Garrison Keillor's Serious Humor: Satire in Lake Wobegon Days

By Frye, Bob J. | The Midwest Quarterly, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Garrison Keillor's Serious Humor: Satire in Lake Wobegon Days


Frye, Bob J., The Midwest Quarterly


DAVID COOK AND CRAIG SWAUGER observe in The Small Town in American Literature that "the small town has proved to be rich in materials for writers of imaginative literature" (vii). One of the most popular, and effective, minings of such rich materials has been Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon Days (1985). Reviewers and critics have lauded its "charm," marvelled at its "amusing stories and gossip," and praised Keillor's "sort of humor that evokes a chuckle" (Compton; Morse, 197). "What some say now," John Skow writes, "is ... that Keillor's storytelling approaches the quality of Twain's" (69). Yet Skow's comparison, one that Clark Brown, Bruce Michelson, Stephen Wilbers, and especially Peter Scholl all succinctly make without fully developing it, may lead to a fruitful examination of a kind of writing clearly evident in Twain but mostly ignored by critics of Lake Wobegon Days--satire. In this novel, I argue, Keillor employs traditional means of satire ranging from gentle, Horatian criticism of typical objects of satire education, politics, medicine, for example--to sardonic, Juvenalian commentary on religious intolerance and repressive child-rearing.

The sense of unease, the "sweet gloom" (Skow, 70)which some readers have mistaken for "bucolic whimsy" (Reed, 70) or merely poignant reminiscences in a "love poem to small towns" (MacDougall), reaches deeper than nostalgia. In "Some Reflections on Satire" Patricia Spacks argues that the most significant response created by effective satire, generally defined here as a literary genre or technique which mocks or ridicules in order to effect change, is "uneasiness" (364). Such a disturbing response results in large part because, as Alvin Kernan makes clear in his classic study of satire, The Cankered Muse, the scene of satire typically is "disordered and crowded.... We seem in satire always to be at the extreme ..." (7, 12). Yet Kernan also notes that "somewhere in [the] dense knots of ugly flesh the satiric author or painter usually inserts a hint of an ideal ..." (10). In short, the sense of uneasiness which Spacks discerns may produce in the reader of satire some hope of change, of improvement, whether the satire be gentle and sympathetic like that of Horace, or filled with savage indignation like that of Juvenal. Lake Wobegon, it turns out, is not only the small locale of Americana where "all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average" (Morse, 197), but it is also the place, says the narrator, where "we don't forget mistakes" (346), where "patching up was not a Brethren talent" (133).

Keillor is an experienced satirist. While at the University of Minnesota, Keillor wrote a satirical column, "Broadsides," for the literary magazine The Ivory Tower. Moreover, Kerilor's first book, Happy to Be Here (1982), incorporates satirical pieces, and his uncollected writings frequently are satires, a good example being "The People v. Jim" in The New Yorker, his gentle but effective caricature of America's mania for lists. J. D. Reed has remarked briefly on the "terror and finalities" of Lake Wobegon Days (70), and Alison Lurie observes that Keillor does have his "harsher side," contending that "the greatest American humorists can be roughly located along [a] continuum from destroyer to defuser," suggesting that Keillor seems nearer to the latter, to "the smiling side of life" (33). But she avoids the word satire, a word not in the index of Constance Rourke's seminal study American Humor (1931) or that of Walter Blair and Hamlin Hill's America's Humor (1978), and a term with no sustained discussion in Scholl's 1993 critical biography of Keillor despite numerous single-page references to it. I suggest that Keillor is more than a folksy humorist dealing in nostalgia. He is an artful satirist, and I propose to examine the range of Keillor's satire and the nature of the critical humor he employs in Lake Wobegon Days.

Lake Wobegon Days consists of twelve chapters. …

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