ESSAY: Complicated Midwesterners: Garrison Keillor and David Foster Wallace


By Michael Shorris

At Common Good Books, the small Minnesota bookstore run by the beloved radio host Garrison Keillor, a surprisingly large collection of David Foster Wallace works sits on the wooden shelves. Next to Wallace classics like Consider the Lobster and Other Essays and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men are some of his more obscure writings, like Signifying Rappers, the collection of rap criticism Wallace wrote, at age 28, with his college roommate Mark Costello. Rappers is an uncommon, backordered book even in Wallace-worshipping New York City. At a small Minnesota bookstore, its inclusion is unlikely, a statement in itself.

The best-known Wallace work in Common Good Books’ inventory, Infinite Jest, turned 20 this year. It was re-released with a new foreword and a new cover —the iconic blue sky and clouds of earlier editions are no more. The anniversary was celebrated by Wallace fans and critics alike, but now nearly eight years since Wallace took his life, the commemoration was bittersweet, a literary wound still raw.

While the cult of David Foster Wallace celebrates and laments, similarly mixed emotions have set in for a very different audience: the cult of Garrison Keillor. This month, after 42 years on the air and a hugely successful (and similarly bittersweet) countrywide farewell tour, Minnesota Public Radio’s A Prairie Home Companion will finally say goodbye to Garrison Keillor, its founder and longtime host. The show will go on, as songwriter Chris Thile takes over, but 4 million listeners will part with Keillor, their hero of hushed-voice yarn-spinning, slow-paced comedy, and old-school Midwestern decency.

The pair of anniversaries highlight two great American voices which have some obvious differences and some less obvious similarities. Keillor, the earnest radio host of the Midwest, is more closely tied to the East than he seems; Wallace, the sophisticated Eastern novelist and essayist, was born of and perpetually drawn to the Midwest. Perhaps their greatest difference was how adept they were at managing the challenge of living and thinking in two distinct regions.  

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Garrison Keillor’s radio show is a broadcast institution, but the key to its success has always been something a bit more literary: Keillor’s expert storytelling. In a beloved segment each episode, Keillor provides the News from Lake Wobegon in a gently spoken, gently funny, and gently nostalgic fifteen minute narrative. He recounts, in a style that has drawn its share of well-deserved Mark Twain comparisons, fictional “memories” from his upbringing, lightly prodding at the culture of friendly and faithful Midwestern life. No jokes are mean and no characters are unsympathetic in the Wobegon monologues, which draw riotous applause and laughter from Keillor’s crowds.

For listeners outside the Midwest, Wobegon can seem like an inside joke, packed with references that must be funnier on the open plains. Is nobody ever angry out there, not cynical or sarcastic? New Yorkers like Slate writer Sam Anderson have wondered aloud whether or not Keillor’s “plainness seems pretentious,” “his anti-snobbery snobbish.” This is the grating kindness of Keillor: for Easterners who enjoy their stories harsher and more skeptical, whose humor is self-conscious and sardonic, there is a perceived insincerity in his complete sincerity.

If Keillor’s nostalgic and slow-spoken Wobegon stories stand at one, distinctly Midwestern end of the raconteur’s spectrum, the highly intellectual and frequently inaccessible fiction of Wallace might mark the other. Wallace’s writing is an amalgam of literary self-awareness, painstaking cultural references, and highly postmodern stylization. Readers laugh with Wallace, but often at his characters; with Keillor, the jokes are all shared.

Wallace’s narrators prove honesty in the way East Coasters understand, demonstrating their sincerity through self-consciousness. He writes to an audience unwilling to trust, proving himself and his characters genuine, while Keillor’s show reaches a crowd with natural good faith, uncynical and less nervous. Wobegon’s residents do not have to explain themselves.

But between the avant-garde literary lion beloved in the East and the old-school storyteller adored in the Midwest, there is more in common than it might seem. Wallace is not a native of Massachusetts, where Jest is set: he grew up in Illinois and, after some years in the Northeast for school and work, relocated to rural Bloomington-Normal, Ill. Still writing for magazines like Harper’s from his perch in the Midwest, Wallace kept one foot in Bloomington soil and another on Boston concrete.

In this, his life was similar to Keillor’s: the little-known paradox of the Prairie Home host, as Slate’s Anderson points out, is that the Midwestern storyteller has similar Northeastern ties and his own share of literary bona fides. Keillor — a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters — began his career penning highly sarcastic stories in the New Yorker, writes as a critic whose attacks are as biting as they are hilarious; discusses the work of poets like Ginsberg and his peer Gregory Corso on a weekly poetry show; and owns an apartment in that heart of cynical darkness itself: New York City. He is a prairie home companion with a soothing voice, yes, but also a fierce literary critic and proudly left-wing intellectual. There’s a simple reason Wallace’s oeuvre is unusually well-represented at Common Good Books: Wallace was a literary genius, and Keillor has good taste.

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There is not, by definition, any great contradiction between the Keillor of the radio and Keillor of the American Academy. Indeed, Keillor’s own literary talent is on display in Wobegon, as he deftly explores complex issues of faith and family with the generosity of all great storytellers--Wallace included. He tackles matters of great weight and little, and his words are often as eloquent on paper as they are elegant aloud; plainly, Keillor is a master of language and rhetoric.

But it seems telling that his Wobegon monologues—not his New Yorker musings—are the source of his fame. At every point in his career, Keillor has worked hard to renew vows with the Midwest and avoid classification as an East Coast critic. If there is a contradiction between his roles, Keillor is aware of it and deftly evades it. He speaks proudly of his Midwesternness in an unobnoxious, Midwestern way. “If I seem very Midwestern,” he has explained, “it’s probably because I’ve lived here most of my life. One could do worse.”

One could. There is a straightforwardness in Keillor’s reply. Indeed, he has a Midwestern way of speaking about the Midwest; he is fluent in this gentle tongue, just as he is fluent in New Yorker snark. Purposefully, he chooses one rather than the other. Common Good Books is simply titled and consciously unpretentious, with one section devoted to the genre of “Good Poetry” and others to “Classics” and “Quality Trash.” The store may be filled with obscure personal preferences of the exceedingly well-read Keillor, but the section labels are achingly blunt.

This is intentional: the titles are just one of many products of Keillor the “regular guy,” to paraphrase a Wallace term. Keillor eschews the East Coast literati for the Lutheran farmers of Minnesota, even occasionally inviting Prairie fans to his home for brunch. In the Midwest, Keillor fits in and he is adored; better yet, he is normal.

That normality is something Wallace never quite found. Wallace once admitted that he was “not wired for the East Coast,” but so too did he see the East’s culture as “far more my own” in his brilliant essay “9/11: The View from the Midwest.” He was not at home in either place—at least, not after his education and adult life commenced. Writing as a resident of Bloomington-Normal, he admitted that what the locals “are, or start to seem, is innocent”—and, unfortunately, “innocent people can be hard to be around.”

At times, Wallace’s biggest obstacle to normality was his intellect: not only was he more self-conscious and less ‘innocent’ than his peers, but he was also more literate. Unlike Keillor, he had difficulty modulating his hyper-intellectualism with “regular guyness.” That difficulty is clear in a 2003 television interview as a nervous Wallace swings in and out of frame. The background is a medically bland hotel room, so the shot shows little and keeps tight. But Wallace ebbs and flows with his words, leaning and gesticulating as he answers.

During a break, the cameraman explains the resultant problem: filming Wallace is “hard cause he moves in and out.” Wallace apologizes, but the cameraman shrugs him off: “No, no,” he encourages, “it’s okay, because you’re pontificating, in a very deep, spiritual way.” He draws out the syllables on pon-tif-i-cat-ing, sounding it slowly, as Wallace visibly winces. “I can tell you’re very reflective,” the cameraman clarifies. Hurt, Wallace explains the questions are challenging; he doesn’t mean to drag on so long. The cameraman nods along: “I just shoot the pictures.” Wallace looks down and admits “I would trade places with you in a minute.”

Wallace’s remark is more than interview banter. It belies the crisis of Wallace, a genius of modern literature: he had no interest in being the smartest person in the room, and he usually was. His cringe was layered: first, he was accused of pontificating; second, he knew the accuser didn’t actually mean it; third, he knew that he knew the accuser didn’t mean it. Even Wallace’s self-consciousness operated on a different level than others’, the problem of being the only one in the room who knew what “pontificate” meant.

Keillor, on the other hand, found a way to become a ‘regular guy’ in the Midwest, detaching himself from the East Coast and becoming the uncynical storyteller-nostalgist of Lake Wobegon. But to do that, he had to renounce a certain part of himself. While his New Yorker work was snarky and his criticism even more caustic, Keillor abandoned that edge for the radio show. To The Paris Review he explained that “past the age of thirty there is no obligation to be clever at all” because “you are supposed to settle down and be a good person, raise your children, and be good to your friends, which you may not have been back when you were clever.”

A cleverness expat and an East Coast expat, Keillor speaks of fictionalized Wobegon with a wistfulness—which, itself, is somewhat forced. A recent New York Times article described how Keillor is “frustrated by [his "Wobegon" relatives] in real life,” as they are “too controlled by good manners.”

Keillor off-air is not Keillor on-air, and the host can be more content than the man, as his former New Yorker editor Roger Angell explained in the same piece: “I don’t think he’s necessarily a happy man. But the time he is happy is when he is doing the monologue.” Wobegon is a break from reality where, Keillor admits, he is more “free.”

Keillor’s distance from the people of his home is again reminiscent of Wallace, whose take on the Illinois State Fair in his essay “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from it All” speaks of a similar isolation among peers. Written while touring the grounds with his high school prom date, Wallace is unable to detach himself from the East Coast. There are moments at the fair that are too crass, remarks that are too outrageous, and traditions that are too ridiculous for an Easterner to accept as normal. Home in Illinois, Wallace feels anything but.

Yet while Wallace suffered as a foreigner in Bloomington-Normal, Keillor found normality in Wobegon. Each man knew exactly what “pontificating” meant, but the wistful “companion” would never be accused of it. Wallace lost the Midwest for the East, and never felt at home with either; Keillor sunk roots into both, but never owned the duality. Wallace lived out of place, either too intellectual for the ‘regular guys’ or too regular for the elites, the cruise ship correspondent who wore a tuxedo-print tee in lieu of a black tie. Keillor, who wears a pair of tattered red sneakers under even his finest suits, once faced the same problems of belonging. But he kept an escape hatch: weekly, there was the News from Lake Wobegon to preserve an elusive normality, to keep average in the town where “all the children are above average,” and to stay a prairie home companion even with toes dipped into the Atlantic.