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The Midwesterner's Almanac:
GARRISON KEILLOR (Unabridged)

Highlights from Issue 27: Ode to the Midwest

Photograph by Brian Velenchenko

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Sunday, November 05, 2006

By James Hughes

Midway through A Prairie Home Companion, Robert Altman’s film adaptation of Garrison Keillor’s variety show that each weekend suspends over four million public radio listeners in the amber of small-town American life, Keillor (who also wrote the screenplay) addresses the full house at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota. Broadcasting live from the podium, Keillor announces the Midwest as a place where “it could be worse, and where we’re waiting for it to get worse.” Here, the 64-year-old author, humorist and rhubarb enthusiast continues the discussion on the ups and downs of life in the flatlands.

Stop Smiling: Schoolteachers will always be thankful for Minnesota, which produced the stapler, Scotch tape and F. Scott Fitzgerald. What must your home state do to assure a continued excellence in education and a thriving interest in the humanities?

Garrison Keillor: We are saddled with a charming idiot of a governor and a fleet of assistant idiots in the legislature who are killing education in this state, simply slicing its throat. We are on our way to becoming the Mississippi of the North. A high school teacher told me the other day that 10 years ago, his largest class was 29 students. Now his smallest is 34, of whom 8 have special needs and for whom he must draw up individual lesson plans. The starting pay for a teacher — once you subtract taxes, Social Security and health plan payments — is around $14,000 a year. This is a scandal. The state is in the hands of rednecks who want to bring back capital punishment and kill off public education. If there is excellence in education, it’s no thanks to Republicans.

SS: Nebraska-born author Mari Sandoz said: “I always come back to the Middle West. There’s a vigor here, and a broadness of horizon.” On the other hand, Minnesota has a history of globetrotters, from Charles Lindbergh to Thomas Friedman. What empowers Mid-westerners to see and experience the larger world?

GK: It’s flat here. Flatness is majestic and we don’t mind it, but flatness enables you to see farther, and so you get curious. Friedman is a suburban kid, and his traveling is just a form of social climbing, but Lindbergh, who was a much better writer, started out flying his dad around to campaign for public office. Once you start flying, you just keep going and going.

SS: One region that we might have overlooked in this Midwest issue is the Dakotas. What are your impressions of North or South Dakota?

GK: There is a rare egalitarianism in the Dakotas that enables the rich and the poor to mingle comfortably. Multi-millionaire farmers and migrant farmhands sit in the same cafes and enjoy their chili and grilled cheese sandwiches together and kid each other. You won’t find that in Minnesota.

SS: The Midwest is known as a cradle for political thinkers of all extremes: Eugene and Joseph McCarthy, Abraham Lincoln, Eugene Debs, Malcolm X, and so forth. Do you foresee a Midwestern politician bringing real progressive leadership to Washington?

GK: The regime in Washington is sliding toward a conclusion. We elected a shallow and doctrinaire and oddly disconnected president, and his repeated mistakes don’t seem to have made him smarter. Meanwhile, his party has sworn allegiance to him, even the smart ones. This is a low and shameful era in politics, when one branch of government, perhaps two, has surrendered to the third. What we need is a true conservative to restore the meaning of the Constitution and the integrity of politics. The flag-burning amendment is unspeakable, a testimony to Washington’s contempt for the intelligence of the voting population. I was in New Orleans a few days ago, and it bears mute testimony to the unique density and corruption of this administration. Ten months after Katrina, the streets are littered with wrecked cars, the busted houses, the empty streets. No civilized country would do this to its own people. It’s a shame on our heads.

SS: Watching the film A Prairie Home Companion inside a 25-screen multiplex, I couldn’t help reminiscing about the small-town movie-houses of old. What were your experiences like as a child going to the movies?

GK: I didn’t go to a movie until I was 17. My family believed that movies portrayed sinful people sympathetically, and so one would get a twisted, amoral view of the world from them. Though I did see movies in school, for English cla

SS: the Olivier Hamlet, Our Town and A Tale of Two Cities. The first movie I saw on my own was Elmer Gantry in the summer of 1960 and it had a huge impact. Burt Lancaster was a pretty believable preacher. I was stunned.

SS: Do you think the demand by Twins fans for an open-air baseball stadium says anything larger about the people of Minnesota and their sense of community?

GK: Twins fans are pretty well used to the Dome after almost 30 years. It’s only old duffers like me who remember Metropolitan Stadium and how wonderful it was to sit in the third deck and look almost straight down at the infield and look out toward cattle grazing in a pasture beyond center field. I attended the last game at the Met and then, the next summer, visited it one Sunday afternoon before it was completely demolished. It was easy to sneak in, and I walked around the field and looked at the empty stands and remembered those great Sunday doubleheaders and how sweet it was on opening day in April, still chilly in Minnesota, to sit outdoors and watch baseball. The new stadium, though, is the project of big moguls and politicians. The people of Minnesota have a sense of community, but it isn’t being served very well these days. A ballpark isn’t that important here.

SS: Your hometown of Anoka, Minnesota proudly claims to be the Halloween Capital of the World. What is it about Anokans that endears them to this holiday?

GK: It’s a gorgeous holiday when you have permission to be somebody else, and to impersonate evil if you wish. This is profoundly healthy. It is far healthier to impersonate evil than to impersonate goodness. So you go around Anoka and see homes decorated as graveyards and the living dead wandering around groaning, their eyeballs hanging out on their cheeks, and bloody corpses hanging from trees. It helps kids not be scared of the dark.

SS: If for any reason you ever had to choose a permanent residence outside of the Midwest, where would you feel the most comfortable?

GK: New York. I love the anonymity there, the street life, the fact that you don’t want a car, and the city has a timelessness that’s comforting to an older guy. I don’t want comfort, though, so much as I want stimulation, and you find that in a big city, I think. Not many slackers in Manhattan, not many kids drowsing through their 20s and 30s. St. Paul isn’t comfortable necessarily; it’s familiar, for the most part, but there is plenty of irritation here, which is good for a writer. Though the Republicans are trying to bring back capital punishment in Minnesota, and if they succeed, then I don’t belong here anymore.

SS: As a Chicago-based magazine, it’s essential that we ask a hometown question: What has been your finest experience in the Windy City?

GK: Many, many fine experiences. In college, I loved to ride the Hiawatha or the North Coast Limited to Chicago, and stay at the Y, and see foreign movies in little picture-houses on the North Side. And then take the night train back. I got to hang out with Studs Terkel a few times, eat a big lunch with a martini or two, and listen to the old man tell his stories. That was a privilege. I got to give Studs a hard time at his 90th birthday party a few years ago and talk about how, when he interviewed you on the radio, he answered his own questions.

SS: Your “Writer’s Almanac” segments for public radio always conclude with a poem of your selection. Would you like to close this interview with a recommendation for a poem that says something unique about the Midwestern character?

GK: I’d refer you to James Wright’s great poem “A Blessing,” which begins “Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota…” and which is popular here. In fact, the Highway Department put it on a brass plaque at a highway rest stop near Rochester. It’s a simple poem about two men stepping over barbed wire into a meadow where two ponies are grazing, and the poet strokes one horse. There isn’t a false moment in the poem — no self-grandeur, no irony — and at the end it passes into transcendence. It’s been recited at both weddings and memorial services. I once saw an embroidery of it entered at the Minnesota State Fair. Mr. Wright was my teacher at the University of Minnesota in the early ’60s — a shy man with a magnificent voice, a chain-smoker, a bad drinker, kind to students, in trouble with the English department. It makes me happy to see how transcendently popular his poem is.


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