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."