There are a lot of Garrison Keillor haters on my Facebook feed. I knew that was true even before he was cut loose by Minnesota Public Radio due to allegations of sexual harassment, but needless to say the past few days have been a Keillor-haters festival. I keep almost posting “I hope all you Keillor haters are happy now,” but I try not to get into arguments on the internet.
Let me be clear: I write this not to excuse his actions nor to doubt them. It is not particularly surprising that a man has made unwanted advances on a woman, particularly a man who has been married and divorced as many times as Keillor has, particularly a man with the kind of status he has achieved. If the past few months have taught us anything, it is that such behavior is the rule, not the exception. That powerful and popular men are now being taken to task for it is amazing and gives me some faint hope that perhaps the men who are not so powerful or so popular but whose actions are every bit as egregious as those of Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK, or Matt Lauer may also see justice, although I have my doubts.
I write here not to defend Keillor’s actions — or really to say much about them at all, except that I strongly suspect MPR has more information than has been made public.
I write instead to defend the work. If you hate Garrison Keillor, you should stop right here, for I doubt anything I say will convince you otherwise. But in dismissing his work you are also dismissing mine, for so much of what I know about writing, about storytelling, about loyalty, about humor, and about love comes from his work.
I heard Garrison Keillor on the radio before I knew what a radio was. When I was very young we lived in a town without a supermarket, so once a week my mother and I drove twenty miles to get groceries and do other errands of the sort one could do in the city. These trips were largely dull for me, for what two or three or four year old enjoys going to the dry cleaner, the grocery store, and the state run liquor store? (The last of these was particularly dull, with its harsh light and its rows upon rows of bottles.) But as we drove back to Mount Vernon, my mother would listen to a man telling stories on the radio. Gradually I began to recognize his voice and to know a bit about the place he talked about and the people who lived there. The first monologue I remember talked about a dentist who had let his teeth go bad to make his patients feel better.
Later we moved to that town with the grocery store (the store I still shop at, in fact), but we still listened to the man on the radio. In grade school my best friend and I acquired — perhaps by stealing them from my mother or grandmother — the first set of tapes of Lake Wobegon monologues, and we listened to them over and over and over, particularly Spring, as “Me and Choir” was our hands-down favorite. Ninety percent of what I know about comic timing comes from that single monologue (for the remaining ten percent, I’ll give credit to “Alice’s Restaurant”).
To this day she and I can quote entire scenes from those stories and cap each other’s quotations. They are a shared language as sacred as any sacred text. In junior high we attended the 4th Annual Farewell Performance in Iowa City. In high school my mother took us to see the short-lived interlude, American Radio Company of the Air, before Keillor came to his senses and brought A Prairie Home Companion back.
In college I met a woman who could quote from A Lutheran’s Guide to the Orchestra while waiting around for orchestra tryouts. She organized a group of us to go down to New York City to see one of the December performances at Town Hall each year. When I got back to the Midwest for break, I’d go visit my old friend in Minneapolis and we’d see the show at its home at the Fitzgerald Theatre in downtown Saint Paul.
There were many years when the show was not as good as it once was, years when l listened largely for the music and years when I cringed at some of the skits (“Ruth Harrison, Reference Librarian,” I’m looking at you). But even then there’d every now and then be a glimmer of some of the magic of “Storm Home” or “Gospel Birds,” some of the sad majesty of “The Royal Family,” some of the family dynamics that make “The Tollefson Boy Goes to College” so perfect and so poignant.
Keillor is at his best in front of a live audience. His books fall flat, even when he reads them out loud — he needs that interaction of talking to people from an empty stage, looking out at them past the bright lights in the dark. Sitting in those audiences is a privilege I’ll never forget; listening (and listening again and again) to the recordings is something that never fails to bring me back to the seasons of my childhood, the way that leaves collaged themselves around you in the fall, the way that snowflakes caught on your mittens in the winter, the way the world seemed open and full of possibility in spring.
Early this week I posted Claire Dederer’s stunning essay “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?” Her questions are my questions, and her answers are mine. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.
But I do know that if it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will: you will love a man’s work and learn that its creator has done a terrible thing. And then you will have to figure out what to do.
“I don’t defend my conduct. I explain it,” said Oscar Wilde. I cannot defend Keillor. But perhaps I have explained a little about what his work has meant to me.