IT USED to be said that American humorists, along with other creative people, were engaged in a lifelong "revolt against the village," and particularly a revolt against the midwestern village, and even more particularly a revolt against the churchy, Protestant, Boy Scout, front-porch, Bible school and family dinner-table aspects of the midwestern village. But when you encounter Garrison Keillor, you think humorists may have changed.
After June 13, you won't any longer encounter Keillor on public radio; he is bringing his "Prairie Home Companion" to a halt, after almost 13 years of news from Lake Wobegon, to resume being a shy person. But presumably he will continue, out of the depths of his shyness, to bring forth pieces that reflect the social and religious preoccupations and the attitude -- don't forget the attitude -- to which he has brought his distinctive muse.
The muse of most 20th-century American humorists of the upper ranks got her bearings back in the 1920s at the almost mythical Algonquin Round Table and at the sassy young magazine, The New Yorker, which began its life proclaiming that it was not edited for "the old lady from Dubuque." Keillor's stuff is very much for the old lady from Dubuque, among others; she pulls out of her purse, on Allegheny Flight 184 from Indianapolis to Pittsburgh, a copy of "Lake Wobegon Days" and says she loves Keillor's "gentle humor."
If you had put Keillor at the Algonquin table -- with George S. Kaufman and Franklin P. Adams and Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woolcott and the other wits and literati of the '20s -- one doubts that he would have been allowed to get a word in edgewise. Their humor was that of the flashing urban intelligence: dismissive, verbal, superior, quick, rapid-fire one-upmanship. Keillor, on the other hand, presents himself as having grown up among slow talkers "who dropped words a few at a time like beans on a hill." When he got to Minneapolis, he writes, "where people took a Lake Wobegon comma to mean the end of the story, I couldn't speak a whole sentence in company and was considered not too bright."
Before Keillor had begun his work, could you have thought of two groups, among all the richness of the immigrations to this wonderful country, less likely to provide an observer with a continuing stream of humorous material than Norwegian Lutherans and German Catholics -- particularly in a stupifyingly ordinary small town in central Minnesota?
Most of America's high humorists and satirists -- not just the Algonquin people but also the likes of H. L. Mencken, Ring Lardner, Sinclair Lewis and, from our own time, Woody Allen -- have regularly managed to let you know, with a touch of disdain, that there was something ridiculous about the hinterland world. But here comes Keillor, with a entirely opposite vision of life out there, often dealing with facets one can't imagine the older American humorists even venturing to touch -- and treating it all not just with respect but with affection.
Henry Anderson, for example, over on Lilac Street in Lake Wobegon -- whose mind comes and goes ("not that he's such bad company either way") and who, when it goes, often thinks he's on the Burlington Zephyr run from Chicago to St. Paul -- could very well be a character in the early James Thurber reminiscences, alongside the grandmother who thought electricity was leaking from the sockets and the uncle who sang "Onward, Christian Soldiers" in his sleep. Conceivably Henry's wife Ella, who must be quick to remember the stops on the old Zephyr route ("If she skips a stop and says, 'We're coming into Pepin, dear,' he'll say, 'You mean you didn't tell me when we went through Fountain City?'"), might also appear in a Thurber piece. But it would be quite unlike Thurber to touch this elderly couple, and Ella's plight, with actual human sympathy as Keillor does: "She wishes more people would come and talk to her and tell her things as she tells Henry what's out the window. His window on 1918 is open, and hers on May 1984 is stuck half-shut and she needs a little help."
For stories that are grounded first of all in boyhood memories. Keillor's news from Lake Wobegon contains a surprisingly large number of older people. Their crochets, flights and joys are treated with an empathy that would be astonishing in any of the other humorists: the widow Mrs. Mueller, for example, living alone, behind her double-deadbolted doors, preoccupied with the prospect of her sudden, violent death. ("You go up in planes, you go to Minneapolis, you take your life in your hands. You're not even safe in your own backyard.")
One can imagine Keillor looking at the marital situation of Thurber's Mittys from the woman's point-of-view: The secret life of Walter Mitty's wife. Surely there's a good deal to be said on that side, if you think it over. Keillor's women are not glamorous militant young suburban feminists, of course (not many of those in Lake Wobegon). There's Diane, never known for her housecleaning but who is struck on a fine spring Saturday by "the feeling that things had gone too far and if they went one inch farther, her family would slip right over the edge and live in a a plywood container at the town dump" and who thereupon rouses them all suddenly to a world-class frenzy of demon housecleaning. Mrs. Clarence Bunsen on being congratulated on her Thanksgiving turkey responds "It's a turkey anyway: I kind of lost interest after my tenth." Marlys Deiner's marriage is saved by the cold weather and the fact that Harold can't find his warm socks when he starts to slam out of the house. Keillor is not only to be found on both sides of Thurber's war between the sexes but also observing the many truces, collaborations and separate peaces.
In Thurber's stuff you will find many hired hands, yard men, waiters and servants (often black maids), invariably seen from the point of view of the employers, the masters, the owners of the yard or house and orderers of the meal, and almost always odd, difficult, intimidating. They talk funny: "They are here with the reeves (wreaths)" or "I go hunt gretches in de voods." There are no such servants in Lake Wobegon. When Lena Johnson drives down to South Minneapolis, to the reception after the baptism of her grandchild, in the huge house by the lake her son has bought -- he is "successful" and full of himself, and she hardly knows him any more -- she heads for the kitchen, carrying her bowl of cherry Jello with mandarin oranges and little marshmallows, to ask for an apron. She finds there two women in white dresses who tell her, "We have everything under control" and who put her Jello in the refrigerator. She can't believe it! CATERERS! You have people at your house, you have somebody else make the food?
Can you imagine any of the offspring of Mencken or Harold Ross, any other American humorist whatsoever, living, dead or otherwise, doing what Keillor does with the religious life of the hinterland? There are of course acres and acres of jokes, mockings, scoffings, sneerings and satires on this topic in this land of the common man's religion. Keillor turns that clean around and treats the subject not only with knowledge but also with understanding: the life and troubles of Pastor David Inqvist ("David had never made a pastoral call in regard to the death of a tree") and of the pastor's wife Judy Inqvist, and of the Catholic priest, and of that fissiparous little perfectionist sect, the Cox (or Cold Water) Brethren, holding their services in a rented room over the St. Cloud bus depot, waiting for the Spirit to guide them, hearing in the worshipful silence the bus announcements: "Now boarding at Gate One . . . Greyhound Bus Service to Waite Parke . . . St. Joseph . . . ." Keillor's revivalist, Brother Bob, from the Worldwide Fields of Harvest Ministry in Lincoln, Nebraska, does have some distinguishing marks -- "a red plaid jacket that kept you apprised of his whereabouts" -- and has done some deeds that stand out from the crowd ("He once threw 40 pounds of tracts from the Foshay Tower in Minneapolis on a day when the wind was right for carrying them toward the Catholic northeast section . . . .") but still he falls a long way short of Elmer Gantry.
And you could even say that the members of Algonquin Club, and all that they symbolize, are treated to a certain reversal, too. There appears often enough in Keillor's stuff the bright, critical, book-reading boy, "sensitive," of course, and in his own eyes surrounded by clods, getting ready to grow up to be a Sinclair Lewis or a Thurber, a Jonathan Swift of the prairie in potentia, who is busily observing and storing up the parental and local limitations against that day when he can scram to the Algonquin Hotel in New York and pour forth his immense load of scorn and mockery back on that Nowheresville that had the presumption to enclose his ranging spirit in his youth. One of these satirists in embryo, to whom Keillor may have donated some part of himself, is the writer of the 95 theses (Martin Luther's number) that decorate the bottom of a whole string of late pages in "Lake Wobegon Days" with a championship-class footnote.
These theses cite with excruciating thoroughness the writer's charges against the boredom, bigotry, ignorance and repression of his inhibited small-town Lutheran upbringing ("You subjected me to endless boring talk about weather, regularity, back problems and whether something happened in 1938 or 1939 . . . . I was taught to respect . . . men who cling to tiny grudges for decades and were devoted to vanity, horsefeathers, small potatoes . . . not travel but the rites of trunk-loading and map-reading and gas mileage, not faith but the Building Committee, not love but supper . . . .") But then the author of this jumbo complaint, with its sarcasm and mockery and satire and cries to heaven, is himself set at a distance. He can't bring himself to pound holes in the good wood of the Lutheran Church door, and he is afraid of being seen by young Lutherans at their Halloween pizza party inside, so he doesn't actually post his theses. And besides, his theses, for all the partial truth they may hold, are still a bit much. The proto-satirist is himself subject to a (gentle) satirical touch.
Fairly often with Keillor's stuff you find yourself looking up suddenly and saying hey, wait a minute, is this funny, or is this the next stop beyond funny? He describes the way his son looks when learning to swim, and the family scene around the hospital bed of the grandmother who is dying (making clear that it is all right that what the men can find to talk about on that occasion is gas mileage), and how Clarence Bunsen is rather touched by his daughter's caring for him, trying to steer him away from bacon toward yogurt -- in a way that might be suspected of tenderness. Is this humor or what?
The significant contrast between Keillor and the great American humorists who went before him is not, after all, geographical or demographic. As Keillor says in quite another connection, disapproving of an infielder who muffs an easy ground ball in the picnic softball game's seventh inning, with her team behind 18-3, and then just sits on the ground and laughs -- the larger point has to do with attitude. With the angle, and range, of vision. Where do you locate yourself, as a humorous observer noting the incongruities of life? Whose assumptions, whose preoccupations, do you take into your work? What range of human sympathy?
Keillor reins in his satirical impulses (after getting full mileage out of them, to be sure), drawing up short before they carry him out into the cold night of disdain, of getting even. He rises above superiority, and instead of condemning, identifies with, the innards of the common life, and finds his humor there, in fellow-feeling. He makes his way, by combining sympathy with intelligence with talent, up into the higher ground of the artist's understanding, which knows no geography, and dismisses no part of society, and counts nothing human alien to it, not even Norwegians.
Perhaps it should be said yet again that for all his human gentleness, Keillor does manage to avoid (though it may be a near miss) the sentimentality of earlier down-home jokers. When he spoke at the National Press Club in Washington last year, someone sent to the front table the question: "Isn't it true that all Americans are divided into those who grew up in small towns and those who wish they had?" Keillor's spontaneous response was that those who wish they had, ought to think harder.
William Lee Miller is chairman of the Department of Rhetoric and Communication Studies of the University of Virginia and author of "The First Liberty."