Although critics are an important part of modern culture and usually cover the gambit of aspects and angles of any best seller, it is odd at how many were left out in the reviews of Keillor's book Lake Wobegon
Days. Although this database did allow for the record of what they did say, here shall suffice for a discussion on the elements heretofore neglected.
Left out of many discussions were important factors of this book. These included Keillor's pre-established radio personality, although completely at odds with his real life character, and how universal his story had become. Although having a name that s
old, Keillor's book did not need and will never need current events to sell.
Keillor had been airing his extremely popular Prairie Home Companion radio show for six years before Lake Wobegon Days was published. With over an estimated 2.2 million listeners, free advertising to all of these, and a marketability as an
already-popular figure, Keillor was sellable. Yet the critics never mention this as a possible sales booster, although they also had a hard time separating the two entities. People Weekly wrote, "For those who listen to ?A Prairie Home Companion'
on American Public Radio, this book will be a feast," (Geeslin, 19). For the 2.2 million who did listen it was and they bought it. Yet while acknowledging Keillor's reputation, the critics used it to sell the book to readers as well, not stopping to th
ink that the show perhaps had unduly influenced their take on the book. David Lehrman of Newsweek wrote, "Keillor's prose is every bit as exhilarating as his on-the-air improvisations," (Lehrman, 92). The two come hand in hand. His radio person
ality, although hard to pinpoint its exact affect, no doubt had an influence. The critics themselves were caught unaware. What if Keillor had not been a radio celebrity? Would this book of uncohesive, unchronological vignettes have made it to the bests
Keillor's real life was also never mentioned by the critics. This was surprising since it is so at odds with his portrayed image as the narrator of the Lake Wobegon stories and his radio personality. A rich professional, divorced, with one son, a live-i
n-mate once, and who then married a Danish woman, leaving the United States for years to live in Denmark, and spending his free time writing at his desk in his huge house in Minnesota, Keillor hardly seems average. Yet he is celebrated for writing about
the typical small town family man and the common American life. Lehrman even writes of Keillor's book, "[O]ne story leads to another, and each is grounded in reverence for the eccentricities and sublime banalities of small-town life in the heart of Ameri
ca's heartland," (Lehrman, 92). Keillor shouldn't be the ultimate source on average American life, yet he is. Critics never told us, the reader, how we should reconcile this. Why?
It is because Keillor's reputation as this wholesome family man was established in the hearts and minds of American audiences long before Keillor's book ever came out. When we read his books or listen to his show, we do not hear the voice of Garrison Kei
llor the radio host and author, we hear the voice of Gary Keillor the skinny kid with glasses. Keillor makes himself into what he wants his audience to see. Even the critics are blindsided by how Keillor does this and no one mentions how bizarrely polar
this is from his true character. This dualism is a wonderful attestation to Keillor's ability to write, make his audience feel, and make his audience forget. His ability to do this should rank him with some of the most creative, ingenious writers.
Another aspect of Keillor's creative writing was his ability to make his story universal. Most critics did praise this, yet few ever mentioned what exact elements existed to make it feel as such. Since they seem obvious to delineate, it once again seeme
d a telling exclusion. Keillor's book is universal because it had something for everyone, young to old. It also takes shared fears of the human experience and treats them lightly, making the reader realize the irrationality of it yet not treating it fli
For the young, or the young in all of us, Keillor has a wonderful story of himself, Gary Keillor, as an elementary student participating in school sports. It is a scene as old as time: "After the popular ones got picked [by the captains], we stood in a
bunch looking down at the floor, waiting to see if our rating had changed. They took their sweet time choosing us, we had plenty of time to study our shoes. Mine were Keds, black, though white ones were more popular. Mother said that black wouldn't sho
w the dirt. She didn't know how the wrong shoes could mark a person and raise questions in other people's minds," (Keillor, 180-1). Keillor than lives out a fantasy where he finds out from his Mother the real reason for his black Keds: "'I have somethin
g to tell you, son.' she would say it. ?No! No!' ?Yes, I'm afraid its true.' ?So that's why--' ?Yes. I'm sorry I couldn't tell you before. I thought I should wait.' ?But I can't--' ?No, I'm afraid not. We just have to make the best of it.'" (Keill
or, 181). Not only does the humor of this scene appeal to many of us, but it is also the element of a shared experience which makes the reader chuckle in the "now-I-am-more-mature-than-that" way. Yet Keillor knows that we have all been hyper-conscious o
f the most minute difference in clothing or appearance which no one else seems to notice but becomes so important to us. Keillor found a fear we all had and makes us see how silly it was (or is) and makes us laugh about it.
He does this again with a scene regarding a grown, mature adult. Mrs. Mueller, a neighbor of Gary Keillor's prone to fear of the unknown, attends a church revival. Later she leaves her house to find that "[s]he couldn't hear a voice, not a car, not even
a dog bark. No footsteps on gravel, no screen door slapping...She waited for some other sound and heard nothing. Then it occurred to her that the Second Coming had taken place. Jesus had come during the night to take His loved ones to heaven...She alo
ne was left on earth to suffer," (Keillor, 329). Keillor enumerates a fear in the minds of all with a real poignancy, making us close to a character with the same vices as ourselves or someone we know. Yet he then changes the tone and make us laugh wit
h a new consciousness of the irony of the situation. "The back door of the rectory squeaked and Father Emil stepped out in his black short sleeve shirt...So he had been left behind, too. She wondered about Sister Francis. Were all the Sisters sitting i
n their kitchen eating Grape-Nuts, unaware of what had happened?" (Keillor, 330). If the Second Coming had occurred, would Jesus have left behind religious priests and nuns? Yet Mrs. Mueller cannot rid herself of the notion and had already allowed hers
elf to be taken over by fear and apprehension. Human beings in general have the tendency to act in such a manner.
Yet not all such stories end with laughter. One of the most touching scenes comes from Gary Keillor's adolescence. He attends church with his new girlfriends parents to meet them and get approval: "Her mother wept, her father who had given me stony look
s for hours bent down and put his face in his hands, her lovely self drew out a hanky and held it to her eyes--I wanted to cry right along with her and maybe slip my arms around her shoulders--and I couldn't. I took out my handkerchief, thinking it would
get me started, and blew my nose, but there was nothing there. I only cried later, after I walked her home...she turned to me and said ?I hate to tell you this but you are one of the coldest people I ever met.' I cried at home, in bed, in the dark," (
Keillor, 218). There is little humor in this scenario, yet it is poignant and real. It deals with the pain of growing up.
For one final example of how universal this story is, Keillor also deals with the pain of being grown up. The Sons of Knute (analogous to a modern day Moose Lodge) take their annual duck-hunting trip. After hours of drinking in the marshes, lovable bick
ering, and shooting nothing, the conversation turns to the precariousness of life: "It truly does seem like the end. Of these grizzled old comrades in their big jackets and brown ponchos, gray-haired veterans of so many hunts, good pals and true, the fi
nest men by God that you could ever hope to meet--who knows which ones will never see October?" (Keillor, 194).
With these touching stories that Keillor shares with us of life, is there any doubt as to why the book is popular? He not only presents us with humor, but our shared experiences and fears, the fears of all ages, are enumerated yet laughed at while not be
ing treated flippantly. The book gives the reader a sense of perspective that these stories are shared through time and that ones own travesties have probably been experienced somewhere by someone before you. Supreme Court Justice Blackmun, although not
a literary critic, put this phenomenon best when he says of Keillor's book, "Garrison reminded us that generations past are like generations present," (Kling, 10).
These examples and more are the reasons why Keillor's book will never need current events to sell. As the American public tries to hold on to their roots and reminisce about their childhood, as they try to escape the fears they have today, and as they ha
ppen to stumble upon Keillor's book on the bookshelves and open it up for a chuckle, Lake Wobegon Days will always be read by somebody somewhere. Although the critics missed Keillor's pre-established radio personality, which probably influenced in
itial sales but won't be necessary to sell the book in the future, and how it was completely at odds with his real life character, they were definitely drawn to something. That "something" is how universal the stories are and how they focus on shared hu
man experinces, not dated cultural events. And Keillor's book remained on the bestseller list for months. Not too shabby for a tall skinny kid with glasses from Ruraltown, Minnesota.
Geeslin, Campbell. "Lake Wobegon Days." People Weekly. Oct. 14, 1985. v24 p19.
Keillor, Garrison. Lake Wobegon Days. New York: Penguin, 1985.
Kling, William. "Farewell to Lake Wobegon." U.S. News & World Report. June 22, 1987. v102 p10.
Lehrman, David. "Before the Fall." Newsweek. Sept. 9, 1985. p92.