GARRISON KEILLOR: MIDWESTERN ENIGMA
Cedar Falls SUPPERCLUB
Delivered November 18, 2014 by G. Scott Cawelti
Garrison Keillor, writer, radio personality, humorist, satirist, all-around enigma, and I come from the same cohort—born eleven months apart, he in August, ‘42 and me in July, ‘43, graduating from high school in ‘60 and ‘61, respectively—he in Anoka, Minnesota, and me in Cedar Falls, Iowa, 235 miles South-Southeast. We both played in high school rock bands, he in the Pharaohs of Rhythm and me in the Ramrods.
We both loved Buddy Holly’s singing and his songs—“Peggy Sue,” “Every Day,” “That’ll be the Day,” “Not Fade Away.” Indeed, we both performed them. And we both grew up in the fifties—in Midwest small towns, the heart of the heart of the country. Our hometowns were both originally settled by Scandinavians—Norwegians for Anoka, Danish for Cedar Falls. He majored in English with a strong side interest in music. I majored in Music with a strong pull toward serious reading, and eventually jumped the fence into English.
To get really personal, Keillor remarried for the third time in 1995, and I remarried for the third time in 1996.
We have so much in common, including radio punditry and political outlook, that, except for degrees of fame and fortune, we’re kindred spirits.
So over the years I’ve been drawn to his work in recognition, admiration, and—yes--envy.
As a matter of fact, years ago I met Garrison—I can’t call him Gary— when I performed with Robert Waller on the KUNI version of Prairie Home Companion. He brought his cast and crew to Lang Hall in the late seventies, not for broadcast—we weren’t ready for prime time—but as a KUNI fundraiser. He was unhappy with us for playing an extra song, and didn’t seem interested in any personal connection whatsoever.
I didn’t take his distance personally, but felt surprised that his real self wasn’t the downhome, warm and fuzzy persona he projects on air. He was cold, distant, even angry that we played an extra song. That ended our Prairie Home Companion career and our fifteen minutes of fame.
(Mine, anyway; Waller went on to untold riches and notoriety.)
Still, I followed his career like I would a brother’s, and this paper represents a culmination of my examination of Garrison Keillor as an enigmatic personality.
For the past few months I’ve been reading Keillor monologues, novels, memoirs, a book of jokes, and his recently published book of poems, O WHAT A LUXURY: VERSES LYRICAL, VULGAR, PATHETIC, AND PROFOUND. If nothing else, Garrison Keillor seems utterly untroubled by writer’s block.
Our hero is a gathering of contradictions: mellow but angry, poor but rich, depressed but funny, angry but beloved, a successful performer and writer who lives like a Republican but thinks like a Democrat.
He’s shy and reclusive, resenting intrusions on his privacy in the form of questions about his marriages, his affairs, and his wealth. His net worth approaches 1.5 million, and that doesn’t square with his downhome, egalitarian Democrat folksy persona. Yet that’s a persona that he cannot abandon without forsaking millions of fans, who take him as the archetypal Midwesterner.
What redeems him from every flaw, hypocrisy, crankiness, and mood swing, is his storytelling. A master storyteller captivates listeners and readers so skillfully that personal failings are forgotten or ignored.
Garrison spins Lake Wobegone tales impromptu, giving them an aura of spontaneity and freshness. I’ve watched and heard him unfold extended and coherent stories onstage, with never so much as a nod at a notecard or prompt. He glances around the audience stoically inscrutable; occasionally a sly smile will cross his features, but he never breaks out into a guffaw or even a chuckle; I’ve never heard or seen him actually laugh. He’d make a great poker player.
I’ve compared written versions in his collections with spoken monologues with the same titles on CDs, and they’re quite different—evidence that he makes them up as he goes along. He’s told audiences that writing is a process of discovery, and he’s always discovering as he talks—on radio, in front of a live audience. It’s a verbal high wire act.
The only comparable radio personality I know of is Orson Welles, who had an equivalent pillowy resonant baritone voice, and a similar gift for making up compelling stories on the spot. Of course, Welles was a genuine genius, and Keillor is not, but damn close at times.
His monologues begin and end with the same phrases, signaling that we’re entering and leaving his imaginative re-creation of life in a small Minnesota town: “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegone, my hometown . . .” and ends with “And that’s the news from Lake Wobegone, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”
Between those phrases he engenders serious laughter, and a lot of it. That’s his trifecta: story, delivery, and humor. “Prairie Home Companion” tickets regularly sell out, and millions tune in weekly. It began on July 6, 1974, and is still going strong from the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, and all around the country during various tours; you might have noticed that it originated from Des Moines recently.
As of last July, that’s 40 years. GK, as he’s known in Robert Altman’s 2006 film, Prairie Home Companion, began the show when he was a lad in his early thirties. He’s now 72, refusing to retire after a couple of scares—a heart problem that required open-heart surgery and a minor stroke. He took two years off in Copenhagen in the late 1980s for a second marriage to a Danish woman he met in high school when she attended Anoka High School as a Danish foreign exchange student. Incidentally, his current third and longest marriage (1995) is to violinist Jenny Lind Nillson, who also grew up in Anoka.
Now, back to that trifecta: story, delivery, and humor. These go a long ways toward explaining his immediate appeal, but not his longevity.
Two other elements assure both longevity and even posterity, since Keillor’s fans keep creating new fans, his books assure continuance in print form, his monologues keep getting play on car radios, and Robert Altman’s film made him recognizable as a screen presence. He’s the utter center of that film, by the way—it all revolves around him, minus the uncinematic monologue.
Those two other elements? Horatian Satire and Norwegian Bachelor Farmers, i.e. the Scandinavian ethos that undergirds all his writing and performing. These are the fourth and fifth essential aspects of Garrison Keillor’s ongoing appeal.
Horatian satire is so named because of the Roman poet Horace, who made gentle fun of his fellow Romans’ follies and foibles, revealing them in all their contradictions and silliness. Horace’s odes are lighthearted, gentle, and his literary heirs are Chaucer with his Canterbury Tales, Jonathan Swift with his Gulliver’s Travels, Matt Groening with his Simpsons. And Garrison Keillor with his strong women, good-looking men, and above average children. It’s not topical, it’s not slapstick, it’s not gross or physical humor—fart jokes excepted—instead, it’s gentle ridicule of somebody’s mostly inadvertent but inescapable foibles—shy, mute, reclusive, almost invisible people who suppress most evidence of having an ego.
Ridicule is not necessarily that appealing if you’re the one being made fun of. In fact, it can be a nasty weapon in the mouth of a bully. But if it’s done in the Horatian manner—that is, gently and with the clear understanding that it applies to everyone, including the speaker or writer, it can be effective and hugely entertaining.
Keillor insists that he’s one of us, insecure, geeky and nerdy growing up, downright ugly (I have a face that’s made for radio, he insists) and morbidly shy, except when he’s performing for millions. There’s that enigma again.
He tells the story of being completely smitten with one of his beautiful female classmates at Anoka High but never having the courage to speak to her. One day on a field trip, she was sitting next to a vacant seat on the school bus as he climbed aboard.
He dared to sit beside her—it took all of his courage—and then—ever so secretively and gently—put his arm behind her, not really touching her. She paid no attention, just looking out the school bus window and treating him as though he were elsewhere. Then his hand grazed the back of her shoulder, and she turned and looked straight at him. He gazed straight back, hoping for a smile or at least an acknowledgement of his existence, if not a trace of affection, and she said: “What?”
He says he’s been looking for the answer to that question his whole life.
This self-denigration gives him leeway to make fun of his tribe—that vast subset of Americans from Ohio to Wyoming, Minnesota to Missouri. And they all seem to be Lutheran.
Keillor insists that everyone in Minnesota is a Lutheran. The Catholics are Lutheran. So are the Baptists and Episcopalians. Even the atheists are Lutheran—“The God they don’t believe in is Lutheran.”
He grew up among Lutherans, even though he was a member of a tiny fundamentalist sect—the Plymouth Brethren—they too were Lutherans in their behavior and outlook. They lived extremely quiet, bland, retiring, virtually ego-free lives, and though they were generous, it was mostly to other “Lutherans” of their sect.
Their closed society was a way of making sure every one stayed Lutheran. When someone strayed, they were quietly and subtly shunned, made to feel there was something wrong with them. Lutherans passively and quietly exercise this form of social control, and many of Keillor’s stories and novels concern characters who broke free, who dared to dance and raise hell and smoke and drink and have wild sex and even leave town to move to Florida and California—only to return for visits—and leave as quickly as possible, sensing they’re no longer welcome. A Minnesota saying: “There’d be more suicides in Minnesota if it weren’t for what the neighbors would think.”
He jokes about the Lutheran shipwreck survivor who disappeared for twenty years, then miraculously found on a tiny island. They pick him up, and he gladly agrees to leave his lonely patch of land. As he’s getting into the rescue boat, they notice a small hut with a chimney for his home, and another hut with a cross over the door. And yet a third hut, unadorned, further back. “So that’s your home,” they notice, “and there’s your church—what’s that other building back there.” “Ah, yah—that’s the church I used to go to.”
Lutheran sects sprung up like weeds, constantly and everywhere, due to disagreements over—well, anything and everything. That’s Keillor’s oft-repeated assertion.
These are the good citizens of Lake Wobegone—or rather, that portion of them that really live and breathe the “Jante” laws of Scandinavia.
Norwegian\Danish writer Aksel Sandemose wrote a novel, A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, published in 1936, in which he posits a small Danish town, Jante, where everyone without fail follows ten rules.
These “Jantelovian Commandments” have become a satirical indictment of the Scandinavian ethos, best exemplified in GK by his Norwegian Bachelor Farmers:
1. You're not to think you are anything special.
2. You're not to think you are as good as we are.
3. You're not to think you are smarter than we are.
4. You're not to convince yourself that you are better than we are.
5. You're not to think you know more than we do.
6. You're not to think you are more important than we are.
7. You're not to think you are good at anything.
8. You're not to laugh at us.
9. You're not to think anyone cares about you.
10. You're not to think you can teach us anything.
Note the 8th law: you’re not to laugh at us. That’s the one that Keillor has broken from the very beginning, and has asserted that he actively set out to alienate Lutherans by making fun of them.
Keillor knows that successful satirists must remain outsiders, and his ridicule of Lutherans certainly helped that along. Incidentally, he does go to church—the Episcopalian—having long ago given up on the Plymouth Brethren. He loves Episcopalian rituals and songs, he says, though I doubt that he’s a genuine believer.
Now here are samples of his writings, illustrating his satire and that Scandinavian ethos:
FROM LAKE WOEBEGONE DAYS: (p. 22) “I crossed Main Street toward Ralph’s and stopped, hearing a sound from childhood in the distance. The faint mutter of ancient combines. Norwegian bachelor farmers combining in their antique McCormacks, the old six-footers. New combines cut a twenty-foot swath, but those guys aren’t interested in getting done sooner, it would only mean a longer wait until bedtime.”
From “Aprille”—a Lake Wobegone monologue:
“Spring has come, grass is green, the trees are leafing out, birds arriving every day by the busload, and now the Norwegian bachelor farmers are washing their sheets.”
From GOODBYE TO THE LAKE, monolog: Rain fell all morning and everyone was in a festive mood, the Chatterbox was packed for dinner. A bunch of Norwegian bachelor farmers piled into the back booth and had mushroom soup and liverwurst sandwiches. “Looks like this may keep up all day,” one said. “Yeah, that’s what they’re sayin.” If a drought were to kill off his crops, a bachelor farmer might be forced to contemplate marriage, the last refuge for men unable to fend for themselves, just as poor Mr. Hauge did in the drought of ’59. He married a Saint Cloud woman and died six months later and not from excitement. To them, rain means that life continues, and they cleared their throats like happy lions, Braaagbbbbb.”
And from LAKE WOEBEGONE DAYS this fuller description, beginning with Mr. Berge and how he blew his nose:
Other residents (of Lake Wobegone) come to mind as people who if you were showing a friend from college around town and you saw them you would grab his arm and make a hard U-turn, such as Mr. Berge, not because he might be drunk but because whether drunk or sober he might blow his nose with his index finger the old farmer way. Farmers still do this in the field, though most of them know that town is a different situation, but not Mr. Berge and his friends, the Norwegian bachelor farmers. Their only concession to town is a slight duck of the head for modesty’s sake. To them, the one-hand blow is in the same league with spitting, which they also do, and scratching in the private regions. They never learned the trick of reaching down deep in your pocket and feeling around for a dime until you solve the problem. When ill at ease, such as when meeting a friend, they are apt to do all three in quick succession, spit, blow, and scratch—pthoo, snarf, ahhhh—no more self-conscious than a dog.
‘Tis better to apologize than to ask permission,” says Clarence, arguing for greater boldness in life. The bachelor farmers, however, do neither. On a warm day, six of them may roost on the plank bench in front of Ralph’s, in peaceful defiance of Lutheranism, chewing, spitting, snarfling, and p-thooing, until he chases them away to the Sidetrack Tap (they’re bad advertising for a grocery store, the heftiness of them seems to recommend a light diet) and then they may not go. Mr. Munch may just spit on the sidewalk, study it, and say, “I don’t see no sign says No Sitting.” “You get up, I’ll paint one for you,” says Ralph. They may wait a long time before they go.
“Tellwiddem,” says Mr. Fjerde, “Tellwid all ovum,” says Mr. Munch.
The Norwegian Bachelor’s password: Tellwitcha.
We are all crazy in their eyes. All the trouble we go to for nothing: ridiculous. Louis emerging from his job at the bank, white shirt and blue bow tie, shiny brown shoes, delicately stepping across the street for lunch: Dumb bastard. . . .
.. . in their hearts, the bachelor farmers are all sixteen years old. Painfully shy, perpetually disgruntled, elderly teenagers leaning against a wall, watching the parade through the eyes of the last honest men in America: ridiculous. Clarence mentioned this when I was eighteen and complaining about my father’s lawn compulsions—grass is meant to get long, it’s part of nature, nature is growth. “You should talk to the Norwegian bachelors, you have a lot in common,” he said.
I said to myself: ridiculous.
That’s Garrison Keillor: not only does he make fun of the Scandinavian Jante ethos through Norwegian Bachelor Farmers, he’s one of them.
At bottom, all of Keillor’s monologues and much of his other prose seems to have been written by the quintessential Norwegian Bachelor Farmer—a painfully shy (now elderly) teenager who out of his own insecurities finds most everyone and everything just plain ridiculous, and therefore worthy of ridicule.
Take Clarence Bunson, who went to church without any cash. So he had to write a check to put in the collection plate—you can’t leave church without leaving a donation—what would the ushers think? But he wrote it for $300 instead of what he intended--$30, so his dilemma became whether he could go downstairs and ask the ushers for his check back.
Oh, the humiliation, and oh, the necessity, since $300 was more than he had in his account.
Finally, a few of his poems, where he truly shines as a Minnesota’s bachelor farmer poet laureate.
First, “Lutheranism Explained” LOCATION 1598
I was raised in Iowa, went to St. Olaf, /Norwegian, I’m proud to say./ Thirty years a member of Zion Lutheran,/ I’m there every Sunday. /Always sit in the back of the church, /Always in the same pew. /I like the folks who sit back there, /They’re Norwegian too. /We are a modest people /And we never make a fuss /And it sure would be a better world/ If they were all as modest as us./ We sing the hymns, listen to the sermon, /Go up front and commune, /Drop in the money, shake hands with the pastor /And we’re out by a quarter to noon. /Episcopalians are proud of their faith, /You ought to hear them talk./ Who they got? /They got Henry the 8th /And we got J. S. Bach. Henry the 8th’d marry a woman/ And then her head would drop. /J. S. Bach had 23 kids /Cause his organ had no stop. /We got a female associate pastor /And she’s nice, don’t get me wrong,/ But the boots she wears are what I’d call sexy / And the skirt’s not what I’d call long./ She’s single and she smiles a lot/ And she sure does like her beer/ And I’ve been talking to some of the others /And we trust she’s gone next year. /Here at Zion Lutheran Attendance seems to be down /And that’s because most of the membership /Is six feet underground. /We don’t go for long-term planning, /No need to look that far. /Luther said we’re saved by grace/ So we’re good enough just as we are. /If you come to church, don’t expect to be hugged, /Don’t expect your hand to be shook. /If we need to know who the heck you are, /We can look in the visitors book. /I was raised to keep a lid on it, /Guard what you say or do. /A Mighty Fortress is our God/ So He must be Lutheran too.
Read “Minnesota Rouser” LOCATION 993
Let winter come and walk roughshod /With sleet and freezing rains. /We fear it not, we trust in God /And jumper cables and tire chains. /We’re prepared for the good fight, /We shall be cheerful though the blizzard blows. /Though it is ten below, a long cold night, /We trust in coffee and warm clothes. /From Worthington to Grand Marais, /From Lake Vermilion to Red Wing, /We thank God for the coldest day/ And offer up our suffering. /From Bemidji to Anoka, /From Rochester to Roseau, /Winter makes us finer folk, a- /Las we’re modest and can’t say so.
And “Times Square” LOCATION 840
I was born with an affliction, /A disposition or mood /Of silent introspection, /A tendency to brood. /I brood about good people I knew/ In the bygone time gone by/ & what I should’ve done & didn’t do /& won’t before I die. /But I come to New York (boom boom)/ & the razzmatazz, hullabaloo & jazz. /The guy with a snake wound around his chest /The anti-fur protest /A street-corner preacher and the quack quack man/ Boys beating on a garbage can /The river of taxis and the quiet roar /Of ambition. And I don’t feel sorry anymore. /Henry Thoreau went to Walden Pond, /Sat at a table in a straightback chair. /I’d rather be in Times Square /& look at that six-story blonde /On the billboard wearing black underwear. /And a lady out of a fashion magazine /A lady in black, her lips bright red /How did she ever get into those jeans /A beautiful woman, so I’ll just drop dead /New York—(boom boom) when all is said / Is where I go to get out of my head.
Finally, the summing up poem:
WHY I LIVE IN MINNESOTA
Where the temp gets down to thirty below
And it’s perfectly flat, miles of snow,
And you ask why I live in this desolate spot.
Why? Because you do not.
You in loud clothes
With lacquered hair
And monster pickups
And not much upstairs,
Who whoop in church
And worship the Word,
For whom evolution
Has not yet occurred.
The men shoot gators Out in the marsh, While the women stay home And hang up the warsh.
It’s all about rifles
And the Second Comin’
And wave the flag And down with Gummint
And up with football
And the G.O.P.
Now what if those people Lived next door to me?
And the only thing That keeps them away
Is the fact it will hit Minus thirty today?
Winter’s a challenge But it can be faced
When you’re among people
With brains and good taste.
Garrison Keillor, the Norwegian bachelor farmer, feeling secretly superior, yet suffering guilt about it, happy to be living in a state that so many want to leave—and which he can happily leave whenever he wants for his posh NYC Apartment--to find refuge from himself. An enigma indeed.
Yet he always returns to making fun of Scandinavian Midwesterners who still delight in his warm and gentle ridicule.
At least someone’s paying attention to them—and to him.