A review of Lake Wobegon Days, by Garrison Keillor
Garrison Keillor is my neighbor. We live within a couple of miles of each other in St. Paul, and although I have never met Garrison, we have both been known to stop by that new, special spot in St. Paul: Cafe Latté. The interior design there is nouveau art deco; the food, for instance, the three-grain and green soup, is tasty and unusual; and the crowd is smartly dressed and upscale for the most part. When we arrive at the Cafe's doors, Garrison might be coming from his nationally known live radio show, "A Prairie Home Companion," and my wife and I from a movie like Rocky. Unlike ours, Garrison's entry turns admiring heads-and gets people whispering about their proximity to "a real celebrity." Even though St. Paul has been moving upscale, the town is still closer to Lake Wobegon than to Los Angeles.
Everyone knows Garrison has been hitting the cover off the ball lately. His Book-of-the-Month Club novel, Lake Wobegon Days, is a best seller. He's on the cover of Time magazine. He's been invited to Washington. In a picture I saw recently he was standing in what appears to be Tip O'Neill's office with Tip O'Neill, Minnesota Congressman Bruce Vento, Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) President Bill Kling, and Congressman Gerry Sikorski. Mr. Vento's newsletter (where I saw the picture) reports that Garrison had just been "feted at a Capitol Hill luncheon" and that he and MPR had "received a $100,000 federal grant to expand national programming of 'A Prairie Home Companion.'"
Years ago Garrison Keillor changed his name from Gary Keillor. Gary Keillor is the 35- to 45-year-old narrator of Lake Wobegon Days, where he sketches a leisurely picture of his hometown, Lake Wobegon, which Gary claims is in Mist County, Minnesota, though it is not on the map. Gary depicts the townsfolk and different places in Lake Wobegon, and he gives us a broad-brush picture of its past. Not only that, he gets us laughing by including in his sketches many one-liners and funny twists. Gary is a landscape humorist.
A girl stands on the diving dock, pushes off, and "executes a perfect cannonball" landing with a "dull thunsh." As Gary says, "Left to our own devices, we Wobegonians go straight for the small potatoes. Majestic doesn't appeal to us; we like the Grand Canyon better with Clarence and Arlene parked in front of it, smiling. We feel uneasy at momentous events." Lake Wobegon is a small town. In school and church, the Wobegonians were called to truth and honor, "but the truth was that we always fell short." The Wobegonians may not appreciate the majestic; nevertheless, as Gary dwells on their common ways to tell his humorous tale, we see that the Wobegonians possess something fairly valuable: common sense. The Wobegonians may not fully appreciate a Winston Churchill, but on the other hand they would not likely vote a George McGovern into the presidency. Gary recounts that "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?'"
Lake Wobegon's founding was not a thing of glory. Really, there were two foundings. Henry Watt, who fancied himself a founder, was responsible for the first, which failed. Henry had "a dream": he would "found a college, a city of learning on a hill, and would give his life to it." Gary mentions that Henry spoke at a Founder's Day event, and, as record of the speech, Gary gives us a half page of notes taken by a student at the time. Henry spoke of America and the "laws of nature, laws of God," of ideas and ideals, of Carlyle's saying "the history of the world is the biography of great men." It turns out, however, Henry's dreams of glory were mostly of his own glory and not of the glory of a city founded and perpetuated by men and women of noble character dedicated to timeless principle and serving as example and beacon to all. Rendered dry and hollow by self-interest, Henry's hopes went up in smoke.
Second came Magnus Oleson, a Norwegian emigrant, and by 1980 Magnus was to be found "in the family tree of almost every Norwegian in town." The town is now primarily populated by people of Norwegian and German ancestry. In 1863, when Lincoln was fighting to preserve the Union and prove that a nation dedicated to the "proposition that all men are created equal" could endure, Magnus arrived in Mist County on an officer's stolen horse after having deserted the Union Army. He had concluded that the Civil War "was no war for a Norwegian." Gary notes Magnus's "loyalty to Lincoln's.cause was very slight." Magnus even wrote a letter calling Lincoln "a butcher and a barbarian." Given that Magnus was new to America, young, and surrounded by bloodshed at the time of his desertion, and given that once in Mist County, he lent a kind hand to his fellows, I guess one might forgive him his failure to appreciate America's and Lincoln's cause. All the same, it came as a shock to Magnus's Wobegon descendants when they discovered his history. Unlike Magnus's descendants, Garrison just seems to find it funny. Regarding the town's second founding, I should note, Magnus did not see himself as the town's founder, merely as a man who moved into the Lake Wobegon area. More than anything, chance and accident account for Wobegon's founding. Statesmanship based on principle did not.
Gary opens Lake Wobegon Days with a poem. He asks that he be as full of truth as dogs, who know their loved ones and growl and bark at strangers. Loyalty is important in Lake Wobegon; the town "runs on loyalty." What they are loyal to is important-important enough for me to have returned to St. Paul from the East after school and join the family business, to marry and have three kids, to drive an American car with a "Support the Boy Scouts" sticker on the bumper, and to fly the American flag from our home. The Wobegonians are loyal to their hometown and its moral health; they are loyal to family, church, and their fellow-citizens.
This kind of community is-or was until recently-the bedrock of American democracy. The loyalty of the Wobegonians to one another and their community is remarkable in this day and age. In Lake Wobegon we see the kind of community that our parents or grandparents knew, one in which a decent moral character was not only shaped, but preserved, from generation to generation. And it may be that it is only in such communities that this decency can be preserved. In creating such a community, Gary has performed a valuable service, for he holds up to modern life an image of what it has lost, a loss which is sustained and justified (or, more precisely, rationalized away) by all the "isms" of our age.
In their own way, the Wobegonians see their decency threatened and in danger of slipping away. The following is a long quotation from pages 155 and 156 of Lake Wobegon Days, but it is well worth the read.
Byron valued patience. Nothing worthwhile comes easy. Life is full of disappointments. You learn this growing up on a farm, forty acres of corn burns up in July or is flooded out or beaten to a pulp by hail. You learn to look at it and say, "Well-." And after you've looked at disaster, disappointment falls into place in the natural order of things. The lack of a car to drive to a dance, the lack of a good shirt to go in, the lack of time to go at all-these aren't disasters, not like to his son.
The world had changed. Father Emit spoke about this to the Commercial Club a few weeks before. Byron was Lutheran, but he gave father Emil a lot of credit, father Emil had spoken the week before father's Day and said that agnostic liberals had cut fatherhood off at the knees. These liberals aimed to destroy authority and stability, and so had undermined the father. Look at television, father had said-Dad is shown as a dummy who stumbles around and breaks things and gets into trouble, usually to be rescued by a small child or a pet. . . .
Father Emil thought that fatherhood could be restored, but Byron thought maybe things had gone too far. Guys who hung around the elevator often talked about their boys and things the boys did that they the fathers would never have dared to do. Guy Peterson the other day had mentioned his boy, Guy, Jr. The boy had refused to do chores. Said he didn't feel like it. "You sick?" Guy asked him. No, the boy said, he felt depressed. Guy was baffled by that. He didn't know what depression had to do with the fact there were forty Holsteins that had to be milked and the stalls cleaned and the feed put down. He didn't see how depression entered into the picture at all. "If I had ever said that to my dad, he woulda walloped me one upside the head, given me something to be depressed about." That was in the old days when it was different.
For those who thirst and burn for distinction-for those who "just want to be me, just want to be free," as I think the song goes-Lake Wobegon with its traditional ways, morality, and discipline might offer cramped quarters. And as Gary reveals, "most of Lake Wobegon's children leave, as I did, to realize themselves as finer persons than they were allowed to be at home." Whether they succeed in becoming finer persons, Gary leaves in some doubt.
Gary says he left Lake Wobegon to realize himself as a finer person. In writing this book, however, he takes us with him back to Lake Wobegon. He usually is affectionate toward the Wobegonians, and his humor at their expense is almost always soft, though that cannot be said of the biting, self-pitying humor of many of the children who leave Wobegon (see the 95 Theses 95 in the footnote that runs from page 251 to 274; interestingly, one can find in the Theses a multitude of the rationalizations of today's moral wilderness). All the same, I think it is Gary's use of humor that distinguishes him from the Wobegonians and keeps him a stranger in his own hometown. As mentioned already, Gary's humor often permits us to see the basic decency and common sense of the Wobegonians and Lake Wobegon, but at the same time, Gary uses his humor to parody gently the Wobegonians and their old ways, and thereby he gives the children an excuse for leaving town. Gary often knowingly uses his humor to bring the lofty and good down to laughable, low ground. I don't think a Wobegonian of the old regime would do such a thing. The Wobegonians may not always understand or appreciate fully the true and honorable, but they do not knowingly treat them with disrespect or irreverence.
Gary gets his audience laughing at honorable people and events. Gary takes us to a Lake Wobegon Memorial Day event at which respect is being paid to those who died for America. Through Gary's eyes, we see it as a farce. During the event Gary mentions that his ancestors on his mother's side lived in New England during the Revolutionary War, the war that sprang from our loyalty to "the self-evident truth that all men are created equal." It turns out that during the war, Gary's ancestors sided with Britain and King George. Gary chooses that side too: "The disobedience of my ancestors was a wonderful thought; I imagined myself back there with them. Taking up a rifle and fighting against America! Shooting at George Washington, the Father of our Country! Shooting the white wig right off his head! A terrible wicked idea, it made me shiver to think it, but I kept right on thinking." Isn't Gary to an extent doing to what is honorable, to the Father of our Country, and to our Country, what Father Emil said today's TV shows and agnostic liberals do to fathers, authority, and stability?
Gary admits he joined the Boy Scouts to have fun with his friends, not "for the Scout part": "What [our Scout Leader] was talking about, the dishonor and all, made no sense to me. What honor?" At least as a youth, the noble and honorable were not important to Gary. Something else was:
One word I liked [as a child] was popular. . . . It didn't occur in our reading book, where little children did the right thing although their friends scoffed at them and where despised animals wandered alone and redeemed themselves through pure goodness and eventually triumphed to become Top Dog . . . which though thrilling, didn't appeal to me so much as plain popular. "The popular boy came to the door and everyone smiled and laughed. They were so glad to see him. They crowded around him to see what he wanted to do."
Whether or not Garrison wants it as an adult, he is getting the popularity Gary sought as a child. We know he's been on the cover of Time and has been feted by the powerful in Washington, D.C., which are forms of attention he seemed to fancy as a child. Numerous times he tells of his youthful reveries, in which people bowed to him, in which "crowds clapped silently from the ditches, and great men looked down from reviewing stands." And St. Paul has been cheering for Garrison and rallying behind him. People have given a lot of money to renovate the World Theater for Garrison and his radio show. Individuals in the community have given $200,000; corporations have given $1.4 million; and on top of that, the government has given some of our tax dollars. Things have gotten a bit tense lately, however.
With Garrison becoming such a national celebrity, the local newspapers have recently run articles about Garrison's personal relations, and Garrison resents their doing that. He has gone so far as to hint that he might leave St. Paul and that "the amount of money that has been invested in the World Theater would not make the slightest bit of difference." I'm sure that comes as a blow to many people in the neighborhood. Because he did follow through and leave Lake Wobegon, I think Garrison's hint has to be taken seriously.
That's no note to end on, though. Let us return to and end with Lake Wobegon. Spending all this time with the Wobegonians and their children, I got to thinking: Would a Washington, Lincoln, or Churchill be able to realize his greatness and reveal his uncommon excellence in common, old Lake Wobegon? I think so. Through speech and action, they could call us to decency, principle, and loyalty to family, God, and our fellow citizens.