Jill Bishop, Univ.of Mn. ID #1758728
AmSt 5920; Place, Power and Culture; Dr. Carol Miller
February 4, 1997

Place, Power, and Culture in Lake Wobegon

Garrison Keillor created the fictional place of Lake Wobegon during his public radio broadcasts on "A Prairie Home Companion." The humorous story segments on the radio show and Lake Wobegon Days, Keillor's book based on those stories, have become immensely popular to millions of fans who love to read and hear about the small town in Minnesota where he supposedly grew up. There is no actual town called Lake Wobegon, but in the minds of the many listeners and readers it has become a real place. The success of the stories is due to a combination of Keillor's masterful storytelling and the appeal of the place itself. Remembered with adult nostalgia for a simpler time, but seen through the memory of a child's eyes, the situations seem real, but not grave. News from Lake Wobegon is trivial; there is no serious crime or racial conflict, but the eternal intergenerational adolescent/adult power struggle is a dominant theme.

How does Lake Wobegon avoid the perpetual American scourge of racism? There are no overt racial conflicts because there are only white people there. "...Keillor represents regional literature, and can't include everyone. . . While Southern blacks have rural traditions, Northern blacks do not, and in small-town Minnesota there are very few blacks, thus an attempt to locate them there would ring false."1 However, Keillor was aware of the minority experience of the old Norwegian immigrants in Lake Wobegon:

Homesickness hit the old-timers hard, even after so many years, and it was not unusual, Hjalmar says, to see old people weep openly for Norway or hear about old men so sad they took a bottle of whiskey up to the cemetery and lay down on the family grave and talked to the dead about home, the home of Norway, heavenly Norway.

America was the land where they were old and sick, Norway where they were young and full of hopes--and much smarter, for you are never so smart again in a language learned in middle age nor romantic or brave or kind. All the best of you is in the old tongue, but when you speak your best in America you become a yokel, a dumb Norskie, and when you speak English, an idiot. No wonder the old-timers loved the places where the mother tongue was spoken, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Sons of Knute lodge, the tavern, where they could talk and cry and sing to their hearts' content.2


Clearly, Keillor knows what it means "to find oneself outside the dominant culture."3

The regional character of a small rural town in Minnesota -- the values, the language, and the weather -- are captured in Keillor's stories about Lake Wobegon:

Lake Wobegon is portrayed as a good place to grow up. Traditional values of stability, hard work, and religion shape community life. People know who they are; they defend their way of life against alternatives, and they distrust influences from the outside. 4

In his role as an announcer Keillor uses colloquial language such as "kinda, buncha, gotta, ya-know,"5 and his remarks about the heavy snow in the winter and the extreme heat of the summer place Lake Wobegon distinctly in the upper midwest if not inMinnesota.

"Exposure to heat was killing me; August 12, 101 degrees: why? Dallas, 98 degrees, Miami, 96 degrees. You don't have to be Einstein to see the unfairness of it. What happened to the forces of nature that socked us with minus 30 degrees six months ago, were they on vacation?6

Placing Lake Wobegon in rural Minnesota, "Keillor brings into play all the tools of the regionalist: particular detail, sharply pronounced personality types, local manners, speech, folklore and history."7

Keillor has created the place of Lake Wobegon by "building layer upon layer of convincing detail. [He] evokes a sense of place by presenting a catalogue of objective detail, subjectively perceived."8 He uses visual, olfactory, and auditory senses to describe Lake Wobegon to listeners and readers. A car trip through rural Minnesota today will easily reproduce Keillor's picture of the piles of rocks in a field. "Lake Wobegon is mostly poor soil, and every spring the earth heaves up a new crop of rocks. Piles of rock ten feet high in the corners of fields, picked by generations of us, monuments to our industry."9 The smells wafting through the streets of Lake Wobegon become real with his vivid description. "A breeze off the lake brings a sweet air of mud and rotting wood, a slight fishy smell, and picks up the sweetness of old grease, a sharp whiff of gasoline, fresh tires, spring dust, and, from across the street, the faint essence of tuna hotdish at the Chatterbox Cafe."10 And a listener or reader can clearly hear the sounds and visualize Lake Wobegon on a quiet winter night:

So still on a cold night. I could hear his boots crunching the snow, could hear a car not quite starting a long way away, and then the door slamming when the guy got out and him hitting the hood with his fist. The volume of the world was turned up so the air molecules hummed a deep bass note. If the fire siren went off it would knock a person into the middle of next week. The moon rose over the frozen lake; the light seemed to come out of the snow. Buried in three feet of light. And colors jumped out, hundreds of lovely shades of shadows, browns and grays and blacks. If a woman with bright red lipstick appeared, a person would fall over backward.11


Lake Wobegon is home to the familiar Chatterbox Cafe, Jack's Auto Repair, Sidetrack Tap, Art's Baits, and its own memorable landmark, the Statue of the Unknown Norwegian. Keillor made believable the Bunsen family and the Tolleruds -- all plausible places and people to millions of Americans. Regional descriptions often portray "simplistic and monolithic definitions of 'place,'"12 but scholar Kathleen Wallace says that "place appears as a physical phenomenon and as a site of meaning."13 Keillor broadens the usual depiction of rural Minnesota when he tells his stories of life in Lake Wobegon from both the point of view of the adult residents and the rebelling adolescents.


Enculturation is "the social process by which culture is learned and transmitted across the generations,"14 and adolescent rebellion is a form of resistance to enculturation. Whereas adults are fully enculturated into the values and customs of a place, in this case Lake Wobegon and rural midwestern life, children are not yet enculturated. Prior to their enculturation they are "other" than mature adults, and their "otherness" creates conflict when the adults want them to become mature adults like themselves, but the children do not want that. Adolescent resistance to enculturation is universal, at least in America where the value of individuality is revered, and attempting to mold children to fit specific cultural expectations conflicts with their distinct personal identities. In immature, not yet fully enculturated adolescents, the restrictions, values, and behaviors that are being externally imposed on children are not yet internalized. The children have not yet "matured" into the local culture, in this case, Lake Wobegon.

The adults in Lake Wobegon do not abide to young Gary's rules of behavior either, and so a barrier exists between them. Time and time again he rebels against his parents and others in the community:

As the young Keillor matures, his acts of rebellion against parental and community authority define his identity; they are his original acts of sin. He is the one who questions the family's reluctance to buy air conditioning; he is the one who questions religious doctrine aloud on the way home from church; he is the one who is called to the front of the class to be punished and by stumbling accidently liberates the school's pet rabbit; and he is the one who sees himself, from about the age of 14, as too good for the town of Lake Wobegon. . . .such stirrings of adolescent rebellion increasingly become bitter and alienated."15

Gary's exasperation with his family is seen in his fantasies about the Flambeau Family, a family who is the antithesis of everything he rebels against in his own family:

Why couldn't his family be more like the Flambeaus? Emile and Eileen Flambeau in the Flambeau Family in the mystery series he has read every one of which twice. Emile is a Nobel laureate microbiologist [famous, educated, brilliant] whose travels around the world in search of elusive viruses seem to put him time after time in the vicinity of violent crimes committed by rings of dope smugglers, whom Emile brings to justice with the use of superior intelligence, his own and that of his wife, the former screen star, and his teenage son, Tony Flambeau. [exciting, smart, worldly] The Flambeaus live in a spacious apartment at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel overlooking Central Park in Manhattan, [urban life] where they relax [not always working hard] and have fun after their strenuous adventures, and what impresses him is that Emile and Eileen treat Tony as a mature person [not an immature child] and also the way the Flambeaus do what they feel like doing--when they feel like doing it, [spontaneous] not like in Lake Wobegon. There is no noon siren in Manhattan when everyone has to sit down immediately and eat a hot beef sandwich, [diversity, variety] no six o'clock siren when you dig into tuna casserole made with cream of mushroom soup. The Flambeaus keep irregular hours [not rigid]. . . .It's the little things that impress him about the Flambeaus, such as Tony's sixteenth birthday, when Eileen said, 'Tony, Emile and I would love it if you'd join us for a glass of wine on the balcony,' and Tony said, 'Thanks, Eileen. Should I open the Pouilly-Buisse?' To call your parents by their first names, [equality, respect] to sit around drinking fine wine [not considered decadent] with them--this never happens in Lake Wobegon."16

When Scoutmaster Einar Tingvold became frustrated with the scouts, especially Gary, because they horsed around instead of working on the task at hand, he yelled, "You guys don't care, do you! You really think you can sit on your duffs and let other guys do the work! Well, I don't need you here! You can go sit someplace else as far as I'm concerned."17 Einar's lack of control illustrated to young Keillor that this was exceptional behavior for an adult, because adults usually successfully controlled themselves and him, rendering him powerless. "Listening to Einar was one time I felt superior to grownups, hearing them thunder and yell and knowing they had no power over me."18 Gary's only real weapon against them was misbehavior.

Following a prank in school, Gary's teacher used her authority to punish him: "I almost didn't mind Mrs. Meiers making me sit in the cloakroom for an hour."19 When a classmate laughed out loud, "Mrs. Meiers snatched him out of his seat and made him stand in front, facing the class, a terrible humiliation."20

On another occasion Gary Keillor was powerless to prevent his family's behavior that caused him supreme embarrassment when they walked out of a restaurant whose prices were too high. He challenged them: "'This is humiliating,' I said out on the sidewalk. 'I feel like a leper or something. Why do we always have to make such a big production out of everything? Why can't we be like regular people?'"21 But he couldn't change anything.

As the narrator [Keillor] sees it, Lake Wobegon kids suffer at the hands of the various adults (and adultlike goody-goodies) around them. Portraying children's feelings of powerlessness in the first person gives Lake Wobegon Days an emotional validity, justifying Gary's sense of victimization."22

Keillor communicates this universal conflict in a homespun, folksy style, but the remembered pain shows through. His tremendous popularity is testimony to the fact that his listeners also remember the conflicts of their own childhood, and humorous stories about Lake Wobegon help them laugh about them.

Another bitter young man also raised in Lake Wobegon (Keillor's darker side) brought a piece called "95 Theses 95" to the local newspaper, the Herald-Star, run by Harold Starr, and dared him to put it in the paper for all to see. The bitterness and hostility in his manifesto summarize Keillor's resentment against his upbringing and the suffering it has caused him. The theses were "a dramatic complaint against his upbringing."23 Keillor repeats the ideas in the theses in other stories that make the same points, thus "reinforcing the idea that conflict between the generations represents the way of the world."24

Typical is Thesis No. 3: 'You have subjected me to endless boring talk about weather, regularity, back problems and whether something happened in 1938 or 1939, insisting that I sit quietly and listen to every word.' The tone, however, becomes more bitter as he strikes home at his parents '25

Thesis number 4 says, "You have taught me to worship a god who is like you, who shares your thinking exactly, who is going to slap me one if I don't straighten out fast. I am very uneasy every Sunday, which is cloudy and deathly still and filled with silent accusing whispers."26 Not only were his parents threatening, they were insensitive: "21. ...We were born to suffer. Pain was pooh-poohed. If you broke your leg, walk home and apply ice."27 And in number 56: "In our house, work was a weapon, used as punishment, also to inspire guilt..."28 Clearly, this young man's memory of his childhood in Lake Wobegon brings up tremendous resentment against his parents. They were adversaries, and he was the loser.


While people in the same place differing primarily in age may not seem to be in totally different cultures, any powerless group that has been "pushed below the surface of the dominant culture"29 does not share in the same experience in that place. In Lake Wobegon, Keillor shows the markedly different reality of the adults and the children, where adults have all the power over the children, and he gives the children's perspective of their powerlessness with satirical humor.


Garrison Keillor illustrates the intersection of Place, Power, and Culture in his fictitious creation, Lake Wobegon, where his stories have created a realistic place in the consciousness of his listeners and readers. It seems like an idyllic place to live:

[Keillor] touches a nearly universal response, a longing for a place where our faces and names are known, where we are respected and loved, and most of us, having grown up in urban centers in relative anonymity, doubtless have desired to live in a community where one's word is one's bond, and where people who do indeed watch us and know what we are about also look after our general welfare."30

But within this comfortable place are found contact zones of conflict in families with adolescents where the imbalance of power between parents and children is played out. Despite the seeming universality of this theme of adolescent rebellion, it takes on a unique quality in Lake Wobegon because of the highly restrictive values of the residents there and the ethos of the 1950s era when Keillor was growing up. At that time General Electric's slogan was "Progress is Our Most Important Product" which resonated with the post-World War II period of progressive growth -- and the lifestyle exhibited by the Flambeau family. But that ideology is not held in esteem in Lake Wobegon, "the town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve," as Keillor regularly describes it in his closing on "A Prairie Home Companion."


1 Michael Fedo, The Man from Lake Wobegon (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987) 194.

2 Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days (New York: Viking Press, 1985) 64-65.

3 Stephen Wilbers, "Lake Wobegon: Mythical Place and the American Imagination" American Studies 30, no.1 Spring, 1989, 17.

4 Charles U. Larson and Christine Oravec, "A Prairie Home Companion and the Fabrication of Community" Critical Studies in Mass Communication Sept 1987, 224.

5 Judith Yaross Lee, Garrison Keillor: A Voice of America (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991) 51.

6 Keillor, 139-140.

7 Wilbers, 13.

8 Wilbers, 10.

9 Keillor, 13.

10 Keillor, 2.

11 Keillor, 237.

12 Kathleen R. Wallace, "Roots, Aren't They Supposed to Be Buried?": The Experience of Place in Midwestern Women's Autobiographies," eds. Wayne Franklin and Michael Steiner Mapping American Culture (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992) 169.

13 Wallace, 169.

14 Conrad P. Kottak, Cultural Anthropology (New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.,1994) 16.

15 Larson, 227-228.

16 Keillor, 154.

17 Keillor, 175.

18 Keillor, 178.

19 Keillor, 172.

20 Keillor, 172.

21 Keillor, 110.

22 Lee, 105.

23 Keillor, 251.

24 Lee, 114.

25 Larson, 228.

26 Keillor, 254.

27 Keillor, 259.

28 Keillor, 265.

29 Wallace, 177.

30 Fedo, 193-194.

Annandale Online

Please Contact Us with comments, questions, corrections and suggestions.

HOME | Events | Civic Groups | Government | City | Library | Chamber | Religion/Spirituality | Health
  Advocate | School | AHS Alumni | Health Care | History | Visitors | Other | Links | Contact Us | Weather