Garrison Keillor, Settler of a Fallen Frontier

The creator of A Prairie Home Companion purported, through the show and much of his other work, to represent a bygone American age. With the news of his firing over allegations of misconduct, he finally does.

Garrison Keillor listens to U.S. President Barack Obama speak at a campaign rally in Minneapolis, Minnesota October 23, 2010.
Garrison Keillor listens to U.S. President Barack Obama speak at a campaign rally in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on October 23, 2010. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

On Wednesday, Minnesota Public Radio announced that it had fired Garrison Keillor, the creator and former host of A Prairie Home Companion, after “recently learning of allegations of his inappropriate behavior with an individual who worked with him.” The station, it said, will be cutting ties not only with Keillor, but also with his production company. It will be ending both the distribution and the broadcast of The Writer’s Almanac, Keillor’s other radio show, as well as the rebroadcasts of The Best of A Prairie Home Companion. MPR will soon be renaming A Prairie Home Companion, which since 2016 has been hosted by the musician Chris Thile.

The extensiveness of the firing—MPR is ending a brand as well as a career—is only one of the ironies of Keillor’s dismissal. Another: The man who has also been an occasional columnist for The Washington Post had, just this week, published a typically jokey-toned column titled “Al Franken Should Resign? That’s Absurd.” Keillor’s piece argued that Franken’s USO act—the one that had involved him kissing Leeann Tweeden, she said, against her will—was simply part of a long tradition among history’s great humorists, the same kind of “low comedy” that has been performed by Shakespeare and Bob Hope, and has now been ported to (and, Keillor suggests, misunderstood by) the present age. Keillor further argued that talk of Franken’s resignation—not the resignation itself, but simply the discussion of it—would lead to an “atrocity”: in this case, he suggested, without elaborating further on his meaning, “a code of public deadliness.” As Keillor summed up his defense of his fellow comedian: “Franken should change his name to Newman and put the USO debacle behind him and then we’ll change frankincense to Febreze.”

To disabuse readers of the notion that, with all this talk of deadliness and air freshener, he might be joking, Keillor appended another line to his column: “No kidding.”

The trouble with the addition is that Keillor is often kidding—or, at any rate, hiding behind a curtain of impish irony—when he talks about harassment. During an appearance at the National Press Club in 1994, Keillor declared that “a world in which there is no sexual harassment at all is a world in which there will not be any flirtation.” And on Wednesday, in an email to his hometown paper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Keillor joked about the turn of events that would seem to include the unceremonious termination of his career: “Getting fired is a real distinction in broadcasting,” he wrote, “and I’ve waited fifty years for the honor. All of my heroes got fired. I only wish it could’ve been for something more heroic.” He added: “If I had a dollar for every woman who asked to take a selfie with me and who slipped an arm around me and let it drift down below the beltline, I’d have at least a hundred dollars. So this is poetic irony of a high order.”

Folksy. Jokey. At once self-effacing and self-aggrandizing. It’s a statement very much in line with the tone of A Prairie Home Companion, which Keillor created in 1974 and which has long been distributed to local stations across the land. (In 2006, the show was made into a feature film directed by Robert Altman and starring, among many others, Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Tommy Lee Jones, and Keillor himself.) Prairie has been, over the course of decades, alternately beloved and detested, and often for the same reason: The show purported, with its combination of banjo-heavy musical interludes and old-timey radio plays, to represent a particular strain of Americana—hardy, hearty, wholesome, twangy, white. It did all this purporting winkily (this was nostalgia of a distinctly postmodern strain), but there it was nonetheless, yore meeting lore, the Midwest packaged as a metaphor for America itself: ice skates and Jell-o molds, ordered corn fields and sparkling lakes, a social world lubricated by friendly gossip and easy pleasantries.

Keillor’s show, in all that, suggested one of the cultural legacies of the American frontier (with the genocides, inequities, and other tragedies, of course, cheerfully cut from the air). Conquest, without the inconvenient ickiness. America as a (charming, uncomplicated) ideal. The fictional Lake Wobegon—the pun is indicative of the show’s general brand of humor—is a place where, as Keillor’s cheeky refrain made clear each episode, “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

On Wednesday, though, Keillor ended up starring in another kind of story of the American frontier. Via an allegation whose details have yet to emerge in full—Keillor told the Associated Press, with typical puckishness, that it involves “a story that I think is more interesting and more complicated than the version MPR heard”—Keillor did come to serve as a representative of an American cultural ideal. He became one of the many men who have fallen to the “Weinstein effect.” That effect is its own kind of landscape, its own kind of frontier—a version of manifest destiny in which expansion is not geographical but ideological, and in which justice, rather than justification, is the guiding ethic. The new American landscape is a cultural space that is cognizant of power differentials and mutual respect. It is one that strives for equality. And it is one that takes for granted the conviction that belittling those who are less powerful—all the women are strong—will have, finally, meaningful consequences.