Keillor, Garrison 1942-

views updated

KEILLOR, Garrison 1942-

PERSONAL: Born Gary Keillor, August 7, 1942, in Anoka, MN; son of John Philip (a railway mail clerk and carpenter) and Grace Ruth (a homemaker; maiden name, Denham) Keillor; married Mary C. Guntzel, September 1, 1965 (divorced, May, 1976); married Ulla Skaerved (a social worker), December 29, 1985 (divorced); married; wife's name Jenny; children: (first marriage) Jason, (third marriage) a daughter. Education: University of Minnesota, B.A., 1966, graduate study, 1966-68. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Plymouth Brethren.

ADDRESSES: Office—c/o A Prairie Home Companion, Minnesota Public Radio New Media, 45 East 7th St., Saint Paul, MN 55101 Agent—American Humor Institute, 80 Eighth Ave., No. 1216, New York, NY 10011.

CAREER: Writer. KUOM-Radio, Minneapolis, MN, staff announcer, 1963-68; Minnesota Public Radio, St. Paul, MN, producer and announcer, 1971-74, host and principal writer for weekly program A Prairie Home Companion, 1974-87 and 1993—; host of Garrison Keillor's American Radio Company of the Air, 1989-1993.

AWARDS, HONORS: George Foster Peabody Broadcasting Award, 1980, for A Prairie Home Companion; Edward R. Murrow Award from Corporation for Public Broadcasting, 1985, for service to public radio; Los Angeles Times Book Award nomination, 1986, for Lake Wobegon Days; Grammy Award for best nonmusical recording, 1987, for Lake Wobegon Days; Ace Award, 1988; Best Music and Entertainment Host Award, 1988; Gold Medal for spoken English, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1990; inducted into Museum of Broadcast Communications and Radio Hall of Fame, 1994; National Humanities Medal, National Endowment for the Humanities, 1999.


G.K. the DJ, Minnesota Public Radio, 1977.

The Selected Verse of Margaret Haskins Durber, Minnesota Public Radio, 1979.

Happy to Be Here: Stories and Comic Pieces, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1982, expanded edition, Penguin (New York, NY), 1983.

Lake Wobegon Days (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 1985.

Leaving Home: A Collection of Lake Wobegon Stories, Viking (New York, NY), 1987.

We Are Still Married: Stories and Letters, Viking (New York, NY), 1989.

WLT: A Radio Romance, Viking (New York, NY), 1991.

The Book of Guys, Viking (New York, NY), 1993.

Cat, You Better Come Home, illustrated by Steve Johnson, Viking (New York, NY), 1995.

The Old Man Who Loved Cheese, illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1996.

Wobegon Boy, Viking (New York, NY), 1997.

(Editor, with Katrina Kenison) The Best American Short Stories: 1998, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1998.

Me: By Jimmy (Big Boy) Valente, Governor of Minnesota. As Told to Garrison Keillor, Viking (New York, NY), 1999.

(Coauthor) Minnesota Days: Our Heritage in Stories, Art, and Photos, Voyageur (Stillwater, MN), 1999.

In Search of Lake Wobegon, with photographs by Richard Olsenius, Viking (New York, NY), 2001.

Lake Wobegon Summer 1956, Viking (New York, NY), 2001.

(Editor and author of introduction) Good Poems (anthology), Viking (New York, NY), 2002.

Love Me, Viking (New York, NY), 2003.

Contributor of articles and stories to periodicals, including New Yorker, Harper's and Atlantic Monthly.


A Prairie Home Companion Anniversary Album, Minnesota Public Radio, 1980.

The Family Radio, Minnesota Public Radio, 1982.

News from Lake Wobegon, Minnesota Public Radio, 1982.

Prairie Home Companion Tourists, Minnesota Public Radio, 1983.

Ten Years on the Prairie: A Prairie Home Companion 10th Anniversary, Minnesota Public Radio, 1984.

Gospel Birds and Other Stories of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota Public Radio, 1985.

A Prairie Home Companion: The Final Performance, Minnesota Public Radio, 1987.

More News from Lake Wobegon, Minnesota Public Radio, 1988.

Lake Wobegon Loyalty Days: A Recital for Mixed Baritone and Orchestra, Minnesota Public Radio, 1989.

Local Man Moves to City, Highbridge, 1991.

(With Frederica von Stade) Songs of the Cat, Highbridge, 1991.

Keillor has also recorded his book Lake Wobegon Days.

SIDELIGHTS: Born on August 7, 1942, in Anoka, Minnesota, Garrison Keillor was the third of six children born into a conservative religious family. His father, John Philip, worked as a railroad clerk and carpenter to support his family. Gary, however, had his eye on a literary career from a young age. In fact, at the age of thirteen, he started calling himself "Garrison" for professional reasons. His single-minded focus and hard work would pay off in later years as he became a household name.

With the words "It's been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my hometown," radio humorist and author Keillor introduced his monologue on his long-running Minnesota Public Radio program, A Prairie Home Companion. The stories he told over the air, based partly on his memories of growing up in semi-rural Anoka, Minnesota, were among the highlights of the live-broadcast show—an eclectic mixture of comedy and music (including bluegrass, blues, ethnic folk, choral, gospel, opera, and yodeling)—which reached an audience of about four million listeners per week by the time it went off the air in 1987. It reached a great many more people in its last year when the Disney Channel obtained cable television broadcasting rights.

As principal writer and host of the show, Keillor also revealed his humor in the commercials he wrote for the sponsors of his program, including Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery ("If you can't find it at Ralph's, you can probably get along without it"), Bertha's Kitty Boutique ("For persons who care about cats"), the Chatterbox Cafe ("Where the coffeepot is always on, which is why it always tastes that way"), Bob's Bank ("Neither a borrower nor a lender be; so save at the sign of the sock"), the Sidetrack Tap ("Don't sleep at our bar; we don't drink in your bed"), and especially those Powdermilk Biscuits ("Heavens, they're tasty") that "give shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done."

Many critics place Keillor in the tradition of such American humorists as Ring Lardner, James Thurber, and Mark Twain. Like Twain, who gained a reputation traveling on the American lecture circuit in the last years of the nineteenth and first years of the twentieth century, Keillor's audience originally came from his live performances. Roy Blount, Jr., writing in the New York Times Book Review about A Prairie Home Companion, stated that it was "impossible to describe. Everyone I have met who has heard it has either been dumbfounded by it, or addicted to it, or both." "The same is true of Keillor's prose," Blount continued, referring to a series of pieces written for the New Yorker and collected in Happy to Be Here: Stories and Comic Pieces. However, "many of these pieces," wrote Peter A. Scholl in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1987, "show the witty and urbane Keillor rather than the wistful, wandering storyteller in exile from Lake Wobegon, where 'smart doesn't count for very much.'"

In 1985, the publication of Lake Wobegon Days brought Keillor's small town to national prominence. Beginning with the first explorations of the French traders in the eighteenth century, Keillor goes on to describe the town's history up to the present day. But Lake Wobegon is, according to Mary T. Schmich in the Chicago Tribune, "a town that lies not on any map but somewhere along the border of his imagination and his memory." Keillor described it in Lake Wobegon Days: "Bleakly typical of the prairie, Lake Wobegon has its origins in the utopian vision of nineteenth-century New England Transcendentalists, but now is populated mainly by Norwegians and Germans. . . . The lake itself, blue-green and sparkling in the brassy summer sun and neighbored by the warm-colored marsh grasses of a wildlife-teeming slough, is the town's main attraction, though the view is spoiled somewhat by a large grain elevator by the railroad track."

Lake Wobegon, in Keillor's stories, becomes a sort of American Everytown, "the ideal American place to come from," wrote Scholl. "One of the attributes of home in Keillor's work is evanescence. . . . Dozens of his stories concern flight from Lake Wobegon, and the title of his radio show gains ironic force with the realization that it was adapted from the Prairie Home Lutheran cemetery in Moorhead, Minnesota; we are permanently at home only when we are gone." Yet "the wonderful thing about Keillor's tone in detailing life as it is lived in Lake Wobegon is not derived from his pathos knowing he can never go home again," Scholl continued. "He refuses to emphasize his status as exile in the novel [Lake Wobegon Days]. The wonder flows from his understanding that the complicated person he has become . . . is truly no step up from the guy down in the Sidetrack Tap he might have been had he never left home in the first place."

Keillor left A Prairie Home Companion in June of 1987, deciding that he needed more time to devote to his writing, and, suggested Schmich, to escape the unwanted fame that dogged his heels in Minnesota. His next book, Leaving Home, consisted of edited versions of his monologues from the last months of the show, many of them about people leaving Lake Wobegon. "Every once in a while," declared Richard F. Shepard in the New York Times, "the author slips into a poetic mood and you know he is saying goodbye to a world that was, a goodbye he makes clear as he goes along." The book, Shepard concluded, "says what it has to say with a rare, dry humor that is in what we like to believe is the very best American tradition." "His humor," Scholl stated, "is sustained by his comic faith, which like Powdermilk Biscuits, helps readers and listeners 'get up and do what needs to be done.'"

Keillor lived briefly in Denmark with his Danish wife Ulla Skaerved, then returned to the United States and set up a residence in New York City. In 1989, he began a new radio program, Garrison Keillor's American Radio Company of the Air. Although one of his later books, We Are Still Married, mostly reprints pieces that appeared originally in the New Yorker, he has not yet exhausted his stories about the denizens of his quiet hometown. "In some hidden chamber of our hearts," wrote David Black in Rolling Stone, "most of us, no matter where we live, are citizens of Lake Wobegon," the place where, according to Keillor, "all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average."

Keillor made another foray into the world of novel writing with his 1992 release, WLT: A Radio Romance. The book is about Ray and Roy Soderbjerg, two brothers who establish a radio station during the glory days of radio in 1926. They bumble through their new enterprise, booking acts small and smaller as they explore the frontier of radio broadcasting. Acts such as the Shepherd Boys (a gospel group), Lily Dale (a wheelchair-bound woman with a seductive voice), and the Shoe Shine Boys (a folk group) compete with radio melodramas like Adventures in Homemaking and Noontime Jubilee. Brother Ray is a lecherous man who chases after any female who comes within his realm, whereas Roy craves the country life. The station "adopts" boy broadcaster Francis With, whose parents have either died or gone mad, and he is molded into the ubiquitous announcer Frank White, who becomes the station's top draw. The novel chronicles decades of the station's rise until television becomes the draw of the day.

The novel shows the appeal of radio during its golden days, the struggling personalities involved, the backstage hijinks, and the listeners' loyalties. Critical reaction to the book was mixed. Anne Bernays, writing in the New York Times Book Review, claimed that the work, unusual for the man so known for his humor, "is a much darker book than one would expect. . . . Mr. Keillor's famous grin now covers a grimace." She related that this undertone is one of her main problems with the work: "Funny and energetic as WLT is, the book's subtext of what can only be described as disappointment disappoints. I ended up wishing Mr. Keillor had let me laugh more; he still has the humorist's singular and worthy touch." Elizabeth Beverly of Commonweal criticized Keillor's style in writing the book, claiming that the chapters are too short and choppy: "They seriously hinder his ability to tell a story from the inside. There's not enough room to move, not enough time to fill in background information." Beverly concluded that "Keillor the novelist doesn't know what he wants. He cannot hear what he wants. He is learning to work in a medium which, in this case, has resisted him. This novel is a failed venture, but bespeaks a great hope." While Michael Ratcliffe, writing in the London Observer, remarked that Keillor's novel is "very funny," he found fault with its structure, claiming that it is "not really a novel at all. Keillor is an intensive miniaturist, but he is driving a stretched limo here. . . . Radio Romance is like a brilliant bedding plant: it flowers as floribundantly as promised in the photograph, but puts down no roots to grow."

Keillor's next work was a book of short stories and vignettes called The Book of Guys. A comic spinoff of the work of Robert Bly, the Minnesota poet who wrote bestselling works about male bonding in the wilderness, The Book of Guys tracks the struggles with manhood experienced by such diverse protagonists as Dionysius and Buddy the Leper. Roy Bradley, Boy Broadcaster, for example, hails from the tongue-twisting village Piscacatawamaquoddymoggin, and his tale is as much one of a broken heart as of his radio vocation. Lonesome Shorty, a cowboy who takes to collecting china, ends up in conflict over how his hobby has created conflict in his previously conventional life. "Keillor puts on the mantle of guyness, with its repeating pattern of male bonding and rugged manly embraces, and camps around in it," commented Susan Jeffreys of New Statesman & Society.

Jeffreys claimed that the book "is the best thing he has done since Lake Wobegon Days; maybe even better." Lisa Zeidner praised the work in the New York Times Book Review, calling it "an endearingly acerbic collection." Zeidner, however, found that Keillor is not necessarily at his peak when he is pointing out the differences between the sexes: "The most substantial tales aren't really about manhood at all, but about the arbitrariness and absurdity of modern success, especially in show business," she commented. "He drags his heroes through the mud of contemporary culture and teaches them the essential tongue-in-cheek Lake Wobegon lesson . . . 'not to imagine we are someone but to be content being who we are.'"

The novel Wobegon Boy is the third of Keillor's Lake Wobegon books. The story follows John Tollefson as he leaves Lake Wobegon and takes a job at a radio station at a college in upstate New York. John's life is complicated as he enters into a partnership to open a restaurant, falls in love and gets married, experiences the death of his father, and is forced to resign from the station before finally pulling himself together. Julian Ferraro, commenting in the Times Literary Supplement, observed that this novel follows its Lake Wobegon predecessors in that "an intelligent, sensitive, liberal-arts-educated son of an insular community in the Midwest breaks free and lives a relatively sophisticated, cosmopolitan life on the East Coast, without ever being able fully to shed the vestiges of the values and attitudes of his home town."

Wobegon Boy's critical reception reflects Keillor's reputation as a storyteller. Ferraro found that "Keillor is . . . at his best as an energetic storyteller, and it is the various comic interludes—the 'dozens of stories of shame and degradation'—that provide the book's most entertaining moments." Reviewing the novel in the Washington Post Book World, Michael Kernan revealed: "Though I can't get enough of the Keillor stories on tape, I find his written version of the same material much less effective." Alex Heard in the New York Times Book Review, referring to Keillor's earlier book Lake Wobegon Days as a "part novel, part supercasual" hybrid, argued that "this time the hybrid, while often sharp and funny, doesn't work as well . . . mainly because Keillor is trying to make Tollefson . . . a three-dimensional character—as opposed to the 2-D vehicles for comic experiences and observations that populate Lake Wobegon. That's admirable, but it creates a slippery situation that sometimes squirts out of Keillor's hands." Kernan concluded with the view that Keillor "appears to ramble on for pages about this and that, entertaining us but not moving us, and then suddenly, at the very end, he pulls everything together and gives meaning and brightness to all that has gone before."

The novel Lake Wobegon Summer 1956 tells of fourteen-year-old Gary trying to come to terms with his life in rural Minnesota, his sexual yearning, a job as the local newspaper's sportswriter, and his family's religious beliefs. "There is a good deal of Catcher in the Rye here: the lonely teenager who sees everything with an x-ray and dyspeptic eye," Jonathan Mirsky noted in the Spectator. "But it is less soft-centred and, to use Holden Caulfield's favourite word, less 'phony' than Salinger's too-admired book." Don McLeese in Book found that "Keillor's eye for evocative detail and penchant for parody give the novel the breezy charm of a summer reverie." Caroline Hallsworth, reviewing the novel in Library Journal, concluded: "Keillor's wry vignettes of Gary's summer of change and turmoil are laced with his trademark self-deprecating humor."

In the 2003 autobiographical novel Love Me, Larry Wyler leaves Minnesota and his sweetheart for New York City, hoping to become a famous writer. For a time he seems successful both at writing and womanizing, but his success lasts only a short time, and Wyler is soon brought low. He returns to Minnesota and a job as an advice columnist, giving out words of comfort under the pseudonym Mr. Blue.

Besides his adult fiction, Keillor has also written two books for children, Cat, You Better Come Home and The Old Man Who Loved Cheese, both of which feature his trademark sense of the absurd. In Cat, You Better Come Home, Keillor fictionalizes the life of a feline who wants more than she gets in her own house, so she runs away to a life of show business, only to return broken down to the man who loves her. The Old Man Who Loved Cheese features Wallace P. Flynn, a man whose love for the dairy product causes him to lose his wife and his family. However, after he realizes that the joys of human companionship are much more satisfying than his favorite food, he gives it up and his life is restored.

In 1999 Keillor was awarded the National Humanities Medal and was honored at a White House dinner hosted by President Bill Clinton. In July of 2001, Keillor underwent heart surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He made a full recovery and continued to broadcast his show and write.

"Keillor's most lasting fame," according to an essayist for Contemporary Popular Writers, "will likely center around the Prairie Home Companion. With this radio show, Keillor has made a lasting contribution to the literary world, the art of story-telling, public broadcasting, and American culture in general by reviving in the 1980s and 1990s the pre-television tradition of gathering around the radio to listen to variety shows, comedies, and dramas. In this way, Keillor has answered the public's need for old-fashioned, wholesome, family-style entertainment, as well as for nostalgia for a simpler time and a less complicated lifestyle."



Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 40, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986.

Contemporary Popular Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1997.

Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1987, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1988.

Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement, Volume 22, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2002.

Keillor, Garrison, Lake Wobegon Days, Viking (New York, NY), 1985.

Lee, Judith Yaross, Garrison Keillor: A Voice of America, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1991.


Atlantic, October 8, 1997, Katie Bolick, "It's Just Work."

Book, September, 2001, Don McLeese, reviews of Lake Wobegon Summer 1956 and In Search of Lake Wobegon, p. 80.

Booklist, June 1 and 15, 1996, p. 1732; January 1, 2003, review of Good Poems, p. 791.

Chicago Tribune, March 15, 1987.

Chicago Tribune Book World, January 24, 1982.

Children's Book Review Service, June, 1995, p. 124; July, 1996, p. 147.

Christian Century, July 21-28, 1982; November 13, 1985; March 22, 2003, "Wobegon Poets: A Prairie Poem Companion," p. 20.

Commonweal, April 10, 1992, p. 26.

Country Journal, January, 1982.

Detroit Free Press, September 8, 1985.

Detroit News, September 1, 1985.

Esquire, May, 1982.

Irish Times, March 7, 1998.

Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 1996, p. 532.

Library Journal, September 1, 2001, Caroline Hallsworth, review of Lake Wobegon Summer 1956, p. 234; March 1, 2003, Rochelle Ratner, review of Good Poems (audiobook), p. 136.

National Review, December 8, 1997; April 19, 1999.

New Statesman & Society, January 14, 1994, p. 40.

New York Times, October 31, 1982; August 20, 1985; October 31, 1985; October 21, 1987; August 26, 2001.

New York Times Book Review, February 28, 1982; August 25, 1985; November 10, 1991, p. 24; December 12, 1993, p. 13; May 21, 1995, p. 20; October 26, 1997, p. 14; March 28, 1999, p. 8.

Observer (London, England), January 19, 1992, p. 53; December 3, 1995, p. 16.

Publishers Weekly, September 13, 1985; May 8, 1995, p. 294; April 1, 1996, p. 74.

Rolling Stone, July 23, 1981.

Saturday Review, May-June, 1983.

School Library Journal, July, 1995, p. 78; May, 1996, p. 93; March, 2003, Sheila Shoup, review of Good Poems, p. 261.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 7, 1999.

Spectator, November 24, 2001, Jonathan Mirsky, review of Lake Wobegon Summer 1956, p. 54.

Time, November 9, 1981; February 1, 1982; September 2, 1985; November 4, 1985; November 22, 1993, p. 82; December 11, 1995, p. 77.

Times Literary Supplement, February 27, 1998, p. 21.

Utne Reader, September-October, 2001, Karen Olson, "The News . . . As Seen from Lake Wobegon," p. 92.

Washington Post, August 23, 1989; July 9, 2001; July 15, 2001.

Washington Post Book World, January 18, 1982; November 28, 1993, p. 1; November 30, 1997, p.1.

Yale Review, January, 1993, p. 148.


Minnesota Author Biographies Project, (June 11, 2003).

Prairie Home Companion Web site, (June 11, 2003).

Prime Time Online, (November 13, 2001), Jeff Baenen, "Garrison Keillor Spins More Tales from Lake Wobegon."*

About this article

Keillor, Garrison 1942-

Updated About content Print Article