by Jon K. Lauck
In the first paragraph on the first page of his first book, in the wind-up for a tale about a private eye (not Guy Noir) who shakes down tycoons for grant money to bestow upon artists, Garrison Keillor alludes to what would be his central significance to American letters. His hero, the grizzled sleuth Jack Schmidt, is returning to Minneapolis after “two days attending a conference on Midwestern regionalism.” The story is sly and meandering and funny and typifies Keillor and his 40 years of story-writing and story-telling and there, prominently on display in the opening scene of his first book, is the key to Keillor’s place in American culture: Midwestern regionalism. It’s a dying art form and, with Keillor’s contemplation of retirement, its final passing may be imminent. (Keillor announced he was retiring in 2013, but later changed his mind.)
The rootedness of the old American Midwest where he grew up is the most compelling element of Keillor’s work and this mastery of setting is the crucial ingredient in effective regionalist art, history, and writing.Keillor is versatile and the products of his collected labors are vast—he ranges from contemplations of love and aging to the perils of introversion to light theology to music to relationship advice to sonnets to fart jokes—but what made him is what was once known as regionalism, or the capacity to unearth the primal qualities of a particular American place and render them to the world. Keillor’s expertise comes naturally from his deep Minnesota roots. Keillor was born and raised in Anoka and on the outer Northern fringes of Minneapolis and his mythical Lake Wobegon is located in central Minnesota, somewhere near Brainerd. Keillor’s hardscrabble Scottish ancestors (Scotland, he says, is “where broken-heartedness is a way of life”) migrated from Yorkshire to Canada in the 1770s and then on to Minnesota in 1880. His father left the family farm at age 23 to work for the Railway Mail Service sorting mail in railcars as they passed between St. Paul and Jamestown, North Dakota. Keillor got to know, in other words, the old Minnesota, a place preceding the ravages of mass culture. During a recent interview on a sunny September day on the deck outside his office near the Mississippi River in St. Paul, Keillor recalled that “I went to high school in a town where my grandfather had arrived 80 years before and so you felt that your root was deep.”
The rootedness of the old American Midwest where he grew up is the most compelling element of Keillor’s work and this mastery of setting is the crucial ingredient in effective regionalist art, history, and writing. He fixates, as Midwesterners do, on the turning of the seasons—the bracing for winter, the collective exhale of spring, the punch of summer storms, the kaleidoscopic brilliance of fall. He knows the flowers, the trees, the lakes, the swimming holes. He knows the fauna—loons, raccoons, mosquitoes, hawks, walleye, coyotes, and ticks (nine months after tick season and the ritual full-body “tick checks” always brings a slight baby boom in Lake Wobegon). He knows the towns of his Midwest which generally elude the national headlines—Little Falls, Fergus Falls, Sioux Falls, Sioux City, Mason City, Minot, Duluth, Decorah, St. Cloud, Council Bluffs, Brookings, Worthington.
The twin dimensions of regionalism are spatial and historical, or the ability to explain the contours of physical space along with that space’s human and built history, which Keillor never slights (he often begins his radio road show with a deep physical description of where he is and follows with a review of the historical maturation of that place). He likes to tell stories about who settled in a particular locale and what they did. For Minnesota, that often means the big influx of Scandinavians in the nineteenth century who became farmers and founded little towns and built churches and launched the basic institutions and monuments of social life such as, in Keillor’s imagination, the Sons of Knute Lodge and the Statue of the Unknown Norwegian built by early settlers. The moniker for Keillor’s radio show “Prairie Home Companion” was borrowed from the place of rest for these old settlers—“Prairie Home Cemetery” near Moorhead, Minnesota.
Keillor conveys the essential wisdom and strength of civility in this world but also, as an artist, sees its limitations for creative spirits, a tension often reprised in his stories.Alongside physical space and its peopled history, good regionalism portrays a place’s social rhythms, mores, and customs, which is a complicated matter for modern social science but something more easily grasped for a gifted story-telling regionalist like Keillor. The arduousness of Minnesota farming carries with it an adversity to risk and an avoidance of wild gambles with one’s precarious livelihood and necessitates a dedication to work and thrift. “Success sits uneasily on a farmer,” Keillor once said. For a farmer a good harvest “means merely to postpone chaos and disaster” and remaining one step ahead of the posse. Small town life fosters neighborliness and politeness—the local Lutheran rock band “Fortress” in Lake Wobegon is famous for leaving hotel rooms cleaner than they found them. Minnesota fishing brings patience and calm—a great sin in Lake Wobegon is bumping around in the boat and scaring off the walleye. Keillor conveys the essential wisdom and strength of civility in this world but also, as an artist, sees its limitations for creative spirits, a tension often reprised in his stories.
Regionalism also includes an us/them quality, or a view of what makes a place different from every other place. Keillor’s skills peak when he describes Minnesotans who visit San Jose or New York City and he draws out the cultural contrasts. Thrifty Wobegonians who recycle tin foil in his stories, for example, stand out against the profligacy of New York and Los Angeles. Wobegonians see overweening pride and the origins of corruption in big shots who don tasseled shoes. They don’t care for people who talk loud, especially about themselves. The narcissism of people who stand around at lawn parties and say witty things, Keillor often notes, doesn’t appeal to them.
The narcissism divide is one of Keillor’s favorite schticks. He often contrasts simplicity with heedless spectacle. He likes to deflate pomp and celebrity and pretention. He calls people to stop being self-centered jerks and to embrace kindly benevolence and do good work and stop whining. In his old Minnesota, children were raised to “Mind Your Manners, Be Useful, Pay Attention, Make Something of Yourself, Turn Down the Thermostat (If You’re Cold, Go Put on a Sweater), Share and Share Alike, Be Satisfied with What You Have.” Keillor echoes Willa Cather, who zinged “lazy youths who whine that the world owes them a living—a living with laurel and roses.”
Keillor often explores regionalist themes by telling stories of people who come and go from Lake Wobegon and by opining on the moral dimensions of this movement. In the story “My Cousin, Rose,” Keillor tells of a young and rebellious Wobegonian who runs off to San Francisco and joins the circus, becomes a lesbian, and moves to the mountains and nurses grudges against her decent parents back in Minnesota. In this story and others, Keillor flays those who live in constant rebellion against their parents and end up blindly rebelling against things that are good—being cheerful, avoiding self-pity, helping neighbors. He often counsels people to stop obsessing about imagined slights.
Despite the common assumption of Keillor’s generic Midwestern Lutheran background, his parents were actually Plymouth Brethren, a sect which broke away from the pomp of Anglicanism to embrace a minimalist plainness.Since Keillor has been enmeshed in the art world since the 1960s, his eye for its absurdities and the consonant bewilderment of rural Minnesotans is particularly sharp. Wobegonians feel bad for the local woman who left Minnesota and moved to California and ended up stuck in a relationship with a deadbeat artist whose forte is broken pots (he’s never sold one, or, rather, the pieces of one) and who owes his existence to the kindness of his girlfriend and her paycheck earned by working nights as a nurse (he ends up leaving her for a richer woman). Keillor lampoons interpretative dance, Chippewa junk sculpture, Anti-Dance Ensembles (who do not believe in “performance” and think “audience” is a “passive concept”), sculptures named Opresso, rock singers who bite into live chickens on stage, and improvisational theater (with actors “climbing naked through piles of tires waving flashlights and reciting numbers at random”). His private detective revolts against fundraising “so a bunch of sniveling wimps can try the patience of tiny audiences of their pals and moms with subsidized garbage that nobody in his right mind would pay Monopoly money to see” and is “tired of poets who dribble out little teensy poems in lower-case letters” and “painters who can’t even draw an outline of their own hand” and is “finished with the mumblers and stumblers who tell you that if you don’t understand them it’s your fault.” He teases men who abandon deer hunting and softball to start “painting delicate watercolors, still lifes mostly, and tossing salads” and who “make melon balls and whip up a great soufflé, converse easily about intimate matters, participate in recreational weeping” and decide to “be vulnerable.”
Keillor’s eye for regionalism is sharp in part because he understands rural religiousness and the centrality of the small town church to Midwestern social history and he sees how the church bulletin is part of the local literary canon. Despite the common assumption of Keillor’s generic Midwestern Lutheran background, his parents were actually Plymouth Brethren, a sect which broke away from the pomp of Anglicanism to embrace a minimalist plainness. Keillor is frustrated that outsiders only focus on what the Brethren banned (smoking, drinking, dancing, etc, but not radio, his medium of choice) and miss their greater social significance – the “tremendous affection and a kindness and generosity for other members of the group.” Keillor is an avowed political liberal, but sees liberalism’s anti-religious elements as tendentious and empty and prefers a liberalism of “middleness” and “ordinary decency” and an egalitarianism and anti-materialism grounded in his own ascetic faith.
Keillor’s regionalist vision once found much broader support in the Midwest. At the University of Minnesota, Keillor’s alma mater, several historians and literature professors once embraced the cause. The dean of the UM’s graduate school, Theodore Blegen, once carefully chronicled the history of Norwegian immigrants in Minnesota, wrote histories of the state, and issued manifestos—such as his book Grassroots History (1947)—which proclaimed the value of state and local history and denounced the narrow-mindedness of the coastal culture complex. The UM also ran a fellowship program for regional writers which often led to books published by the once regionally-oriented University of Minnesota Press. Across the state line at the University of Wisconsin, Frederick Jackson Turner, most famously, made the case for studying the Midwest and the University of Wisconsin Press, which was modeled on its counterpart in Minnesota, brought regionalist titles to print. Turner’s leadership led to the creation of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association, which was dedicated to studying the Midwest and publishing scholarly articles about the region in its journal the Mississippi Valley Historical Review.
Keillor points to World War II as the beginning of the end for a regionalism which once had some cultural currency. The war ushered in a “great wave of change” which transformed writing and the academy.But these energies are largely exhausted. The UM terminated its regional writing program in the 1950s. The Mississippi Valley Historical Association and the Mississippi Valley Historical Review were turned into national platforms in the 1960s. Academic journals which once focused on the Midwest—Upper Midwest History, Mid-America, Midwest Review, The Old Northwest, Western Illinois Regional Studies—have all died, leaving no forum for research on Midwestern history. University publishing houses which formerly focused on the region such as Iowa State University Press and the University of South Dakota Press have shuttered their windows and the University of Missouri Press barely survived the guillotine last year. Indiana University Press’s once impressive work on the Midwest has fizzled out. Ohio State University Press has stopped publishing historical works altogether. The Midwestern-focused Rural and Regional Studies Program at Southwest Minnesota State University died a few years ago. There is currently no annual conference which focuses on the history of the American Midwest. Nobody at the University of Minnesota teaches Midwestern history anymore.
Or consider the fate of The Minnesota Review. In 1960, some University of Minnesota professors founded the The Minnesota Review to create another place for good writing, including writing about the Midwest, and because they wanted to be a part of the “Northwestern literary renaissance” taking place in the upper Midwest and plains. The editorial advisor for The Minnesota Review was Allen Tate, the regionalist (albeit Southerner), from whom a young Garrison Keillor took classes. In the early years, The Minnesota Review published readable essays and stories and focused on Midwestern artists and writers and generally sought to embrace “seriousness and integrity” and avoid increasingly-fashionable attacks on the American middle class. But in the late 1960s, things got weird. The Minnesota Review started publishing semi-pornographic pieces and then, when its funding dried up, a writer in Manhattan took it over. Soon another professor took it over and transformed it into a journal of “Marxist Lit. Crit. which,” he recalled, “was very trendy at the time.” The old Minnesota Review with its interest in regionalist fare soon became the minnesota review, publishing Marxist tracts and bouncing around to different universities (yes, it opted for the lower-case lettering that annoys Keillor). It is now published in Virginia and its editors want nothing to do with regionalism or the Midwest. The University of Minnesota English department, which first launched The Minnesota Review, is now known for its embrace of radical and postmodern literary theory.
Keillor points to World War II as the beginning of the end for a regionalism which once had some cultural currency. The war ushered in a “great wave of change” which transformed writing and the academy. Regionalism came to be associated with isolationism, “a dreaded thing.” The final blow came with the 1960s generation. “Midwestern identity,” he says, “was stomped under foot by that generation.” Its “arrogance” and its “feeling that this is the generation that makes a departure from history and re-creates and saves the world” cut against regionalism. Midwesterners, also, didn’t fight very hard for their regionalism. They let other agendas and burgeoning academic subfields crowd them out. Keillor talks of how people in Lake Wobegon are “trapped in politeness” and “imprisoned by the golden rule” and have “lost the language of social rejection” so the “pushy people” in the world take over and run the show. That’s similar to the fate of Midwestern regionalism. When Keillor finally leaves the stage, the last embers of Midwestern regionalism may go cold.
Jon K. Lauck holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Iowa and a law degree from the University of Minnesota. His sixth book, The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History, was released in December 2013 by the University of Iowa Press.