The Writer’s Almanac for September 20, 2018

Once Again I Fail to Read an Important Novel by George Bilgere from Haywire. © Utah State University Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Instead, we sit together beside the fountain,
the important novel and I.

We are having coffee together
in that quiet first hour of the morning,
respecting each other’s silences
in the shadow of an important old building
in this small but significant European city.

All the characters can relax.
I’m giving them the day off.
For once they can forget about their problems—
desire, betrayal, the fatal denouement—
and just sit peacefully beside me.

In the afternoon,
at lunch near the cathedral,
and in the evening, after my lonely,
historical walk along the promenade,

the men and women, the children
and even the dogs
in the important, complicated novel
have nothing to fear from me.

We will sit quietly at the table
with a glass of cool red wine
and listen to the pigeons
questioning each other in the ancient corridors.


It’s the birthday of muckraking pioneer Upton Sinclair (books by this author), born in Baltimore, Maryland (1878). A precocious child, Sinclair entered City College of New York at the age of 14, which he paid for himself, since his father’s alcoholism had left his family in dire straits. He funded his education by publishing stories in newspapers and magazines. And by the time he was 17, Sinclair was doing well enough to pay for his own apartment, as well as send his destitute parents a regular income. Before long, though, Sinclair married, had a son, and found that he could not support his family.

Sinclair’s extended family was as rich as his immediate one was poor, and a loan from his uncle bankrolled his first, self-published novel when he was 21. But the disparity between this great poverty and wealth within his own family troubled Sinclair. He became a member of the Socialist Party and committed himself to writing fiction about injustice. When the editor of a Socialist journal commissioned him to write about the plight of immigrants working in Chicago meatpacking houses — and the publishing house Macmillan gave him an advance for the book rights — Sinclair moved to the stockyards district for seven weeks. He took copious notes on the miserable working conditions there, and then returned to the East Coast to transform his investigative journalism into fiction.

The Jungle was serialized in the journal, as planned, but Macmillan wanted nothing to do with the book, urging Sinclair to lose the “blood and guts,” which he declined. Four other publishers followed suit, rejecting the book for its graphic imagery. Sinclair decided to self-publish once again, and he began taking advance orders. Encouraged by his brisk sales, Doubleday swooped in at the last minute and agreed to publish the book on the condition that its claims could be verified. The publisher’s lawyer traveled to the Chicago stockyards to witness for himself the miserable state of affairs, and The Jungle caused an almost instant sensation when it was published in 1906.

Although Sinclair had intended to highlight the mistreatment of the workers in the meatpacking industry, readers reacted instead to his descriptions of the mistreatment of the animals — that is to say, the readers’ food. The outcry over the unsanitary preparation of meat helped pass the Pure Food and Drugs Act. Although they denounced his Socialist preaching, both Winston Churchill and President Teddy Roosevelt praised the book.

Sinclair went on to publish more than 90 books in his lifetime. He also very nearly won the governorship of California after his publication of a booklet titled “I, Governor of California And How I Ended Poverty: A True Story of the Future.” His radical plan to end poverty met with enough support to land him on the Democratic Party’s ticket, which caused an absolute uproar. His candidacy proved to do very well, but when he ultimately lost to the Republican candidate in 1934, he published a follow-up booklet: “I, Candidate for Governor and How I Got Licked.”


It’s the birthday of jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton, born in Gulfport, Mississippi, in 1885. He grew up in New Orleans, and by the age of 17, he was playing piano in bordellos there. His composition “Jelly Roll Blues” was the first jazz piece that was published.


It’s the birthday of one of the greatest editors of the 20th century, Maxwell Perkins, born in New York City (1884). His first big success at Scribner’s was his decision to publish a manuscript by a young man named F. Scott Fitzgerald, much to the objection of other editors. It was This Side of Paradise, and when the novel came out in 1920, it sold more than 50,000 copies. It was the beginning of Scribner’s becoming one of the most important publishers of new fiction.


It was on this day in 1848 that the American Association for the Advancement of Science was formed in Philadelphia, at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Its stated purpose was to “procure for the labors of scientific men, increased facilities and a wider usefulness.”

The term “scientist” had been coined just 15 years earlier, and all over the world scientists were making important new discoveries and formulating new ideas. Europe tended to be the center for the great theorists of science — in the year 1848, Léon Foucault set up his first rudimentary pendulum to demonstrate the Earth’s rotation, Darwin was at work on his theory of evolution, Michael Faraday was at the height of his work on electromagnetism. But America was cut off from Europe, and it was hard to compete with the scientific community there. Instead, there was an interest in invention and science that supported industry. Just four years earlier, the first telegraph line was installed, stretching from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. Trains were popping up all over the country, and in the year 1848 four times as many train tracks were laid as in 1847. In 1845, Elias Howe had invented the mechanical sewing machine. The inventor Cyrus McCormick had sold the patent for his McCormick Reaper in the 1830s.

Earlier in the century, Lewis and Clark’s journey was the first to make science an exciting and visible aspect of discovering new territory. They observed the weather, the topography, and the geography. They described 182 plant species and 120 animals in their travels; they sent back specimens to the East Coast, a few of them live, including a prairie dog that lived in the White House. By the 1840s, the botanists Asa Gray and George Engelmann were actively cataloguing the plants of the American West. At the same time, anthropology was starting to emerge as its own field, separate from natural history.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, established on this day in 1848, grew to a membership of more than 2,000 by 1860. It kept an emphasis on being inclusive, reaching out to anyone interested in science, and in the 1850s its members included the president of the United States, Millard Fillmore; the astronomer Maria Mitchell; as well as Henry David Thoreau. But Thoreau had mixed feelings about science — on the one hand, he kept meticulous notes and observations on plants, animals, and the weather; but he was wary of technology and new inventions. When he published Walden in 1854, Thoreau complained, “Men have become the tools of their tools.”

In 1883, the AAAS began publishing the magazine Science, which is still around and a respected part of the scientific community.

The "Old Friends" tour featuring Christine DiGiallonardo, Richard Dworsky, and Garrison Keillor commences Wednesday, February 20th with a run of Minnesota dates! Click the links below for info on each.

Feb 20 – Faribault, MN

Feb 21 – St. Cloud, MN

Feb 22 – Detroit Lakes, MN

Feb 23 – Fergus Falls, MN

Feb 24 – Minneapolis, MN: 2 showtimes


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What do men want? Let me tell you.

Ever since the American Psychological Association came out last fall and said what everyone knows — that men are the problem: our stoicism, the crazy aggressive behaviors, the compulsive competitiveness, the rescuer complex — I’ve been watching the women in white in Congress, the Sisters of Mercy out to save the Republic, and enjoying their leaders, Speaker Pelosi and AOC. They’re fearless, free-spirited and often very funny. When AOC addresses her opponents as “Dude,” you know that change is afoot. The old Congress of time-servers and bootlickers is starting to look more like the freewheeling country we love.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez now joins the other triple-initial people, like MLK and JFK and FDR and FAO Schwarz, and AOC is a good code name for her. It’s got electricity (AC), a hint of command (C.O.), and a sense of exhilaration (O!). Her story is irresistible: a 29-year-old bartender going to Congress. Of course she’s new and she’ll need to learn a few things. 1. The press is not your friend. 2. Public attention is fleeting. 3. There is manure on the sidewalk: don’t step in it. But (4) you have a fabulous smile, never lose it, it’s your best weapon. We have all the cautious mumblers and harrumphers in dark suits that we need. Time to bring in the sopranos. I saw a picture of her in the Capitol walking down a marble hallway among grim-faced men, an enormous smile on her face. Bernie, your replacement has arrived.

I’ve been a feminist since I was a child. I had 18 aunts. They were more interesting than the uncles. Women told stories; men issued wide-ranging proclamations. Mrs. Shaver and Mrs. Moehlenbrock loved teaching; they ran a tight ship but I looked forward to school and when I stood and pledged allegiance, I was pledging myself to them. Mr. Lewis was scary and exercised power in cruel and willful ways. I was prepared to welcome a woman president by 1952, long before the rest of the country.

I’ve been a guy long enough to know something about the gender and what we want is to be loved. The APA left that out of their study. We’re capable of being jerks, God knows (He really does!), but we are emotionally needy. We are far from being the solo Pathfinder or Deerslayer of Fenimore Cooper’s novels. Chuck Schumer peering over his granny glasses wants to be loved. Barack basks in adoration; it’s one of his problems. And Number 45 Himself, the ultimate ugly American, a guy who whenever he opens his mouth you see big balloons of ignorance and arrogance and self-pity — he told the New York Times he thought the paper should be nicer to him because he is, after all, from New York. No president ever talked like that for the record: “I think you ought to be nice to me.” It’s what girls used to say.

If AOC wants to reduce billionaires to 500-millionaires to pay for universal health care, she needs to make them feel good about themselves. If she attacks them for having destroyer-sized yachts and six homes and being unaware of how to use a vacuum or a dishwasher, they will feel bad and try to crush her. Billionaires are susceptible to beautiful women. Look at Jeff Bezos. If AOC can keep that big smile of hers shining, she can confiscate five of the homes and the confiscatee will shrug and accept it. The townhouse in London was hardly used, ditto the chalet in Provence, and the Jamaican estate had such a small airstrip it was scary to land the Gulfstream. Pacific Palisades will be missed but 10,000 sq. ft. on the 65th floor overlooking Central Park — one can make do.

Men are captivated by women and yearn for their approval. There is no sound so sweet to me as the sound of my wife in the next room laughing at something I wrote. The other day I saw a line in a poem by Marie Howe that twanged my heart. A deliveryman comes with a package and speaks to her in a Jamaican patois and smiles—

A smile so radiant that
Re-entering the apartment I’m
A young woman again, and
The sweetness of the men I’ve loved walks in
Through the closed door.

A woman who looks back at the men in her life and thinks sweetly of them: this, to me, is beautiful beyond words. A man could almost live off that. My wife laughed six times at this column. If you didn’t, be glad we’re not married.

A few words from a top executive

Now that Executive Time has taken root at the top level of government, I am working more of it into my own busy schedule, leaving the Rectangular Office and holing up in the family quarters for what some might call daydreaming, but who cares what they think? They’re losers. Six hours a day of letting the mind wander freely, forgetting about my obligations, and simply roaming the Internet and picking up bits of information that my staff would probably never clue me in on.

Did you know that when Douglas MacArthur became a general, he hired his own public relations firm to promote his image back home? Did you know Paul McCartney heard “Yesterday” in a dream? And McAllen, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley, is known as the City of Palms but also has a good deal of mesquite and deciduous trees. And the McCarran Act prohibited the picketing of federal courthouses. You learn these things roaming around freely rather than at a table with a bunch of smarty-pants sitting behind their name cards and each with his own glass of water. But the information is out there. All you need to do is connect the dots.

My Executive Time has been crucial to me ever since I was 16 and I hit the wall in mathematics and it looked like I was headed for a career in dishwashing, but sixty years later, look what happened. The math whizzes got good jobs that turned out to be treadmills to obsolescence. New Math came in, smarter people took over, many of them from foreign countries, and now I see those old whizzes taking tickets at parking ramps, whereas I’ve become a huge success. People stop me on the street all the time and say, “You have changed my life. You say things I’ve been thinking for years. How do you speak for the common man the way you do?”

The secret is Executive Time. For six hours a day, I remove myself from so-called experts and wise guys who think they got all the answers and I trust in my own instincts. I am smarter about most things than people are who’ve been studying them all their lives. I can run circles around those people.

The only math I did today was to tote up the tip on my steak sandwich, 10 percent. Just move the decimal point. The waiter wept. “A thousand thanks, sir. I have student loans to pay off, from fifteen years working for my Ph.D. in brain surgery.” The guy is an international authority on the multifocal cerebral infarcts along the left palpebral fissure of the lapsarian cortex and he’s warming up my coffee.

People ask if I’m going to run for president. I tell them, “I’m looking into it.” It looks like a good job to me. The helicopter service is incredible, there are beautiful motorcades, and wherever you go, all the microphones are pointed at you. Highly educated journalists, trying to catch every word you say.

The only thing keeping me from running is the fact that I’m Canadian. I walked across the border in northern Minnesota, no wall, nothing but an ordinary barbed wire fence, you just duck between the top and middle wires and you’re in. I learned to pronounce “about” as “about” and not “aboot,” and I was all set. There are millions of us here, escapees from harsh winter and socialized medicine. I bought my passport in Buffalo for $50. Nobody can tell except that I’m a little bowlegged from playing hockey and I get teary-eyed when I hear “O Canada.”

I settled in Minneapolis and joined the Mondale gang that controlled the supply of coffee coming into the state. He sold decaffeinated coffee to Lutherans, which made them passive and inattentive and that was the secret of his power. We took a cut of the collection and owned the green Jell-O concession. Him and me were all set.

So the phone rings and this lady says, “You can’t say ‘him and me.’” And I say, “I just said it and I meant it.” There are people like her in Minnesota who make a person feel small and that’s why Executive Time is so important: you get away from those people. For six hours a day, it’s just me and my hair. It’s beautiful hair and it’s intelligent. It speaks very quietly. It says, “Stick with me and you’ll be amazed where we wind up.”

A Prairie Home Companion An Evening of Story and Song Love & Comedy Tour Old Friends Solo The Gratitude Tour
Schedule

February 22, 2019

Friday

7:30 p.m.

Detroit Lakes, MN

Detroit Lakes, MN

February 22, 2019

“Old Friends” Garrison Keillor, Christine DiGiallonardo, Richard Dworsky reunite at Historic Holmes Theatre. 7:30 p.m.

February 23, 2019

Saturday

7:30 p.m.

Fergus Falls, MN

Fergus Falls, MN

February 23, 2019

“Old Friends” Garrison Keillor, Christine DiGiallonardo, Richard Dworsky reunite at A Center for the Arts. 7:30 p.m.

February 24, 2019

Sunday

5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.

Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis, MN

February 24, 2019

“Old Friends” Garrison Keillor, Christine DiGiallonardo, Richard Dworsky reunite at Crooners. Shows at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Radio

The Writer’s Almanac for February 22, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 22, 2019

It’s the birthday of George Washington (1732), whose inaugural address was the shortest in history: 133 words long, and it took him just 90 seconds to deliver.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for February 21, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 21, 2019

The Communist Manifesto, which proclaimed that “the proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains,” was first published on this day in 1848.

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The Writer’s Almanac for February 20, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 20, 2019

It was on this day in 1877 that Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ballet “Swan Lake” premiered in Moscow. It was Tchaikovsky’s first ballet, and it got bad reviews.

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The Writer’s Almanac for February 19, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 19, 2019

It’s the birthday of writer Amy Tan (1952), who wrote a book of short stories in the span of about four months that became the bestseller “The Joy Luck Club.”

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A Prairie Home Companion: February 23, 2008

A Prairie Home Companion: February 23, 2008

Originally broadcast from Winona State University in Minnesota. With special guests, legendary blues pianist and singer Marcia Ball (pictured), plus the eclectic and electric Cajuns, BeauSoleil.

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The Writer’s Almanac for February 18, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 18, 2019

It’s the birthday of novelist Toni Morrison (1931), whose mother always sang while she did chores, everything from opera arias to the blues.

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The Writer’s Almanac for February 17, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 17, 2019

It was on this day in 1913 that the Armory Show opened in New York City, the first comprehensive exhibition of modern art in this country. The exhibit featured works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Marcel Duchamp, and more.

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The Writer’s Almanac for February 16, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 16, 2019

On this date in 1937, Wallace Carothers and DuPont Chemical Company were granted a patent for the synthetic polymer called nylon.

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The Writer’s Almanac for February 15, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 15, 2019

On this date in 2001, a working draft of the human genome was published. Scientists had expected to find that humans had more than 100,000 genes, but we have only about 20,000.

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The Writer’s Almanac for February 14, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 14, 2019

For Valentine’s Day, a few excerpts of love letters from famous authors, and a poem by Connie Wanek, “First Love.”

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Writing

What do men want? Let me tell you.

Ever since the American Psychological Association came out last fall and said what everyone knows — that men are the problem: our stoicism, the crazy aggressive behaviors, the compulsive competitiveness, the rescuer complex — I’ve been watching the women in white in Congress, the Sisters of Mercy out to save the Republic, and enjoying their leaders, Speaker Pelosi and AOC. They’re fearless, free-spirited and often very funny. When AOC addresses her opponents as “Dude,” you know that change is afoot. The old Congress of time-servers and bootlickers is starting to look more like the freewheeling country we love.

Read More

A few words from a top executive

Now that Executive Time has taken root at the top level of government, I am working more of it into my own busy schedule, leaving the Rectangular Office and holing up in the family quarters for what some might call daydreaming, but who cares what they think? They’re losers. Six hours a day of letting the mind wander freely, forgetting about my obligations, and simply roaming the Internet and picking up bits of information that my staff would probably never clue me in on.

Read More

Winter is winter, it’s not the tribulation

It irks me, the notion that winter is a dreadful tribulation. Weather forecasts delivered in funereal tones as if two or three inches of snow were an outbreak of typhus, a front-page story about a snowstorm “lashing” New England. A whip lashes; snow falls gently to earth. 

Read More

The old indoorsman looks out at winter

Bitter cold in Minneapolis last week with a high of nine below one day, which is colder than a witch’s body part, but we do have central heating in our building and I am no longer employed as a parking lot attendant as I was when I was 19, responsible for herding drivers into double straight lines as a bitter wind blew across the frozen tundra, and so, as we in Minnesota often say, “It could be worse.” Especially if you were married to a witch.  

Read More

Waiting for snow, hoping, praying

It has snowed a smidge in Minneapolis and I went to church Sunday to give thanks for it and ask for more. The TV weatherman talks about who might be “hit by” a snowstorm and who might “escape,” as if the flakes carry an infectious disease, but snow is light, it does not hit anybody so that you’d feel it, and true Minnesotans love a snowstorm, the hush of it, the sense of blessedness, as Degas loved the female form and Cezanne cared about apples. I thank God for all three, apples, women, and snow, and also for my good health.

Read More

News bulletin: offensive joke ahead

I have a small mind and I don’t mind admitting it. Friends of mine are concerned about the future of democracy in America and thank goodness for them, meanwhile I get a thrill out of sticking a fork into the toaster to retrieve the toasted bread, which I was warned against as a child. Mother saw me do it and imagined sparks flying and the sizzle of her middle child, like a murderer in the electric chair. And now I do it (very carefully) and I’m still here. This is me writing these words, not a ghostwriter.

Read More

Life is good, unless you get on the wrong train

In response to the government shutdown, I have stayed in bed, gone without bathing, turned off the phone. I am going to continue until Walmart sends me six fresh walleye and a set of white sidewalls autographed by Barbara Walters. I know what is needed and I can hold out for years if I have to.

Meanwhile life is good. Of course tragedy is at the heart of great literature but life is not a novel and we’re here because our parents got excited and happy and if we put our minds to it, we can be happy too. Politics is a mess because liberals want a just world and it just isn’t going to happen, meanwhile conservatives want it to be 1958, but goodness never depended on politicians. Goodness is all around us.

Read More

Onward, my friends! Courage! Comedy!

My first resolution for 2019 is “Lighten up. When someone asks you how you are, say ‘Never better’ and say it with conviction, make it be true.” And my second resolution is: “Don’t bother fighting with ignorance. It doesn’t bother him, and you wind up with stupidity all over you.”

So I ignore the government shutdown and write about the one-ring circus I saw in New York last week, under a tent by the opera house. It was astounding. The beauty of backflips and the balancing act in which a spangly woman does a handstand one-handed on a man’s forehead. The perfect timing of clowns and the dancing of horses, a bare-chested man suspended on ropes high above the arena as a woman falls from his shoulders to catch his bare feet with her bare feet and hang suspended with no net below. A slight woman on the flying trapeze hurling herself into a triple forward flying somersault and into the hands of the catcher. I have loved circuses all my life. This was one of the best. A person can pass through the turnstile in a sour mood and the impossible perfection of feats of style brightens your whole week.

Read More

A Christmas letter from New York

It was, in my opinion, the best Christmas ever. Men are running the country whom you wouldn’t trust to heat up frozen dinners, a government shutdown meant that TSA people worked as volunteers (and also the DOJ employees investigating Individual-1’s dealings with the Russians), and on Wall Street the blue chips were selling like buffalo chips, and yet, in my aged memory, granted that the MRI map of my brain shows numerous multipolar contextually based synopses and a narrowing of the left strabismal isthmus, my little family had a beautiful and blessed week.

Read More

Why I left home and crossed over the river

It was an enormous heroic undertaking that if I told you the whole story, you’d be breathless with admiration, so I will just say this: my wife and I — mostly my wife but I was there, too — have moved from a three-story house in St. Paul to a two-bedroom apartment in Minneapolis. We did it, shed ourselves of truckloads of material goods, and now enjoy the gift to be simple and the gift to be free. Period. End of story.

We did it because it dawned on us that we were two people living in a few corners of a house for ten and that if we didn’t move, the county would send social workers who specialize in dementia issues.

Read More

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