National Geographic: In Search of Lake Wobegon

Original Publish Date: December 2000

Originally published in National Geographic, with photographs by Richard Olsenius from the book In Search of Lake Wobegon

Twenty-five years ago, for amusement, I invented a small town where the women are strong and the men good-looking and all the children above average and started telling stories about it on the radio, and ever since then people have asked me if it’s a real town, and if it is, then where is it exactly? I used to say it’s fiction. “Oh,” they said. “Sure.” But they were disappointed. People want stories to be true. They don’t care so much about your gifts of invention as the fact that your story reminded them of people they knew when growing up. They want you to say, “The character of Darlene is based about 95 percent on my cousin Charlotte in Dubuque. I only changed the hair from auburn to blonde and made her more chesty.” So I started telling people that the town is in central Minnesota, near Stearns County, up around Holdingford, not far from St. Rosa and Albany and Freeport, northwest of St. Cloud, which is sort of the truth, I guess.

Thirty years ago I lived in Stearns County with my wife and little boy in a rented brick farmhouse south of Freeport, an area full of nose-to-the-grindstone German Catholics devoted to their Holy Mother the Church and proud of their redneck reputation. We moved there for the cheap rent—$80 a month for a house and half-acre vegetable garden, a great boon to a struggling writer. Beyond the windbreak was a couple hundred acres of corn, Cows stood in the pasture and studied us. The Sauk River was nearby to canoe on, and Watab Lake to swim in. It was a land of rolling, well-tended hog and dairy farms punctuated by tidy little towns, each with a ballpark, two or three taverns, and an imposing Catholic church with a cemetery behind it where people named Schrupp, Wendelschafer, Frauendienst, Schoppenhorst, and Stuedernann lay shoulder to shoulder. There were no Smiths to speak of.

When I invented Lake Wobegon, I stuck it in central Minnesota for the simple reason that I knew a little bit about it, and most people, if they know Minnesota at all, know the scenic parts—the North Shore, the Boundary Waters, the Mississippi Valley—and nothing about Stearns County. This gave
me a fairly free hand.

I said that Lake Wobegon (pop. 942) took its name from the Ojibwa word that means “the place where we waited all day for you in the rain,” and if anyone asked why the town appeared on no maps, I explained that when the state map was drawn after the Civil War, teams of surveyors worked their way in from the four outer corners and, arriving at the center, found they had surveyed more of Minnesota than there was room for between Wisconsin and the Dakotas, and so the corners had to be overlapped in the middle, and Lake Wobegon wound up on the bottom flap. (In fact, the geographic center of the state is north of there, in Crow Wing County, but never mind.)

To the German Catholics I added, for dramatic interest, an equal number of Norwegian Lutherans. The Norwegians, ever status conscious, vote Republican, and the Germans vote Democratic because the Norwegians don’t. The Catholics worship at Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility and the Lutherans at Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church (David Ingqvist, pastor), home of the National Lutheran Ushering Champions, the Herdsmen.

“Gateway to Central Minnesota” is the town slogan. And through the gateway over the years came a procession of characters. The three boys who drive to Iowa one February morning when they hear of Buddy Holly’s plane crash and discover his blue guitar in the snowy field. The stolid Father Emil who says, in regard to abortion (and much else), “If you didn’t want to go to Minneapolis, why did you get on the train?” and the town handyman Carl Krebsbach who repairs the repairs of the amateurs, and Bruno the fishing dog, and the irascible Art of Art’s Bait & Night O’Rest Motel, its premises studded with warnings (“Don’t clean fish here. Use your brains. This means you!!!”), and Dorothy of the Chatterbox Cafe and her softball-size caramel rolls (“Coffee 25¢, All Morning 85¢, All Day $1.25, Ask About Our Weekly Rates”), and Wally of the Sidetrack Tap, where old men sit and self-medicate. It was Wally’s pontoon boat, the Agnes D., on which 22 Lutheran pastors once crowded for a twilight cruise and weenie roast, and when the grill fell over and the crowd bolted and Agnes D. pitched to starboard, they were plunged into five feet of water and stood quietly, heads uplifted, waiting for help to arrive. It’s a town where the Lutherans all drive Fords bought from Clarence at Bunsen Motors and the Catholics all drive Chevies from Florian at Krebsbach Chevrolet. Florian is the guy who once forgot his wife at a truck stop. Her name is Myrtle. She is a hoot.

The stories I tell on the radio always start with the line, “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon,” and then a glimpse of the weather. It’s a fall day, geese flying south across a high blue sky, the air sweet and smoky, the woods in gorgeous van Gogh colors, or it’s winter, snowflakes falling like little jewels from heaven, trees glittering, the bare limbs of trees penciled in gray against the sky, or it’s spring, the tomato plants sprouting in trays of dirt on the kitchen counter, tulips and crocuses poking out of the ground, yellow goldfinches arriving from Mexico, or it’s summer, the gardens booming along, the corn knee-high, and a mountain range of black thunderclouds piling up in the western sky. And then I go on to talk about Norwegian bachelor farmers sitting on the bench in front of Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery or the Chatterbox, where large phlegmatic people sit at the counter talking in their singsong accent. So how you been then? Oh, you know, not so bad, how’s yourself, you keeping busy then? Oh yeah, no rest for the wicked. You been fishing at all? I was meaning to but I got too busy. How about yourself? Nope. The wife’s got me busy around the house, you know. Yeah, I know how that goes—and so forth. And I slip into the story, and take it around the turns and bring it to a point of rest, and say, “And that’s the news from Lake Wobegon,” and that’s all there is to it.
Two years ago, after my telling people for years that Lake Wobegon was near Stearns County, the county made a section of Great Northern railbed into a bike trail and named it the Lake Wobegon Trail, thus putting my imaginary town on the map, and last spring I decided I had better spend a few days driving around the area, to see if it was there or not.

Minnesota is a state of decent hardworking rural people, most of whom live in cities and don’t care for them much and prefer the outskirts where you can own two or three or five or ten acres—what real estate agents call a hobby farm, with room for a garden, an immense yard, a dog kennel, a shed, a snowmobile, and a satellite dish, and so Minneapolis and St. Paul sprawl far out into farm country, the outer citizens commuting an hour or more each way so as to enjoy the illusion of rural life. There are trace elements of hobby farms almost all the way to St. Cloud, the Stearns County seat.

The eastern approach to Lake Wobegon is Division Street, St. Cloud, a four-mile strip of free enterprise in full riot, the fast-food discount multiplex warehouse cosmos adrift in its asphalt sea, the no-man’s-land of 24-hour gas stations that sell groceries and photocopies, and the shiny plastic restaurants where, if you ate lunch there for the rest of your life, you would never meet anybody you know or get to know anybody you meet, a tumult of architecture so cheap and gaudy and chaotic you wonder how many motorists in search of a drugstore and a bottle of aspirin wound up piling into a light pole, disoriented by flashing lights and signage and access road signs. And then the cosmos peters out and you emerge from hell and come into paradise, rural Minnesota.

You drive past the rolling fields, the valleys of little rivers, and every farmstead is different, some more formal, with white painted fences and all the buildings at right angles; others seem to have grown without much supervision and are strewn with old vehicles and historical artifacts of an appliance nature. Some are exposed, nearly treeless, and others are barely visible from the road, deep in their woodlots. Some have a limber and attentive dog who will take a run at you if you slow down.

There are major poultry operations in the county, vast prison tamps of chickens, and a big mail-order outfit, and some big granite quarries near Rockville, blasting out millions of cubic feet of rock every year. (West of St. Cloud is a sign, “Buy Direct/ Monuments,” and an outdoor display of dozens of gravestones arranged as if in a cemetery, but the faces are blank.) At the Rockville quarry stand stacks of 24-ton blocks of granite with striated grooves down the sides, including Rockville Beige and Diamond Pink, two local granites, and also Mesabi Black, and Lake Superior Green, and black granite from Africa. There never was a Minnesota Granite Rush back when the rock was first discovered; it’s too much work getting the stuff out of the ground. And I never mention quarrying in the Wobegon saga because I don’t know the first thing about it. I only talk about abandoned quarries where teenagers go to swim and drink beer and neck.

The county appears to be prospering: population up 35 percent since 1970, new prefab industrial buildings cropping up along the main routes, trucks at the loading docks, forests of billboards as you approach Freeport and Avon and Albany. Avon (pop. 1,144) even has what looks to be a suburb on the east side of town, with suburban street names like Angelfish Avenue, Barracuda, Char. The dairy farms are as trim as ever: new silos in evidence, the big hip-roof barns well kept, the cows themselves look professional, courteous, goal oriented. Corn prices are low, but farmers here raise corn only to feed cows, and milk prices are still good enough, barely, to live on.

(One farmer told me that barns start falling apart if the cattle are evacuated; cows keep the temperature and humidity up, and if they are sold off, the barn goes to pieces fairly quickly. A symbiotic relationship.)

Holdingford (pop. 638) is the town that looks most Wobegonic to me. It has a fine little downtown of elderly brick buildings and a big thriving grocery and a classic four-legged, cone-topped water tower (torn down after my visit, I was sorry to hear), a graveyard full of big stones, and down by the river the Holdingford Mill, a jewel-like assembly of galvanized-metal cylinders and boxes and sloped roofs, and a faded old red boxcar on an abandoned siding that would have been headquarters for a gang of boys except it is smack in town, too close to enemy lines.

I dropped into Mary’s Family Restaurant, formerly the Rainbow Cafe, for coffee and oatmeal raisin cookies and eavesdropped on a fellow reminiscing about the great Armistice Day blizzard of 1940. He was 14 at the time, and it made a big impression on him. He and his brothers walked out of a second-story window onto the snow and dug a tunnel to the barn. He talked about logging up north and picking potatoes in North Dakota and earning a buck twenty-five a day. “Today everybody wants to make 20 bucks an hour and not do any work,” he said. There were four of us at the counter, and none of us disagreed with him. I myself would prefer to not do any work for much more than twenty bucks an hour but didn’t wish to discuss it.

New Munich is the town closest to the farm my family and I lived on. You drive past the sign (“Welcome to New Munich, Home of Munichfest,” which shows a dancing couple smiling, holding beers in their free hands), past Spinners Bar and Grill, New Munich Meats, the Munich Hofbrau, and come to the church, a big dramatic brick church trimmed in carved sandstone, with a bell tower, clock-faces on all four sides, and magnificent heavy doors with big black hinges, a veritable cathedral in a town of only 335. Nothing about this modest village prepares you for the grandeur within—the inlaid tile floor and the high columns with figured capitals, the rose windows in the transepts, the lovely statues with the compassionate faces. I thought I had based Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility on this church, but I could see that I didn’t get the baroque feel at all. Such a huge sanctuary, leaping arches, big organ and choir loft in the back, organ pipes, all illuminated by tall stained-glass windows: If I’d put it in Lake Wobegon, nobody would’ve believed it.

It’s a county of many grand churches: St. Benedict’s in Avon, with its red roof and bell tower, and St. Rose of Lima at the end of two rows of tall cedars in St. Rosa, and Seven Dolors in Albany, an orange-brick beauty that glows in the setting sun, and Sacred Heart in Freeport, a fine tall yellow-brick edifice with a high steep roof. But the church in New Munich stands out as a mighty architectural shout, an exuberant brick crescendo meant to astonish farmers and shopkeepers for all time and bring doubters to their knees.

Freeport calls itself the Dairy Center of the World, and in Charlie’s Cafe the cook does not stint on dairy products: The banana cream pies are big enough to be bowling trophies. I had a grilled-cheese sandwich, a bowl of chili, and a slab of pie, and felt my belt and collar tightening. I got up and walked along the main drag. I saw an old man walk out of the post office who reminded me of Florian Krebsbach, a man in a brown porkpie hat and pale blue polyester suit and green plaid shirt with a string tie with an agate on the clasp and wearing white shoes. When I lived here 30 years ago, Freeport was my post office, my supply station, and once I went into the bank and asked a loan officer if I could borrow money, offering my fiction as collateral as a farmer might borrow against his corn crop. The officer said he didn’t think so.

Freeport was a railroad town, and the tracks ran along the south side of Main Street, and now the tracks are gone, and the one-sided Main Street remains, like an architect’s rendering. Down the street is the Pioneer Inn. The Sidetrack Tap in Lake Wobegon was modeled after it, a gloomy smoke-filled sour-smelling tavern, cluttered with neon beer signs and deer heads and mottoes (“Don’t Sleep In Our Bar, We Don’t Drink in Your Bed”), except the Pioneer Inn has been cleaned up and remodeled, the sourness expunged. A few guys at the bar were talking about fishing and the lottery, neither of which was paying off for them lately. One of them said that Big Watab Lake, southeast of there, is 120 feet deep and home to some mighty pugnacious fish, none of which he had caught lately.

The Central Minnesota Arts Board lists two dozen theater companies and music groups in the county, but it doesn’t mention the dozens of taverns and cafés that are the actual centers of culture here. Like Fisher’s, an old screen porch of a supper club in Avon, open only in the summer, where you bring your own whiskey and they supply the glass, the ice, the baked walleye dinner with salad. Places with names like the Corner Bar, Sportsman’s Bar, Tip Top, or the Buckhorn, where gentlemen congregate for the purpose of enjoying a cold one and solving the problems of the world. They plant themselves in a booth, or lean against the bar, and they enact a classic four-character play: There’s the Reader, who has come across an interesting item in the paper (“I read that within five years they’ll have figured out how to throw a bunch of genetically engineered enzymes into a steel tank full of wet silage and turn it into milk”), and there’s the Grouch, who maintains a dark view of human nature (“the big corporations are behind it because they want to clear out the little guys and put in 10,000-acre farms”), the Worrier, always a little nervous about something (“genetic engineering or not, I just can’t see things getting better anytime in the foreseeable future, I’ll tell you that”), and the Big Fella, the guy who holds back until the topic is exhausted and then gives the final word (“people are not going to buy artificial milk. That’s been proven. You can bet on it”). They sit and hold forth on politics (corrupt, on both sides, always has been), global warming (hogwash), golf (a huge waste of time), the Internet (ditto), education (not what it used to be), women (creatures of superstition and pointless ritual), the benefits of physical exercise (when it’s your time to die, you die, whether you walk two miles a day or not), and they take turns buying rounds, and if you happen to believe that mankind is on the verge of a new age of enlightenment and progress, these gentlemen will have a fine time pulling your chain.

Being there, drinking a beer, looking down the bar toward the others standing 15 feet away brought back a sudden clear memory of 1970 and sitting in the very same spot near the door and overhearing men talk and wishing I knew how to join in that conversation. A sudden jolting memory I had put away for 30 years.

Nobody ever welcomed us to town when we came in 1970. No minister visited to encourage us to worship on Sunday, no neighbor dropped in with a plate of brownies. Several times I stopped at neighboring farms to say hello and announce our presence and was met in the yard by the farmer, and we spent an uncomfortable few minutes standing beside my car, making small talk about the weather, studying the ground, me waiting to be invited into the house, him waiting for me to go away, until finally I went away. In town the shopkeepers and the man at the garage were cordial, of course, but if I said hello to someone on the street, he glanced down at the sidewalk and passed in silence. I lived south of Freeport for three years and never managed to have a conversation with anyone in the town. I didn’t have long hair or a beard, didn’t dress oddly or do wild things, and it troubled me. I felt like a criminal.
This fear of outsiders was explained to me years later by a Stearns exile who said that the German population was so traumatized, first by the anti-Teutonic fevers of World War I that forbade the use of their language in schools, then by Prohibition that made outlaws of decent upstanding beer drinkers, that they never could trust auslanders again. A strange face is, to them, a cruel face. My German neighbors were a closed community, and I wasn’t in it and had no part of it. Proximity does not bestow membership.

I accepted this because I come from similar people. Mine were Protestant fundamentalists, who lived by the Word and not by the opinion of others, and were wary of strangers, and didn’t go in for small talk, period. We were taciturn people to start with who could sit in silence for long stretches and not feel uncomfortable. If strangers came to the door, they were dealt with and sent on their way. They were not people of the Word, and their friendship meant nothing to us.

As I sat in the Pioneer Inn and recalled the years I spent in Stearns County, it dawned on me where Lake Wobegon had come from. All those omniscient narrator stories about small-town people came from a guy sitting alone at the end of a bar, drinking a beer, who didn’t know anything about anything going on around him. Stories about prodigals welcomed home, outcasts brought into the circle, rebels forgiven: all from the guy at the end of the bar. In three years only one man ever walked the 15 feet to find out who I was—he walked over and said, “You live out on the Hoppe place, don’t you:’ I said that I did, and he nodded, satisfied that now he had me placed, and turned and moseyed back to the herd. There was nothing more to say. So I invented a town with a bar in which, if a stranger enters, he is, by God, without fail, intriguing to the regulars, and conversation ensues and he turns out to be someone’s long-lost cousin. In order to be accepted, I had to invent a town like the imaginary friend I had in second grade, David, who walked to school with me. The loner nursing his beer at the end of
the bar is starved for company. He and his wife have little to say to each other these days, and in the long shadows of a winter night, in extreme need of society, he drives to town and sits at the bar, where his pride and social ineptitude get in the way. He has no idea how to traverse those 15 feet without feeling like a beggar, so he goes back home to his typewriter and invents characters who look like the guys in the bar but who talk a blue streak, whose inner life he is privy to, and soon he
has replaced the entire town of Freeport with an invented town of which he is the mayor, the fire chief, the priest, the physician, and the Creator himself, and he gets a radio show, and through perseverance and dumb luck and a certain facility the fictional town becomes more famous than the real town, and now when he goes to Freeport, some people come up and say, “You’re Garrison Keillor, aren’t you.” A person could write a story about this.

I respect Stearns County for its egalitarianism. It may look down on strangers, but it looks down on all of them equally, and it doesn’t look down on people because they have less money or do dirty work. And it has a real culture. It doesn’t draw its identity from the media, it draws it up out of the past, like well water. The media world is a small town of its own, and information is the currency—who’s up, who’s down, what’s new, what’s newer—but here the currency is character, as expressed in stories. So I made up stories about its character, morphing some of my old fundamentalist relatives into German Catholics.

I had a train pull up on a sidetrack in 1938 and an aging Babe Ruth step down and wave to the crowd. He was with the Sorbasol barnstorming team that played the local nine that afternoon, and the Babe hit one so far it was never found again. The ballpark is still there. The Whippets play there, and in the spring middle-aged men who have smelled the April air come with a glove and toss a ball around. Here beside the tracks is the foundation of an old grain elevator that, one Saturday night in the summer of 1942, as various couples sat and smoked and drank beer and necked in their cars along the train tracks, went up in a pillar of flame 500 feet high, and people leaped from those cars and tore for cover and the churches were full the following Sunday. Most of those couples married soon afterward, and most of the marriages lasted. Not a true story, but when the thing blew up, it seemed real enough. The cemetery in Freeport is behind the church, but in Lake Wobegon I put it on a hill, which Freeport doesn’t have. It was there that Clarence Bunsen gave his famous Memorial Day address.

The VFW honor guard stood at parade rest in front of the monument to the Grand Army of the Republic. Their feet hurt, their jackets pinched, they needed a drink. The crowd stood waiting on the grass. A boy recited:

Breathes there the man with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
“This is my own, my native land!”
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d
As home his footsteps he hath turn’d
From wandering on a foreign strand?

There was a tremendous long silence, and then Pastor Ingqvist gave a nod and Clarence stepped forward and said, “If there were one time when words truly seemed inadequate, one occasion when silence seemed so appropriate, it would be here and now. It would be more fitting if we were silent for two minutes and looked around us and thought of our people here and their gifts to this country.” He stepped back. Everyone looked around at the markers and the little flags fluttering and listened to the breeze in the leaves. An oriole sang. And then someone blew his nose. The whole honor guard was crying. Old men with rifles to their shoulders dug down in their pockets and got out their big red hankies and blew.
And afterward they pressed around Clarence and shook his hand and said it was perfect, they’d be grateful to him for the rest of their lives. He didn’t tell them that when Pastor Ingqvist nodded to him, he suddenly remembered that he was supposed to speak, and a wave of guilt washed over him that he had forgotten Memorial Day, the day of remembrance, and he wanted to cry out, “I am not worthy!” And then he felt steady again. “It’s not about you,” he thought. “You’re not the reason they’re here.” And he stepped forward and said his piece.

I feel the same way about Stearns County and Lake Wobegon. It isn’t up to me. I can’t re-create it. I find that if I leave out enough details in my stories, the listener will fill in the blanks with her own hometown, and if a Freeport girl exiled in Manhattan hears the story about Memorial Day, she’ll put it right smack there in that cemetery with those names on the stones, and she may think of her uncle Alcuin who went to France and didn’t return, and get out her hanky and blow. I’m not the reason she’s moved, he is. All I do is say the words: cornfield and Mother and algebra and Chevy pickup and cold beer and Sunday morning and rhubarb and loneliness, and other people put pictures to them.

Available December 1st: Garrison Keillor's memoir, via Arcade Publishing.

If you pre-order a copy now, sometime before the official publication date (Dec 1) you will receive the book plus an exclusive link to a video made by Garrison about the memoir. Plus, pre-orders will enjoy $5.00 off in our store (pay $25.00 for the hardcover instead of $30.00).

In That Time of Year, Garrison Keillor looks back on his life and recounts how a Brethren boy with writerly ambitions grew up in a small town on the Mississippi in the 1950s and, seeing three good friends die young, turned to comedy and radio. Through a series of unreasonable lucky breaks, he founded A Prairie Home Companion and put himself in line for a good life, including mistakes, regrets, and a few medical adventures. PHC lasted forty years, 750 shows, and enjoyed the freedom to do as it pleased for three or four million listeners every Saturday at 5 p.m. Central. He got to sing with Emmylou Harris and Renee Fleming and once sang two songs to the U.S. Supreme Court. He played a private eye and a cowboy, gave the news from his hometown, Lake Wobegon, and met Somali cabdrivers who’d learned English from listening to the show. He wrote bestselling novels, won a Grammy and a National Humanities Medal, and made a movie with Robert Altman with an alarming amount of improvisation.

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Wobegon Virus

Available September 8th: It's a new Lake Wobegon novel from Garrison Keillor. Hardcover and eBook are available now wherever you get your books. The audiobook is available for download/streaming from Audible and wherever else you get your audiobooks. A book-on-CD collection will also be available from our shop beginning September 29 (you can preorder now).

In The Lake Wobegon Virus, a mysterious virus has infiltrated the good people of Lake Wobegon, transmitted via unpasteurized cheese made by a Norwegian bachelor farmer, the effect of which is episodic loss of social inhibition. Says Keillor, "The people of Lake Wobegon were waiting for the chance to go wild and so the book wrote itself."

Read the first chapter and order your copy >>>


A former outlaw appreciating the Republican life

In the spring, there was a shortage of vegetable seeds and now, I’m told, there is a shortage of canning jar lids. This doesn’t affect me, locked down in Manhattan, but it brings back memories of my childhood home, the half-acre garden, the big tomato, corn and cucumber crops, the steamy kitchen with the pressure cooker going full tilt.

As a child, I worried that we might be poor and maybe canning was a sign that we were. Our neighbors were not canners. The dread of the stigma of poverty stuck with me until I was 18 and went to college and actually was poor and took it as a point of pride. I was a poet specializing in unintelligible poetry, and poverty was a mark of authenticity. Geniuses were, of necessity, poor. My girlfriend, however, came from a suburban Republican family and over time, against my principles, I came to love them, especially her mother, Marjorie. She had grown up in North Dakota in the Depression, when dust blew through the windows, her father and brother drunk in the barn, and she set out to make a graceful life of her own and maintain a cheerful atmosphere, avoiding the sort of dark brooding that filled my poetry, and I stepped into the role of boyfriend and enjoyed their company, and gradually they corrupted me and instilled strong bourgeois leanings that an outlaw poet should shun.

It was Marjorie’s fault: I honest to God loved to be around her as she cooked dinner, her Rob Roy in hand, smoking a Winston, chatting about friends and family, prospective travels, nothing about happy childhood memories of which she seemed to have none. She had risen from hardscrabble origins to make a nice life, peaceful, no outbursts of shouting, no ugliness, wall-to-wall carpeting, art on the walls, no trashy behavior, good manners.

I think of her these days as the pandemic has imposed a small life on us. I’m old, I stay home to avoid crowds, we cook at home, our apartment is about the size of their bungalow — LR, DR, 2 BR, Kit — except they also had a den, which we don’t. I don’t know anyone who has a den these days. But it’s a pleasant small life that Marjorie would recognize, a life I avoided for about forty years of gallivanting around, and now I find, to my surprise, that I’ve become fond of it. I turn on the ball game, I pour a ginger ale and pretend its Scotch, I smell the chicken cooking, and I remember that gentle Republican family at home on a Saturday afternoon. Easily satirized but comforting nonetheless.

I was a busy man for about forty years, doing shows, writing books, and in the course of it I gradually lost touch with the world around me, social media, cable TV, apps, electronics, all the current acronyms, GDP, LED, YOLO, POC, ROFL, AFAIK, GPS, LGBTIQQIAA+, and I am an old man enjoying baseball, a crossword puzzle, writing letters with a black pen on white stationery, a dish of ice cream, a cup of licorice tea, all of which were around fifty years ago. The one advantage of modern electronics is that I can Google Jelly Roll Morton or Bill Monroe or Little Richard and there it is on YouTube, no need to pull the vinyl out of the sleeve and set down the needle. The more things change, the more they are the same. I’m in Manhattan but really I’m in a village of the Upper West Side along Columbus Avenue, the drugstore, the grocery, a bookstore, the church on 99th. Like most people who value rationalism and low blood pressure, I ignore politics completely and wait for November 3rd and hope for clarity.

Back in my youth, I wanted to be an artist and imagined this required a reckless life, big mood swings, unfiltered smokes, straight gin, black clothing, and now I feel that inspiration can arise out of quiet and order and a peaceful disposition. I hope so. In my youth, I wrote a great deal about death and now, with death in the air, I write about gratitude for love and music and work and good-hearted Republicans. God grant us more of them.

A late dispatch from the New York correspondent

A chilly night in New York, fall in the air, geese winging along a flyway over West 91st, a lively crowd watching a playground basketball game. Unusual in these pandemic days, to hear a cheering crowd. We’ve been isolating here since March, avoiding the dread virus, leading a life more like that of a lighthouse keeper than a New Yorker, no plays, no Fauré or Bizet or cabaret, though Sunday we sat in a sidewalk café and had a cassoulet, a small soirée, just three of us, me and the Missus and our friend Suzanne whom I like to hang out with because she’s older than I and very lively. She is proof that aging, though likely to be fatal, need not be dull. Gusts of talk, none of it touching on the Unmentionable.

I’m fond of fall, the beauty and brevity of it. Soon the iron gates will clank shut and we descend into the dark trenches of winter. A person always imagines there will be more warm evenings and suppers outdoors, but fall teaches otherwise. And that is what makes life beautiful, the knowledge of approaching November. Last week the world was drenched with the beauty Van Gogh was crazy for and that is why we send our kids off to school, so they don’t become obsessed with beauty and goldenness and can pay attention to algorithms and multiplicity and divisiveness. I was a mediocre student, but every fall I appeared in the classroom door, struggled through college and humanities courses of which I remember nothing at all — I should’ve studied auto mechanics — and then when I was 27, I was hired by a radio station to work the 6 a.m. shift and the same fall, a magazine bought a story of mine for $500. My monthly rent was $80. I was off to the races.

We want what we cannot have. The heart wants life to go on and on. So the old writer goes on writing stories, still hopeful, though there’s plenty of evidence that you hit your peak at forty. You sit doing something you’ve done steadily since childhood and it’s still of keen interest. And Sunday night I dreamed about writing. I’d written a book about the Soviet Union and was invited to talk about it up in the Berkshires and drove on winding roads through little hill towns to a house where I walked up a strange steep staircase with tiny steps to the attic where a dozen people sat around a table to hear my talk. I joked about who should leave first if there were a fire and nobody laughed. They were all communists and took sharp issue with my book and shouted at me in Russian, which I understood but could not speak. The quiet domestic pandemic life has been bringing me a wild dream life.

We bought a new TV in August to liven up our days and somehow cannot figure out how to tune in news programs — which platforms are they on — so we don’t watch them, which is a relief. I’m tired of hearing the name in the news, don’t care to hear words that rhyme with it such as “dump,” “hump,” “lump,” “chump,” “rump,” “slump,” look at the news online and avert my eyes from the smug New York playboy face with the fruitcake hair. It’s time for the election now though it’s September. The election should’ve been held a year ago. The man is a bad dream. I’m an American, I love hamburgers, country music, baseball, small towns on the prairie, the American September, Levi jeans, the poetry of Jim Harrison and Maxine Kumin, and this guy is a Russian who learned his English at the movies. He isn’t one of us, not even slightly.

Nonetheless, life is good. Our happiness never depended on foreign con men. I’m here because my parents loved each other and even though Hitler had overrun much of Europe and was bombing England and people could see what was coming, nonetheless those two nestled in each other’s arms and took their pleasure and I appeared in 1942, on the day of the American assault on Guadalcanal. We got through the Forties and we’ll get through the Twenties. Water is coming out of the tap, the mail is left at the doorstep, the buses are running, and the grocery store is open, we’re in business. The election approaches. Let’s get it done.

Some great music is played on old fiddles

It’s great to see an old, old magazine in headline news for something other than its obit and bravo to The Atlantic and Jeffrey Goldberg for the “losers” and “suckers” story on Trump and his contempt for military service or anything else nonprofitable. It’s been hot news for several days, it got Joe Biden highly impassioned and powerfully articulate, and if any of Trump’s entourage who heard him say what he said would step up and tell the truth, we could get this election over with in a hurry and get on with our lives.

As an old man, I’m pleased by the success of old institutions. The New York Times and the Washington Post have never been so day-to-day excellent as they’ve been in covering the Twitter presidency. The big story isn’t about actions he’s taken or not, it’s about his flagrant contempt for the office, the law, science, knowledge of all sorts, American history and tradition, his laziness and short attention span, his small world of wealthy advisors, his weird sycophants, his whole reality show, a phenomenon never before seen in our time, government by social media based on something he heard on Fox. Journalists at the big papers were trained to take government seriously, and how do they cover a president who doesn’t give a rip?

One old institution that’s been flummoxed by Trump is public radio, the industry where I spent forty happy years creating fiction. At news, which is its primary business, public radio has been lost in the wilderness. Its big marquee shows, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, have never laid a hand on Trump so he’s never bothered to insult them. Part of their problem is gentility: a deep fear of vulgarity, which rules public radio from the top down. Back where I’m from, Minnesota, public radio assiduously avoids the darkness in favor of covering the arts, education, civic uplift, small children, pets, colorful hobbies. It doesn’t try to cover business — much too complicated — or sports, though it loves meteorology: every snowfall is thoroughly examined. The real journalism is practiced by citizens with cellphones who upload video of the forest fires dancing around the houses in the California hills, who caught the cop with his knee on George Floyd’s neck in south Minneapolis back in May. Public radio is capable of inviting a sociologist and a social psychologist to discuss the history of racism for forty-five minutes, but it’s the video by passersby that unleashed a powerful popular agitation for social change.

Radio was Rush’s medium, it lent itself to incantatory hallucinations about the Apocalypse, and he opened the doors to a parade of wild wackos, one of whom is about to be elected to the U.S. Senate from Minnesota. I did a different style of radio, a goulash of old jazz and antique oddities, wishing people a happy birthday, offering joke contests, taking phone calls from the irate. Rush’s style thrives, my sort of show is deader than downtown Detroit. We’ve moved into Podcastville and the production of small clever idiosyncratic audio that gives the listener the sensation of belonging to an exclusive club. Live radio shows are dead because they’re available to everyone. You want to subscribe to “What’s In, What’s Up,” where you can feel united with your tribe of superior intellects.

This is Trump’s bond with his believers. They adhere to him no matter what because all the people they loathe also loathe him. Foreigners, city people, English majors, Times readers, the latte crowd. Loathing is not a prime Christian value but it binds his evangelical base to him even though the man is a stranger to the Word and has never knelt in church except at his three weddings. I feel bad for my evangelical friends; they know what they’re doing, they’ve made a deal with the dark side and so far haven’t seen any benefits, except for the pleasure of making Anglicans and Methodists writhe in misery.

This is why I’m proud of The Atlantic, which now, having recently subscribed to, I can report is a great read. I’m an old man, I don’t have time to waste reading or listening to crap. The Atlantic has been around since Ralph Waldo Emerson’s day and he would be proud of its renaissance. Emerson said, “There is a tendency for things to right themselves.” This November, I hope he’s right.

Destroying (not) the American way of life

As a Democrat accused by Republicans of trying to take away people’s hamburgers, I have to speak in my own defense. I am second to none in my fondness for the beef patty in a bun, a thin slice of onion, and mustard. I do not eat hamburger in a croissant; I am not that type of person. Ketchup is for French fries, mustard for burgers. No mayo, please. The Democrat who’s trying to take away hamburgers is my wife but it’s only my hamburger she’s after, not yours. She thinks they’re unhealthy. I enjoy them even more for her opposition.

As for our wanting to destroy the American Way of Life, I wouldn’t know how to go about that since there are so many Ways of Life involved. Love of human variety is part of it: we’re not a race or breed, we’re an amalgam of strangers and the fact that we can make space for each other is remarkable. Walk down the street and you pass people with headphones tuned to Beyoncé, Brahms, a preacher proclaiming the gospel, a Scientologist, Sean Hannity, poetry plain, poetry strange, Gershwin, George Strait, a podcast about strategic planning. Yes, the country is at war on social media, but in everyday life, Americans show each other enormous tolerance. We look, we smile, we move on.

For me, America means the love of spaciousness, driving west from Minnesota over the open prairie, preferably on two-lane roads, looking at farms, farming being the hardest work there is and unpredictable and dangerous. And also walking through Lower Manhattan and sensing the human history around you in the five-story brick buildings, the people who escaped an emperor or kaiser or czar to come here, no English to speak of, in behalf of their children. They believed that in a free society they would be judged by their character and their competence, not by their social connections. They worked terribly hard at whatever work came their way, in order to secure the right to be American. Certainly, the country produced its share of con men and card sharps, windbags, hustlers, but hard work and competence was honored here, more than family dynasties. We don’t bow to the grand pooh-bahs, we put a whoopee cushion on the throne.

When it comes to patriotism, it’s the American way to play it cool and not walk around jingling your medals. My high school biology teacher was a combat pilot in the Korean War, my phy-ed teacher was a Navy lieutenant on a forward observation boat at Normandy on D-Day, and neither of them went around talking about it, for the simple reason that they had survived and friends of theirs had died and self-aggrandizement dishonors the sacrifice of others. I asked the movie director Bob Altman about his wartime experience and he told me he lied about his age to enlist in the Army Air Forces in 1942 and become a B-17 pilot at the age of nineteen and the plane was loud and hard to handle and it was freezing cold at high altitudes. That was all he cared to say. It wasn’t for him to play the hero.

I know people who will likely vote for the man with his arms wrapped around the flag and I don’t try to talk them out of it but the business about hamburgers and destroying the American Way of Life is garbage of a low order and if you buy into it, you’re heading down a lonely road. Unreality is not a good strategy. It’s a beautiful country and we’re meant to enjoy it and to care about one another. I’ve been watching baseball on TV, a great sport for immigrants, and there seem to be more Latino names than ever, more players of color, but it’s the same beautiful game. This past week, I saw two perfect bunts, a rarity, the batter places his bat to tap the 90 mph pitch into the sweet spot in the infield, left or right, to advance the runners and also arrive safely at first. It doesn’t matter who does it, it’s astonishing. If the umpire were to call a bunt foul that clearly was fair, and if the opposing team were willing to accept this blatant lie, that would violate the American Way, and that is exactly what we’re seeing today. And that is a shame.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, September 26, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, September 26, 2020

It’s the birthday of composer George Gershwin (1898-1937), whose piece “An American in Paris” featured accompaniment written for taxi horns.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, September 25, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, September 25, 2020

On this day in 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor was sworn in as the first female Supreme Court justice, appointed by President Reagan.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, September 24, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, September 24, 2020

It’s the birthday of Irish poet Eavan Boland (1944-2020). She said, “Poetry is one of the most fugitive arts…therefore the most likely to survive colonization.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, September 23, 2020

It’s the birthday of Victoria Claflin Woodhull (1838-1927), who ran for president in 1872 on a platform including women’s suffrage and nationalization of railroads.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, September 22, 2020

On this day in 1862, President Lincoln signed his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, stating any slave in the Confederacy would be free January 1st.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, September 21, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, September 21, 2020

It’s the birthday of H.G. Wells (1866-1946), author of science fiction books such as “The Time Machine” and “The War of the Worlds.”

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A Prairie Home Companion: 2005 Opener

A Prairie Home Companion: 2005 Opener

The official kickoff to the 2005 season! Featuring Andy Stein, Prudence Johnson, and after the show, our annual street dance and meatloaf supper on Exchange Street in St. Paul.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, September 20, 2020

It’s the birthday of George R.R. Martin (1948), author of the series “A Song of Ice and Fire” which was turned into the HBO show “Game of Thrones.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, September 19, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, September 19, 2020

On this date in 1940, Polish soldier Witold Pilecki allowed himself to be captured by the Nazis so he could find out what was happening at Auschwitz.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, September 18, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, September 18, 2020

It’s the birthday of Swedish-American actress Greta Garbo (1905-1990), who made 28 movies before retiring at the age of 35.

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Writing

A former outlaw appreciating the Republican life

In the spring, there was a shortage of vegetable seeds and now, I’m told, there is a shortage of canning jar lids. This doesn’t affect me, locked down in Manhattan, but it brings back memories of my childhood home, the half-acre garden, the big tomato, corn and cucumber crops, the steamy kitchen with the pressure cooker going full tilt.

As a child, I worried that we might be poor and maybe canning was a sign that we were. Our neighbors were not canners. The dread of the stigma of poverty stuck with me until I was 18 and went to college and actually was poor and took it as a point of pride. I was a poet specializing in unintelligible poetry, and poverty was a mark of authenticity. Geniuses were, of necessity, poor. My girlfriend, however, came from a suburban Republican family and over time, against my principles, I came to love them, especially her mother, Marjorie. She had grown up in North Dakota in the Depression, when dust blew through the windows, her father and brother drunk in the barn, and she set out to make a graceful life of her own and maintain a cheerful atmosphere, avoiding the sort of dark brooding that filled my poetry, and I stepped into the role of boyfriend and enjoyed their company, and gradually they corrupted me and instilled strong bourgeois leanings that an outlaw poet should shun.

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The News from Manhattan: Friday, September 18, 2020

New York seems to be returning to life, more lights, more traffic, more taxis. Meanwhile the pandemic has given us a greater appreciation of what we have.

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The News from Manhattan: Thursday, September 17, 2020

The audiobook business is booming, thanks to people with long commutes, people on Stairmasters, people who like to fall asleep while listening to a book.

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A late dispatch from the New York correspondent

A chilly night in New York, fall in the air, geese winging along a flyway over West 91st, a lively crowd watching a playground basketball game. Unusual in these pandemic days, to hear a cheering crowd. We’ve been isolating here since March, avoiding the dread virus, leading a life more like that of a lighthouse keeper than a New Yorker, no plays, no Fauré or Bizet or cabaret, though Sunday we sat in a sidewalk café and had a cassoulet, a small soirée, just three of us, me and the Missus and our friend Suzanne whom I like to hang out with because she’s older than I and very lively. She is proof that aging, though likely to be fatal, need not be dull. Gusts of talk, none of it touching on the Unmentionable.

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The News from Manhattan: Saturday, September 12, 2020

Our girl left for school this morning. I miss her. I woke her up at 7 this morning, singing “What A Wonderful World,” with the line “I hear babies cry, I watch them grow, they’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know.”

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The News from Manhattan: Friday, September 11, 2020

Thinking about San Francisco today and that beautiful drive up Highway One across the Golden Gate Bridge and through the tunnel with the rainbow painted over it.

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The News from Manhattan: Thursday, September 10, 2020

I spoke with the humorist Calvin Trillin tonight who was enjoying his nightly whiskey. He said the Village is like Paris with all the outdoor dining, but no tourists.

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The News from Manhattan: Tuesday, September 8, 2020

I was in radio for years and now my voice is thin and creaky, all the baritone notes are gone from disuse.

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Some great music is played on old fiddles

It’s great to see an old, old magazine in headline news for something other than its obit and bravo to The Atlantic and Jeffrey Goldberg for the “losers” and “suckers” story on Trump and his contempt for military service or anything else nonprofitable. It’s been hot news for several days, it got Joe Biden highly impassioned and powerfully articulate, and if any of Trump’s entourage who heard him say what he said would step up and tell the truth, we could get this election over with in a hurry and get on with our lives.

Read More

The News from Manhattan: Wednesday, September 2, 2020

The doctor looked way down my throat / And told me to sing a high note

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Garrison Keillor did “A Prairie Home Companion” for forty years, wrote fiction and comedy, invented a town called Lake Wobegon where all the children are above average, even though he himself grew up evangelical in a small separatist flock where all the children expected the imminent end of the world. He’s busy in retirement, having written a memoir and a book of limericks and is at work on a musical and a Lake Wobegon screenplay, and he continues to do “The Writers Almanac” sent out daily to Internet subscribers (free). 

He and his wife Jenny Lind Nilsson live in Minneapolis, not far from the YMCA where he was sent for swimming lessons at age 12 after his cousin drowned, and he skipped the lessons and went to the public library instead and to a radio studio to watch a noontime show with singers and a band. Thus, our course in life is set. 

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