“I see the rural virtues leave the land. “
Garrison Keillor, the writer, has finally made it big. Five years ago a regional cult figure and occasional contributor to the New Yorker, Keillor has now vaulted on to the cover of Time and to the top of the New York Times best-seller list. His devout followers range from professors weaned on the Weavers and Pete Seeger who plan their Saturday evenings around his A Prairie Home Companion radio show to the Jesse Helms aide who labeled Keillor the most hopeful cultural sign of the decade. For a nation still bearing the scars left by the conflicts of the 1960’s and 70’s, he seems to be the promised balm of Gilead.
What accounts for his appeal? Lake Wobegon Days, Keillor’s fictional account of growing up in a mythical Minnesota small town, provides answers. Partly, it lies in his wry Midwestern humor. Keillor’s chapter length history of his town, a gentle, barely exaggerated spoof of the standard chronicle often thousand American hamlets, begins with the story of Unitarian missionary Prudence Alcott (“She had a vision of a man in hairy clothing who told her to go west and convert the Indians to Christianity by the means of interpretive dance”). It passes through the town’s era as New Albion, the Boston of the West (“Home of New Albion College, World Revered Seat of Learning Set in This Mecca of Commerce and Agriculture”), and concludes with a portrayal of late-19th-century Lake Wobegon as the quintessentially American offspring of religious devotion bound to hucksterism and speculation.
Keillor also taps the corporate memory, recounting the common experiences of a child growing up in mid-20th-century America. He relates the agony of waiting to be chosen during a school baseball game, as the captains—a natural elite—finally get down to the scrubs, the “near-handicapped.” He describes the humiliation of wearing black Keds (“Mother said black wouldn’t show dirt”) when white ones were popular. He recalls the subtle terror of a bitter Midwestern winter as “the cold swallows up sound except for your feet crunching and your heart pounding.”
The author has a keen eye for the details of small-town life: the seed caps, low belts, and big bellies on the men; the deep purple pant suit, purple pumps, and jet black wig of a desperately aging, incompletely citified grandmother; the literary society featuring lectures on World Federalism, Esperanto, and unicameral legislatures.
Finally, Keillor can tell an anecdote with a poignancy matched by few contemporary American writers: his description of his “Storm Home” in town, his “storm parents,” the Kloeckels, and his imaginary visit to them as the refugee storm child; Elizabeth the phone operator’s recounting of the time Keillor’s grandfather took her out into a cold winter’s night to see a silver wolf sitting on a snowbank; and Mr. Dahl, who keeps a 1943 calendar girl smiling above his workbench, reminding him of his youthful wife.
Yet Keillor has turned his considerable talents toward deeper themes. Thematically, he has drawn on the rich literary traditions of O.E. Rölvaag, Vilhelm Moberg, and other chroniclers of the Scandinavian migration to the upper Midwest. He has also joined in the popular revival of romantic agrarianism, evidenced in films such as Country and The River. Old Southern Agrarians such as Andrew Lytic and Richard Weaver would recognize a co-celebrant in Keillor’s portrayal of the rural pieties. So would Wendell Berry, the contemporary novelist whose writing in defense of agrarian culture is marred only by a preference for unimaginative policy responses. Further to the left, Keillor resonates with the bioregional movement, small bands of radical ecologists seeking to transform themselves into “new natives” of rural America.
At this deeper level, too, the great irony of A Prairie Home Companion and Lake Wobegon Days emerges: the radio show, the host and author, and his essays and books celebrate the small town, rural values, and folk culture. Yet their primary audience is not found in villages, on farms, or among the agrarian and laboring classes. Rather, it is professors of English, stockbrokers, artists, corporate lawyers, and inhabitants of San Francisco and New York that worship at the Lake Wobegon altar. Where the historic models for Keillor’s show, the old National Barn Dance and the Grand Ole Opry, had authentic bonds to the rural culture they evoked, A Prairie Home Companion is a show for intellectuals and the upper-middle class.
More than a kind of rural slumming lies behind this peculiar fact. Keillor is smart enough to play upon the deep split in the modern American soul: the schizophrenia over the small-town America that remains, despite a century of urbanization, the dominant metaphor of the national experience.
Keillor praises the small town, the place where immigrants came “to maintain their honest rural way of life.” He notes that when the Thanatopsis Club held its centennial in 1982 and wrote the White House for a Presidential essay on small-town life, it received back a letter extolling Lake Wobegon as a model of free enterprise and individualism. But the truth is, writes Keillor, that “Lake Wobegon survives to the extent that it does on a form of voluntary socialism. . . . You need a toaster, you buy it at Co-op Hardware even though you can get a deluxe model . . . for less money at K-Mart in St. Cloud. You buy it at Co-op because you know Otto.” The small town rests on the principle of loyalty, and a renunciation of individualism, excessive material goods, and the competitive edge. In this town “smart doesn’t count for much,” and the clearly superior soprano in the Lutheran choir takes care not to sing too loudly: being good enough, but not too good, is what really matters.
Lake Wobegon is also a locale where one plants trees, works hard, marries, produces children, and is content with having little more. It is a way-of-life that binds the individual into a community of shared experience and common obligation, making every action social in nature because it has clear reverberations throughout the town. It is a human construct requiring successive generations to live out the same life patterns, so that a youth’s visit to the warming house at the ice rink brings the shocking revelation that the inscriptions on the walls were put there by his parents and grandparents, once young and lovestruck just like himself.
Threatening this world is the cosmopolitan life and infectious individualism of the metropolis. Keillor describes a Lake Wobegon father who avoided driving through the Twin Cities, planning trips “like he was crossing enemy lines, skirting the main forces, looking for the gaps to break through into open country.” In an autobiographical section, Keillor relates his own early months at the University of Minnesota, accompanied by his dog from home: “My old black mutt reminded me of a whole string of allegiances and loyalties, which school seemed to be trying to jiggle me free of. My humanities instructor, who sounded to be from someplace east of East, had a talent for saying ‘Minnesota’ as if it were ‘moose turds.'” Frequent references are made in the book to the corrosive impact on Lake Wobegon of the modern liberal church, offering a religion where “God is the gentle mist rising from the meadow and the smile on a child’s face.” Similarly, the “dull rapture” of television is shown dissolving family bonds. Keillor describes the Kreugers watching the Perry Como Christmas Special, sipping martinis: “A dismal scene compared to church, people leaning forward to catch the words coming from their children’s mouths, their own flesh and blood, once babes in arms, now speaking the Gospel.”
Yet Keillor also denigrates the small town. Central to the book is a 23-page footnote, purportedly the remnants of “95 Theses” penned in 1980 by an unnamed exile from Lake Wobegon. Behind an element of satire lies deep criticism, even bitterness. The “author” blasts town folk who taught him to worship a God who is like them, to “feel shame and disgust about my own body,” and to hold “an indecent fear of sexuality.” He blasts the religious intolerance of family and friends who took pride “in the great privilege of having been born Lutheran.” The writer decries male role models such as the members of the Sons of Knute and the Booster Club whose “petulence, inertia, and ineptitude are legendary.” He condemns the town for its devotion to hard work as a guard against corruption, and its preference for suffering over pleasure (“Birth control was never an issue with us. Nor was renunciation of pleasures of the flesh. We never enjoyed them in the first place”).
The author notes with contempt that “you taught me not to be ‘unusual’ for fear of what the neighbors would say.” The inhabitants of Lake Wobegon, he laments, had a set view of the Universe and “knew what everything and everybody was,” whether they had seen them or not. Indians were drunks, Jews were thieves, the colored were shiftless, and so on. Such small-town folk were unaware of the “deprivation and injustice in the world.” They clung to the pre-welfare state belief that whatever happens to people is the latters’ own fault and that if suffering people had been more like Lake Wobegonians, “they would have been all right.”
In the end, the author of the 95 Theses lies awash in alienation and self-hatred. He has grown to detest neat-looking people like himself, people who appear industrious and respectable. He sneers at them as middle-class. In elections, he votes automatically against Scandinavian names. Instead, he has become a “sensitive person” and has thrown his lot in with the renovators of Victorian houses, the singer-songwriters, the runners, the connoisseurs of northern Bengali cuisine. Nonetheless, the result is misery: “I don’t really see anybody.”
Keillor records: “Most of Lake Wobegon’s children leave, as I did, to realize themselves as finer persons than they were allowed to be at home.” Haunting the teenage boy in Lake Wobegon Days are the Flambeaus, a fictional family of detectives who lived in a Manhattan apartment and did what they felt like doing, when they felt like doing it. “There is no noon siren in Manhattan when everyone has to sit down immediately and eat a hot beef sandwich, no six o’clock siren when you dig into a tuna casserole made with cream of mushroom soup.” Instead, young Tony Flambeau sipped wine with his parents and called them by their first names. Why couldn’t his family be more like the Flambeaus? the barely disguised Keillor asks.
As moderns, the youth of Lake Wobegon rebel against the closed community, the Gemeinschaft, which tried to govern their every public act and prejudice. The security and senses of meaning and place which the American small town delivered demanded too great a price from them.
In his private life, Keillor exemplifies these legions of emigres. The autobiographical Keillor was in early conflict with the small-town ethos. “Two years a scout and I still hadn’t made Tenderfoot.” As the Scoutmaster lectured his disobedient charges on the dishonor they brought the uniform, Keillor acknowledges that it “made no sense to me. What honor?” From an early age, he was “the writer” who lived events deeply. As an adult, his household could hardly have been modeled on the Lake Wobegon virtues. Like the majority of his listeners, Keillor evokes the small town for two hours each week, yet himself lives as a deracinated urban man. Indeed, during a show broadcast from San Francisco several years ago, he made a point of reassuring his auditorium audience that the values of Lake Wobegon were timeworn, often cruel, obsolete.
Perhaps Lake Wobegon Days and A Prairie Home Companion ought to be seen as religious exercises, a kind of First Church of Nostalgia. As one of his characters puts it: “The whole town is like . . . a cult.” The radio show, too, has the structure and cadence of a Lutheran church service: the first hour devoted to a liturgy of music and short readings; the second hour encompassing Keillor’s monologue sermon, followed by a hymn or two and benediction. Even the timing is instructive; Saturday evenings, 5 to 7 p.m., so that worship need not interfere with other plans for the night. As Keillor notes, it is the ones lured away by the pleasures of modernity “who can afford to be nostalgic,” Lake Wobegon is the lost American Eden, the community abandoned in the pursuit of other forms of happiness.
In the library at Lake Wobegon High is still to be found a globe, the gift of the Class of 1917, representing “a world that no longer existed.” Small-town America, the Norman Rockwell vision, seems similarly fated. “You know,” says Elmer, one of the Sons of Knute, “I don’t think nothing is ever going to be what it was ever again. We’ve about seen the last of it. I’m getting too damn old.”
During the 1970’s the Census Bureau told us that, in a trend unseen since the Great Depression, there was a migration of Americans back to the small towns and farms. The old world seemed to be in the process of restoration. Data from the 1980’s, though, suggests that that return is over, that the flow of people is once again toward the suburbs and cities. Torn asunder by the rapid collapse of the rural economy, the authentic Lake Wobegons dotting the upper Midwest are becoming the new American ghost towns.
The small town as reality is dying; it lives on as myth, and ideology.
[Lake Wobegon Days, by Garrison Keillor (New York: Viking Press) 352 pp., $16.00]