Sunday 18 February 2024

Lake Wobegon genius

We judge artists by their best work - or, at least, we do if we have the sense of new born kittens - since the worst stuff of even Shakespeare or Mozart is pretty worthless, just like anybody else. 

At at its peak, the Lake Wobegon stories read aloud by Garrison Keillor, are as good as any such things possibly could be; perfect little miracles of humour and sadness, laughter and tears. 

This best can be found on the - now almost unattainable, I'm sorry to say - 1989 BBC double audio-cassette Leaving Home. This is far superior to the first-released (more novelistic) collection "Lake Wobegon Days", and to most of Keillor's later and more discursive work. 

Like so many authors; Garrison Keillor never seemed to understand the nature of his gifts, which were essentially bardic ; and apparently he most wanted to be a writer of books more than a speaker, and a "proper" novelist more than an orator of twenty-minute stories. 

At any rate, the slender and time-limited best work has been pretty-well swamped by the rest. 

Thus as an oral teller of tales, Keillor is unsurpassed. But when he stepped away from the combination of his own voice and the short stories, he was largely unremarkable - not bad, but nothing special.  

The danger is therefore that Keillor will be judged on his average, or most-accessible, work; rather than his best. 

Another danger is that the best known (most quoted) thing about Lake Wobegon is the mediocre, pandering, ill-judged, opposite-of-valid sign-off line: "Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average". 

I cringe every time I hear that - but it constitutes early evidence of Keillor's self-destructive tendencies. 

For various tedious and irrelevant reasons that you can research for yourselves; it seems that Keillor's work has been suppressed and even purged; so I am glad to have retained some old cassettes (and an old machine that can play them). 

Meanwhile, you can get a taste of the good stuff here - not the very best of its kind, but still better than almost anyone else. 


Jeffrey Cantrell said...

I used to listen to “GK the DJ” (both the Prairie Home Companion and the Prairie Home Morning Show) on Minnesota Public Radio in the 70s and it was quite clever and fun. I stopped when it seemed as if he ceased being fun and creative and began to be more into portraying Garrison Kiellor. It can be a seductive side track to taking yours of too seriously where you lose that genuine as that gave rise to you in the first place.

PKHusby said...

I'd love to hear a little more about what makes the closing line "...all the children are above average" so irritating. I was an avid listener to the News from LW and some other skits such as the "Lives of the Cowboys" and "Guy Noir, Private Eye." I am sure I am missing a subtle meaning in the closing line.

Bruce Charlton said...

@PKH - It's embarrassing to need to explain! But let's just say that Lake Wobegon, as depicted, is that last place on earth where parents would all tend to assert that *their* child was above average, or where that would be said about the children by anybody, or where that kind of thing would even be the subject of conversation... So, what's the line there for?

It misleads. If anything, it conjures up a very different kind of place, very different from LW parents, different attitudes - maybe a different era.

It's a cheap laugh, a "pork pie" laugh that detracts from the whole.

Jacob Gittes said...

Wow - thanks for this.
Funny - the summer before last I had dinner with one of his old-time singers who was doing a show in my town here (which is also my hometown, to which I moved back to).
She told me that he (and she) were planning to "get back on the road."
Not sure if that happened. I haven't heard anything.
Garrison definitely let his politics and bitterness and cynicism intrude into his art and creativity as time went by. But his monologs could be just... enchanting. It was like he was channeling something. Like you said, an atavistic bard-gift. I may try to track down that cassette of yours.

Bruce Charlton said...


I'm mainly thankful for what Keillor Did do. But the contradictions between his warm heart and his bitter and resentful head, seem to have done-him-in - incrementally.

Keillor seems to have been most deeply appreciated by the kind of people he grew to despise; while those types he most wanted to be-admired-by, despised (and destroyed) him...

PKH said...

Many thanks for answering my question. I always understood the "above average" closing as being about the mildest form of bragging that a Scandinavian could muster even for his own children. Garrison was clearly part of the System and his stories, although wonderful, probably played into our consciousness to push eventual destruction.

Karl said...

Some time around 1996 I attended a performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion by the Minnesota Orchestra and Chorale. Among my fellow concertgoers in the lobby during the intermission (what you would call the interval), I recognized Garrison Keillor.

On the radio a few months later he reported on a choir practice at Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church at which they were getting ready to sing the St Matthew Passion. I had been enjoying his radio monologues for twenty years, but this was one sign among many that he was beginning to lose touch with rural life.