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Garrison Keillor is best known for his highly popular and critically acclaimed novel Lake Wobegon Days (1985), his humorous stories and essays (most of which first appeared in the New Yorker), and for his role as the creator and host of the weekly public radio program ”A Prairie Home Companion.”
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing up in Minnesota
Gary Edward Keillor was born on August 7, 1942, in Anoka, Minnesota, the third of six children of John Philip, a railway mail clerk and carpenter, and Grace Ruth Denham Keillor. Always a shy person, Keillor was an avaricious reader who was so obsessed with books that his mother frequently had to force him outside to play. Because of his withdrawn nature, his sharp sense of humor was essentially unknown to his classmates until he delivered a satire in front of his class about what the principal kept in his office records. Later, he submitted articles to his school paper under the name Garrison Edwards and began submitting his articles to the New Yorker. He attended college and graduate school at the University of Minnesota, where he continued to pursue his love for writing by working for the Ivory Tower, the student literary magazine. It was at this time that he began to get involved with radio, staff announcing for KUOM, the University of Minnesota station.
”A Prairie Home Companion”
After graduating, Keillor applied for jobs at New York-based magazines but was repeatedly turned down. He decided, then, to return to radio announcing; it was while working for KSJN in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he was to remain until 1987, that he first invented the mythical town of Lake Wobegon. Capitalizing on his childhood memories of life in a religious, small town in the Midwest, Keillor added characters and formed stories about this little burg, which later became the main feature of his popular program, ”A Prairie Home Companion.” The idea for the radio show, which ran from 1974 to 1987 on Minnesota Public Radio and National Public Radio, was sparked by Keillor’s fondness for the ”Grand Ole Opry” broadcasts of the 1930s and 1940s.
His program was a combination of music and storytelling broadcasted from the World Theater in St. Paul. For music, Keillor supplied his audiences with folk, blue-grass, gospel, choral, yodeling, and other traditional forms. The storytelling part of the show was provided by Keillor, who had to overcome his stage fright in order to perform. He disguised his fear well, treating his listeners week after week to the latest news from Lake Wobegon, ”where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average,” as he always concluded. The program was also punctuated by commercials for such renowned Lake Wobegonian establishments as Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery and the Chatterbox Cafe, as well as products like Powdermilk Biscuits, which are ”made from whole wheat raised by Norwegian bachelor farmers in the rich bottomlands of the Wobegon Valley, so you know they’re not only good, they’re also pure mostly.”
Although the ”Prairie Home Companion” attracted an audience sometimes estimated at four million people and won the Peabody award in 1980, Keillor eventually decided to leave the show and move to Denmark to marry his former classmate Ulla Skaerved. He remained there only three months, however, before moving back to the United States and taking up residence in New York City. There, he continued to write articles for the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly and also wrote several books relating tales about his now-familiar Lake Wobegon residents. After a two-year absence from radio, Keillor decided to return to the U.S. airwaves with a program similar in format to ”A Prairie Home Companion,” Garrison Keillor’s American Radio Company of the Air. In 1993 the show returned to the World Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota, and changed its name back to ”A Prairie Home Companion.”
Career as a Fiction Writer
In addition to writing articles and radio scripts, Keillor has authored books for both adults and children. After publishing the highly successful novel Lake Wobegon Days (1985), he continued the Lake Wobegon series with two story collections, Leaving Home (1987) and We Are Still Married: Stories and Letters (1989), which first appeared on the New York Times bestseller list on April 16, 1989, and remained on the list for more than seven weeks. Keillor returned to the world of novel writing with the release of WLT: A Radio Romance (1991). The book is about Ray and Roy Soderbjerg, two brothers who establish a radio station during the glory days of radio in 1926. They bumble through their new enterprise, booking acts small and smaller as they explore the frontier of radio broadcasting. Keillor’s next work was a book of short stories and vignettes called The Book of Guys (1993). A comic spin-off of the work of Robert Bly, the poet who wrote best-selling works about male bonding in the wilderness, The Book of Guys tracks the struggles of manhood as experienced by such diverse protagonists as Dionysus and Buddy the Leper.
Keillor’s two books for children, Cat, You Better Come Home (1995) and The Old Man Who Loved Cheese (1999), feature Keillor’s trademark sense of the absurd. In Cat, You Better Come Home, Keillor fictionalizes the life of a feline who wants more than she gets in her own house, so she runs away to a life of show business, only to return broken down to the man who loves her. The Old Man Who Loved Cheese features Wallace P. Flynn, a man whose love for the dairy product causes him to lose his wife and his family. However, after he realizes that the joys of human companionship are much more satisfying than his favorite food, he gives it up and his life is restored.
Keillor returned to the Lake Wobegon series with Wobegon Boy (1997), a tale of a young man who escapes his town of Lake Wobegon to go to upstate New York and experiences a series of amusing events. Since Wobegon Boy, Keillor has added three books to the Lake Wobegon series: Lake Wobegon Summer 1956 (2001), Pontoon: A Novel of Lake Wobegon (2007), and Liberty: A Novel of Lake Wobegon (2008).
Works in Literary Context
Drawing from his childhood memories ofgrowing up in a small town, Keillor’s work paints a humorous but endearing portrait of life in the Midwestern United States.
Satire of the Midwest
Lake Wobegon Days evolved from ”News from Lake Wobegon,” a segment of ”A Prairie Home Companion,” which Keillor always introduces with the words ”It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my hometown.” Like the town depicted in Keillor’s radio monologues, Lake Wobegon Days is inhabited by a variety of characters, including Mayor Clint Bunsen and Father Emil of the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility, who are described in a fond yet frequently sarcastic tone. The book is presided over by a persona who sometimes rebels against the strict conventions of the predominantly Scandinavian Lutheran Wobegonians but retains an affectionate respect for them. Many critics place Keillor’s satire and droll observations in the tradition of such prominent American humorists as Mark Twain, Robert Benchley, and particularly James Thurber, whose works, like Lake Wobegon Days, provide a humorous yet incisive portrait of Midwestern American life.
Works in Critical Context
Following its debut in 1974, ”A Prairie Home Companion” gradually attracted a small but devoted local audience, and in 1980 it was syndicated nationwide. The program received the George Foster Peabody Award for Broadcasting in 1981. With the publication of Lake Wobegon Days, Keillor’s reputation as a first-rate storyteller and humorist became firmly established.
“A Prairie Home Companion”
Keillor’s audience originally came from his live radio performances. Roy Blount Jr., writing in the New York Times Book Review about ”A Prairie Home Companion, states that it was ”impossible to describe. Everyone I have met who has heard it has either been dumbfounded by it, or addicted to it, or both.” ”The same is true of Keillor’s prose,” Blount continues, referring to a series of pieces written for the New Yorker and collected in Happy to Be Here: Stories and Comic Pieces(1982).
Lake Wobegon Days
In 1985 the publication of Lake Wobegon Days brought Keillor s small town to national prominence. Beginning with the first explorations of the French traders in the eighteenth century, Keillor goes on to describe the town s history up to the present day. But Lake Wobegon is, according to Mary T. Schmich in the Chicago Tribune, ”a town that lies not on any map but somewhere along the border of his imagination and his memory.” Lake Wobegon, in Keillor’s stories, becomes a sort of American Everytown, ”the ideal American place to come from,” writes Peter A. Scholl. He continues:
One of the attributes of home in Keillor’s work is evanescence… .Dozens of his stories concern flight from Lake Wobegon, and the title of his radio show gains ironic force with the realization that it was adapted from the Prairie Home Lutheran cemetery in Moorhead, Minnesota; we are permanently at home only when we are gone.
- Fedo, Michael W. The Man from Lake Wobegon. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987.
- Lee, Judith Tayoss. Garrison Keillor: A Voice of America. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991.
- Scholl, Peter A. Garrison Keillor. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993.
- A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor. Retrieved October 25, 2008, from http:// prairiehome.publicradio.org. Last updated on October 25, 2008.
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