Jill Bishop, Univ.of Mn. ID #1758728
Place, Power and Culture
Lake Wobegon is the fictional place created by Garrison Keillor during his public radio broadcasts on "A Prairie Home Companion." Keillor's humorous stories have become immensely popular with millions of fans who love to read and hear about the small town in Minnesota where he supposedly grew up. There is no actual town called Lake Wobegon, but in the minds of Keillor's many fans it has become a real place, a "place [that] appears ...as a site of meaning [depicting the] dominant midwestern narrative, a regional myth that concerns itself primarily with satisfying images of hard work, solid values, and friendly folk who live in small towns."1 Keillor's fans, "the so-called baby boomers in general and the so-called yuppies in particular [who] have entered so willingly into [his] fantasy,"2 love his humorous mockery of Lake Wobegon; but in their laughing ridicule, beneath the facade of their sophistication, lies a belief that it is the old-fashioned lifestyle that is really what is right and good. They both embrace and reject the traditional, old-fashioned lifestyle that is seen in Lake Wobegon, and this inner conflict, shared by Keillor and his fans, is where Place, Power and Culture intersect.
Keillor creates Lake Wobegon as a distinct place with a real cast of characters by telling about Lake Wobegon from several points of view: in the radio monologues he recalls stories from supposed memories of his own childhood there, he reads letters from home (Lake Wobegon) from Barbara Ann Bunsen, and he tells the current news as it supposedly appears in the Lake Wobegon Herald-Star which gives "the events a zany realism while characterizing the Wobegonians as hopelessly provincial."3 The letters and newspaper describing events and activities in Lake Wobegon "establish the illusion that Lake Wobegon coexist[s] in real time with the real world (two weeks in Lake Wobegon corresponding to two weeks of radio shows)."4 Keillor's books, Lake Wobegon Days (1985) and Leaving Home (1987), are told in the first person as supposed memories of his childhood there. The radio broadcasts and the popular books have made Lake Wobegon a real place, the home of the Chatterbox Cafe, Art's Baits, the Statue of the Unknown Norwegian, the Bunsen family, and the Tolleruds -- all familiar and believable places and people to millions of Americans.
The regional character of a small rural town in Minnesota -- the values, the language, and the weather -- is captured in Keillor's stories about Lake Wobegon:
In his role as an announcer Keillor uses colloquial language such as "kinda, buncha, gotta, ya-know,"6 and his remarks about the heavy snow in the winter and the intense heat of the summer place Lake Wobegon distinctly in the upper Midwest, if not in Minnesota, where the weather is fierce in both extremes.
Placing Lake Wobegon in rural Minnesota, "Keillor brings into play all the tools of the regionalist: particular detail, sharply pronounced personality types, local manners, speech, folklore and history."8
Keillor has created the place of Lake Wobegon by "building layer upon layer of convincing detail. . . [He] evokes a sense of place by presenting a catalogue of objective detail, subjectively perceived."9 He uses visual, olfactory, and auditory senses to describe Lake Wobegon to listeners and readers. A car trip through rural Minnesota today will easily reproduce Keillor's picture of the piles of rocks in a field. "Lake Wobegon is mostly poor soil, and every spring the earth heaves up a new crop of rocks. Piles of rock ten feet high in the corners of fields, picked by generations of us, monuments to our industry."10 The smells wafting through the streets of Lake Wobegon become real with his vivid description. "A breeze off the lake brings a sweet air of mud and rotting wood, a slight fishy smell, and picks up the sweetness of old grease, a sharp whiff of gasoline, fresh tires, spring dust, and, from across the street, the faint essence of tuna hotdish at the Chatterbox Cafe."11 A listener or reader can clearly hear the sounds and visualize Lake Wobegon on a quiet winter night:
Keillor was born in 1942, so his supposed childhood memories reflect midwestern small town life in the 1940s and 1950s. Like other timeless mythical places, Lake Wobegon has never changed in the thirty years from his childhood to adulthood. The characters who don't age or grow up are comforting to modern readers and listeners because they have come of age in the blindingly fast world of change. "Mythical place ...is timeless in the sense that it is not subject to the forces of change. This in turn makes it a comforting and reassuring place to be. It is subjective in the sense that it reflects the commonly held values and beliefs ...and it is real in the sense that it reflects the 'inner truth' of reality."13 Part of the appeal of the place is the triviality of conflicts there. These minor conflicts are viewed fondly by adults with more serious problems who like to imagine that a place still really exists where problems are insignificant in contrast to their present high-stress lives.
Lake Wobegon [is] a full-fledged. . .place legend, complete with the obligatory geographical landmarks and characterizing episodes, from Jack's Auto Repair and the Chatterbox Cafe to the time Roger Hedlund got the tractor stuck in the field or the day Gary Keillor threw a tomato at his sister.14
Because the characters are "representations of unchanging human nature, ...they are more or less exempt from the vicissitudes of time,"15 and this contributes to their appeal.
The final story in Lake Wobegon Days is about a man who drives four miles to the Sidetrack Tap in a blizzard to get a pack of cigarettes. The passage begins not with the man's name, like other stories in the book, but with: "Somewhere a man gets into a Buick in a blizzard..."16 Seeing the character as a nameless person, the reader is more likely to see him or herself in the anonymous 'this man' than in other passages.
It's quiet in town, but a mile south of there, the wind comes up and suddenly he can't see anything. He is damp with sweat. He can't see the ditches, can't see the hood ornament. He drives slower, staring ahead for the slightest clues of road, until there is none--no sky, no horizon, only dazzling white--so he opens his door and leans out and looks for tire tracks; hanging from the steering wheel, leaning way down, his face a couple feet from the ground, hoping that nobody is driving toward him doing likewise. . . He's about a quarter mile from home. The cigarettes, however, must be sitting on Wally's counter. They certainly aren't in the car. A pretty dumb trip. Town was a long way to go in a blizzard for the pleasure of coming back home. He could have driven his car straight to the ditch and saved everyone the worry. But what a lucky man. Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have, which once you have it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known. He takes deep breaths and the cold air goes to his brain and makes him more sensible. He starts out on the short walk to the house where people love him and will be happy to see his face.17
This passage illustrates several aspects of the nature of Lake Wobegon. The description of the harsh weather demonstrates the hardy self-sufficiency of those who can survive in it, and the setting is assuredly rural if the man has to travel four miles to get a packof cigarettes. It mocks the foolishness of the man in several ways: for starting out in severe weather just for cigarettes, for forgetting them there, and for following his own tire track which leads him into the ditch. And it establishes the value of the treasure he finally realizes he has in his home and loving family. Keillor mixes his criticism of the man's foolish actions with admiration for his final sensible realization that everything that is worthwhile is right there at home waiting for him. Keillor himself has left and moved to St. Paul where he writes and talks about Lake Wobegon, but the traditional, old-fashioned people still there like it there and rarely leave. This homing instinct in rural folk is different for Keillor and his audience who live in the mobile, modern society.
Keillor shares homing traits with Jim Loney, a character in a Native American novel who is torn between the white world and the tribal pull toward home as described by William Bevis. Loney has "vague yearnings for family, past, and place..."18 His white girlfriend, Rhea, encourages him to join her in "the white way of novelty, mobility, and meaning through individual experience and possession of things."19 The two cultures pulling at Loney are the white world and tribal culture. Keillor is pulled between the simple, old-fashioned lifestyle in Lake Wobegon and the modern, sophisticated lifestyle that he actually lives in St. Paul. Keillor's audience also feels the pull of Lake Wobegon from their own non-rural places.
When Keillor relates Lake Wobegon stories as though they are really part of his past but also exist in the realtime present, the past and the present intersect because Lake Wobegon is "the town that time forgot." It doesn't change, nor do the basic values that are part of our American heritage, values that have been lost or profoundly altered in the modern world and are part of all of us. Many members of the yuppie, baby-boomer audience were raised in the suburbs, a type of living that didn't exist prior to WWII. There they experienced the standardization of houses and people so unlike the rich differences in the eccentric characters in Lake Wobegon. But when they hear the stories about life in Lake Wobegon, "this vision of the Midwest and small town life ...reinforces the cohesiveness of this vision for those who see their roots reflected in it..."20 and reminds them of a way of life that is part of their past, and they feel a "sense of shared but created culture."21
Lake Wobegon coincides with our images of the good old days when life was simpler and less stressful. Many middle-aged yuppie boomers such as myself can attribute some of our image of the virtues of small town life to recollections of grandparents. The lifestyle in Lake Wobegon is familiar as a secondary experience, a painted picture of the good old days before the vision of the American Dream in suburbia entered our collective consciousness. During my childhood in a suburb of Chicago I heard many stories from my own grandmother about her idyllic life in the small town of Effingham, Illinois, about the patients of her husband, the town's doctor, and about life on Great-Uncle George's farm. My grandmother was no Carol Kennicott. Her memory of Effingham was akin to heaven, unlike her existence as a resident in our progressive suburban home. Many boomers raised in the suburbs had rural grandparents such as mine that transmitted their values to future yuppie grandchildren. My Grandma's stories about rural life, about home births and outdoor toilets, were not nearly as funny as Keillor's stories about Lake Wobegon, but they shared much of the same spirit of the virtue of rural living without the undercurrent of mockery. Other sources of the boomers' vision of the ideal, tranquil life in small town America come from TV, such as "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Mayberry, RFD," which, together with stories from older relatives, movies, and literature, contribute to the familiarity of Lake Wobegon as a real, believable place, located in rural Minnesota.
Keillor used the two genres of radio and written narrative to create the mythical place of Lake Wobegon. Another major genre that defines American culture by creating mythical place is the television sitcom. Lake Wobegon offers a strong contrast to the place created in Norman Lear's popular series All in the Family (1971-1979) about a working-class family in New York, another classic portrait of American life. Besides the dissimilarities of its geographical placement, Lake Wobegon is devoid of the intense battles seen in the Bunker household. During Keillor's major popularity during the 1970s and 1980s, the fictional place of Lake Wobegon in "Minnesota could represent the landscape of contentment."22
The traditional, old-fashioned people in Lake Wobegon don't believe in modern conveniences, especially those just for physical comfort. They are hardy folk and believe that such foolishness is corrupting. Keillor tells of his dad's thinking:
Air-conditioning is for the weak and indolent. This isn't the Ritz, you know. Be thankful for a little breeze. It was luxuries like A/C that brought down the Roman Empire. With A/C, their windows were shut, they couldn't hear the barbarians coming. Decadence: we're on the verge of it, one wrong move and k-shoom! the fat man sits on your teeter-totter. You get A/C and the next day Mom leaves the house in a skin-tight dress, holding a cigarette and a glass of gin, walking an ocelot on a leash.23
According to the senior Mr. Keillor, there's no end to the depravity that A/C leads to: smoking, drinking, suggestive clothing. G. Keillor describes his memory of one citizen's extravagances:
...Some people dive right into decadence and make up for lost time, such as Wendell Tollerud who became a big noise in life insurance, has two cars (automatic with A/C), a one-acre ranch house (A/C, all the conveniences), membership in the Presbyterian church, and bought a lake home to get away in...24
Keillor's dad describes modern conveniences with warnings about what they can lead to, but his own description of the lifestyle of modern society is comparable to typical middle class existence in Minnesota, including a lake home. The contrast is especially pointed considering the timing of the peak of popularity of stories about Lake Wobegon which corresponds to the rampant materialism in American society in the 1980s. The scholar Charles Larson describes Keillor's portrayal of Lake Wobegon as:
...anything that is modern, labor saving, high-tech, or urbanized [is] portrayed as dangerous and family-threatening ...conjur[ing] up images ... of opulence and decadence. . . .Indulgence in modern distractions threatens to drain away the moral fiber of Midwesterners who have to be vigilant to withstand the rigors of an unforgiving climate and a jealous God.25
The people in Lake Wobegon cling to the values of their ancestors, old-fashioned values that are familiar to Keillor's audiences because they are part of their own roots.
Although the ethos and values of a small town are appealing to Keillor's fans, there is a dark side. During the evolution of the place called Lake Wobegon, Keillor often "portrayed Lake Wobegon as an ironic alternative to the romantic, sentimental image of small-town life..."26 that wasn't always such a compliment, and the conflicting presentation of Lake Wobegon strikes a confirming note with Keillor's audience. Even though it is a wonderful place, there are serious reasons why Keillor lives in St. Paul and most of his fans are also non-rural dwellers. All through the evolution of his creation of the place called Lake Wobegon the humorous stories were a mixture of admiration and mockery. Keillor's chiding of the country folk found agreement with his yuppie fans; the country ways were good for nostalgia, but the modern ways were obviously superior.
In the chapter called "Post Office" in Leaving Home Keillor discusses the issue of lack of privacy in a small town:
I tried to catch [postmaster] Mr. Bauser's eye. I wanted to look him in the eye and silently ask him if he ever read my mail, and by the look in his eye, as I thought it, I'd know if he's guilty or not, the old son of a bitch. I wrote about 187 love letters a year ago, and if I thought the old snoop had steamed the flaps open, reading my words to that lovely woman--words I wrote to her, thinking only of her, far away, the beautiful her--should I have been thinking of him, old man with hair in his nose and little red eyes darting across the page, reading my mind, stealing my life...Each person knows how much privacy you need, and you can't accept less, not even in a small town.27
In this passage, the underlying bitterness toward the constrictions of living in a small town is very close to the surface, and criticism has gone past gentle mockery into straightforward antagonism. The other side of living in "a place where our faces and names are known, where we are respected and loved, ...and where people who do indeed watch us and know what we are about also look after our general welfare..."28 is the problematic loss of privacy. Rarely does Keillor refer to his characters with such harsh words as "son of a bitch," but Keillor's fears of his love letters being read by the postmaster go beyond an invasion of privacy into "stealing my life..." an unacceptable situation "even in a small town" where a general loss of privacy is expected and has the accompanying benefit of others looking after your general welfare.
Keillor communicates the intersection of contrasting cultures, the traditional and modern, in humorous, appealing stories. Because modern citizens both cherish and scorn the traditional values, that contradiction accounts for Lake Wobegon's tremendous popularity with fans who also feel the pull in both directions. In the chapter "Goodbye to the Lake," the closing chapter in LH, the old Norwegian bachelor farmer Byron Tollefson grumbles, expressing his contempt for the artificiality of modern life: "It's getting to be like everything else. You got decaffeinated coffee, soda pop with no sugar, pretty soon we'll have chemical sweet corn...You wait and see. It's coming."29 So the scorn for the "other" lifestyle goes both ways.
Even though Lake Wobegon's "tradition of 'plain living and high thinking' may no longer serve as 'a dominant standard of behavior,' [it] has persisted both as an 'attainable ideal on an individual basis and as a sustaining myth of national purpose.'"30 Keillor obviously values the way of life in Lake Wobegon, yet he is ambivalent about it. He cherishes the beauty, simplicity, and virtue there, but he mocks it too and chooses to live in the modern world, visiting the Place only in his narratives, written and spoken. His inner battle, which he shares with his fans, is about the superiority of a modern way of life over the traditional. "Implicit in the [Keillor's] description of his home town is a way of thinking, an inherent sense of inferiority that many have used to characterize small-town America."31 Keillor and his audience, like Wendell Tollerud, the "big noise in life insurance," live the modern lifestyle in contrast to the simple life found in Lake Wobegon. They enjoy the trappings of modern living, and so they live in cities, not in places like Lake Wobegon.
Garrison Keillor illustrates the intersection of Place, Power, and Culture in his humorous stories about Lake Wobegon that have created a realistic place in the consciousness of his listeners and readers. It's a comforting place where the audience "in their increasingly fragmented experience . . .in a shifting and changing society"32 can get back to their roots in mythical, changeless Lake Wobegon. The lifestyle there is what they basically believe to be right and good, valuing what is really important in life. But there is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction in the stories where a contact zone of conflict exists in the hearts and minds of Keillor and his fans. In the contrast between the different lifestyles, Keillor uses his power as the storyteller to satirize the simpler lifestyle, mocking those less educated, sophisticated, and modern than he is. Even though Lake Wobegon is a place where hardy people who can survive the challenging weather are essentially content, in touch with their roots, and surrounded by loving family and caring community, it is also a boring, hopelessly provincial place where the citizens are foolish, resistent to basic modern conveniences (such as A/C), disrespectful of personal privacy, and they work too hard. Keillor's conflicting depiction of the idyllic, old-fashioned place in Lake Wobegon coincides with his fans' view of small town life in America, and it is very unlike the modern, sophisticated lifestyle they are actually living. The mockery of the place and the people living there reveals their rejection of the values of their cultural heritage, the material restraint, hard work, and simple pleasures. Unable to resolve the inner turmoil this rejection causes, their only solution is to laugh.
1Kathleen R. Wallace, "Roots, Aren't They Supposed to Be Buried?": The Experience of Place in Midwestern Women's Autobiographies," eds. Wayne Franklin and Michael Steiner Mapping American Culture (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992) 169-170.
2Judith Yaross Lee, Garrison Keillor: A Voice of America (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991) 117.
5Charles U. Larson and Christine Oravec, "A Prairie Home Companion and the Fabrication of Community" Critical Studies in Mass Communication Sept 1987, 224.
7Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days (New York: Viking Press, 1985) 139-140.
8Stephen Wilbers, "Lake Wobegon: Mythical Place and the American Imagination" American Studies 30, no.1 Spring, 1989, 13.
18William Bevis, "Native American Novels: Homing In," Recovering the Word eds. Brian Swan and Arnold Krupat (Berkeley: 1987) 613.
27Garrison Keillor, Leaving Home (New York: Viking Press, 1987) 206.
28Michael Fedo, The Man from Lake Wobegon (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987) 193-194.
29Keillor, Leaving Home 243.
30Wilbers, 15, quoting David E. Shi, The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture (New York: Oxford Press, 1985) 49.
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