Recently, I came upon a double-page book club ad in a national magazine. A caricature of Winston Churchill appeared in the upper right hand corner, at the left, a caricature of Minnesota's Garrison Keillor.
Not since 1920, when Sinclair Lewis aimed his satiric blunderbuss at the denizens of Gopher Prairie, has Minnesota enjoyed such best-selling celebrity. Keillor and Lake Wobegon seem on everyone's lips. When I travel to either coast and people discover I'm from Minnesota only one question pops up: "Do you know Garrison Keillor personally?" No I don't, but it's good that they asked.
Since Lewis received America's first Nobel Prize for literature, Minnesota has had its literary groundswells. F. Scott Fitzgerald early. Robert Bly, Judith Guest and Robert Pirsig later. In between camOle Rolvaag's Pulitzer Prize winner, Giants in the Earth. Years ago, I taught in an Ohio college full of New York City kids. When one of them found I was from the upper Midwest, he commiserated with me about how I must have hated getting lost in blizzards on the way from the barn to my sod hut, then explained that Giants in the Earth was required reading at his high school in Brooklyn. I told him that hitching posts were gone from the prairie. I know he didn't believe me.
So it's gratifying for us out in Flyover Land to attract some attention by virtue of Lake Wobegon Days because it suggests to East Coasters that at least one current scribbler Out There can write.
But there's more Out Here, lots more. Most Minnesota authors don't rate Keillor's printing schedules. But if Lake Wobegon inspires readers, so should the towns and people created by Jon Hassler, whose first novel, Staggerford, appeared in 1977. In it, Hasler delineated a sleepy Minnesota town populated by a host of well-realized characters, including English teacher Miles Pruitt and Agatha McGee, his marvelously cranky landlady. Hassler followed with five novels; most received favorable reviews nationally. Robert Redford picked up the movie option for "The Love Hunter" (1981). The movie hasn't transpired and none of the books have set sales records. But when you run into Hassler fans, they're usually rabid -- and frustrated in their search for his earlier work.
Hassler is frustrated, too. Last month he told the Minneapolis Star and Tribune he's aggravated with the speed serious fiction goes out of print, while the public clamors for nonbooks. "I have this recurring nightmare in which booksellers refuse to handle my work because their shelves are full of 'The Collected Letters of Madonna.'" He and his fans recently got good news when Ballantine announced that Staggerford, Simon's Night (1979), and A Green Journey (1985) will be issued in paperback next fall. Just now Hassler is working on revisions of his new novel, "Grand Opening," which will be released by Morrow within the year. A look at an early chapter indicates that Hassler continues to develop as a writer who elevates the commonplace to witty profundity, with quirky Waughian turns and none of the cheap shots characteristic of Sinclair Lewis, who grew up a few miles north of St. John's University, Collegeville, where Hassler now teaches -- on the same faculty as J.F. Powers, who continues to write and whose earlier works Hogarth in Great Britain has recently issued in beautiful new editions.
MANY OTHER Minnesota writers take inspiration from the peculiarities which shape the state's people and topography. They're encouraged by scads of regional presses that have popped up in recent years in the Twin Cities, long the center of upper midwestern book publishing. Frequently, the University of Minnesota Press departs from scholarly monographs to publish books like Paul Gruchow's, Journal of a Prairie Year, a lyrical evocation of the "gigantic dish" that is the prairie, where Gruchow unpacks the mystery of life from a chunk of tree bark or the miles of roots in a small piece of sod.
Milkwood Editions got national recognition last year, with Carol Bly's Letters From the Country. More recently, it published Bill Holm's Boxelder Bug Variations. If you don't know about the bug that infests every cranny of Minnesota, Holm will fill you in with metaphysical disquisitions on the critter's meaning, whimsical poems and vignettes, even elegant musical scores you can perform, including "Bach's Elder Lament" and "The Boxelder Gavotte."
But writers Out Here range for subject matter far beyond our borders.
For we finally have literary agents-in-residence, among them Jonathan and Wendy Lazear, who have successfully shepherded several authors, even unto The Big Money: St.Paul physician Tim Rumsey, who wrote the picaresque Pictures From a Trip. St. Paul Chamber Orchestra violist Evelina Chao's Gates of Grace, a novel that explores the Chinese-American immigrant experience. Minneapolis poet Kate Green, who stepped out of character to write a thriller, Shattered Moon, which the Lazears placed in paperback at Christmas time, then as a Doubleday and Literary Guild book club selection for January. Briefly, it's about Theresa Fortunato, a Los Angeles psychic dragged reluctantly into the role of female Travis McGee. The Lazears also handled Bemidji State University professor Will Weaver's panoramic Red Earth, White Earth, set on an Indian reservation. The novel sold to Simon and Schuster for six figures. Now Viacom, which gave us the Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, will make it into a TV mini-series.
Boosters Out Here like to think of the Twin Cities, with some reason, as an Athens on the Prairie. That reputation attracts publishers like Graywolf Press, a nonprofit organization that moved to St. Paul last year from Washington State. Graywolf specializes in quality reprints of books like Ella Leffland's Mrs. Munck, writers like Tess Gallagher and Edna O'Brien. Recently it was chosen by the National Endowment for the Humanities to publish Buying Time, an anthology of works by NEH grant recipients, including Alice Walker, Louise Erdrich and Isaac Bashevis Singer.
So, Minnesota is still Out Here, producing enough books to keep the Thanatopsis study club busy for at least a year, judging from the rate at which those estimable ladies proceeded in Lewis' Main Street, polishing off the English Romantic Poets in a one hour meeting, before the taking of a toast and tea.