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Critical Essay by John E. Miller
SOURCE: "The Distance Between Gopher Prairie and Lake Wobegon: Sinclair Lewis and Garrison Keillor on the Small Town Experience," in Centenniel Review, Vol. 31, Fall, 1987, pp. 432-46.
In the following essay, Miller compares and contrasts Keillor's and Sinclair Lewis's portrayal of small-town life.
When Garrison Keillor took stories and characters which he's been developing for a decade on his radio program, "Prairie Home Companion," and expanded and reworked them into a book, the resulting Lake Wobegon Days quickly shot up to the top of the best seller lists and earned the tall (6′4″), lanky Minnesota humorist cover stories in such publications as Time, Saturday Evening Post, and The New York Times Book Review. Like another tall, skinny writer who came from a town just up the road a ways, Keillor has become an unmistakable presence on the American scene. At age thirty-five, Sinclair Lewis was eight years younger than Keillor when he burst on the literary scene in 1920 with Main Street, a novel that, more than any other literary work of its time, redefined the way in which Americans thought about their small towns. "Main Street broke into the literary atmosphere like an explosion, like something absolutely new and absolutely devastating, not only unlike anything Sinclair Lewis had done before but unlike anything that anyone had done before," according to Mark Schorer, one of his biographers.
Main Street launched a series of novels that were intended to provide a panoramic view of American society. Having been honed during his journalistic apprenticeship, Lewis's forte was a remarkable capacity for detailed observation and description. Joseph Wood Krutch admiringly observed in Lewis's novels "a completeness of documentation not less than amazing" and "a power of mimicry which, so far as I know, no living author can equal." Lewis resisted such appraisals, saying of himself: "He has only one illusion: that he is not a journalist and 'photographic realist' but a stylist whose chief concerns in writing are warmth and lucidity." But most critics agreed that his genius lay in limning the surface realities of life, not in probing character or in developing plot. It was the "amazing skill with which he reproduces his world" that impressed T. K. Whipple, who viewed the novels as "triumphant feats of memory and observation."
The memory of his home town—Sauk Centre, Minnesota—provided the basis for the writing of Main Street, but he drew on his observations of other towns as well, places like Melrose, Faribault, St. Cloud, Mankato, Rochester, and Fergus Falls. "It is extraordinary how deep is the impression made by the place of one's birth and rearing, and how lasting are its memories," Lewis wrote in "The Long Arm of the Small Town," an essay for the Sauk Centre high school yearbook in 1931. After being absent for more than a quarter of a century, except for a few visits lasting only several months' time, the town remained, he said, "as vivid to my mind as though I had left there yesterday."
Lewis called upon his marvelous powers of observation and memory to create perhaps the most celebrated fictional walk in American literature—Carol Kennicott's thirty-two minute stroll around Gopher Prairie's main business thoroughfare, which in the words of Lewis's preface, was "the continuation of Main Streets everywhere." On her walk through town, she saw places like the Minniemashie House, a "tall lean shabby structure" catering to traders and traveling salesmen"; Dyer's Drug Store, with its "greasy marble soda-fountain with an electric lamp of red and green and curdled-yellow mosaic shade"; the Rosebud Movie Palace, showing a film called "Fatty in Love"; Howland and Gould's Grocery, with Knights of Pythias, Macabees, Woodmen, and Masonic lodges in second floor rooms; Dahl and Oleson's Meat Market; a jewelry shop with "tinny looking" wrist watches; several saloons; a tobacco shop; a clothing store, its dummies like "corpses with painted cheeks"; The Bon Ton Store; Axel Egge's General Store; Sam Clark's Hardware Store; Chester Dashaway's House Furnishing Emporium; Billy's Lunch; a dairy; a produce warehouse; Ford and Buick garages; an agricultural implement dealer; a feed store; Ye Art Shoppe; a barber shop and pool room; Nat Hicks's Tailor Shop, on a side street off Main Street; the post office; the State Bank; the Farmers' National Bank; and a score of similar stores and businesses.
To Carol, they were drab, ugly, uninviting. But it wasn't the overwhelming ugliness that distressed her so much as "the planlessness, the flimsy temporariness of the buildings, their faded unpleasant colors." Only one building held any aesthetic appeal for Carol—the Ionic-styled Farmers' National Bank. Lewis's picture is almost unrelievedly squalid: storage tanks are "grim," train depots are "squat," lawns are "parched," leaves are "sickly yellow," bay windows are "lugubrious," cars sound like they're "shaking to pieces," smells are "sour." Carol's impulse was to flee back to the security of the city. No wonder: "Oozing out from every drab wall, she felt a forbidding spirit which she could never conquer."
Measured in terms of physical distance, Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon can't be far from Gopher Prairie, but in terms of time and imagination it lies at great remove. Keillor provides plenty of clues about Lake Wobegon's location, indicating it is near St. Cloud, northwest of St. Cloud, and, more specifically, thirty-two miles from St. Cloud. That would put it almost exactly at Freeport, the town Keillor lived in when he started inventing stories about Lake Wobegon as a radio announcer for Minnesota Public Radio during the early 1970's. It could hardly be closer to Sauk Centre, which is just ten miles up Highway 52 from Freeport.
Lewis's strikingly detailed visual images capture one kind of reality; Keillor's carefully wrought word images evince another. The former's strength lies in visual description, photographic in its effect; Keillor's is aural, finely tuned to subtle tones and gestures. Lewis was not deaf to the sounds of the town. If Carol Kennicott's thirty-two minute walk is described almost entirely through visual images, the simultaneous tour of Bea Sorenson, a country girl come to town to work as a maid, climaxes with her bewilderment at all the noises around her: "The roar of the city began to frighten her. There were five automobuls [sic] on the street all at the same time—and one of 'em was a great big car that must of cost two thousand dollars—and the 'bus was starting for a train with five elegant-dressed fellows." Later in the book Lewis catalogs a series of sounds that impress upon Carol the tediousness of the street in front of her house, rendering it "a street beyond the end of the world, beyond the boundaries of hope." Now, at dusk, it was "meshed in silence. There was but the hum of motor tires crunching the road, the creak of a rocker on the Howlands' porch, the slap of a hand attacking a mosquito, a heat-weary conversation starting and dying, the precise rhythm of crickets, the thud of moths against the screen—sounds that were a distilled silence."
Like Lewis, Keillor catalogs the sounds heard in his town—the hum of an air conditioner on a sweltering August evening, the "memorable sound" of a rotten tomato splatting on the projecting rear of his older sister, the distant faint mutter of ancient combines operated by Norwegian bachelor farmers. Keillor's superior sensibility comes through in a passage describing his impressions of a cold snowy evening when he was sixteen: "So still on a cold night. I could hear his boots crunch in the snow, could hear a car not quite starting a long way away, and then the door slamming when the guy got out and him hitting the hood with his fist. The volume of the world was turned up so the air molecules hummed a deep bass note. If the fire siren went off it would knock a person into the middle of next week." Keillor excels not so much in straight description as in the evocation of mood. Usually he's describing people feeling or meditating or experiencing and not simply acting.
The authorial presence constantly weaves in and out of Lake Wobegon Days as Keillor varies stories about himself with those about other people in town. While Lewis kept his readers guessing about whether Carol Kennicott's view of the town was his own, Keillor begins with a straightforward description of his town as he knows it. Now, approximately seventy years after Carol first viewed Main Street, Keillor guides us on a tour of a town about one-third the size of Gopher Prairie. Lewis calls his a "wheat-prairie town of something over three thousand people" while Keillor says his town contains "the homes of some nine hundred souls, most of them small white frame houses." It is significant that he refers to "souls," a term that the antireligious Lewis would have used only ironically or satirically. For Keillor, a backslidden member of the fundamentalist Plymouth Brethren who still values much in that heritage, "soul" carries a heavy burden of meaning.
Viewing people as more than mechanical toys, Keillor also perceives the structures they live in not simply as houses but as homes. Even granting that seven decades have wrought a revolutionary transformation in American material life, the contrasting visions of Lewis and Keillor are necessary to explain why the former (through his protagonist, Carol Kennicott) sees "huddled low wooden" houses on the plains, "prosaic frame" houses with "small parched" lawns, and "square smug brown" houses, "rather damp," while the latter observes "small white frame houses sitting forward on their lots and boasting large tidy vegetable gardens and modest lawns, many featuring cast-iron deer, small windmills, clothespoles and clotheslines, various plaster animals such as squirrels and lambs and small elephants, white painted rocks at the end of the driveway, a nice bed of petunias planted within a white tire, and some with a shrine in the rock garden, the Blessed Virgin standing, demure, her eyes averted, arms slightly extended, above the peonies and marigolds." Imagine what Lewis would have done with that statue and those elephants!
There isn't as much to see in Lake Wobegon as in Gopher Prairie. In his initial tour of the town, Keillor mentions only several business places—Ralph's Grocery, Bunsen Motors, and the Chatterbox Cafe. Interestingly, as we are taken from place to place it is with a child kicking an asphalt chunk down the street, and we are introduced to other people—the mayor, Clint Bunsen, peering out from a grease pit; his brother Clarence, wiping the showroom window; an old man sitting on Ralph's bench; and Ralph, leaning out of the back of the store to get a breath of fresh, meatless air.
The picture Keillor paints is much brighter and cheerier, while less distinct, than Lewis's, though it does not lack shades of gray and black. If Lewis is a master of shape and form, Keillor excels with color. Perhaps what distinguishes his portrait most from his predecessor's is its unpredictability. Lewis, who admitted that his own views were wrapped up in the persona of Carol Kennicott, also put much of himself into the disillusioned lawyer, Guy Pollock, who, at one stage of the novel's development, was going to be its major character. Their criticisms of the town were balanced by the positive viewpoints expressed by Will Kennicott, Bea Sorenson, and others. But if Lewis did create characters who represent opposing points of view about the town, their thoughts and actions are generally predictable. Carol's thought after first glimpsing Gopher Prairie is indicative of a lack of imagination: "The people—they'd be as drab as their houses, as flat as their fields."
Keillor, unlike Lewis, is willing to let his characters surprise him. Not that he is unaware of constraints operating on people's behavior, placed there by inheritance, conditioning, and habit. These are not wild, soaring, free spirits he is talking about but real human beings whose dreams and aspirations run head on into other people's desires and expectations, their own limitations, and the social bounds imposed by institutions and organizations. Still, one does not know what to expect from week to week from Pastor Ingqvist or Senator K. Thorvaldson or Johnny Tollefson. All have firmly rooted characters and habits; yet all are capable of surprise. Father Emil, for instance, may be a staunchly conservative priest dedicated to protecting his flock from the dangers of modernism, but who would predict his passion for bus tours of Civil War battlefields?
Keillor's ability to get inside of his characters is no trivial accomplishment. It betokens both a talent for listening and a faculty for imagining. Lewis's work suffers from deficiency of creative imagination; D. J. Dooley summarized the indictment by observing that "everything is lifelike, but nothing is real, especially the people." H. L. Mencken, who considered Main Street to be "good stuff," felt that the characters "often remain flat;… one seldom sees into them very deeply or feels with them very keenly."
Lewis, the Midwestern kid who went to Yale and spent most of his life gallavanting around the globe, viewed his own town through the lenses of the outsider and found it wanting. Keillor, the small town kid who went down the road to the University of Minnesota and returned home after failing to land a journalism job out East, remains more rooted. He looks at his home town and finds it wanting also, in some respects, but for him the defects lie in the human heart, not in some imagined "village virus" that condemns all small towns to narrow, twisted existences.
Lewis, in fact, undercuts much of the force of his indictment when, toward the end of Main Street, he has Carol ask herself why she rages at individuals so. Not individuals, but institutions, are the enemy: "They insinuate their tyranny under a hundred guises and pompous names, such as Polite Society, the Family, the Church, Sound Business, the Party, the Country, the Superior White Race; and the only defense against them, Carol beheld, is unembittered laughter." Such a sociological analysis can be defended, but by shifting the target from individuals to institutions, it undermines the force of the satire that has gone before.
Keillor grants no such pardon to Wobegonians. He holds them accountable for their actions. His view of human motivation is more complex than that of Lewis, whose inclination is to caricature people, which makes for good satire but not for empathic understanding. Keillor, at the age of forty-three, possesses a more mature acceptance of human foibles and inconsistencies than Lewis did when he published Main Street at the age of thirty-five.
Lewis's interests and thinking were wide-ranging, but just as he never found a place to settle down, he never seemed to find an intellectual resting place, flitting from a shallow socialism during his college days to the bourgeois satisfactions of job and family to a general cynical outlook that found many targets for satire but few, if any, objects to admire and identify with. To T. K. Whipple, Lewis possessed a multiple personality, being one who "shifts his point of view so often that finally we come to wonder whether he has any."
Garrison Keillor went east once too, looking for a writing job after college, but when none was forthcoming, he returned to live near the place where he grew up and has remained in the area ever since. Unlike Lewis, who was curiously unaware of himself, Keillor enters into his subject, sometimes in his own persona, sometimes partly hidden in the characters he invents. Being part of the story, he naturally experiences the same hurts and satisfactions, dilemmas and accommodations that his characters do. Therefore, he does not convert his characters into objects of scorn or satire in the way Lewis often did.
It is amazing in how many ways the two authors' lives overlap. Like Lewis, whose adoption of radical opinions at Yale gave his classmates a second reason to call him "Red," Keillor, if we believe Lake Wobegon Days, consciously redesigned himself in college. He, too, contested with a father "of the old regime." He, too, felt the sting of being ungainly and different as a kid growing up. If Lewis was laughed at as an amiable freak, friendless and isolated, stricken by an acne-ridden visage that, according to his second wife, would come to look like the "face of a man who had walked through flame throwers," Keillor, too, according to his book, felt rejected on the sandlots of youth, the "skinny kid with the glasses and the black shoes" who usually was chosen toward the end for pickup baseball games. Like Lewis, and probably like most of us who went through childhood, he wished he could be popular. Like Lewis, he had a rich fantasy life and is sometimes prone to delusions of grandeur, having crowned himself at the age of twelve "King of Altrusia," though at the age of fourteen his playmates sort of faltered in maintaining their play-act adoration. Now on his radio program, Keillor can at least in part fulfill his fantasy of being a singing star like Elvis Presley or George Beverly Shea. If Keillor still harbors over-inflated expectations of greatness, he is the first to prick the bubble, unlike Lewis, who lacked the ability to laugh at himself and others in the way that Keillor does.
Lewis's childhood miseries derived to a large extent from his failure to live up to expectations of his respectable doctor father and to compete successfully with his older brother Claude, who also became a doctor. Keillor's frustrations obtained more from living in a family that was judged to be different—one that would get up and walk out of a restaurant whose prices exceeded expectations. "This is humiliating," Keillor has himself saying after one such episode, "I feel like a leper or something. Why do we always have to make such a big production out of everything? Why can't we be like regular people?" Unwilling to carry a bookbag festooned with a Biblical verse to school, young Gary was afraid he'd be "laughed off the face of the earth." At the same age, Lewis had no friends and no interest in sports, and, according to John Koblas, was always an outsider. Sensitivities heightened by their positions on the fringes, both authors were able to perceive things about their towns that other residents either overlooked or took for granted.
Lewis compensated for his insecurities by diverting his animosities against society and other people. Keillor, on the other hand, makes light of his shyness by laughing at it and continually reminding people of it on his radio program. He refuses to extract himself from his condition. Whatever pain Wobegonians suffer, whatever crimes they commit, he is implicated in them. His characters are his constellation of neighbors; they also embody his own contradictions. He savors the triumphs of his life: a perfect rendition of the Twenty-third Psalm at Memorial Day exercises, a sharp throw from third base to catch a baserunner by a stride, making time with an older girl from Minneapolis. Juxtaposed to this, however, is a frequent tone of wistfulness, large ambitions only partially realized or not at all, ambivalences unresolved.
The tragedy of Lewis's personal life, and the fatal flaw that marred his literary vision, was his failure to imagine a higher goal than unrestricted personal freedom. Freedom was his obsession, and with the publication of Main Street he possessed the wherewithal to realize it. Eventually he carried the passion to escape social, intellectual, and marital constraints to absurd lengths. He worked so hard at smashing traditional standards and beliefs that he paid little attention to attempting to reconstruct a positive social philosophy that went beyond vague platitudes regarding a wiser, juster social order. Lewis was a man caught in a trap of his own making. Condemned to view the world and its inhabitants with a cynical and world-weary eye, he lacked the capacity for true commitment to people, place, or social program. That he desperately desired friendship, roots, and love can be seen in his befriending of young authors, his affair with an actress forty years his junior, his periodic returns to Sauk Centre, and his desire to have his remains buried there. The title of his last novel published during his lifetime, The God-Seeker, mirrored his own search, not for a conventional God that his irreligious nature refused to accept, but for a secular god that was embodied in a search for truth and the realization of personal freedom and individual fulfillment.
What Keillor's ultimate values and personal demons are we can be much less sure of, because he avoids self-revelatory interviews and has not had his life subjected to the kind of detailed scrutiny given Lewis's by a host of scholars. There are clues, however, to be found in the radio monologues and published work and some of the articles that have been written about him. Profoundly influenced by his conservative religious upbringing, Keillor has not joined Lewis in waging a fierce campaign against religion but rather seeks to understand the meaning of religious values in a secular age. Aware of the hypocrisies and inconsistencies attending religious (as well as any other kind of) values, Keillor pokes fun at them while maintaining his respect for the people who commit them. If a couple breaks a window while using a Bible for a missile during a domestic spat, Keillor treats it as just another episode in the lives of finite, fallen creatures. Though he is a backslidden church-goer, he integrates Christian insights into his value system. The Bible says, don't let the sun go down on your wrath, and that is good advice to follow. Living a good life is not an easy proposition. Reflecting upon his pleasure in hitting his sister with a ripe tomato, Keillor observes that "knowing right from wrong is the easy part. Knowing is not the problem." Life's inconsistencies do not become for him a target of stinging satire. Rather he tends to operate in the ironic mode. In high school football, it's kill or be killed, and the team needs some killers. "There is an animal in you and I intend to bring it out," the coach tells his players. "The new boys glance at each other—it isn't what they learned in Luther League."
In their own different ways the two authors, separated so far by time and mood, connected so closely in space and intent, teach us a great deal about the twentieth century small town. If Lewis is obsessed by a desire to smash the idols of tradition, complacency, prejudice, and provinciality, Keillor, living in the post-modern era, is searching for serviceable values and places of repose for people traumatized by culture in which all fixed principles and values are rendered problematical. Lewis, committed as he was to personal freedom, was not unaware of its elusiveness and the problems it entailed. Carol Kennicott's ambivalence reflected his own. Toward the end of the novel, as her train takes her away from Gopher Prairie toward Washington, she wants to run back to Will. "She had her freedom, and it was empty. The moment was not the highest of her life, but the lowest and most desolate, which was altogether excellent, for instead of slipping downward she began to climb." Lewis never managed to reconcile his desire for freedom and personal fulfillment with his wish to be part of community. His visit home in 1905 at the age of twenty persuaded him that neighborliness was a fake—that the "village virus" of prejudice, dull conformity, and hypocrisy ruled the small town, and while he did try to present both sides of the story in Main Street, the negative viewpoint clearly predominated his vision. Yet it oscillated with the one he expressed in the 1931 school annual that in no other place were people more friendly. "It was a good time," he said, "a good place, a good preparation for life."
What makes Keillor's approach more ultimately satisfying is that instead of wavering between diametrically opposed positions in his thinking about the small town, he integrates the light side with the dark side in his work as he goes along. Anyone who attributes to him a syrupy optimistic view of the small town need only refer to his "95 Theses 95," an unrestrained manifesto against the putative parents and neighbors of a former son of Lake Wobegon who still suffers from the results of his overly protective and repressive childhood. Nothing in Sinclair Lewis's work is more scathing.
The former Wobegonian who wrote these bitter recriminations is not the only resident who left or wanted to leave town: Fred Krebsbach up and left his family at thirty-four; Johnny Tollefson went off to college; two men at the Sidetrack itch to go away, if only for a moment, with two babes passing through from St. Cloud. Another escapee is Garrison Keillor, who at the end of the book is tooling down the road in a '56 Ford. A refugee whose heart never really left the town, Keillor brings an outsider's perspective to the subject and at the same time an intimate acquaintance with it. Unlike Brother Bob, the evangelist, he doesn't consider Lake Wobegon to be a Sodom or Gomorrah, although he might agree that "in our hearts we are guilty of every sin." Nor does he identify with the Norwegian bachelor farmers, whose behavior renders them outsiders in their own community because of their refusal to abide by society's rules and restrictions. They spit where and when they feel like it, blow their noses with one finger, let dirty dishes pile high on kitchen tables. "We are all crazy in their eyes. All the trouble we go to for nothing: ridiculous."
In their complete unwillingness to submit to societal norms, they resemble Sinclair Lewis. What he had that they don't have was enough money to allow him to take his freedom beyond the confines of the immediate area. Where Garrison Keillor differs from all of them is that he realizes that there is no escape. We all carry the burden of our history, our beliefs, our habits and customs. His stories are parables of patience rewarded, of adversity endured. These are the messages they teach: life is fraught with peril; doing without makes you appreciate things more; life is full of disappointments; it's good to wait; nothing should come easy, you'll appreciate it more if you work for it.
Keillor considers the hopes and fears, the fantasies and dreams of people to be legitimate. He seldom judges but rather accepts and affirms. He recalls in the book when Brother Louie retired after thirty years as assistant cashier at the First Ingqvist State Bank. He had grown old and fat and bald sitting there every day, enjoying ritual conversations with the customers: "Good Morning. You certainly look well." "How's Lena doing? And Harold? What do you hear from Elsie?" He knew everybody by name. Keillor writes, "It never occurred to me until he retired that once Louie had wanted to make something of himself in the banking business." It's an important revelation for Keillor.
We can imagine with what scorn Lewis would have treated such a "petty" ambition. And therein lies the distance between Gopher Prairie and Lake Wobegon. They are almost contiguous geographically and are products of the same culture and people, two generations removed in time. But time does not constitute the greatest gulf between the two towns. Keillor notes how much continuity exists between himself and his predecessors; when he entered school in 1948, it was on the same day, in the same brick school house, with the same misty paintings of Washington and Lincoln that had gazed down on his father and grandfather before him. What separates Lake Wobegon most from Gopher Prairie is that Garrison Keillor considers these facts to be important and worthy of respect. Brother Louie's original aspiration and eventual accommodation are equally human, equally estimable. Life in Lake Wobegon is not perfect, but it is whole. It is within this community that a collectivity of individuals find meaning and freedom, not in escape nor in quixotic efforts to remake society, but in the day to day transactions, resolutions, and interactions that make an individual a social being.
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