The Writer’s Almanac for July 20, 2018

Sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” by William Shakespeare. Public domain. (buy now)

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimmed.
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.


It was on this day in 1875 that the largest recorded swarm of locusts in American history descended upon the Great Plains. An estimated 3.5 trillion locusts made up the swarm. It was about 1,800 miles long and 110 miles wide, ranging from Canada down to Texas.

Swarms would occur once every seven to 12 years, emerging from river valleys in the Rocky Mountains and sweeping east across much of the country. The size of the swarms tended to grow when there was less rain, and in 1873, the American West began to go through one of its driest periods on record.

The land was still relatively dry on this day in 1875 when farmers just east of the Rocky Mountains began to see a cloud approaching from the west. Some farmers noticed the distinctive color of the cloud, glinting around the edges where the locust wings caught the light of the sun.

People there that day said that the locusts descended like a driving snow in winter, covering everything in their path. Some people described the sound of the swarm landing as like thunder or a train. The locusts blanketed the ground, nearly a foot deep. Trees bent over with the weight of the insects, and large tree limbs broke off under the pressure.

They ate nearly every living piece of vegetation in their path, as well as harnesses on horses, the bark of trees, curtains, and clothing hung on laundry lines. They gnawed on fence posts and railings, and they especially loved the handles of farm tools, which were left behind polished, as if by fine sandpaper. Some farmers tried to scare away the locusts by running into the swarm, and they had their clothes eaten right off their bodies.

In the wake of the swarm, settlers on half a million square miles of the West faced starvation. Similar locust swarms occurred in the following years, and farmers became desperate. But by the mid-1880s, the rains had returned, and the swarms died down. Most scientists predicted that the locusts would return with the next drought. Mysteriously, they did not. Within a few decades they were believed to be extinct. For most of the 20th century, no one knew what had happened to the locusts, but recent evidence suggests that the cultivation of the land on the Great Plains changed the geography so much so quickly that the Rocky Mountain locust was unable to adapt. The last two live specimens of the Rocky Mountain locust were collected in 1902, and those specimens are now stored at the Smithsonian Institution. 


It’s the birthday of Italian scholar and poet Francesco Petrarca, better known as Petrarch (books by this author), born in 1304 in Arezzo, Tuscany. As a teenager, he developed what he later called “an unquenchable thirst for literature,” in spite of his father’s insistence that he study law. He loved classical literature above all, and he was also a devout Catholic; he saw continuity in the ideals of the classics and the Bible, and managed to combine the best of both into one worldview. That’s why he’s considered the father of European humanism. When his father died in 1326, Petrarch left his law studies and went to Avignon, where he worked in clerical positions that allowed him time to work on his own writing. In 1341, Rome and Paris both wanted to crown him their poet laureate; with his love of the classics, Rome was really his only choice. He was crowned on April 8, on Capitoline Hill, the first poet laureate in a thousand years, and when the ceremony was done, he place his laurel wreath in St. Peter’s Basilica, on the apostle’s tomb.

On April 6, 1327, in the Church of St. Clare in Avignon, he first saw a woman we know only as “Laura.” We don’t know why she rejected him, or if they even spoke at all, and we don’t know anything about who she is. He revealed nothing about her, but wrote a series of poems about her over the course of 40 years, not in Latin but in everyday Italian. His unrequited love for her is central to the collection, but he was also pondering religion, poetry, and politics. Out of the 366 poems in the collection, 316 of them were in sonnet form, and he gave his name to that particular style of sonnet, which we now know as “Italian” or “Petrarchan.” As a body of work, Il Canzoniere, or “The Songbook,” as the collection is called, traces not only his feelings for her, but also the evolution of his own spiritual life and his renunciation of the world in favor of trust in God.

The plague, known as the Black Death, claimed many of his friends in 1348. Laura was one of its victims. She died on April 6, 21 years to the day after he first saw her. Petrarch himself died in 1374, with his head resting on a manuscript by Virgil. 


It’s the birthday of novelist Cormac McCarthy (1933) (books by this author). He was born Charles McCarthy Jr. in Providence, Rhode Island. He’s best known as the author of the “Border Trilogy” — All the Pretty Horses (1992), The Crossing (1994), and Cities of the Plain (1998). Richard Woodward, of the New York Review of Books, called him, “A man’s novelist whose apocalyptic vision rarely focuses on women, McCarthy doesn’t write about sex, love or domestic issues.”

His novel The Road (2006) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.


The father of modern genetics — Gregor Mendel — was born on this date in 1822. He came from Heinzendorf, Austria, now in the Czech Republic. He was expected to take over the family farm as an adult, but he became an Augustinian monk instead, and also studied the anatomy and physiology of plants. In 1854, he began an experimental program in hybridization, which led to his theory of genetics. While growing peas in the monastery garden, Mendel noticed that the plants had several variations: Some had white flowers, some had purple. Some plants grew tall and others remained short. He listed seven traits on which the pea plants differed, and he began crossing the ones that differed in only a single aspect, like the color of the flowers. Over several generations of pea plants, Mendel developed his theory of dominant and recessive traits, and produced a paper on it — but it was ignored. He was eventually made abbot, and much of his time was spent running the monastery. When he died, his papers were burned, and it wasn’t until the 1920s that scientists recognized the significance of Mendel’s work.

Wobegon Virus

Coming September 8th: It's a new Lake Wobegon novel from Garrison Keillor. Hardcover and eBook are both available for preorder now, and an audiobook will be available for presale in the coming months.

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 more about the book and pre-order your copy >>>


My future, in case you are curious

I turned 78 five days ago and gave a party, a pandemic party, it was on Zoom, 457 guests, nobody I know, they heard about it on Twitter, no gifts, just donations to your favorite charity, nobody sang “Happy Birthday,” thank you, it lasted about 28 minutes, and we played one game — Guess the Age of the Host — and most people guessed in the 40s, nothing over 50. It was also a Republican party in the sense that nothing I’ve told you is true.

The pandemic is a beautiful thing for an old guy like me. Young people do all the complaining so I don’t have to, I’m free to be cheerful. I detest physical exercise and now I have an excuse: heavy breathing spreads the virus. I also have a cover for not wanting to travel: Europe doesn’t want us. Even the Canadians don’t want us. As for restaurants, I never liked eating out; I haven’t hung out in bars since I was in college. I’m an introvert and social distancing comes naturally to me. Down deep, I have an aversion to people who subscribe to complicated conspiracy theories or who think the virus is a hoax or who like to use the word “systemic” and now I can block them on my phone. I love to watch baseball without spectators in the stands, no video close-ups of couples kissing, no mascots dancing around in cartoon outfits. And I’ve discovered that if I put one tablespoon of fermented mead in my wife’s Cream of Wheat, she becomes giddy and laughs at everything I say.

When I was 77, I could look back at my early seventies and even my late sixties and brood about the decline of civilization, but 78 means I’m looking at 80 and having to decide what sort of octogenarian I plan to be, an active youthful one who serves as an inspiration to others or a comfy old coot in a rocking chair with a quilt over his lap.

I’m familiar with the inspirational geezers — the kind who can do handstands and golf under par and bench-press a bureau dresser — you read about them in the paper on a slow news day, 80-year-old mathematicians still out on the frontiers of algorithms — and it never was my ambition to be an example to others. I am the least ambitious person I know. My ambition is to be content. I am grateful to have achieved that.

I am fond of my laptop and my iPhone and don’t crave anything better. I do not need more apps. I may need a heart valve procedure in the future but nowadays they don’t need to saw open your chest and leave you with a long zipper scar like Frankenstein’s monster, they run a little tube up an artery, and snip snip snip, as you sit there reading a book. Everything is better nowadays, how can a person complain? I come from the era of Karens and Larrys and now we have Sophias, Olivias, Avas, Arabellas — Aidans, Juans, Rolands, Noahs. This diversity bodes well for the country.

My one big ambition is to be America’s oldest productive novelist. I’m competing against Joyce Carol Oates who is four years and dozens of novels ahead of me and Anne Tyler and several others. I have a new novel coming out in a month, which won’t sell well — it has the word “virus” in the title — why? Why did I shoot myself in the foot like that?

But I’m planning to step up production in 2021 when America will be in the mood for comic fiction again, rather than the kind we’ve been reading for the past three years and 203 days. I’m going to write a novel about an old writer in isolation in the woods during a pandemic who writes a brilliant novel and decides to keep it to himself and not publish, dreading the notoriety. Then a novel about a young woman, Siobhan, who loses her mind due to unwise drug use and is given a memory transplant from a dying man of 95 and lives her life, a beautiful New York woman of 25 with clear memories of small-town South Dakota in the Thirties. And one about a colony of the Last Canasta Players in Massachusetts. As you may detect, there is a theme here. Systemic aging. Enough about youthful anguish and childhood suffering. Let’s grow up.

Gradually a man comes to accept his limitations probably

I ordered a nice office chair online last week because I’m a writer — this is me, writing this — and I’ve written a truckload of stuff on an assortment of cranky kitchen chairs, some designed by federal agents to torture confessions out of suspects, and my lumbar region feels delicate, and while I’m at it, I may as well confess that I bought this chair from Jeff Bezos, the Nebuchadnezzar of American retail, because it’s easier than walking over to Acme Office Supply, and Bezos’s minions bring it to my door in a matter of days, and here it is.

It’s waiting for my wife to return from visiting relatives in Connecticut. She’s the one who Puts Things Together in this family. She has smaller fingers and finer digital skills, being a violinist, and unlike me, she reads directions. She assembles parts into a coherent whole. I am a writer and the problem of assembly puts me into a subjunctive mood and I might have solved it had I taken my time but what I assemble is a non sequitur and somewhere a child is weeping bitterly. So I wait for her to come home.

A couple weeks ago, a workman came to our apartment backdoor and asked me (I think) something about air conditioning. I believe he is Polish and some of his English sounded Polish to me so I notified my wife and he spoke to her and she pointed to a panel in the ceiling over the washer and dryer, and there it was, a condenser or whatever it’s called. I come from simple rural people; we worked in the sun and after a day of that, the shade was good enough, we didn’t require AC.

I used to resent competent people and now I am married to one. I was an English major in college and looked down on the engineering students in their polyester plaid shirts with plastic pocket protectors, and now we live in a digital world they designed and I can’t figure out how to make my iPhone deZoom after it has enlarged itself. I need to ask my wife, the one who reads directions.

A couple years ago, I couldn’t start my car one morning and had to call a tow truck. Back in the 20th century, you’d see a neighbor pull out of his driveway and wave to him and he’d get out jumper cables and start you up, but these days your neighbor is very likely an English major who wanted to be a writer but instead became an Executive Vice President for Branding and Inclusivity, which is a different branch of fiction, and if I wave at him, he’ll pretend not to see me. My dad, up to the mid-Sixties or so, was able to take his cars apart and do repairs. The neighbor guy and I are of a generation that Does Not Understand How Engines Work. So the tow truck started me up and I drove to a shop where the mechanic discovered that a malfunctioning lock on the trunk was draining my battery. Amazing. It’s like a boil on your rear end is the cause of your migraine. But he fixed it. This sort of competence is inspiring to me. And we are surrounded by it. If ever you should call the EMTs at 911, you’ll be swarmed by great competence.

Meanwhile, there is a cultural movement among us that argues that our world is systemically oppressive and corrupt, the institutions and laws, epistemology, mindsets, literature, politics, religion, cheeseburgers, cole slaw, rotted through and through by elitist masculine Western Eurocentric misogynistic homicidal hierarchical colonialist biases, and there is no such thing as commonality, community, competence, comedy, all of which are intrinsically unequal and tools of oppression, and I, as an oppressor, have internalized my dominance, accepting it as something earned, not inherited.

One could call this movement fascistic but it doesn’t really matter because I am 78 and the movement won’t take over the country until after I am gone, and meanwhile, in the time it took me to write this, my love has assembled the chair and I sit in it and I feel so good, I write an elitist limerick, my favorite tool of oppression:

Classic, romantic, baroque,
Whether you sleep or are woke,
Remember this, Jack,
There’s no turning back
From the fact that you know you’re a joke.

One man’s pandemic is another man’s picnic

I love reading columns that snap and crackle and poke powerful people in the kisser and I am bored by columns like this one, which is about the goodness and generosity of life, but what can I say? When you’re busy doing things you love and you skip the news for a while, life can be beautiful. My love and I have been absorbed in the lives of the mockingbird family in our backyard, the parents ratcheting at us when we set foot out back, the little beaks upraised, the relays of food, the first hesitant hops from the nest, the high anxiety, the chirps of the teenagers, and then one morning, nobody’s home. Gone. No word since.

Instead of studying Joe Biden’s 13-point lead in national polls, we were absorbed in the lives of birds. We’ve never run for public office, but we have been parents and we have empathy for them, even birds. It’s odd to me, at 77, to see two men my age running for the White House. I remember the excitement when Kennedy, 43, succeeded Eisenhower, 70. We needed that this year and it didn’t happen.

But thanks to the recumbent, the man in the large golf pants, we live in the Golden Age of delicious vicious columnry, the best of them being conservatives such as Jennifer Rubin and George Will whose outrage rises to great literary heights whereas old liberals like me sit and play “Honolulu Baby” on the ukulele and toss in a little tap dance. For Mr. Will, Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party is like Mother poisoning Dad and marrying a Mafia hitman. I turn to Mr. Will in the Washington Post and feast on lines like “this weak person’s idea of a strong person, this chest-pounding advertisement of his own gnawing insecurities, this low-rent Lear raging on his Twitter-heath has proven that the phrase malignant buffoon is not an oxymoron.”

It’s a great line and I have nothing to add to it. Mr. Will is a lifelong Republican conservative and he knows in his heart that the recumbent is no more a Republican than Nancy Pelosi is a pole-vaulter and the recumbent is no more a believing Christian than he is the Dalai Lama-rama-ding-dong. It is an insane moment in the history of the Republic and it drives Mr. Will wild, but to me, it’s just a TV show and I turn it off and go sit on the shady terrace and feast on these giant blueberries grown in Peru and feel content. I toss a few of them toward the mockingbirds’ nest, hoping to lure them back, but no such luck.

I am almost 78 and America’s problems are my grandchildren’s problems, not mine, and I have been married for 25 years to a woman who thrills me and to avoid the plague we’ve spent four months in close proximity and it’s been good. I am capable of bitter sarcasm — I had a column all set to go about the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H., dropping the word “colony” from its name because it suggested exclusivity and hierarchy. But I don’t care about artists’ colonies, have no interest in spending time in one, am grateful to be excluded. The higher the ark the better; I don’t want to get on board. The street carnival in Portland is not my concern, except to hope that nobody gets hurt. The Bullying that is going on over Capitalization of certain words is — how shall I say it? — Remarkable. As for racism, there is no room for it in the Christian faith where it continues to thrive.

I come from a generation that spent 57,000 American lives in a war that had no point then and has no defenders now and American cruise ships now dock at Hue and Da Nang and Saigon and folks from Omaha and Seattle eat in sidewalk cafes whose owners may have been among the guerillas who defeated us and who cares?

Madame and I have our own colony, and beyond that, each of us has a circle of pals, which the pandemic lockdown makes all the more enjoyable. Theaters are dark and concert halls, but the telephone still works and now that people are sticking close to home, the phone calls get longer and more fulfilling and launch into stories, and we don’t bother talking politics, we talk family history, which is more interesting. And if asked what we’re up to, we will talk about mockingbirds.

The birds are worried and I feel just fine

Thirty-eight percent of Americans surveyed believe the Prez is doing a good job with the pandemic, which is good news for folks offering Florida timeshares for August and telemarketers who’ll turn your songs into No. 1 hits if you give them your credit card number. Thirty-eight percent approval means that there is a big market for agates as an investment.

It’s a dangerous world out there, don’t kid yourself. I feel for the mockingbird parents on our terrace who screech at us, warning us not to grab their fledglings. We can see them in the nest, beaks wide open, squeaking for food, just like our own daughter years ago. The parents are in high anxiety. My wife and I are liberals, we eat beef and pork, have no interest whatsoever in eating mockingbird — and I feel their pain.

Violence is part of life. Every day you get dinner or you are dinner. Fish are beautiful, like fashion models parading back and forth, and then a killer dashes in and eats one: that is a fish’s way of life. The mouse is in the cornfield, shopping for his family, and he hears a rush of wings and feels sharp back pain and suddenly he is very high in the air. Our football teams are named for killers, lions, wolverines, eagles, gators. Only two for religious figures (saints, cardinals) and one for temp workers (gophers). Will the Washington NFL team now change its name to the Sergeants and the Minnesota Vikings become the Viruses? Go to Oslo and you’ll see that the Norwegians are not the marauding warriors they were back in the ninth century when they raided and pillaged widely. They’re more into tillage now.

We liberals tried to create a safe world for our fledglings. I grew up before there were seat belts so I rode standing up in the front seat as my dad drove 75 mph across North Dakota, but my children rode in podlike car seats belted in like test pilots. They rode tricycles, wearing helmets. We banned smoking. There were warnings on everything, like kitchen knives (“Sharp: may cut skin if pressure is applied.”) and ovens (“Do not insert head when gas is on.”).

No wonder we are kerfluxxed, reading about a man with no conscience, no empathy, no principles, not a shred of honesty, who presides with great indifference over a plague. As any New Yorker can tell you, the problem with the Trumps is that the 90% who are corrupt give the others a bad name. In Manhattan, where he spent his adult life, he got 10% of the vote. And now 38% of our fellow Americans think he’s doing okay when the disaster is out in the open for all to see. The body count is staggering. Vietnam does well, Japan, Italy, but America is a pitiful giant.

I’m locked up and don’t worry about catching the virus but at 78, I’m aware of mortality and can imagine going to the doctor and finding out I have a rare case of desiccated angiofibrosis of the fantods, four months to live, maybe six. I’d thank him and stop at the drugstore for a carton of Luckies and come home and get out the gin bottle.

I’d have a martini on the terrace, my first drink in eighteen years, and toss the lemon twist away and the mockingbirds would pick it up and immediately they’d calm down. With the screeching stopped, the fledglings would fly. My neighbors would smell the gin and knock on my door. I’d get out the shaker and martini glasses, and we’d have a party. They’re all liberals; they’ve lived on a fixed schedule of their children’s social, educational, recreational, and therapeutic engagements, and the gin would make us good and silly and we’d say things that don’t appear on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times. Things like “That which has been is that which shall be, there is nothing new under the sun” — these are Roman times, Nero is in power and he won’t relinquish it so long as the generals are loyal. He is half naked, and 38% of our people like him in just his underwear. Let the fledgling millennials talk about justice and equality, let the old man enjoy his gin and vermouth. These desiccated fantods are not going away. Nero is your problem, not mine. Hand me down another bag of pork rinds, darling, and I’ll put a porterhouse on the grill.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, August 15, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, August 15, 2020

It’s the birthday of essayist Thomas de Quincey (Manchester, England, 1785), who arguably invented the “drug memoir” genre.

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It’s the birthday of Katharine Lee Bates, who wrote: “O beautiful for spacious skies, / For amber waves of grain, / For purple mountain majesties / Above the fruited plain!”

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It’s the birthday of Alex Haley (1921-1992), who wrote both “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (1965) and “Roots” (1976).

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The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, August 10, 2020

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It’s the birthday of Joyce Sutphen, Poet Laureate of Minnesota, whose poem “Happiness” we are featuring today.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, August 9, 2020

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It’s the birthday of author P.L. Travers (1899-1996), who described her popular Mary Poppins series as “both a joy and a curse.”

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A poetry compilation show featuring Poets Laureate past and present: Billy Collins (U.S.), Robert Bly (Minnesota) and Maxine Kumin (U.S./New Hampshire).

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The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, August 8, 2020

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The first refrigerator was patented in the United States on this date in 1899. The company Frigidaire was founded 19 years later.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, August 7, 2020

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Today’s episode features a poem by Galway Kinnell, called “Wait,” promising that “Personal events will become interesting again.”

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Writing

My future, in case you are curious

I turned 78 five days ago and gave a party, a pandemic party, it was on Zoom, 457 guests, nobody I know, they heard about it on Twitter, no gifts, just donations to your favorite charity, nobody sang “Happy Birthday,” thank you, it lasted about 28 minutes, and we played one game — Guess the Age of the Host — and most people guessed in the 40s, nothing over 50. It was also a Republican party in the sense that nothing I’ve told you is true.

Read More

The News from Manhattan: Sunday, August 9, 2020

I just turned 78 / The hour is getting late / The road leads straight / Up to the golden gate.

Read More

The News from Manhattan: Friday, August 7, 2020

I’ll work all day and maybe we’ll go for a walk in the park. Can’t imagine a better birthday.

Read More

The News from Manhattan: Thursday, August 6, 2020

Today I shall write to my cousin Patti who says she learned “Tell Me Why” from me and now she and her two-year-old sing it to each other. That is enough legacy for me.

Read More

The News from Manhattan: Wednesday, August 5, 2020

don’t think I know many authors by sight anymore. What’s worse, I doubt that others do. I think the era of Famous Writers is over.

Read More

Gradually a man comes to accept his limitations probably

I ordered a nice office chair online last week because I’m a writer — this is me, writing this — and I’ve written a truckload of stuff on an assortment of cranky kitchen chairs, some designed by federal agents to torture confessions out of suspects, and my lumbar region feels delicate, and while I’m at it, I may as well confess that I bought this chair from Jeff Bezos, the Nebuchadnezzar of American retail, because it’s easier than walking over to Acme Office Supply, and Bezos’s minions bring it to my door in a matter of days, and here it is.

Read More

The News from Manhattan: Tuesday, August 4, 2020

This is the week I turn 78, a fitting age for one born on the 7th day of the 8th month, and then my next stop is 87.

Read More

The News from Manhattan: Sunday, August 2, 2020

One day runs into another, one project after another but not much progress is felt, a book is opened and soon shut, and the future remains as murky as ever.

Read More

The News from Manhattan: Thursday, July 30, 2020

I sang a song to my dear wife last night and now it’s echoing in the canyons of the cerebellum. I need to know more people in their 80s and 90s to serve as my scouts.

Read More

The News from Manhattan: Wednesday, July 29, 2020

After two days of silence in an apartment, the return of the lover is triumphant, bands play, she rides in on an elephant accompanied by men waving scimitars.

Read More

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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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