Before Lake Wobegon was a mythical metonym of the midwestern heartland, it was lost.
Changing trains in Portland in the 1970s, Garrison Keillor left a briefcase containing the draft of a short story, “Lake Wobegon Memoir,” in a bathroom and in a frantic hour of searching could not recover it. As he struggled and failed to recreate the story, it loomed larger and more brilliant in his mind. Later that year he began the radio show A Prairie Home Companion he made it the home of his weekly monologue, “hoping that one Saturday night, standing on stage, I would look into the lights and my lost story would come down the beam and land in my head.”
Last Saturday Keillor hosted his final show. The original short story, I can only assume, never did reappear. Any writer can attest that words lost captivate more powerfully than words preserved. In decades of monologues and books, Lake Wobegon grew into a creation whose scope may have no equals in modern American literature. And, in a way, it became a cultural phenomenon.
The town and Keillor himself became identified with, even inseparable from, clichés about the upper Middle West. The avuncular narrator mused about the wholesome, decent, neighborly, easily-abased and passive-aggressive townsfolk who populated the Chatterbox Café, ate hot dish, went to church and generally made the best of it, whatever it happened to be, all set among folk-heavy musical numbers, radio dramas, hymns, light verse, and the occasional Civil War march, forms that were retro well before the show began its venerable run.
To plenty of listeners, fans and detractors alike, this sounded like nostalgia—a bucolic island of old genres and old mores in a swiftly moving sea. But at heart, the show and its ever-spreading web of monologues was sadder and sharper than its mild packaging. It was classic Americana, but dark Americana, a Robert Frost heart beating in a vaudeville body. It was about sex and disappointment and death, especially death, with the town’s folkways serving to frustrate or channel sentiments and impulses that could otherwise paralyze you with morbidity, especially if you happened to live on the edge of a prairie. It was elegiac about loves lost or never found, fond but mournful about those things that could only be retained in the half-light of a remembered summer. “Are you happy?” one spouse asks another. “Happy enough for the purpose,” the other spouse replies. Keillor once wrote that he got the name Prairie Home from a cemetery. The show’s charm and uplift, which were real enough, were seldom cheap or unshadowed.
The show’s appeal was strongest, it always seemed to me, among expatriates of the towns it memorialized. That is, among people who left. Keillor himself tried to leave, first ending the show altogether, then later resurrecting it under a different name. But if Lake Wobegon couldn’t be escaped, it could spread out, and that’s what the monologues did, following the town’s exiles as they went to Hawaii, or to California to join “the macrame synod of the Lutheran church.” And the wide world would sometimes pass through. A college basketball star comes home, demonstrating the game in high heels and a dress, and the town wonders how it produces such marvelous young people. A prince of Norway is ceremoniously served lutefisk, which he has never eaten, and discreetly spits it out—if you’ve had lutefisk you empathize—but for that instant the man raised on French cooking “knew what poverty tastes like.”
These stabs at universalizing the localism of the show were uneven, like everything else about the show unavoidably was. And Keillor’s politics could be smug and complacent–I say this as one who pretty much shares his politics–and his persona could become cranky (his late-period social media jokes were not his best). But radio, in its sheer ludicrous evanescence, always checked grandiosity and self-seriousness.
The medium, and its mortality, was the message. In his last show at St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater, Keillor imagined himself ushered unwillingly into a home for old radio personalities—a farm report reader, a story-time reader, the Lutheran Whisper Gospel Quartet—and the gag was that he’d forgotten all of them. But I have a memoir to write, he protests. “What’s the point? Nobody cares,” his guide tells him. And true to form, his last monologue was about the dead. Father Emil, long retired from Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility, turned out to have died behind Longstreet’s line at Gettysburg. Jack of Jack’s Auto Repair, not a fan of the show or of Father Emil, turned out to be waiting in the grave plot next to the one being reserved for the narrator.
I grew up with A Prairie Home Companion, and I love the show, but even I only entered its archive of Babel intermittently (almost all of the above citations are from memory; I could describe where I was when I heard them, but not when, and there is no index). When I went to see it live at Ravinia, north of Chicago, I had just that morning helped bury a friend and mentor, a child of South Dakota who had left a prominent legal career to become a Lutheran pastor. And the next week, I knew, we would be sending our foster daughter back to her family after two years. As I wandered in search of ice cream with two squirrelly children, Keillor talked about a baptism at Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church. The infant doesn’t cry, as you well might if someone were to try to make you a Lutheran. “It is a grave obligation to be a Lutheran, and to represent order and justice and kindness and the truth in this world.” At the end of the service, Pastor Liz exhorts the people, saying that there are things that won’t be said if you don’t say them (that one I was able to find in the archives, to fill in the imperfect fragments of memory).
As the book closes on Lake Wobegon, it’s unlikely that anything like it will be attempted again. But, as Keillor’s own work quietly insisted from the start, to lose and to preserve are two paths to the same place.
Benjamin J. Dueholm is a writer and pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois.