timelessness, they offer us a promise of permanence and an assurance against loss. It is the promise of never-never land that only a mythical place can offer.
Myrtle's husband Florian provides an even more striking example of Keillor's use of timelessness in rendering character:
Her husband Florian pulls his '66 Chevy into a space between two pickups in front of the Clinic. To look at his car, you'd think it was 1966 now, not 1985; it's so new, especially the back seat, which looks as if nobody ever sat there unless they were gift-wrapped. He is coming to see Dr. DeHaven about stomach pains that he thinks could be cancer, which he believes he has a tendency toward. Still, though he may be dying, he takes a minute to get a clean rag out of the trunk, soak it with gasoline, lift the hood, and wipe off the engine. He says she runs cooler when she's clean, and it's better if you don't let the dirt get baked on. Nineteen years old, she has only 42,000 miles on her, as he will tell you if you admire how new she looks. "Got her in '66. Just 42,000 miles on her." It may be odd that a man should be so proud of having not gone far, but not so odd in this town. Under his Trojan Seed Corn cap pulled down tight on this head is the face of a boy, and when he talks his voice breaks, as if he hasn't talked enough to get over adolescence completely. He has lived here all his life, time hardly exists for him, and when he looks at this street and when he sees his wife, he sees them brand-new, like this car. Later, driving the four blocks home at about trolling speed, having forgotten the misery of a rectal examination, he will notice a slight arrhythmic imperfection when the car idles, which he will spend an hour happily correcting.
What we have here is the ultimate statement of traditional values, those that don't change at all. For the Lake Wobegonian, time is simply not an issue.
This thinking is epitomized by the town's prevailing attitude toward progress and technology:
Since arriving in the New World, the good people of Lake Wobegon have been skeptical of progress. When the first automobile chugged into town, driven by the Ingqvist twins, the crowd's interest was muted, less whole-hearted than if there had been a good fire. When the first strains of music wafted from a radio, people said, 'I don't know.' Of course, the skeptics gave in and got one themselves. But the truth is, we still don't know.
This same fundamental skepticism is wonderfully apparent in the townspeople's reaction to a visiting university professor who offers them a glimpse of the future:
Every spring, the Thanatopsis Society sponsored a lecture in keeping with the will of the late Mrs. Bjornson, who founded the society as a literary society, and though they had long since evolved into a conversational society, the Thanatopsians were bound by the terms of her bequest to hire a lecturer once a year and listen. One year it was World Federalism (including a demonstration of conversational Esperanto), and then it was the benefits of a unicameral legislature, and in 1955, a man from the University came and gave us "The World of 1980" with slides of bubble-top houses, picture-phones, autogyro copter-cars, and floating factories harvesting tasty plankton from the sea. We sat and listened and clapped, but when the chairlady called for questions from the audience, what most of us wanted to know we didn't dare ask: "How much are you getting paid for this?"
The professor's futuristic vision of a world of technological wonder is clearly one that the townspeople do not believe or care to see. The reason for their aversion is that technology represents change, and change, as we all know, is unsettling. As Rip Van Winkle discovered upon waking from his twenty-year slumber, to confront a familiar place that has been transformed nearly beyond recognition is frightening. And as Leonard Lutwack and others have pointed out, Rip Van Winkle's experience has become a central metaphor of our time. Faced with change at an alarming and ever increasing pace, we are left with a sense of placelessness, "a peculiarly modern malaise" that the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan calls "spatial segmentation."
At its most rudimentary, myth-making is simply story-telling, and Keillor is a consummate story-teller. His technique is to construct an imagined milieu by building layer upon layer of convincing detail. As with William Faulkner and his mythical Yoknapatawpha County, Keillor coaxes his listeners into his created world by luring and hypnotizing them with the "authenticity and authority of experience" (to use Wendell Berry's phrase) and by presenting them with an array of characters who seem somehow truer than real life.
In the passage that follows, Keillor evokes a vivid sense of place by presenting a catalogue of objective visual detail, subjectively perceived. The narrator knows that most people think that tall or big is beautiful and that small or short is unremarkable. This awareness leads the narrator to present his home town to the outside world in terms of a comically absurd hierarchy of people and buildings based on relative height, as though height were tantamount to virtue or importance:
A town with few scenic wonders such as towering pines or high mountains but with some fine people of whom some are over six feet tall, its highest point is the gold ball on the flagpole atop the Norge Coop grain elevator south of town on the Great Northern spur, from which Mr. Tollefson can see all of Mist County when he climbs up to raise the flag on national holidays…. Next highest is the water tower, then the boulder on the hill, followed by the cross on the spire of Our Lady, then the spire of Lake Wobegon Lutheran (Christian Synod), the Central Building (three stories), the high school flagpole, the high school, the top row of bleachers at Wally ("Old Hard Hands") Bunsen Memorial Field, the First Ingqvist State Bank, Bunsen Motors, the Hjalmar Ingqvist home, etc.
It is the tension between the concreteness of the visual detail and the comic misapplication of someone else's notion of grandeur that generates a sense of recognizable place. Implicit in the narrator's description of his home town is a way of thinking, an inherent sense of inferiority that many have used to characterize small-town America.
In the act of myth-making, Keillor succeeds in making us feel a sense of belonging by calling on our shared experience. He does this in many ways, but perhaps the most important is his use of language. He appeals to our collective experience and our collective identity as Americans by expressing himself in a particular kind of language. Wendell Berry calls it "community speech." a certain "precision in the speech of people who share the same knowledge of place and history and work." It is a "precision of direct reference or designation … in which words live in the presence of their objects." Its effect is to force us "out of the confines of 'objective' thought and into action, out of solitude and into community." Taking its meaning and sources from locale and place, this particular language creates connections among people, land and community.
Similar to Berry's notion of "standing by words" is Jerome Bruner's concept of "the language of education," a value-laden language "revealing one's stance toward matters of human pith and substance." To use this language is to set aside the "so-called uncontaminated language of fact and 'objectivity'" and to invite reflection. To use language in this way, as Keillor knows so well, is to make certain connections that contribute to a sense of common identity and to the creation of culture. According to Tuan, this culture-creating is related to the concept of mythical space, which is rooted in "localized value" and used as a frame to interpret our day-to-day experience. The process of culture-creating is interactive, one in which speaker and listener alike become myth-makers.
This use of a particular language is evident in Keillor's brand of democratic humor. Like Mark Twain, he operates in the comic tradition of self-depreciation and false humility. Take for example the following scene, in which the thin veneer of sophistication affected by the narrator as a first-quarter university freshman is challenged by the traditional values of common sense and practical knowledge. Significantly, the humor comes at the narrator's expense:
I went home for Christmas and gave books for presents, Mother got Walden, Dad got Dostoevsky. I smoked a cigarette in my bedroom, exhaling into an electric fan in the open window. I smoked another at the Chatterbox. I wore a corduroy sportcoat with leather patches on the elbows. Mr. Thorvaldson sat down by me. "So. What is it they teach you down there?" he said. I ticked off the courses I took that fall. "No, I mean what are you learning?" he said. "Now, 'Humanities in the Modern World,' for example? What's that about?" I said, "Well, it covers a lot of ground, I don't think I could explain it in a couple of minutes." "That's okay," he said, "I got all afternoon."
I told him about work instead.
The language in this passage is a perfect example of Keillor's skillful and evocative use of "community speech." A whole lifestyle, for instance, is suggested by Mr. Thorvaldson's value-laden response. Although we in the audience may not "have all afternoon," we understand the language and feel a natural kinship toward someone who does.
What we have here and throughout Keillor's work is a leveling process and an attack on pretense. (Consider what the narrator likes about his dog Buster and what he dislikes about Minneapolis.) As revealed by the town's motto, "Sumus quod sumus" ("We are what we are"), Keillor's humor reflects a fundamentally democratic spirit. He invites us to laugh with him on equal terms.
In his vision of a mythical place, Keillor delights in walking that thin line between imagination and reality. These days when asked where he's from, he says, without hesitation, Lake Wobegon. When asked if Lake Wobegon exists, his usual response goes something like this:
I don't mean to be cute when I say, "this is not an easy yes-or-no question." No, there is no town in Minnesota named Lake Wobegon that I could show you, at least I'm not aware of one. But I would also have a hard time showing you the Ninth Federal Reserve District, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the Big Ten, or the upper middle class. Most people deal very comfortably with abstractions much more far-fetched than Lake Wobegon, e.g. the Moral Majority, secular humanists, Hollywood, etc. Compared to any of those, Lake Wobegon is as real as my hands on this typewriter and sometimes more real than that.
In the same way, he seems to blur imagined and real space when he describes the mistake made by the Coleman Survey of 1866, a mistake "which omitted fifty square miles of central Minnesota (including Lake Wobegon)." This supposed error explains why no one today seems able to locate the town in real life, but it becomes more than a convenient fiction when he goes on to assert that the error "lives on in the F.A.A.'s Coleman Course Correction, a sudden lurch felt by airline passengers as they descend into Minnesota air space on flights from New York or Boston." Here the imagined intrudes on the real.
This blurring of imagined and real space makes it difficult to distinguish fantasy from reality, subjective perception from objective truth and mythical place from actual place. In fact, this lack of clear boundaries, many have argued, is a fundamental characteristic of human experience.
In Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, Yi-Fu Tuan addresses this phenomenon. Tuan identifies two principal kinds of mythical space. The first is "hazy" knowledge or "a fuzzy area of defective knowledge surrounding the empirically known," which "frames pragmatic space." The second is "the spatial component of a world view, a conception of localized values within which people carry on their practical activities." It is the second type of mythical space, the ordinary, day-to-day mythologizing that we all do in interpreting our daily experience, that Keillor exploits so effectively. He appeals, in this sense, to the Lake Wobegon within each of us. In rendering his mythical construct, Keillor brings into play all the tools of the regionalist: particular detail, sharply pronounced personality types, local manners, speech, folklore and history. In the process of mythologizing both his experience and ours, his subjective view of reality begins to take on literal truth and meaning. As Tuan defines it, mythical place is "a response of feeling and imagination to fundamental human needs." This makes it, as Keillor understands so well, as real as a real place, and in some ways more useful.
Mythical place as we have examined it, then, seems to possess the following attributes. It is timeless in the sense that it is not subject to the forces of change. This in turn makes it a comforting and reassuring place to be. It is subjective in the sense that it reflects the commonly held values and beliefs of a particular locale, as illustrated and embodied by "community speech." And it is real in the sense that it reflects the "inner truth" of reality. Because we believe that it exists, it does exist, and its existence influences our perception, our world view and our behavior.
There is at least one other important attribute of mythical place, however, and that is the prominent role given to chance and improbability. In the case of Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, this is illustrated by the curious happenstance of the town's founding. Its first white settlers were Unitarian missionaries and Yankee promoters who named the area "New Albion," thinking it would become the Boston of the west. Next came Norwegian Lutherans "who straggled in from the west" and German Catholics "who, bound for Clay County, had stopped a little short, having misread their map, but refused to admit it." Like America's first white visitors, these settlers arrived at the new land under a misconception of where they were.
One wonders if Keillor isn't suggesting that we modern-day immigrants to the New World even now aren't too sure of where we are or how we got here—and that perhaps we too refuse to admit it. It could be that in attempting to help us mythologize our collective experience, Keillor, while poking fun, is seeking to help us deepen our relationship with the land, to help us feel more at home.
Whatever Keillor's intent, that the town was founded on a mapping error seems, in the mythical scheme of things, perfectly natural. That Lake Wobegon was established by settlers who came there by accident suggests a particular notion of history as something unpredictable, uncontrolled, and problematic—history as chance. The irony (no doubt intended by our gentle satirist) is that Lake Wobegon itself, the symbol of permanence in a world of change, is there only by accident, and that the people are permanent there only because their ancestors didn't know what they were doing.
With mythical place, we have entered the realm of the improbable and the unlikely. We are surprised by what we find there only because the bias of our Western (rationalistic and mechanistic) mind often prevents us from recognizing the obvious: chance happenings are, in fact, commonplace, in both real and imagined landscapes. Keillor's incorporation of chance into mythical place reminds us that chance and uncertainty are, to paraphrase William Beatty Warner, just as real as being and certitude.
While it may be too early to determine the ultimate significance of the Lake Wobegon phenomenon, one might begin an assessment with a few basic questions. One might ask, for example, whether Wobegon should be interpreted as an exploration of a regional phenomenon, and hence part of the discovery of subcultures that began in the 1960s and continued into the 1970s and the 1980s? Or, one might ask, should Keillor's creation of mythical place be interpreted as an effort to establish a framework that transcends subcultures and binds all Americans?
That "The Prairie Home Companion" was a product of a particular historical period is undeniable. To appreciate the extent to which the program was in keeping with the spirit of its time, one need only consider some of the important cultural trends of the last decade or so. The 1970s, for example, witnessed a search for roots and community, as evidenced by the mid-1970s genealogy boom and the enormous popularity of the TV miniseries, "Roots." The period was also characterized by a general hostility toward technology and science, by a revival of Jeffersonian simplicity, as promoted by Wendell Berry and others, and by a renewed interest in what David Shi calls "homesteading simplicity." The book that may best capture the spirit of the times was E. F. Schumacher's extremely popular Small is Beautiful, a treatise on simple living. Though it is doubtful that Keillor would approve, one might even compare the anti-pretense dimension of "The Prairie Home Companion" to the punk-rock movement's search for an authentic rock 'n' roll.
Be that as it may, it is important to recognize the program's significance in a historical context that goes far beyond what was happening in the 1970s. In The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture, David Shi chronicles "a rich tradition of enlightened material restraint in the American experience dating back to the colonial era." It is a tradition that takes its origins from two societies, the Puritans and the Quakers, both of which "promoted a 'Christianity writ plain.'" While this tradition of "plain living and high thinking" may no longer serve as "a dominant standard of behavior." Shi provides ample evidence to show that it has persisted "both as an attainable ideal on an individual basis and as a sustaining myth of national purpose."
In other ways as well, Keillor's vision of the simple life in small-town, rural America isn't new. It is, in fact, the latest manifestation of a long and well established literary tradition that can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, whose bucolic poets often used Arcadia as a setting epitomizing rustic contentment and simplicity. As Leo Marx in The Machine in the Garden reminds us, American writers have used the pastoral ideal to define the meaning of our country "since the age of discovery." An early and prominent example is Washington Irving, who in 1820 described a "peaceful spot with all possible laud." Irving's words foreshadow a latter-day Sleepy Hollow that time likewise forgot:
… for it is in such little retired … valleys … that population, manners, and customs, remain fixed; while the great torrent of migration and improvement, which is making such incessant change in other parts of this restless country, sweeps by them unobserved.
Here in these sleepy valleys rural peace and repose stand in sharp contrast to a "great torrent" of change, and this change implies dislocation, conflict and anxiety. Marx goes on to point out that "the theme of withdrawal from society into an idealized landscape is central to a remarkably large number of … the American books admired most." Citing Cooper, Thoreau, Melville, Faulkner, Frost and Hemingway, he argues that "the imagination of our most respected writers … has been set in motion by this impulse." Clearly, Garrison Keillor is solidly within this tradition. And in offering his own version of an idealized landscape, he is touching something deep within the American psyche.
There is still the question of whether the program appealed to minority cultures. There seems to be no evidence that it did. It should be noted, however, that the music on the program was often off-beat, ranging from the throaty blue grass songs of Greg Brown to the Scottish ballads of Jean Redpath. And whenever Keillor took the show on the road (as when he broadcast from Alaska and Hawaii), he took care to include songs and tales from the indigenous cultures. Still, Keillor's is a white middle-class vision of America depicting white middle-class concerns.
This is not to say, however, that Keillor lacks insight into the minority experience. As the following passage indicates, Keillor has a keen understanding of a very important dimension of the minority experience in America, and that is the immigrant experience:
Homesickness hit the old-timers hard, even after so many years, and it was not unusual, Hjalmar says, to see old people weep openly for Norway or hear about old men so sad they took a bottle of whiskey up to the cemetery and lay down on the family grave and talked to the dead about home, the home in Norway, heavenly Norway.
America was the land where they were old and sick, Norway where they were young and full of hopes—and much smarter, for you are never so smart again in a language learned in middle age nor so romantic or brave or kind. All the best of you is in the old tongue, but when you speak your best in America you become a yokel, a dumb Norskie, and when you speak English, an idiot. No wonder the old-timers loved the places where the mother tongue was spoken, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Sons of Knute lodge, the tavern, where they could talk and cry and sing to their hearts' content.
Clearly, Keillor knows what it means to find oneself outside the dominant culture.
Despite the phenomenal popularity of his show, Garrison Keillor is not, of course, without his critics. There are many people who simply could do without him. Some Minnesotans would have preferred a less folksy image for what became the major symbol of their state in the eyes of the outside world. One local newspaper reviewer noted that Keillor's work has been accused of "being for Americans what All Creatures Great and Small has been for the English: a sweet picture of small-town life, misty around the edges, that panders to the nostalgic and escapist yearnings of a society alienated from the present and aware that it is on the skids." Others are still more harsh. They are concerned that nostalgic yearning for a golden age might divert our attention and enemies from addressing and solving today's real problems. They are repelled by the political implications of this sentimentality, which in their view supports the myth of "the good ol' days," a myth they claim has been used by conservatives to justify the do-nothing social policies of the Reagan administration.
But this last criticism allows political implications, probably unintended by Keillor, to overshadow the cultural significance of his accomplishment. It overlooks an important part of what Keillor is after as story-teller and myth-maker. His phenomenal popularity is surely more than an affirmation of fundamentally conservative values, just as his work is certainly more than the latest kitsch served up to exploit an untapped market.
Like many American writers before him, Garrison Keillor is taking part in the continuing formulation of America as an idea and an ideal. His creation of mythical place is tied to the creation and definition of the American experience. In the act of story-telling and myth-making, this "prairie home companion" offers security and solace to his fellow homesteaders. He invites them to explore with him and to create the legends of a new world. It is a world, both a real and imagined landscape, that evokes the conventional wisdom and traditional values that define the American experience and the American character, the values of perseverance and practicality and expedience. It is more than a nostalgic and sentimental look at the past, and it isn't exactly escapist.
By evoking a usable past and animating a recognizable common culture, Keillor invites his listeners to tell their own story, just as he invites them to speak when he reads their personal and usually humorous messages during his broadcast. This myth-making is a participative and interactive and dynamic process, one that, to use Jerome Bruner's word, calls on the "subjunctivizing" function of story or narrative art to elicit its many and various interpretations. The result is creation of culture and affirmation of community, a process that looks forward as much as backward. Though whimsical and often corny, Keillor's work is part of a serious and significant effort by Americans to come to grips with their physical and cultural landscape, to find a common thread in their increasingly fragmented experience and to put down roots in a shifting and ever changing society.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 862
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 sappy. Mr. Keillor brings it off, in passages like this: "Indoors, the news is second-hand, mostly bad, and even good people are drawn into a dreadful fascination with doom and demise … but here under heaven our spirits are immense, we are so blessed. The stars in the sky, my friends in the grass, my son asleep on my chest, his hands clutching my shirt."
"The Meaning of Life" might be the title of a C-minus sophomore work, but in two paragraphs this essay convinces, inspires and reminds us: "To know and to serve God, of course, is why we're here, a clear truth that, like the nose on your face, is near at hand and easily discernible but can make you dizzy if you try to focus on it hard…. Gentleness is everywhere in daily life, a sign that faith rules through ordinary things; through cooking, and small talk, through storytelling, making love, fishing …"
If you're searching for a more objective review of the author of this collection, look to his own "Letters From Jack," a file of letters from the owner of Jack's Auto Repair, one of the first sponsors—all of them fictitious—of "A Prairie Home Companion," Mr. Keillor's radio show. Here are a few of Jack's opinions: "I've advertised on the show for six years, and would have done better writing my phone number on barroom walls," he writes in one letter. And again, "You're honest (you never claimed to be good), and people listen to you thinking that if they get to know you real well, may be eventually they'll like you. Well, I've been listening for years and must admit that its appeal is sporadic." And, "Thirty minutes of a man speaking in a flat Midwestern voice about guilt, death, the Christian faith, and small-town life is not what people look for in a stage performance."
The fictions are typical Keillor, bittersweet tales of ordinary folks that remind us that nobody is ordinary. The title story chronicles the marital adventures of Willa and Earl, Minnesota residents who are invaded by a reporter for People magazine named Blair Hague. Blair lives with them and writes a piece convincing Willa that her marriage is a disaster and her husband "often personally repulsive." Willa becomes a celebrity. She does the talk show circuit, sells movie and book rights about the horrors of married life, is a New York cocktail party sensation—and returns home to Earl and her small town. No apologies asked, none given. Life resumes as before.
The other poems, opinions, stories, letters and whatnots in this collection ponder the meaning and nuance of yard sales, sneezes, Woodlawn Cemetery, the last surviving cigarette smokers, the solo sock, the old shower stall, the perils of celebrity, being nearsighted, growing up fundamentalist and traveling with teen-age children. And in these "ordinary things," the grace of Garrison Keillor shines through.
In his introduction, Mr. Keillor complains: "I grow old. Boys and girls in their thirties who compose essays on the majestic sorrows of aging—give me a break. I'm forty-six. Wait until you're forty-six and then tell me about it. I'll be sixty then. I grew up in a gentler, slower time. When Ike was President, Christmases were years apart, and now it's about five months from one to the next."
He can complain about that if he wants. But this reviewer (who is 47) hopes that Mr. Keillor is just entering the prime of his career, and is going to guide us through the perils and the foibles of the decades to come. The guy occupies the same place as Twain, Benchley and Thurber. I am glad he is with us.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1346
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 know that Keillor, the well-known radio personality, understands this. Does such understanding mean that the novel will innovatively meet the challenge of revealing a primarily aural culture through the medium of print? Does Keillor wish to make a serious statement about competing technologies? Will philosophical or cultural ghosts haunt the novel? Will we be treated to jokes, plot, and thought, all at once?
My frustration originates in Keillor's one genuine technical innovation. He decides to tell the story in countless short sections that resemble nothing so much as segments of mid-century radio programming. Short installments that variously inch forward moment by moment or lurch forward through catastrophe. Train wrecks and bran muffins rate both the same space and the same pacing. These short sections may accommodate Keillor's snappy style, but they seriously hinder his ability to tell a story from the inside. There's not enough room to move, not enough time to fill in background information.
We readers have another problem: the device immediately reveals that we are in the absolute thrall of a petty tyrant of narrative. We know that we'll get what we're given and not a sentence more. Naturally, this truth underlies all fictions, but the greatest fiction writers conceal it, and allow their readers to imagine that they alone conspire and dream with the characters. Most readers never want to wonder just who is running the show. They just want the show to go on, and to include them perfectly.
Keillor's attachment to his device keeps his characters at a distance. There is no room for reflection; their plights simply drive the engine of plot, and resist the serious consideration we would give them were such events to happen in the lives of people who mattered to us. Is this the philosophical point of the novel: that the medium of print entraps as surely as that of radio waves? When finally, in chapter 14, Keillor indulges his philosophical ruminations about the role of radio as oral art, we don't know how to read his meanings. Is this straight parody? Or heartfelt intellectual yearning? Or simply a joke that we should get?
I'm tantalized by what this particular author thinks about this particular story. Garrison Keillor, the clever, appealing guru of folksy contemporary radio, wrote this novel and it concerns the life of radio. We cannot forget the promise inherent in the conjunction of author and subject. Yes, this is an extra-literary yearning, that we might learn something from a master, but even the text swells with the promise. Take the joke on page 12. If we simply tune into the program, we'll hear the joke and either get it or not. The book offers us the real story of what goes on behind the scenes. It suggest that we'll learn something about radio, something about human motivation, something about industry and spirit.
If this is the hope, the reader is bound to be disheartened, for the joke is a mild killer. The joke is a bad joke. I don't mean bad in the sense of "raw," although some readers might find it so. And I don't mean bad in the sense that puns are always bad; we get them and we laugh and then we feel stupid because we got them and wanted to laugh. No, I mean that this is a bad joke because the impulse that gives rise to laughter is a tiny meanness. We laugh at someone else's expense. Poor dumb Knute. A kind man, a loving man, and a man who can't tell a canopy from a piss-pot.
In just the way that the Inga-Knute Joke is a bad joke, so is WLT: A Radio Romance a bad novel. But it doesn't take its own temptation to be bad quite seriously enough. And this puts the reader in an odd position. Reading this book feels a lot like standing in the cloakroom of a Midwestern elementary school before the bell rings while a big guy in your class tells first the one about the fat lady who must use the freight elevator, then the one about the "old lecher named Wendell / Whose cock was indeed monumental …," and then the one about a little boy whose father died in a boiler explosion on a train so that other kids in another school can gather around him and sing "Ashes in the overalls / From one little weiner and two black balls." What is the big guy getting at? Is this humor? Is this cynicism? Oral culture? Folk history? Maybe you laugh, and maybe you don't, but you've got to wonder why the big guy goes on and on. You've got to wonder what you'll say when he's through.
Oddly this book, in its good-natured refusal to embrace its own moral questioning, introduces the notion of sportsmanship into reading. Are you a good sport, finding the book an "endearing" portrait of a moment in America's life, or are you a goody-goody, someone who needs to lighten up? These are not issues that should occupy a reader. It is the author's job to understand his intentions. If he wants his readers to laugh at fat ladies and pity orphans, his writing will invisibly direct them to do so. If he wants them to worry about a culture in which some cruel people laugh at fat ladies, then such a worry will seem like the most sensible one in the world.
I think that Keillor the novelist doesn't know what he wants. He cannot hear what he wants. He is learning to work in a medium which, in this case, has resisted him. This novel is a failed venture, but bespeaks a great hope. Maybe Keillor is embittered, maybe he's lighthearted. In either case, Garrison Keillor can tell remarkable stories; he can drop one-liners and spin out endless yarns. He can make us laugh. Hard. What he needs is practice on the page, not just as a writer, but as a reader.
If he were my friend l'd send him right to the work of Eudora Welty, tell him to listen not with his ears, but with his eyes too. Look at the white space, the shape of paragraphs, the length and roominess of lines. Listen to tempo and cadence and mood. Learn that great fiction may sound harsh or may sound gentle, but it always dignifies its characters and their stories with seriousness, even as it laughs. When stories work on the page, we hear the warm voice of them rising in the print. They are sure and helpful, and invite us to read.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 719
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 called "How Lousy Is Your Marriage: A 10-Minute Quiz That Could Help You Improve It," whereas every sane man in the universe realizes that "marriage is like the Electoral College: it works O.K. if you don't think about it."
And this is marital bliss before the screaming kids! No wonder that Lonesome Shorty, a grumpy cowboy with a bad back, has so much trouble settling down. No wonder that the amiable radio show announcer in "Roy Bradley, Boy Broadcaster" defends his bachelorhood so vigilantly: "Everyone else in radio talks with the voice of marriage and duty. I speak with the voice of one who eats his dinner at an odd time out of white cardboard containers while standing at the kitchen counter and reading the sports page."
Mr. Keillor is hardly trying to copyright this view of the battle between the sexes. In fact, his comedy depends on the very silliness of the setup: "a boy's constant struggle to maintain his buoyancy" against his ball and chain. That domesticity is disappointing—at least in men's minds—is the given. Then Mr. Keillor begins to riff on the premise, stretching it to its absurd conclusion—as in "The Mid-Life Crisis of Dionysus," wherein "the god of wine and whoopee," demoted at age 50 to chairman of wine by his dad, Zeus, waxes nostalgic for wild revelry ("He missed those nymphs, doggone it").
Many of the pieces in The Book of Guys are less stories than skits. The fable of the country mouse and the city mouse—in which a mild-mannered fellow abused by life in a major metropolis returns to, say, South Dakota—gets more air time than it can bear. Dependent as the slighter sketches are on Mr. Keillor's self-mocking voice, they're more effective in performance than on the page (buy the companion audiocassette, or see him live in a 17-city "Show of Guys Tour").
The most substantial tales aren't really about manhood at all, but about the arbitrariness and absurdity of modern success, especially in show business. In "The Chuck Show of Television" and "Al Denny"—at once the most autobiographically revealing stories and the most wildly imaginative ones—Mr. Keillor is at his subversive best. He drags his heroes through the mud of contemporary culture and teaches them the essential tongue-in-cheek Lake Wobegon lesson, as he formulated it in the book We Are Still Married: "not to imagine we are someone but to be content being who we are."
Once these Mr. Nice Guys get their comeuppance, they can relax and do the thing that guys like best—picking their noses and making jokes about it. The Book of Guys also contains a dozen-odd quips about flatulence, in all of its death-defying variety. Mr. Keillor may be performing a public service here, helping to pinpoint for sociologists the single major difference between men and women: the limit of their tolerance for witticisms about wind.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6297
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 show's authenticity—the cuts not only kept the show within necessary time limits, but also altered its substance: the off-color remark or gesture, long laughter from the audience. Still, a scholar can distinguish between the master and broadcast tapes in much the same way as between an author's manuscript and the published text. Despite the limitations of the broadcast tapes, which (among other things) obscure whether the audience laughed for 15, 30 or 55 seconds—they nonetheless are the authoritative texts for studying the work of producer Norman Lear and his cast. They represent commercial television, whereas the master tapes record only a studio performance.
By contrast with stable artifacts such as these, consider standup comedy and public storytelling. Both involve multiple performances that vary the material in many ways. Some variations are minor; others, substantive. Some represent a refinement; others, simply a variation with only subtle shifts in sense. Folklorists have made progress on but not really resolved the interpretive problems that result from multiple texts. Richard Bauman and Sandra K. D. Stahl have focused on the relation of each telling to its narrative context, for example, accounting for differences in the tellings in terms of the different narrative events. Contextual criticism thus downplays variations in phrasing and concentrates instead on theme, structure, and cultural significance. Seeing narrative details mainly as elements of a cultural message, however, gives the criticism a didactic thrust more appropriate to fairy tales than to the monologues of Johnny Carson or Spalding Gray. Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that even folklorists have found the thematic and structural approaches limiting. As Dell Hymes observed in his examination of a pair of transcriptions, "Each telling makes use of common ingredients, but it is precisely in the difference in the way they are deployed and shaped that the meaning of each is disclosed."
Variations matter even more in popular performances, which have become commodified as commercial art. Whereas the traditional folk narrator served as a medium of transmission, today's standup comedian or storyteller is the author of the material as well as its performer. The oral narratives of the standup comedian or public storyteller may sound like folklore, particularly the genre known as the personal experience narrative, and the anecdotes may in fact have originated in experience, yet the comedian and professional storyteller have no obligations to truthfulness. Audiences grant these performers the novelist's license to invent, and willingly suspend their disbelief. Variations from performance to performance are therefore more substantive than variations among performances of a folktale, even though traditional tellers commonly had their own, distinctive ways of telling a tale.
They are also more significant than variations in the performances of a scripted play. Whether introduced accidentally or deliberately by actors, director, crew, or performance space, variations on a script give different audiences different experiences of the play, but theoretically, at least, the performance remains somehow distinct from the play itself. Just as the musical performance is recognized as the approximate rendering of the ideas in the score (Dehnert), the dramatic performance is recognized as an approximate rendering of a definitive text. Such a text does not even exist for standup comedy and public storytelling, although we tend to behave as if it does. For a recent example of this phenomenon, consider the efforts by Lenny Bruce's producer, Don Friedman, to recreate the comedian's 1961 Carnegie Hall performance in commemoration of what would have been Bruce's 67th birthday. The fifteen actors who auditioned in July 1992 based their impersonations not on Bruce's own monologues, which were of course ephemeral, nor even on Bruce's own recordings, which are more stable, but on the stable 1974 text of Dustin Hoffman's re-enactment of unstable routines in the film Lenny.
As oral genres grounded in colloquial talk and tending toward improvisation, standup comedy and storytelling reverse the stage play's implied priority of written text over live performance. And not only is the performance more definitive than the written text: the various oral performances of a single story or routine vary in authority in relation to one another. Unlike the multiple video-texts of the television broadcast, one public performance will not have more authority than others, unless some are designated rehearsals or trials. Unlike the successive drafts of a manuscript, the most recent performance does not always stand as the artist's last word.
A particularly illuminating case in point is Garrison Keillor's 1986 story "Aprille," which nearly defies classification. The story takes its inspiration from The Canterbury Tales, builds its theme on a passage from the New Testament, and blends his wife Ulla Skaerved's recollection of a childhood game on the bus with half a dozen fictional Lake Wobegon anecdotes—all the while purporting to tell his own experiences. So, "Aprille" is not folklore, not even "literary" folklore like the personal experience narrative, though it imitates folklore: the monologue is a professional performance presenting fictional personal experiences of narrator Garrison Keillor of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota (a fictional town)—all of these created by writer Garrison Keillor of Anoka. Nor is "Aprille" a short story, since it was composed primarily for oral performance, not for print. Nor is it television, since the Disney cameras that recorded the show (originally transmitted live via cable and later shown over public television) shot it from the vantage point of the studio audience—as a radio program being witnessed by an audience, not as a show that was meant to be telecast. But the monologue is not conventional radio, either, since the speaker engages in intimate conversation and lies instead of the public and factual material that make up normal radio talk. All these modes of storytelling contribute to the tale's humor by inviting and then frustrating our generic expectations.
More important, the tale itself invites us to examine relations between oral and written storytelling, since Keillor structured "Aprille" around the ten-line opening of Chaucer's "Prologue," giving the oral story a thoroughly literary grounding. The recitation not only reminds us that The Canterbury Tales itself presented purportedly oral stories as written texts, but also calls attention to the difference between the text-bound activity of memorization and the performance-based activity of improvisation in Keillor's own narration. In addition, as Chaucer's words set the springtime Minnesota scene for the main story—how Lois Tollerud, a young woman troubled by the existence of evil in the world, does not find her faith on Confirmation Day, yet nothing happens as a result—Keillor also establishes a series of thematic parallels among the three pilgrims of the tale. Lois, Keillor, and Chaucer all undertake spiritual journeys that turn into occasions for storytelling, and in "Aprille" as in The Canterbury Tales, the pilgrims' stories become more important than the religious goals inspiring them.
Despite the seriousness of its themes and structure, "Aprille" remains typical of Keillor's work: it is also a very amusing story. Narrator Keillor's own pilgrimage fails when he arrives in Lake Wobegon and finds that his whole family apparently ran out the back door, at which point his journey to see them devolves into a quest for a toilet. His goddaughter Lois is also on a quest (she's looking to regain her faith in God), but at first they find only each other. As one anti-climactic anecdote leads to another, the humor builds in a conversational, apparently unstructured way that belies Keillor's intense labor on it.
The monologue was the centerpiece of a performance celebrating the grand re-opening of St. Paul's World Theater on Friday, April 25, 1986, and it was broadcast live the following night during his regular Saturday evening radio show, "A Prairie Home Companion" (1974–87). Keillor's popularity in 1986, soon after he agreed to allow the Disney Channel to cablecast the weekly show, made the April 26 broadcast extremely important to him, and even after the opening "concert" (i.e., non-broadcast) performance on Friday evening he continued tinkering with the details and themes of the story all the way up to broadcast time on Saturday night. Before each oral performance, he worked at his word-processor, printed out a draft, and edited it by hand. The result of this process is five variants of the tale: the Friday computer printout with handwritten emendations (version 1, 4/25/86), the Friday evening broadcast (version 2, 4/25/86), the Saturday computer printout with handwritten emendations (version 3, 4/26/86), the Saturday evening broadcast (version 4. 4/26/86), and the published Leaving Home story (version 5).
The first text (version 1) contains all three of the main stories—Lois's lost faith, Einer Tingvold's lost binoculars, and young Gary's fear of being isolated from family and friends—along with a fourth anecdote about the Tolleruds' agnostic Uncle Gunnar, which remained in all three written versions but was never included in an oral rendition. But several crucial details in Lois's story changed after the first performance, and the ending of the narrative continued to evolve through the second performance (version 4). Several of the most significant changes in his second performance did not, however, find their way into the published version of "Aprille," which appeared in Leaving Home, a collection of Lake Wobegon tales published shortly after "A Prairie Home Companion" went off the air. Although Keillors introductory "Letter from Copenhagen" described Leaving Home's stories as "written for performance on the radio," this fifth, published version of "Aprille" is neither a transcription nor a reworking of either oral performance, but rather a minor revision of the second printout (version 3).
Together the five variants of "Aprille" illustrate the problems inherent in analyzing the unstable texts of oral popular culture and point the way toward more systematic and sensitive analysts of storytelling in the twenty-first century. We need to find techniques appropriate to these texts and to understand the increasingly important roles of print, broadcasting, computers, and audio tape in defining them.
"Aprille" illustrates the fundamental difficulty of identifying exactly what is the story, since unlike the successive drafts of a manuscript the five variants of the tale do not exist in simple chronological relation to one another. Additions to the written text carry over thematically, if not always literally, into the next oral telling, yet improvisations in the oral tale are seldom incorporated into the next draft. The process thus underlines the greater importance of the oral versions, and their greater autonomy, and suggests that the final written version of the story (version 5) remains less significant than the second oral performance (version 4).
The first printout, for example, shows Keillor working to expand the description of springtime in Lake Wobegon at the beginning of "Aprille." Next to the typed remarks about trees and birds, he added a handwritten note in the margin: "The NBFs are washing their sheets, a sure sign" (version 1). In the first oral performance that same evening, he provided an even fuller description, saying, "this last week the Norwegian bachelor farmers washed their sheets, which is a sure sign that the cold weather, cold weather is over, and they're starting now to think about the danger of, the danger of infection" (version 2). The repetition of the phrases "cold weather" and "the danger of" work like "um" or "uh," as voiced pauses suggesting that Keillor invented the phrasing on the spot, and this implication of spontaneity asserts the authenticity of the storytelling event: the speaker hasn't prepared his remarks in advance. In this case the phrasing almost certainly was spontaneous, however, since none of the other variants repeats it exactly.
The next day, the second printout (version 3) shows Keillor integrating into his electronic text the marginal note from the first printout, but not the remark about "the danger of infection" from the previous night's oral performance. Instead, the text notes merely, "and now the Norwegian bachelor farmers are washing their sheets—" (version 3). The remark remains in that form in version 5, the version published in Leaving Home 15 months later. In the second oral performance (version 4), however. Keillor altered not only the phrasing of the item but also its placement and details. He postponed mentioning the Norwegian bachelor farmers until after he had described Lake Wobegon's springtime scenery in detail, finally noting, "the Norwegian bachelor farmers hung out their sheets, this last week, finally washing their sheets after those long winter months. Now it's finally safe to do em" (version 4).
These variations in such a simple matter demonstrate that Keillor's weekly monologue had more in common with a jazz performance than with an impromptu speech. That is, the monologue was a planned performance featuring spontaneous talk. The demands of live radio made this risky enterprise all the more precarious, since a live broadcast cannot be edited if the program runs too long. In all his years on this tightrope, Keillor fell only once, in Juneau, Alaska on July 12, 1986, when he just could not bring his monologue to a close, even though he had written a nine-page text for himself. Keillor worked out the components of "Aprille" carefully but nonetheless embellished and altered it in performance. His written drafts therefore represent prompts for the performance, suggesting the directions of his thoughts and his thematic intentions, but remaining subordinate as texts to the public performances.
For example, consider the different reasons that the bachelor farmers finally do their laundry. In the first telling they wash the sheets because it's warm enough for the bacteria in them to breed; in the second telling they wash them because it's finally warm enough to risk coming in contact with water. Keillor does not seem simply to have changed his mind here; the two jokes are equivalent. The point is the eccentric variation on the traditional obsession with spring cleaning. The exact rite is less important than the fact that a rite exists because the rite is more ritualistic than practical. In the case of the Norwegian bachelor farmers, spring cleaning accomplishes very little. Washing their sheets—for whatever reason—will not appreciably raise their level of hygiene. Perhaps more important for a theory of oral narrative, equivalent variation is possible because oral tellings do not supplant one another in the same way that successive drafts do. Whereas interpretation of writing rests on the principle of final intention, in which the authoritative text is the last of successive written drafts, interpretation of oral storytelling requires a principle of simultaneous authority, in which each telling has equal validity.
If the substance of these differences matters very little, the fact that the differences exist matters very much, indeed. The anecdote is full in the oral performances and sketchy in the printouts, in a progression typical of oral retellings. Richard Baumann notes that stories tend to grow when retold, especially when the teller commands the attention of the audience without having to seize it from other parties present—the difference, for example, between yarn spinning around a campfire or in conversation and the full performance of a storytelling festival, in which the featured storyteller is expected to demonstrate virtuosity. But the relationship between Keillor's written texts and the next telling reflects the complexity of the hybrid genre within which he works. Although details become more elaborate in the retellings, episodes may be rearranged, truncated, or eliminated. For example, both oral performances of "Aprille" mention the day of a rainstorm, and in the second performance Keillor elaborates the detail by making a show of searching his memory for the exact day—"[I'm] thinking about an afternoon, like—well, Tuesday, or Wednesday aft—Wednesday afternoon, after that tremendous rain that we had in the morning" (version 4)—but none of the written versions, including the version published in Leaving Home, refers to a specific day of the week. By contrast, Keillor apparently considered Daryl's Uncle Gunnar important enough to devote about 250 words to his eccentricities in each of the written texts, including the Leaving Home version, but Uncle Gunnar does not make even a brief appearance in either oral performance. We cannot know whether Keillor dropped the anecdote to keep the monologue within the allotted time (one aspect of his virtuosity was surely his ability to work within the finely calibrated time intervals of live radio), or whether he lost interest in the material but failed to delete it from the computer file that ultimately became the text in Leaving Home. Any analysis of the story must take this inconsistency into account, but it points to the theoretical difficulty of assuming that versions in two media stand in strict chronological succession to one another.
Other differences, however, clearly show the artist changing his material and sharpening his vision of it. Apparently dissatisfied with the tale he told on Friday night, Keillor sat down on Saturday and made two major changes in the computer text that became version 3. He deleted three suspected miracles that inspired Lois to keep an open mind about her lost faith, and moved the anecdote about Einer Tingvold to follow rather than precede the tale of playing strangers on the bus. Integrating these changes led to others, resulting in very different themes and meanings between the Friday and Saturday versions, oral and written.
In Friday's versions 1 and 2, the possibility of miracles tempers Lois's crisis of faith. The hot water does not run out as usual on Saturday night, her mother manages to get a stain out of Lois's confirmation dress, and her father's arm does not burn when his new sweater catches fire from the candles on her cake. These events strike her as possible evidence that God does exist, and they allow "Aprille" to end with some optimism for Lois and for all the faithful. Removing them, on the other hand, diverts the tale from questions of God's existence to questions of human faith. It also allows Keillor to emphasize the parallels between Lois and himself: she becomes terrified when her prayers echo without response, just as he had been frightened as a child when another Lois, his aunt, pretended during their game of "Strangers" that she did not know him.
As deleting the miracles diminished the tale's optimism, so moving the Einer Tingvold anecdote altered the story's original theme. An example of faith sure-to-be-found in versions 1 and 2 became a warning about faith abandoned in versions 3 through 5. With the story of how Tingvold threw away the next day's breakfast eggs and his own beloved binoculars just because he was frustrated that an unruly group of Boy Scouts wouldn't learn semaphore signals, Keillor provides a highly comic parable on the dangers facing Lois in her doubts about God on the eve of her confirmation. The anecdote's new position after the story of playing "Strangers." a game in which a young Keillor and his aunt Lois pretend not to know one another until the boy feels frightened and lost, emphasizes the consequences of throwing away one's religious values in the heat of a moment's disappointment. At the same time, the binoculars need not symbolize faith or even integrity to provide a reason for telling Einer's tale, since its details offer the considerable pleasures of comic retribution. As a result, "Aprille" not only implies the orthodox conclusions that Lois's faith in God matters less than God's faith in her, and that neither God nor faith will abandon her if she does not throw them away or try to become someone she is not, but also insinuates the downright blasphemous notion that faith is irrelevant to a good story. In this context, the parallel between Lois's story and Einer's also intensities relations among the three storytellers in "Aprille": Keillor, Lois, and Chaucer.
Eliminating divine intervention (or the perception of it) also required changes to the ending of the monologue. In the first oral performance, he started with the simple conclusion of his written text—"For the fourteen year olds of this world. I'm glad to get old so they can grow up and we'll see what they do with themselves" (version 1)—and extended it into a comment on how the world as a whole benefits from the courage of the young, "who having lost their faith could stand on the edge of darkness and wait for it to return" (version 2). By the next day, however, his written text proposed that loss of faith has less to do with God than with ourselves. People get caught up in games like "Strangers" and, after a time of playing at being someone else, forget who they really are. Nonetheless, God's grace remains as reliable as the signs of springtime: "the sweet breath, the tendre croppes, and the smale fowle maken melodye—God watches each one and knows when it falls, and so much more does He watch us all" (version 3). The power of Chaucer's poetry and Keillor's rhythmic line, a resolution to the question of evil, and the storyteller's virtuoso control over an apparently formless tale bring the third version of "Aprille" to a powerful close.
But although Keillor carried over this ending from version 3 to version 5, the text published in Leaving Home, he did not repeat it in version 4, his final oral performance. Apparently on inspiration in that Saturday night broadcast, he loosened the connection between spring and reborn faith. Instead, he proposed a more generalized power in "this world, and each other, and the people in it": "Well, I'm transformed by this world, the one that I look at. It's so beautiful. I believe that it has the power to make us brave, and to make us good. This world, and each other, and the people in it. It has the power to give us faith, the sweet breath of the wind and the tender crops, and the small fowles maken melodye that slepen all the nycht with open eye" (version 4). Whereas the written texts of versions 3 and 5 offer the traditional Christian insistence on faith in spite of doubt, the oral text of version 4 offers consolation through poetry, not doctrine.
My point is not simply that Keillor declined to revise the second written version to incorporate changes made in the second telling, or even (as I suspect), that at some level of consciousness he chose an orthodox conclusion for his stable written texts and a more ambiguous ending for his unstable oral texts. Rather, the issue is, what finally is "the story"? The lesson of "Aprille" is that scholars of storytelling need to answer that question on an individual basis for every tale and teller. For now we must conclude that the story is not, to borrow terms proposed by Barbara Herrnstein Smith, some "basic story" consisting of elements common to the five variants, nor a Platonic ideal of the tale constructed from bits and pieces of the variants. Moreover, a reliable analysis cannot look solely at the published text of an oral tale, no matter how much one would like to replace multiple unstable texts with a single stable one. Any reconstruction of "the story" must take into account sequential, substantive changes that amount to revisions, as well as accidental variations, like the bachelor farmers' laundry day, that represent what Erving Goffman calls "fresh talk."
"Aprille" is, therefore, a different story in each of the two media that its author worked in and in the different versions in each medium. The tale of faith lost and found clearly belongs to the stable world of print texts, as represented in Leaving Home. The more ambiguous quest for faith in the oral versions of "Aprilte" remains, appropriately enough, unresolved in the unstable texts of the performances. We cannot really understand "Aprille" if we do not know whether the ending envisions a world made wonderful by God or by the people in it, whether the answer to the problem of evil in the world lies in religious faith or in awe over nature. Yet the nature of oral storytelling means that instead of choosing one ending, we must somehow—like Keillor himself—embrace both.
The discontinuity between the fourth and fifth versions—that is, between the second performance and the published version in Leaving Home—reminds us that every oral telling begins afresh, whereas successive printouts from a word processor reflect only changes wrought upon the electronic text. The five variants together illustrate the creative process of a single mind, but as texts the oral and written versions of "Aprille" stand somewhat independent of one another. Instead of looking at the five versions as a single series, then, we need to see a more complex relationship among the variants. The three written variants (versions 1, 3, 5) have an evolutionary relationship to one another, yet the second printout has a special significance. It incorporates ideas stimulated by the first oral telling and plots out the most important changes incorporated into the second telling. For similar reasons, the second telling has somewhat more authority than the first, since Keillor incorporates into the Saturday night version ideas first used in the Friday performance and the Saturday draft. On the other hand, Keillor's practice of improvising his narratives like jazz performances rather than memorizing his texts like scripts means that every oral telling is an authoritative text somewhat autonomous from the most recent written text. An oral telling has an evolutionary relationship to previous performances yet stands independent of them.
The different endings of different versions thus offer yet another contrast between the unstable texts of oral stories, and such stable texts as Chaucer's poetry and the Bible. Oral stories are unidirectional, unlike written texts, which allow a reader to flip back and forth among the pages. And whereas the intent listener concentrates on the last joke only at risk of missing the next gem, a reader has the leisure to explore implications between the lines. In the context of three subverted pilgrimages, the dominant theme of the written tale, whether God loves Lois seems not so much paradoxical (the implication of the oral story) as irrelevant. In the end, the "Aprille" of the written texts characterizes religion as the narrative means to a narrative end—a subject for tales and an excuse for storytelling. Perhaps the goal of the oral yarn was to encourage religious faith, perhaps not: the end at once promotes and suspects piety. But in the written tale, which acquires a different emphasis, religion itself has a goal, and that goal undoubtedly is storytelling itself.
For this reason, transcription will never provide a satisfactory solution to the problems of studying oral performance. The process of transforming an oral text into a written one also gives the unstable oral text the appearance of a stable printed text. On that basis, audio tape is probably not the answer, either, though it represents a tremendous improvement over the inadequate transcript. Audio-visual CD-ROM technology, on the other hand, offers a superior means of storing, retrieving, and perhaps even quoting excerpts from oral narratives, since it can evade some problems of transcription by using the speakers already installed in personal computers (a sound board will improve the fidelity), and CD-ROM technology already in use makes it possible to search for specific phrases and hear them recited while the text also appears on the screen. With appropriate software, scholars could input their own material for such random access and analysis, which would offset the unidirectionality of live and conventionally recorded storytelling. Ideally, we could search not only for keywords but also for inflections, pauses, and mannerisms—all of them represented as digitized patterns—without the trouble of optical scanning or other forms of data entry. In this Utopian scheme, the oral source will continue to be examined as an oral source, not as a visual representation of an oral source. Newer technologies may offer better alternatives.
While transcription therefore threatens any oral performance, it is particularly damaging to "Aprille," whose oral performances rely on devices for which no print-based equivalents exist. How can the printed page express the unselfconscious tone of voice, the appearance of artlessness and spontaneity, or the perfectly timed pause? Keillor's practice of plotting out his monologues but not scripting or memorizing them gave the tales elements of literary composition while fostering genuine improvisation in performance. When he structured "Aprille" around a ten-line passage from The Canterbury Tales and lengthy verse from the New Testament, he intensified this already risky game of memory and improvisation. A printed quotation cannot convey the least degree of artlessness or spontaneity. Nor can it demonstrate Keillor's remarkable memory, which produces these effects in the first place. By contrast, in the oral performance of "Aprille," Keillor's memory not only sustains him through a long recitation in passable Middle English, but also enables him to embellish the prepared story on the spot. Without this display of memory, the story loses other crucial elements: our awe of the storyteller, apparently spinning this yam just for us as we sit enchanted by his gift; and our delight in language, perhaps the most powerful oral gratification. Seven pages of reading cannot match the rhetorical impact of Keillor's 30-minute performance—he called it a seance—for the very medium of print inhibits, though of course it does not entirely obscure, the tale's celebration of words—Chaucer's, Keillor's, and the Bible's.
In the oral performance of "Aprille," even scripture is oral. Several times the storyteller recites parts of Lois's confirmation verse, relishing its sounds, but he quotes the full text only once, when describing how Marilyn Tollerud inscribed all 31 words—"Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God"—in blue frosting atop Lois's cake. One could hardly ask for a more oral use of a text than to turn it into food, and then to turn the food into a joke for oral performance. This gentle ridicule of the Tolleruds' celebration quite literally, and not so gently, reduces the Bible to a mouthful of words, of which Keillor's share on his square of cake reads "Con but for"—a hint at the humorist's con-game. The long recitation of the verse on the cake exploits the advantages of oral performance by demonstrating the teller's prodigious memory, all the more impressive at the end of the narrative when he reasserts his control over all his apparent digressions by reciting Chaucer's poetry.
But no moment of "Aprille" better illustrates the essence of oral yam spinning, and Keillor's brilliance at it, than his modulations and pauses at a key point in mid-story. (The phrasing varies from version to version, but the episode exists in all five variants.) Slipping from his role of observing narrator, he adopts Lois's point of view to relate her thoughts on good and evil during a solitary walk in the woods after lunch, while her family eats the cake. He continues to tell the story from Lois's perspective as he describes her frantic efforts to run away from a man standing by the road, whom "she knew … was put there by an evil force … and that this was Evil roaming the world, and looking for whomever it may devour" (version 4, 4/26/86). Tension increases as she falls, begging him for mercy. "'Please, please,' she said, 'don't do it.'" Keillor's voice drops to a whisper in the tension. Then he pauses, raises the pitch, and in a slightly bewildered tone, adds unexpectedly, "Which surprised me…." In the pause following this wrenching shift of perspective, we realize that our storyteller was the man standing there, that Lois made a mistake; the revelation rescues Lois and the tale comically as it evades the question of evil. Nonetheless, this exquisite moment from the oral performances, a rhetorical tour de force, does not appear in Leaving Home. In the printed version of "Aprille," a new paragraph just under Lois's words begins simply and directly, "I hadn't seen her for five years." Whether or not he had added the remark about his surprise, Keillor might still have revised the written text to startle his readers as he had shocked his listeners—that is, to translate the oral-aural experience into a literary one. But he didn't. In place of the stunning oral performance, the printed text offers the aesthetic compensations of print, careful construction and themes worth reflection.
The power of the monologues also derives from a number of non-narrative elements in their performance. Keillor's voice—intense, sincere, companionable—was a major factor in his stories' appeal, much enhanced by the intimacy of radio as a medium and his understanding of how to exploit it. The monologues portray one colloquial, confessional voice speaking directly to the individual radio listener—one companion chatting to another. The obviously live, unscripted performance added to the illusion of spontaneous conversation. So did the choice of "panned mono" technique for the stereo broadcasts, since this sound mix emulates live, directional, non-broadcast speech. But Keillor's genius lay in matching his message to the medium. As he worked out the Matter of Minnesota for oral storytelling, he borrowed techniques from oral narrative traditions. In these traditions, Walter Ong observes in "Writing is a Technology That Restructures Thought," oral stories link present and past, memory and orality, knower and known—all in the "simultaneous present" created by live narration. The fundamental orality of "Aprille," despite its literary structure and literate story material, points to the source of the Lake Wobegon monologues' appeal: they mimic our most beloved kinds of folklore.
"Aprille" and Keillor's other apparently improvised monologues, like those of many standup comics and professional storytellers, are invented stories masquerading as personal experience narratives. That is, they are literary fictions imitating folk legends and artistic performances imitating unpremeditated talk. Autobiographical experience inspired many Lake Wobegon anecdotes, yet Keillor consistently subordinated facts to his narrative purpose, fully fictionalizing them. Similarly, interaction with his audience helped shape the narration of his oral stories even though the rules of professional storytelling performances allow a studio audience only the limited responses of laughter and applause. In conversational storytelling, by contrast, listeners may ask questions if they're interested, and seize the floor from the speaker if they're not. They may also cue the performer in any number of nonverbal ways to alter the pace of the tale. But just as his stories are not folklore, neither are they "radio talk," as Goffman terms it. Announcers are supposed to talk about real events of moment in the real world, not invented anti-climaxes in an imaginary town, and at least part of the monologues' humor from the very beginning stemmed from their violation of listeners' expectations. Radio storytelling separates teller and listener even further than the professional story performance. A radio audience has no active role to play during narration. Neither the performer nor anyone else notices if a listener falls asleep, walks away, or even turns off the set (commercial radio has a vested interest in identifying programs that cannot hold their listeners, but public radio, lacking sponsors, has no such audience research). Despite such odds against him, Keillor at the height of his popularity drew an estimated audience of some four million listeners to the weekly broadcast of "A Prairie Home Companion," and they certainly were not passive. Each new story in the Lake Wobegon saga brought letters of commentary, suggestions for stories, and gifts to the storyteller.
Keillor's success as an oral storyteller came largely from his transformation of the personal narrative into a narrative genre appropriate for the electronic age. In that sense, he finally accomplished in the 1980s the return to tribal orality that Marshall McLuhan first predicted some 20 years earlier in Understanding Media, although it is his skill as a writer that makes this achievement possible. But of course Keillor's stories belong to the electronic hearth, and as a result they exemplify the ephemerality of communication in an electronic age. Radio stories leave no artifactual texts. Computers allow writers to write and overwrite the same text, bringing us many authoritative texts, even though some revisions will remain invisible, existing only on a disk. In this sense, despite its origins in such canonical literature as the Bible and The Canterbury Tales, "Aprille" belongs to the world of post-modernism, in which instability, ambiguity, and multiplicity rule.
In its liminal position between the literate and the oral, "Aprille" challenges scholars to move beyond reductive transcriptions that put oral texts into print. Instead, we must interpret the artifacts of popular culture—print, broadcast, computer texts, audio and video tape—in the terms of whatever media they use. For broadcasts and other unstable artifacts, that means acknowledging simultaneous authority of multiple texts rather than seeking the stable meanings of a writer's last intention. The list of popular narrative media will surely grow in the twenty-first century, and our theory must be ready to meet them.
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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 persistent theme.
At the heart of guydom, whatever the particular form it takes, one can generally recognize a trace of little-boy nostalgia for freedom from manners and the respectable, generally maternal, disciplines they imply. The guy is generally an authentic little savage who refuses to wash his face, comb his hair, or put on a necktie, lest he be considered "sissy." Huck Finn is a guy of guys, and good as he is, we've had too many versions of him. Fortunately, Garrison Keillor has more strings to his bow than that one. Along with the multiple restraints of small-town domestic respectability, his guys are menaced by particularly voracious females mouthing the lingo of ill-digested psychoanalysis, and by the depressing debilitations of the mid-life crisis.
Consider, for example, the difficulties of Dionysus, the eternal party animal, who finds to his dismay that he has turned fifty, his immortality having been suspended for the sake of the satire, his existence being in thrall to a particularly dreary psychoanalyst, and for the first time in thousands of years he is experiencing a backache. (In passing, one cannot help thinking that advancing years are not a particularly guy problem, that Venus herself, subjected to the same life changes as Dionysus, would have much the same troubles adjusting.)
The piquancy of these occasional classical sketches is heightened by Keillor's splendid command of the lingo of modem pretension. His women are, naturally, particularly good at this gibberish. "Danny," says a wife to her husband, "in some way my love for you is a symptom of my denial of myself, an attempt to make myself invisible."
Or again, from the same female: "We need to change that love from something angry to a mature love. I can't use you as an instrument of my self-hatred."
Or there's a vagabond floozie who confesses to Buddy the Leper that she doesn't "have broad parameters when it comes to happiness." This is fine stuff. Despisers of George Bush will particularly relish the burlesque devoted to that unhappy man. It begins:
The day the barbarians came, George Bush was out in a boat on the Potomac River with Willie Horton, fishing, and Willie said, "Mister Butch, how come you always be jigglin and tappin yo foot? Man, those fish ain't goin to come within a mile of us if you makin this racket. Let your foot be, man. Sit still."
"Willie," said the President, "you know the—we're going to clean up here, get some fish, have a heck of a time. Not a vague hope. Talkin promise now. Serious fishing. Got you out of prison for the afternoon. Little favor. Don't mention it. Didn't bring you out here to get a tan, Willie. Came to do a little fishin."
In all there are twenty-two of these skits; arranged on weekly television shows, doubtless they would be more effective one at a time than when crowded together in the form of a book. But nothing prevents the reader from nibbling on them at intervals as he chooses. It's not likely that the book will give rise to much prolonged reflection, but it can hardly fail to provoke a number of chuckles. I wouldn't predict for it a large feminine readership.
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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 newspaper editor, and the book's lengthy introduction also contain Hashes of comic genius. And at times, Keillor's characters express real insights: "Don Giovanni" points up the difficulty many men have with competing desires for family and freedom. But behind the giggles, the reader can hear the unmistakable whir of an irritated guy grinding a few axes. Keillor uses The Book of Guys to take swings at everybody and perhaps to chop away at the cute, folksy image he cultivated in his most popular book, Lake Wobegon Days.
In "Winthrop Thorpe Tortuga," Keillor tells the story of a man who balances a laissez faire attitude toward his family with a penchant for "random acts of cruelty." After counseling his wife about her adulterous affair and cooking breakfast for his teenage daughter's sleep-over boyfriend, Winthrop soothes himself by, among other things, calling in a bomb threat to a home for indigent actors.
Winthrop's behavior is amusing at first, but the novelty wanes as Keillor stirs in too many cruel, off-color jokes. Other stories lack focus. "George Bush" has a clever premise—the former president going fishing with Willie Horton—but quickly deteriorates into a pointless political satire. In the middle of "Earl Grey" and "Roy Bradley, Boy Broadcaster," the reader can sense Keillor's concentration fading. "The Chuck Show of Television" barely rivals Howard Stern for sophistication. On the whole, Keillor's portrait of men is grim. His protagonists come in three categories: hapless and gentle, hapless and depressed, or hapless and cruel, in descending order of appeal. They have trouble with family life, traditional values, and societal conventions, and they appear to be content only in rare moments of glory.
In addition, female characters appear almost solely as bossy matrons or sex objects. "Buddy the Leper" is particularly difficult in this regard.
If you read this book, your level of pleasure may not surpass your threshold for vulgarity….
So don't put these two books on the same shelf of your literary pantry. When the male gender gets you down, grab The Book of Guys as you would a box of Cheez-Its. But when you're ready for the earthy flavor of a baked potato, reach for Working Men. Either way, Dorris and Keillor can help to feed the hunger of a thinking guy.
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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 articulates the look and creates the action." Mulvey explains the results of this masculine spectatorship:
As the spectator identifies with the main male protagonist, he projects his look onto that of his like, his screen surrogate, so that the power of the male protagonist as he controls events coincides with the active power of the erotic look, both giving a satisfying sense of omnipotence.
The female subject in such texts, in contrast, usually is positioned as the object rather than the subject of the gaze—displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men. As a spectator, the woman positions herself either as a passive recipient of male desire or as a viewer of another woman who is a passive recipient of male desire. Visual pleasure in film, on television, in the press, and in most popular narratives "reproduces a structure of male looking/female-to-be-looked-at-ness" that "replicates the structure of unequal power relations between men and women."
As useful and insightful as analyses of masculine viewing patterns have been in explicating patriarchal ways of looking, "they offer largely negative accounts of female spectatorship, suggesting colonized, alienated, or masochistic positions of identification." Feminist theorists, particularly film critics, have begun to take up the challenge to move beyond a preoccupation with how women have been constructed as objects to answer questions such as: "Can we envision a female dominant position that would differ qualitatively from the male form of dominance?" "How have we come to understand cinematic pleasure … as pleasurable to the male viewer, but not the female?" Feminist scholars have sought to discover, in other words, the nature of women's presence in, rather than absence from, the viewing experience—the nature of feminine spectatorship.
The notion of feminine spectatorship is not meant to suggest that it is a vantage point that can be assumed only by women, that its characteristics are natural or essential attributes of femininity, or that women always see differently from men. The term suggests, instead, a repertoire of culturally constructed characteristics likely to be possessed by and/or ascribed to women under present cultural and political arrangements. Construction of a feminine vantage point in a text, then, is the structuring into the text of activities, experiences, and qualities more likely to characterize women's than men's lives.
But many feminist theorists seek larger goals than the identification and explication of the nature of feminine spectatorship. They want to change patriarchal relations of looking, seeking to discover how the patriarchal perspective can be shifted and a female gaze inscribed as an option into cultural life. As Gamman and Marshment suggest, because women and men are offered the culture's dominant definitions of themselves in popular culture, "[i]t would therefore seem crucial to explore the possibilities and pitfalls of intervention in popular forms in order to find ways of making feminist meanings a part of our pleasures." They aim to discover techniques and forms that could "be used by feminists to 'subvert' dominant meanings about women in popular culture and to create pleasure, surprise, and interest in feminism." Such is our intent in this essay. We are interested in discovering how a feminine reader or spectator is constructed rhetorically in a text and how that construction can be used to subvert dominant meanings about women in popular culture. We will explore this question in the radio monologues of Garrison Keillor and will suggest that he constructs in them a position of feminine spectatorship.
We long have suspected that gender plays a critical role in Keillor's monologues simply because of the line with which his monologues end, "And that's the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong and all the men are good looking," an obvious reversal of traditional gender roles. Not until we focused our attention on the gendered dimensions of his monologues, however, did we realize the full extent to which he creates a preferred spectator position that relies on traditionally feminine competences and is structured to correspond with women's lives.
Garrison Keillor's monologues are part of a weekly radio program, initially called "A Prairie Home Companion," sponsored by Minnesota Public Radio. The program was broadcast from St. Paul, Minnesota, on Saturday nights from April, 1974, until June, 1987, when Keillor ended the show to pursue other projects. In 1990, he resurrected the program with a new name, "American Radio Company"; this new version originally was broadcast from New York City but was moved back to St. Paul in 1993. At the start of the 1993–94 season, Keillor resumed use of the program's previous name, "A Prairie Home Companion." The two-hour program consists of music ranging from country and folk to jazz and hymns, interspersed with fictitious commercials for Powdermilk Biscuits, Guy's Shoes, and the Cafe Boeuf. The highlight of each program for most listeners—and the focus of our interest here—is Keillor's monologues about an imaginary town in Minnesota, Lake Wobegon, introduced with the line, "It's been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my home town."
To analyze Keillor's monologues, we drew on observations developed from regular listening to "A Prairie Home Companion" from 1982 through the conclusion of the show in 1987 and to "American Radio Company" from 1990 to the present. We specifically taped 25 monologues from "A Prairie Home Companion" and 10 from "American Radio Company" from which to draw for specific examples and illustrations. We also analyzed the six tapes in the News from Lake Wobegon and Gospel Birds and Other Stories of Lake Wobegon collections, recordings of monologues by Keillor that have been packaged and sold by Minnesota Public Radio. Keillor's book, Lake Wobegon Days, provided background information about the imaginary town and its inhabitants to supplement the monologues.
We turn now to an analysis of the rhetorical processes Keillor uses to create a feminine spectator stance. We will suggest that this construction occurs through Keillor's refusal to privilege sight, dismantling of the male gaze, creation of Lake Wobegon as a feminine setting, and feminine speaking style.
Keillor's choice of radio as his medium of communication is a strong indication of his rejection of sight as a dominant way of approaching the world. His eschewal of vision as a means of coming to knowledge and understanding does not falter even when the show has been videotaped for airing on PBS and the Disney Channel. The programs that are videotaped are "still a show for the ear, not the eye" in that they are unaltered for television viewing. The backdrop for the show is the red brick wall at the rear of the stage, and the performers make no accommodations to the television medium, as Keillor explains:
Nobody ever told us, "Look to Camera 3 here when you're doing this song," or "Walk upstage to your right." There were no chalk marks for us to hit. It's a television show of a radio show. It's all done as a radio show, sort of absentmindedly, nearsightedly, bumbling around on stage.
In his lack of adaptation to the visual dimension of television, Keillor highlights the reliance on sound that both radio and television share. Altman claims that the intermittent spectatorship that characterizes television viewing requires that the sound track carry the significant information to be conveyed because it "alone remains in contact with the audience." Television's emphasis on the "message-carrying ability of the sound track" is consistent with Keillor's reliance on sound to communicate with his listeners, even when the medium is television. Although the medium offers the possibility of the privileging of sight, Keillor refuses to take advantage of the option.
By refusing to privilege vision, Keillor disrupts the modern notion that seeing is believing—that vision "goes without deliberation." In his rejection of the notion that what is presented visually constitutes good evidence and is sufficient for knowledge, Keillor also rejects the view that vision is superior to the other senses, a claim supported by vision's detachment from objects and the purely theoretical relationship it adopts to them. Such a view of vision suggests the possibility, although fictive, of an objective distance from the world and of access to an objective truth about the world.
Although Keillor creates the world of Lake Wobegon in part through visual references, he does not posit vision as a privileged means of access to knowledge; he encourages his listeners to experience Lake Wobegon in terms other than sight alone. In one monologue, he privileges smell as capturing the essence of a family:
Every family, I think, has their characteristic smell. It's how we know each other, and it's a smell that puts us at ease and makes us comfortable. The smell that says to us, "You don't need to be smart in front of these people, they know you. You just be yourself." A wonderful smell that we wash off every morning when we take a shower so that we get nervous and can go to work.
In another monologue, the sense of touch is his focus as he describes the sensation of climbing into bed, of crawling "into your cool, clean envelope of sheets."
Because the senses other than sight cannot be reduced to the mere collection of information but involve a more direct experience of the environment, Keillor grounds his monologues in the materiality of the body and creates a nearness to the object or person he seeks to know and understand. He throws off his authority as an objective observer who remains distant and withdrawn from what he observes. He centers understanding instead in the subjective, individual experiences of his listeners and in their participatory involvement in the world through an array of senses—not just sight.
That vision is not a privileged route to knowledge is evident in Keillor's monologues in that sight often does not provide access to truth—it may not result in insight or understanding. Temporary blindness or a blockage of sight on the part of characters in his monologues frequently foils the advantages vision is presumed to bring to the observer. Sometimes, the residents of Lake Wobegon actually are prevented from physically seeing, as when the rain is "falling in the lake and mist out on the lake so that you can't see to the other side." Ella Anderson's efforts to gain knowledge through sight are blocked when "a mosquito landed right on her eyeball," and a group of men hunting bear at night find their vision limited: "They drove to the edge of the woods. They aimed their headlights in. They couldn't see very far in." On other occasions, the characters in Keillor's monologues are themselves responsible for obstructing their own sight, as when "the Luther Leaguers put their hands over their eyes" in embarrassment as they listen to their parents singing."
In other instances, characters in Keillor's monologues witness phenomena that are not physically real, suggesting that sight can deceive. When a boat carrying Lutheran ministers begins to sink in the lake so the ministers appear to be walking on water, "to the people standing on shore, it looked like a genuine miracle before their eyes." The Reverend Neeley also sees what is not present when he "fell down on the rocks, speaking in tongues and seeing visions." Vision as a path to knowledge is questioned, as well, by Daryl Tollerud, who cannot interpret or trust what he sees after a tractor accident: "He could see everything, but it looked strange. It looked as if it were not real. Nothing looked real to him, and he did not feel real."
A view of vision as objective and thus superior to other avenues of perception derives from the Cartesian model of vision. The Cartesian schema succeeded in becoming the reigning visual model of modernity because it best expresses the "natural" experience of sight established by the scientific world view. The Cartesian stance can be conceptualized as a lone eye looking through a peephole at the scene in front of it; the view is static, unblinking, and fixed. The Cartesian stance also requires, of course, the withdrawal of the observer from the object depicted.
But other scopic schemata have existed alongside the Cartesian. The one Keillor selects for the vantage point of his monologues is the Baroque, a mode that is dynamic, conveys the idea of space being progressively dilated, and produces indeterminacy of effect in its play of solid and void, light and dark. In his rejection of the Cartesian schema in favor of the Baroque, Keillor chooses the glance over the gaze. Whereas the act of viewing in the Cartesian model is that of the observer who gazes, arresting the flux of phenomena, the Baroque model
never allows a privileged, definitive, frontal view; rather, it induces the spectator to shift his position continuously in order to see the work in constantly new aspects, as if it were in a state of perpetual transformation.
In the glance that characterizes Baroque vision, the viewer's looks are fleeting, dynamic, flickering, and mobile. Keillor's monologues follow such a pattern, consisting largely of fragments or units immediately linked with each other, suggestive of an eye shifting from one thing to another. In one monologue, for example, Keillor moves from discussing a cold night in June to tomato growing to Roger Hedland's daughter's new kitten to his self-pitying Aunt Marie. His eye traverses the scene, and the irregular, unpredictable, and intermittent path of movement means that only one area of the image is clarified at each moment. Each glance momentarily consumes Keillor as he focuses in minute detail on one seemingly mundane object or process after another.
Because various details capture Keillor's attention, the picture of Lake Wobegon emerges a bit at a time rather than as a coherent and complete landscape. Bryson describes this postponement of "the apprehension of the compositional order … until more information … will have been admitted" as a natural consequence of the glance. The larger picture emerges only as a result of repeated exposure to Keillor's monologues. One listener new to the show described the attention to seemingly disconnected details and the overall lack of coherence that is apparent to new listeners not yet used to Keillor's glance: "Yeah, well, this guy was talking about guilt and death, and he went on and on,… and then there was some music, people from Lapland or someplace singing about I guess it was reindeer milking."
In his rejection of the Cartesian scopic regime and, concomitantly, rejection of an objectifying gaze "that goes forward and masters," Keillor refuses the masculinity with which the Cartesian regime has been associated. The glance most closely approximates the female experience of and attention to detail, the accumulation of information through interaction, and the valuing of relationship over objective, static knowledge. The refusal to privilege vision creates a more comprehensive, subjective, and relational orientation to the text.
Unwilling to allow his listeners to assume a typical masculine position of spectatorship in terms of scopic schemata, Keillor further dismantles male spectatorship and replaces it with a feminine one by refusing to prescribe any one vantage position as the appropriate one. He deflects the single scrutinizing gaze and creates a multiple narrative structure in which the events of Lake Wobegon are recounted through the eyes of many different characters. He provides multiple options for spectatorship in a restlessness or instability of vantage point described by Mulvey as the mobile position of the female spectator. The place Keillor creates for the spectator of events elides typical divisions among narrator, characters, and audience and requires an ability to move among and acknowledge different viewpoints at once.
At times, Keillor takes the perspective of characters in his monologues, experiencing the world from those characters' points of view. In this mode, Keillor's listeners look out through the characters' eyes, feeling their feelings and thinking their thoughts. Listeners experience with Carl Krebsbach, for example, the sense of security that overtakes him as he walks home across the ice from his fish house in the middle of Lake Wobegon:
It was dark—clear sky, billions of stars in the sky. The lake was white, shiny, and straight ahead; just above the line of dark trees, the lights of the town, like stars in the sky. And one of them was his house, where people were waiting for him and would be glad to see his face.
At other times, Keillor positions himself as a character in his monologues—as a resident of the imaginary Lake Wobegon—thus assuming a second vantage point. He presents himself as having grown up in Lake Wobegon, as someone who knows the people intimately, and who continues to visit the town and talk on the phone with its residents. Assumption of this viewing position was particularly evident when Keillor married in real life and told of his marriage in a monologue that involved Lake Wobegon residents' participation in the celebration. They supposedly mailed him a toaster for a wedding present, "addressed to a person formerly of Lake Wobegon who was getting married toward the end of December in Copenhagen." This vantage point of Keillor as a character sometimes has the added qualities of distance and reflection because it embodies Keillor as the sophisticated urban dweller who has left Lake Wobegon and now has a different view of the town from those who currently live there. Keillor acknowledges this outsider status explicitly in one monologue:
I got kind of a cold silence when I called up there to talk to the folks here this last week, trying to get the news in town. Got hold of Elizabeth at the telephone exchange, of course, and once she recognized my voice, there was a long stillness and … she said, "All you're trying to do is get some dirty linen so you can go tell it to all your swell friends down there and make fun of us and make us the laughing stock."
Keillor sometimes tells his monologues from a third vantage point—that of the listener. He moves into this spectator position through the use of the second person pronoun, you. In the following example, he is describing his experience of sitting in a classroom as a boy in Lake Wobegon on a sunny Monday after a rainy weekend. In mid-sentence, Keillor moves from a description of his perspective to assumption of the vantage point of his listeners and their perspectives: "But it just is a matter of tremendous indifference to me as I get older and you learn to enjoy everything of life—the sun and the kind of elation that comes with it and excitement and you also learn to enjoy gloom and depression and grief." Keillor's description of the feeling of leaving the cool darkness of the Sidetrack Tap on a hot day also exemplifies this stance: "To open that door, the sunlight hits you like a two-by-four. And as you walk down the street, the beer in your brain begins to rise like a lump of bread dough inside its small, cardboard carrying case." Kacandes explains that "'you' implies an 'I/you' pair and concomitantly relationship and communication" because the presence of a you "cannot be conceived without an I." She suggests that such a use of you invites an identificatory response and that "we feel compelled to respond to the second person."
Not only does the construction of multiple perspectives prevent assumption of the conventional male spectator position, but it references a conventional feminine experience of self. In contrast to the masculine experience of self, rooted in a fundamental separation of other from self and characterized by objectivity and impartiality, the feminine experience is based on a blurring of boundaries between self and other. It is characterized by response and connectedness within a framework of relationships, which Keillor accomplishes by merging the narrator, his characters, and his audience into overlapping roles.
But Keillor's dismantling of the male gaze does not depend on multiple perspectives alone. He frequently gives women control over the gaze, thus actually reversing the expected roles of male viewer and female object of the gaze. In Keillor's monologues, women look at men, in contrast to the more common gazing by men at women. This observational stance is highlighted in the closing line of each monologue, where Keillor states that Lake Wobegon is a place where "all the men are good looking." Granted, the men who are the objects of women's desire in Keillor's monologues are not depicted as explicitly sexual—after all, this is Lake Wobegon, populated by reserved Norwegians—but men are subjected to visual scrutiny of various kinds. Keillor himself is the object of a woman's look when he recounts how, as an adolescent, he would ask his mother, "'Am I good looking?' 'You're nice enough looking,'" his mother would reply. Daryl Tollerud, in fact, knows he is alive (after a near-fatal tractor accident) by his wife's look: "And it was not until she looked out the window and saw him coming and ran out to meet him … that he knew he was alive."
In other instances, the look of women includes the pleasure and desire typically associated with the male gaze directed by men toward women. "Oh, you good-looking man. Oh, my goodness, are you handsome," says Arlene Bunsen to her husband, Clarence, upon his return from a trip to St. Cloud. "Let me feast my eyes on you." Mildred Winblad is similarly interested in looking. "Mister," she says when she first meets her future husband. "I'd like to get somewhere where I could get a closer look at your features."
When men do look at women in Keillor's monologues, they deliberately avoid looking at those parts of women's bodies that typically receive attention from men, or they first notice other features they apparently consider to be more important. When Matt McKinley meets Mildred for the first time, he "took one look at her and he said, 'Woman, you are the strongest woman I ever saw in my life.'" Women's strength, rather than their physical appearance, also is the focus of Keillor's closing line of his monologues, where he describes Lake Wobegon as a place "where all the women are strong…." When the Norwegian bachelor farmers look at pictures of women in magazines, they reject the typical physical appeal of such women, contributing to Keillor's challenge to the male gaze:
Old bachelor farmer sitting down in the barber shop,… looking at pictures of women in a magazine, saying, "You know, I wouldn't have a woman like that if she come beg me, if she come up to my front door on bended knees and begged me, I wouldn't have a woman like that—she just complicates your life."
Yet another way in which Keillor disrupts the traditional masculine spectator position is through his recognition of and empathy for the discomfort involved in being watched. Carl Krebsbach, for example, delights in harming a squirrel that was eating food he put out for the birds, but his glee changes to guilt and self-consciousness when he "realizes his daughter has seen the whole thing from the upstairs window." After he climbs a tree and is watching youngsters play below, Clarence Bunsen wonders: "What if they look up here, see a 55-year-old-man sitting in the tree?" The discomfort frequently felt by women subject to the male gaze is felt by Lake Wobegon residents, including Keillor. He shares his own uneasiness with being watched when he describes his feelings upon leaving the theater after his radio show—an uneasiness he associates with sneaking into movie theaters as an adolescent, hoping not to be seen because movies were forbidden by his religion: "Makes me nervous that as I go out the door, someone is going to see me come out."
Keillor also dismantles the male gaze in his depiction of individuals' assumption of both subject and object roles. The capacity to assume the roles of both spectator and object of the gaze is common to women's viewing within patriarchy. In the traditional construction of the gaze, men look at women, while women watch themselves being looked at. Thus, women turn themselves into objects of vision—a sight—and they survey themselves just as men survey them: "A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself." The result, as Minh-Ha describes, is that the woman "necessarily looks in from the outside while also looking out from the inside."
With striking frequency in Keillor's monologues, he and his characters are simultaneously the subject (masculine) and the object (feminine) of beholding. On Flag Day, for example, the residents of the town don red, white, and blue caps to form a living flag and then one by one take turns going up to the top of the Central Building to look at it: "Then somebody got out from the living flag who had a red cap on—he was part of a stripe—and he ran up to the top of the Central Building 'cause he wanted to see it, and then, of course, everybody had to do it." In another monologue, Dale Eaker observes himself, seeing himself both as the subject and object of his own gaze. As "he walked down the stairs, he saw himself in the mirror. He didn't have a shirt on, and he was kinda admiring himself. He looked pretty good." The privileged position of the observer cannot be assumed by Keillor's characters because they are aware of themselves as "others" among others, as displaced from the observational center at the moment that they, themselves, become the objects of the gaze of others.
As a result of this subject-object spectator position, Keillor, his characters, and his listeners experience double vision, which develops from the need of subordinated groups to learn the language and ways of the dominant group while staying attuned to their own authentic perceptions. Such a position is in contrast to the vision of the master, the one in the privileged position, whose "vision is a one-way street; his privileged position hasn't allowed him to benefit from that double vision." But the dual position of insider turned outsider has disadvantages as well as advantages: "Not quite the Same, not quite the Other, she stands in that undetermined threshold place where she constantly drifts in and out…. [H]er intervention is necessarily that of both a deceptive insider and a deceptive outsider." This double vision, with its possibility for insight and deceit, is best illustrated in the town's name, Lake Wobeson, meaning both be-draggled in appearance and the disappearance of one's woes, as in "woe be gone."
The double vision that results from the assumption of multiple perspectives and, in particular, from adoption of a simultaneous subject-object position also can be seen in Keillor's refusal to see his own perspective as superior to others. The spectator who sees from multiple perspectives recognizes both the value in and limitations of those perspectives. "As we become aware that our … commitments slowly reveal themselves as postures," Gergen suggests, "we can … hardly advocate our own beliefs, reasons, and passions above all others, for the very effort attests to the hollowness of their bases." The result is an irony and a playfulness that come to characterize the spectatorship as Keillor appears to "play with the truths of the day, shake them about, try them on like funny hats." The irony that emerges as Keillor describes Lena Johnson's horror at her granddaughter's christening party, which her son and daughter-in-law have had catered, is typical:
Bunch of people standing around, eating food off tiny plates, holding beverages in their hands. My gosh! If Merlette didn't have room for all these people at her dining room table, the least she coulda done was bring out the TV trays and so people'd have a place to sit and eat!
The playfulness and irony that result from Keillor's multiple vantage points invite the audience to "join in the fun. Because no one is ultimately in control in this game, everyone can play."
The small-town setting of Lake Wobegon, Keillor's discursive site, also contributes to the creation of feminine spectatorship because Keillor suggests that, in many ways, it is a feminine place. Lake Wobegon is, literally and figuratively, a homeplace, the nostalgic place that continues to serve as the American ideal of home. In such a home, women traditionally have been relegated "the task of creating and sustaining a home environment … to construct domestic households as spaces of care and nurturance."
Part of the traditional image of home is that it is a private place; in fact, concern with the private sphere often is cited as a feature associated with the feminine gender. Lake Wobegon is presented as primarily a private world, focused on interior spaces and thoughts and on intimate details of personal lives; rarely do public issues of "political" importance intrude. Keillor tends to capture the residents of Lake Wobegon in moments of relationship with each other, an emphasis equated with a feminine orientation. The narrative suspense of his monologues is not built on the expectations of a significant event or a socially momentous act but rather on the contemplation and dissection of the nature of relationships among and between individuals.
The activities that characterize the lives of Lake Wobegon residents are limited to and oriented around the everyday and the minute, ranging from the worries of tomato growers "wondering if they ought to go out and cover them" to singing songs at the Sweetheart Supper "in dim light, with candles in the red polka-dot, cut-glass globes on the table" to "taking down all the decorations off the tree, and wrapping them individually in tissue paper." This concern for dailiness is another way of locating the feminine standpoint. Metzger suggests that dailiness forms a method by which to know about and gain access to the feminine realm: "Each day is a tapestry, threads of broccoli, promotion, couches, children, politics, shopping, building, planting, thinking interweave in intimate connection with insistent cycles of birth, existence, and death."
Keillor's focus on daily life demonstrates the feminine connections with process rather than product: dailiness, by definition, is a process best captured in the details; it is not a product to be arrived at quickly via a linear sequence. Keillor connects with the details that mark the forms of many women's everyday lives—whether family stories, quilts, gardens, poems, rituals, or songs—and creates in Lake Wobegon a world that looks very much like the ones with which women tend to be familiar. The monologues construct, as de Lauretis suggests about the film, Jeanne Dielman, "a picture of female experience, of duration, perception, events, relationships and silences, which feels immediately and unquestionably true."
The private world of Lake Wobegon is spatially limited, physically confining, and almost secluded in a way that approximates women's confinement to, or at least greater responsibility for, the home. As constricting as this world is, it is an ordered world in which one feels comfortable and safe; to leave this world is to encounter possible danger. The youngsters of Lake Wobegon are frequently told, "don't go off by yourself," a metaphoric suggestion not to leave Lake Wobegon. "See those people out there in the world today? Things like that don't happen to people here in Lake Wobegon," suggests Keillor. "I tell you, they never should have been out there. Stay with the others, stick with the group, don't go off by yourself." On another occasion, Keillor says he's going "back there" to Lake Wobegon because "I'm afraid that if I left I would lose my own story. It's kept back there. And when you lose your story, you've lost something that nobody should ever lose." When his characters ignore his advice and venture beyond the city limits of Lake Wobegon, they experience a variety of negative consequences, as does Clarence Bunsen when he goes to St. Cloud for a haircut. It was a disastrous cut that was "about right for a clown, kind of sticking up in strange ways around."
The fact that most residents of Lake Wobegon remain in Lake Wobegon and hesitate to leave it to reside elsewhere reinforces the perception of Lake Wobegon as a feminine setting. Wolff makes the point that "there is an intrinsic relationship between masculinity and travel. (By 'intrinsic', though, I do not mean 'essential'; rather my interest is in the centrality of travel/mobility to constructed masculine identity.)" Enloe concurs with Wolff's analysis, suggesting:
In many societies being feminine has been defined as sticking close to home. Masculinity, by contrast, has been the passport for travel. Feminist geographers and ethnographers have been amassing evidence revealing that a principal difference between women and men in countless societies has been the license to travel away from a place thought of as "home."
That many of those reluctant to leave the "home" of Lake Wobegon are men only increases the underlying sense of femininity in Keillor's monologues. Florian Krebsbach wants to stay in Lake Wobegon, although his wife is agitating to move to a high rise in St. Cloud. Florian responds by building up his herd of ducks and collecting farm equipment in order to ensure his immobility.
Furthermore, Lake Wobegon is a feminine place in its eschewal of technology, usually thought of as a masculine invention and activity. In fact, one definition of technology is that "it consists of the devices, machinery and processes which men are interested in." Technology also is considered masculine in that it "is usually considered 'big world' talk, connected … with the 'public' sphere, men, mass media, machines, and market prices." The residents of Lake Wobegon reject even basic technologies such as air conditioners, with no optimism at all about the value of such devices:
It was luxuries like A/C that brought down the Roman Empire. With A/C, their windows were shut, they couldn't hear the barbarians coming…. You get A/C and the next day Mom leaves the house in a skin-tight dress, holding a cigarette and a glass of gin, walking an ocelot on a leash.
Clarence Bunsen's lament about the coming of technology is representative of Lake Wobegon residents' attitudes toward technology as well:
Like everything else nowadays, they got coffee without caffeine, they got soda pop without sugar in it…. They're developing new ways of cultivation. They won't use plows anymore, just kind of a low-frequency sonic boom will do it. Cultivate all of Minnesota in 15 seconds. They're breeding new dairy cows now, new dairy cows down by Chicago someplace—I don't know where, but they're breeding new dairy cows, without legs. Legs just get in the way. Interrupt things.
As Lake Wobegon residents reject technology, they also reject the wealth and power that accompany technological development. Lyotard succinctly describes the connection as "no technology without wealth, but no wealth without technology." Lake Wobegon residents' rejection of technology contributes to the town's femininity, then, not simply because women tend not to be associated with technology but because Lake Wobegon residents deliberately espouse a position of low wealth and thus low status and powerlessness—a rejection, of course, of masculine values and standards.
The feminine gender of Keillor's spectatorship is reinforced by the narrative style Keillor uses in presenting his monologues. The form and style of his narratives embody features that typically are associated with feminine patterns, including lack of closure, refusal to judge, and feminine speech forms.
Keillor ends many monologues without telling the outcome of the story. Monologues simply end, with the plot of the narrative unresolved, as when Mrs. Beeler struggles with whether or not to destroy the tickets to a rock concert her son stood in line all night to buy. She had read an article about the dangerous effects of rock concerts on youth and wondered: "What should a mother do? Shouldn't a mother tear them up into little tiny bits? And throw them away?… Doesn't she have an obligation to destroy those tickets? And to save her son?" The monologue ends here, with listeners left to wonder about the action Mrs. Beeler decided to take. In another monologue, Senator K. Thorvaldson finally gets up the courage to write to and declare his love for a woman he met while vacationing in Florida. The monologue ends when Thorvaldson receives a phone call; he responds to the caller, "Oh, you sweet lady, oh, you sweet woman. It's so good to hear your voice." Listeners can guess but cannot be certain that the woman responded positively to the letter, and how the relationship progressed from this point is left untold.
Keillor's incomplete monologues serve as allegories "of the impossibility of ever finishing in the sense of imposing a single, coherent meaning" on a text or activity. As with many of the tasks traditionally assumed by women—housework, child rearing, shopping—the process is perpetual and unfinished, and the focus becomes the process rather than its end result. Keillor's monologues, relying as they do on open-ended and continuous processes, embody the kind of rhythm women experience in their daily lives—a rhythm characterized by repetitiveness, interruption, and distraction. Although lack of closure does not provide the relief of an ending, it does contain an invitation to openness—to imaginative possibility—that is not possible when a story is finished. The criteria for interpretation remain open, albeit slippery and fragmentary. By failing to provide narrative closure, Keillor does not grant authority to any single standard of meaning to restrict, integrate, or totalize the monologues.
The feminine vantage point offered by Keillor in his monologues stands in contrast to the textual rhythm of commercials, sports and news programs as well as most other dramatic narratives presented through mass media that emphasize closure. Such texts construct disorder—disequilibrium, excitement, and suspense—for the purpose of providing the pleasures that come from its resolution. The disorder, in other words, is being brought under control (if only temporarily) by sorting out incoherence and containing contradiction (if only partially). This pleasure of closure is typically achieved at the expense of traditionally constructed femaleness—that which is brought into control often is the disruptiveness of female values or female sexuality. Thus, this kind of rhythm codes the kinds of traits traditionally ascribed to masculinity—the ability to be rational and to have the power to control one's circumstances. Accordingly, the vantage point offered in a textual rhythm of closure implies if not a male viewer at least a traditionally valued masculine approach to the tensions and contradictions of experience.
In a narrative style in which process rather than closure is emphasized and the text is seen as offering the rhythms of daily life in which varied interpretations are possible, that Keillor does not make judgments about his characters and their actions is not surprising. Lyotard aptly describes the stance Keillor adopts in his monologues when he notes that the only rule that applies is the rule that says, "do not prejudge, suspend judgment, give the same attention to everything that happens as it happens."
Keillor's unconditional acceptance of any decision a character makes is exemplified in one monologue in which he describes the carpet in the Tolleruds' bedroom as purple, but he neither sneers at the color nor applauds its courage. Neither does he moralize about Pastor Ingqvist's lack of enthusiasm for the advent sermons he must preach each Christmas. Keillor allows listeners to make their own decisions about, and interpretations of, the events he reports, a stance suggested clearly when he describes the talk of groups of men in cafes when it's raining and the land is too soggy to work. He allows spectators to select their own interpretations of these conversations:
Is it a sad conversation or is it funny or does it have a kind of secret elation of its own is really up to you and how you feel about it. To me, it's always been religious, this conversation; it's endless, even when people are silent. This murmur of talk goes on and on, back among my people, and it includes wisdom and useful advice and recollections of cars and trucks and large animals and farms and the people who lived on them and everything that they did.
Keillor's manner of speaking reinforces the feminine content of his monologues. Many of the features that are believed—accurately or not—to characterize women's speech distinguish Keillor's monologues. His frequent reiterations of words and phrases recall the lengthening of statements and indirectness that have been suggested as characteristic of women's speech. Such repetition is evident when he discusses a local brewery:
A person thinks of this, a guy thinks of all this history when you sit in a dim bar on Tuesday evening and have a bottle of Wendy. You think about all this history of the Dimmers family and you think about that St. Wendell's brewery out there in St. Wendell's, meant to look like a beautiful castle, a Bavarian castle, they intended it to look like and it is sort of a beautiful brick castle about the first two stories but then the brick layers got a little dizzy….
In part, the repetitiveness of this style is typical of the storyteller who needs time to think about where to move the story. At the same time, however, it is a style that has been ascribed to and associated with women.
Keillor's speech contains adjectives and adverbs as qualifiers, a style also considered feminine. He sprinkles his monologues with words such as "kind of," "sort of," and "I think"—indirect speech forms that suggest the stance of someone not expected or allowed to have strong opinions or to make strong statements about the world. An example is Keillor's statement, "Through talk, I think, is how people are intimidating." This same hesitation surfaces throughout his monologues in phrases such as "a sort of strange kind of virtue"; "it's kind of a Lake Wobegon holiday"; and "I think he puts a toenail from his left foot into it or something. I don't know." His choice of adverbs and adjectives is similarly conventionally feminine: A classmate of Keillor's in the school choir sings "pretty good"; when describing Father Emil's reaction upon hearing that vacation time and IRAs have been implemented for priests, Keillor responds with, "My gosh," a particularly feminine exclamatory form. Just as Keillor structures a content that is associated with the feminine, he does so, too, in his narrative style.
We have suggested that Keillor's radio monologues create a feminine spectator position through his refusal to privilege sight, dismantling of the male gaze, creation of Lake Wobegon as a feminine setting, and feminine speaking style. By providing an example of how such a position looks and feels, Keillor is able "to ruin certain representations and to welcome a female spectator into the audience of men." But Keillor's presentation of feminine spectatorship goes beyond simply presenting a feminine world view to listeners. The monologues function to introduce listeners to a feminist epistemology—an epistemology that privileges feminine ways of coming to knowledge and understanding.
A nearness or closeness to objects of knowledge is one quality of this epistemology. The close-up perspective that results allows for the possibility of greater understanding of those objects. The refusal to privilege vision and the involvement of senses in addition to sight in the process of coming to know ground the epistemology of Keillor's monologues in materiality, in concrete particulars. Keillor moves away from the molar toward the molecular level, or from the deductive to the inductive, suggesting the specific detail as the gateway to understanding. When individuals consciously attend to information gathered from all of the senses, they have more detailed data on which to base interpretation, knowledge, and understanding.
The feminist epistemology that results from Keillor's feminine spectatorship also suggests a use of personal experiences—the details, processes, and contexts of everyday life—as data for knowing. Knowledge does not come only from external, objective, or authoritative sources but from direct contact with other people and their lives and from the specific experiences of one's own life. The epistemology of Keillor's monologues is rooted in relationship, in the consciousness that emerges from personal participation in events.
Because one experience cannot be judged superior to others, the epistemology offered in Keillor's monologues fosters an openness to multiple interpretations and an awareness of the limitations of one's own perspective, as Le Guin suggests: "How, after all, can one experience deny, negate, disprove, another experience? Even if I've had a lot more of it, your experience is your truth. How can one being prove another being wrong?" With the adoption of myriad perspectives, knowers are less likely to cling to one perspective and are more likely to be open to other possible viewpoints.
A legitimate and useful way of coming to knowledge, Keillor's monologues suggest, is that typically associated with the feminine—a way of knowing that moves the knower close to the object of inquiry to ground understanding in the particular, values personal experience as a means of knowing, and encourages an openness to multiple perspectives. Keillor legitimizes and accords value to this feminist epistemology in various ways. One is through his own modeling of the feminine spectator position that gives rise to a feminist epistemology. He accords the position credibility simply because he would not be expected to assume it given the other options available to him—he is, after all, a man of celebrity status with access to traditional sources of power and thus knowledge. He also supports a feminist epistemology by revealing it as nonthreatening, comfortable, and safe in his use of the nostalgic and familiar Lake Wobegon setting, his humor, and his relaxed speaking style.
Yet another way in which Keillor's monologues legitimize a feminist epistemology is that they do not simply present or depict the epistemology but instead enable listeners to experience it as enacted or embodied. As audience members position themselves in the feminine spectator stance suggested by the texts, they actually experience the concomitant feminist epistemology. They come to know through or from within a feminist perspective—they are able to try it on and to discover how it works and feels in their lives. Moreover, because their experience of the perspective is associated with pleasure, interest, and humor, listeners are likely to view the experience as a positive one; they are less likely to evaluate it as negative or to remain detached from and thus unaffected by it.
Keillor's monologues, characterized by feminine spectator-ship and rooted in a feminist epistemology, thus provide a free space in which listeners may experience a feminist perspective in a safe, non-threatening, pleasurable environment—where they are able to discover for themselves the utility of such a perspective and the insights it offers. As such, Keillor's monologues constitute an emancipatory rhetoric that has the power to disrupt "the dour certainties of pictures, property, and power."