Download Lake Wobegon Days Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Lake Wobegon Days Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The narrator is Garrison Keillor, but, like Dante in La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), he must be understood to be a fictional character created by the author, not the author himself. The many small narratives are skillfully connected by means of association. The history of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, population 942, is interwoven with present-day events, the narrator’s childhood and adolescence, and his musings on the significance of being a Wobegonian. The two qualities that have defined Lake Wobegon life down through the years are happenstance and patience.

There are two contenders for the title of first European to arrive at what is now Lake Wobegon. In 1836, an Italian, Count Carlo Pallavicini, searching for the headwaters of the Mississippi River, took one look around and decided he was not there. The previous year, a French priest, Father Pierre Plaisir, had visited what the voyageurs came to call Lac Malheur, but, as he mentions nonexistent mountains in his memoir, he may well have been farther to the west.

Next, in the early 1850’s, came a party of Unitarian missionaries from Boston, led by Prudence Alcott, who intended to convert the Indians to Christianity by means of interpretive dance. The New Englanders gave the name New Albion to the village they settled. One of Miss Alcott’s companions, a poet named Henry Francis Watt, composed the first account of Lake Wobegon to reach the East, a poem of 648 lines titled “Phileopolis: A West Rhapsody—Thoughts Composed a Short Distance Above Lake Wobegon.” Watt, armed with the spurious degrees of Ph.D., Litt. D., and D.D. (all conferred upon him by a coffee broker and land speculator named Bayfield), established New Albion College. The college eventually boasted an enrollment of thirty-six but, after a bear ate one of the scholars, only one student remained for the following spring term. (It was later determined that his mind was unhinged, and he was removed to the state asylum.) New Albion College was forced to close its doors.

A group of Norwegians arrived on May 15, 1867. Having been fishermen in the old country, they had emigrated deep into the Dakota Territory under the mistaken notion that they would find a huge lake with bountiful fishing. On the weary return trip, they stopped and settled in Lake Wobegon. Then came the German immigrants, who were headed elsewhere but had misread their map. They chose to stay in Lake Wobegon rather than admit they had made a mistake. The Norwegians, who are Lutheran, and the Germans, who are Catholic, have become the dominant ethnic groups in Lake Wobegon. In 1880, the Norwegians finally gained control of the city council and officially changed the name of the town from New Albion to Lake Wobegon. They liked the sound of the word. Wobegon, or “Wa-be-gan-tan-han” in the Ojibway tongue, can be translated as “the place where we waited all day in the rain” or, more simply, as “patience.”

Lake Wobegon is located in the appropriately named Mist County. Unfortunately, because of a series of surveying errors, the town has never appeared on any map. When the legislature discovered that the lines drawn by four teams of surveyors had overlapped badly in the middle of the state, they simply reproportioned the state by eliminating the overlap. The result of this action was to remove all of Mist County from the map. Passage of the State Map Amendment of 1933 was an attempt to rectify the situation, but it was attached to a bill requiring the teaching of evolution in all secondary schools, and it failed. Wobegonians are sanguine about their official anonymity, just as they are about all of life’s vicissitudes. They have learned that things seldom work out.

A case in point is the town’s one genuine athletic hero, Wally (“Old Hard Hands”) Bunsen. Wally was a great ball player who had spent a part of the 1933 season with the Chicago Cubs, batting an impressive .348. As his nickname suggests, however, he had learned...

(The entire section is 1,645 words.)