Growing up, my family observed a familiar weekend ritual. Although we were not consistent Sunday church-goers, Saturday evenings were sacred. Every week we tuned-in religiously to a two-hour program on Minnesota Public Radio, “A Prairie Home Companion,” and we weren’t alone. By the time I remember listening in the mid-1980s, the show was nationally syndicated, and four million people regularly delighted in a program that mixed humor, music (frequently spotlighting up and coming folk artists), poetry, old-time radio performance, and monologues known as “The News From Lake Wobegon” authored by the show’s creator, Garrison Keillor.
Keillor was well-known by the mid-1980s not just as a radio host, but also as a best-selling novelist and humorist. East coast cultural critics couldn’t get enough of Keillor’s Midwestern affect, even though it was clear he possessed something of an awkward public image. As his literary standing grew, however, it didn’t really matter that his looks were “better suited for radio.” He had carved-out a niche that eventually turned him into the first celebrity of public broadcasting.
A Hero for Small Town, USA
Keillor landed on the covers of Time and The Saturday Evening Post in quick succession, and was compared at various points to James Thurber, E.B. White, and even Mark Twain.
Keillor’s 1985 Time cover reveals a lot about his public image at the time, showing Keillor’s face with a painted pastoral landscape of small town, USA, as the author’s expression seems at once heroic and bemused. Keillor the man had become a powerful symbol for an imagined American heartland. Despite the financial disasters precipitated by the Farm Crisis and the hollowing-out of the Rust Belt, here was someone offering a simple but compelling nostalgia – Lake Wobegon, Minnesota – “the town that time forgot and the decades can’t improve” filled with eccentric characters “out there on the edge of the prairie.”
Decades later, Keillor orchestrated the perfect retirement, entirely on his terms. In the summer of 2016 with a hand-picked successor to lead his longtime radio show and a series of farewell performances that ended at the Hollywood Bowl, Keillor’s legacy seemed unassailable. He had contributed mightily to the aura of the Midwest and Minnesota as a quaint, uncomplicated region, filled with traditional values and lots of Scandinavian Lutherans. There was a subversive quality at times to Keillor’s Wobegon stories, but their place-based Midwestern quality no doubt lent a pervasive wholesomeness to Minnesota’s cultural identity. Financially, “A Prairie Home Companion” had also made Minnesota Public Radio a public broadcasting powerhouse, as loyal listeners made Keillor a rich man and transformed his former employer into an economic juggernaut that now produces radio programming far beyond the boundaries of Minnesota.
A Legacy, Complicated
A year later however, things suddenly changed. In November of 2017, allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced against Keillor and other prominent, powerful men during the social movement known as #MeToo. After conducting an extensive investigation, Minnesota Public Radio fired Keillor and cut all creative ties with him. Settlements were reached; non-disclosure agreements were signed. And Keillor retreated from the spotlight while his legacy became a lot more complicated.
But by early 2020, it became apparent that Keillor had no intention of staying retired when he appeared on the cover of Mpls St. Paul Magazine and offered little in the way of remorse.
‘Prairie Home’ Revival?
Recently, Keillor’s reemergence in the public sphere has accelerated, with his “A Prairie Home Companion American Revival” tour and an in-depth profile on the television newsmagazine, CBS Sunday Morning.
Indeed, Keillor remains visible, if somewhat diminished. He is enduringly popular amongst baby boomers who seem to reject millennial wokeness and embrace his throwback vision of an uncomplicated America. Of course, an “uncomplicated” America also translates to one that is overwhelmingly white. And to watch Keillor in that recently-aired CBS piece is to witness a man without contrition, regret, or even understanding of the offensive behavior that got him fired in the first place.
Keillor’s perceived redemption, at least in the eyes of the audiences that are now buying tickets to see him, begs the question: what do we do with the art of problematic men? And here there are no easy answers. As a native Minnesotan, I am grateful to an artist who forced coastal literary elites and tastemakers to take note of Midwestern, rural culture. Keillor’s contributions were significant a generation ago, and his popularity reflected an urge in our contemporary times to look backward to an imagined past that seems somehow more innocent and wholesome.
The Trouble with Rural Nostalgia
The problem of course is that our rural past has never been that simple or wholesome. In the flurry of critiques written about Keillor in recent years, one of the most pointed came from Nora McInerny, a podcaster and writer also once associated with Minnesota Public Radio. Her essay, titled, “Let’s Leave Garrison Keillor in the Past Where He Belongs” raised important questions about the outsized role Keillor has played in Midwestern culture.
The unquestioning fandom and blind patronage to his books, his merchandise, and his shy person schtick for more than a generation has had unintended consequences of crowding out younger, more diverse regional voices. Incidentally, while “A Prairie Home Companion” did provide a showcase for a wide range of musical and literary talent, artists of color were few and far between, quite an oversight since the program was frequently broadcast from either the Twin Cities or New York City where Keillor keeps a second home.
Keillor is clearly a man eager to keep working as he caters to audiences that have forgiven him or never thought his harassment of women was a big deal in the first place. While the #MeToo Movement is less than a decade old and the reckoning it unleashed shouldn’t be dismissed, the unrelenting onslaught of headlines that at various points proclaim the death of democracy or chronicle the latest climate catastrophe has pushed this social movement to the margins, at least for now. Meanwhile, as #MeToo recedes from the headlines, Keillor’s comeback is a problematic one, but not entirely unexpected.
In our unsettled times, the rural nostalgia Keillor is peddling is a hell of drug that many Americans are unwilling to give up.