An Evening with Garrison Keillor in Exile
Cancellation has left the Midwestern sage a free man.
Where do you go if you have been canceled? Among those who have been targeted with #MeToo accusations, some credible, others dubious, Woody Allen has gone to Paris to make his next movie, broadcaster Charlie Rose has retreated to his personal website to post new interviews, Harvey Weinstein is in prison—and, one evening in July, Garrison Keillor went to Newark, Ohio.
Newark sits only 40 miles east of Columbus, but it is as unlike the state capital as one could imagine. Columbus (population 905,000) is sprawling; Newark (49,000) is considerably less so. Columbus has pretensions to sophistication, including a professional ballet company and numerous art galleries; Newark is home to an Owens Corning factory. The political differences are predictable. Franklin County, where Columbus is located, preferred Biden over Trump 65 percent to 34 percent; Licking County preferred Trump over Biden 63 to 35.
Keillor was in Newark on that drizzly midsummer evening to offer a few hours of modest entertainment in the company of pianist Dan Chouinard and singer Prudence Johnson. Keillor, favorite son of Anoka, Minnesota, has in his long career been a novelist, columnist, host of the classic radio show A Prairie Home Companion, creator of the equally beloved radio segment The Writer’s Almanac, and, most memorably, was fabulist-in-chief of the fictional Midwestern town Lake Wobegon.
Perhaps Newark would always have been on Keillor’s summer-2022-tour itinerary. Maybe Keillor was charmed by the 94-year-old Midland Theatre’s musty aroma and green plush seating. Or maybe Newark is the sort of place you go when the cancelers come for you.
So why did they come for Keillor? In November 2017, longtime Prairie Home Companion broadcaster Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) announced in a statement that it was “terminating its contracts” with Keillor due to “allegations of inappropriate behavior with an individual who worked with him.” Keillor had voluntarily relinquished the show a year earlier to make room for his successor, the unspectacular mandolin player Chris Thile. Unable to kick Keillor off a show from which he had already retired, MPR scrupulously ceased rebroadcasts of the earlier, Keillor-hosted episodes of A Prairie Home Companion—the only ones worth listening to—and terminated its distribution of The Writer’s Almanac.
In the early going, MPR was so coy about what Keillor was said to have done that it was left to the prairie sage himself to do most of the explaining. “I put my hand on a woman’s bare back,” Keillor said in a statement to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “I meant to pat her back after she told me about her unhappiness and her shirt was open and my hand went up it about six inches. She recoiled. I apologized. I sent her an email of apology later and she replied that she had forgiven me and not to think about it. We were friends. We continued to be friendly right up until her lawyer called.”
Reflecting on this episode in his 2020 memoir, That Time of Year, Keillor characterized his relationship with the woman in question, a longtime freelance researcher at MPR, as an “email flirtation.” “She wrote an email about wanting to ride a train with me and share a bunk; I wrote that I’d like to lie in a hammock with her.” Save for the hand-on-back incident, it was entirely nonphysical. “There was no kissing, no unbuttoning, because we weren’t attracted to each other, we were just two aging adults having an adolescent fantasy,” Keillor wrote.
In January 2018, in the immediate aftermath of the initial allegation, MPR News dug up other accusations from women who had worked with Keillor. A former worker on The Writer’s Almanac took umbrage at Keillor’s disparaging comments about the scripts she prepared (“He wanted to know if I was using some kind of ‘women’s calendar’ because there seemed to be too many women in this week’s Writer’s Almanac”). He disposed of work he deemed unsatisfactory by “crumpling up scripts in dramatic fashion to humiliate her.” When Keillor was tardy to recording sessions, the same female producer alleged a definite gender bias in his manner of apologizing: “Keillor would typically apologize to the men on the crew while ignoring the women.” In 1998, this woman lost her job, leading her to file a lawsuit against MPR that was “resolved before trial.”
According to another story, a woman who worked at a bookstore in St. Paul owned by Keillor reported being alarmed by “a sexually suggestive limerick” that Keillor had scrawled on a whiteboard in the store, which implied his attraction to “a beauty who goes to Macalester.” Macalester College was the school attended by another female worker at the bookstore, whose physical characteristics were presumably being alluded to. A little fresh, perhaps, but the limerick named no one, and since it was signed “GK,” the offending scribbler was certainly not attempting to conceal his identity to either his muse or his customers, suggesting it was not covert harassment but out-in-the-open zestfulness. In an irresistible detail, the bookstore staff was afraid of offending the boss by erasing the limerick so “temporarily covered it with books and a portrait of F. Scott Fitzgerald.”
Even if every allegation against Keillor was true, including MPR News’s assertion that the thrice-married Keillor engaged in “workplace relationships,” does it make our most plausible contemporary claimant to the legacy of James Thurber and Will Rogers a creep, or simply a temperamental writer-type who occasionally fell victim to his passions? In That Time of Year, Keillor sensibly defends the blurring of the personal and the professional that often takes place in workplace environments as not merely inevitable but as something that gives life a little spice—and sometimes something more. “To say that a mature woman cannot, freely and of her own will and for her own pleasure, flirt with whomever she wishes is to make her a child,” Keillor writes. “Over the years, there had been numerous romances at MPR, some of which wound up in marriage.”
By Keillor’s logic, to relinquish the possibility of a relationship with a colleague of the opposite sex is to foreclose both the immediate pleasure of flirting and the long-term happiness of a theoretical future together. Alas, this glum state of affairs seems unlikely to change anytime soon, Keillor implied in an interview this spring on CBS Sunday Morning. “You should not be friends with a female colleague—it’s dangerous,” said Keillor, given the risk such an act poses in our current culture of puritanism, safe spaces, and litigation.
The news is not all bad. Keillor eventually wrested back control of A Prairie Home Companion and The Writer’s Almanac, the latter of which continues to be produced for consumption on Keillor’s website. And he goes to places like Newark, where members of the sporadically masked, gray-haired audience gave no indication that they disapproved of the man whom they had spent money to hear talk, sing, and invent shaggy-dog nonsense about Lake Wobegon.
When Keillor took the stage, he charmed everyone right away by singing the song “Ohio'' from the musical Wonderful Town: “Why, oh, why, oh, why, oh / Why did I ever leave Ohio?” He kidded the locals about the sights. “It looks exactly like a town in Ohio should look,” Keillor said, with the “courthouse or a library—whatever it is” across the street from the theater. (It’s the Licking County Courthouse, which is festooned in Christmas lights every holiday season.) He said his wife was on vacation in Rome, but, utterly bored by the prospect of touring cathedrals, he begged off and came to see us instead. “You are so much better than going to Rome,” he said.
We need not guess where Keillor stands on the political issues of the day, as the author of the Bush-era political treatise Homegrown Democrat. He made one explicitly pro-mask comment as well as a reference to the Proud Boys woven into an otherwise-apolitical tale from Lake Wobegon. Yet there were also signs that Keillor is mildly, politely fed up. He recited numerous raunchy limericks and pushed back on the woke moment. He spoke of freak shows being renamed “curiosity museums,” joked about a Labrador Retriever that now identifies as a Cocker Spaniel, and ribbed young pastors for so eagerly speaking the language of “inclusivity and diversity”—not because he was opposed to such things, of course, but because the terms had become such tiresome, emptyheaded clichés.
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Keillor’s greatest statement on the current madness came not via fulminations but affirmations. During the intermission, Keillor cajoled the reticent Ohioans in attendance to stand up and belt out songs he felt everyone ought to know. He led the crowd in the National Anthem, noting at the start that, yes, Francis Scott Key was a slaveholder but, well, everyone sang it anyway. No one knelt. Everyone stood, too, for “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “How Great Thou Art.”
At the end of the show, after the news from Lake Wobegon had been exhausted, Keillor again brought the audience to their feet to sing “God Bless America.” At that moment, on that night, one wondered whether this is how our civic life could be restored: by acclimating ordinary folks of every political stripe to the old-time religion of communal singing, horse sense, and harmlessly lewd jokes. Imagine a Trump rally without the combustible, immoderate personality of Trump but instead the genial, loquacious man from Anoka.
By any definition of the term, Garrison Keillor remains canceled, but in Newark, he was still a vital, positive, healing force. Perhaps, as he headed off the stage, he realized how very much he meant the words to that song: “Why, oh, why, oh, why, oh / Why did I ever leave Ohio?”