Nobody asked, but I'll tell you anyway
The Column: 05.11.22
I come from Minnesota, the modest K-shaped state with the bump on top, sitting on the front line of defense against Canada, predominantly white Protestant but trying not to be too obvious about it, maybe grow a beard and eat oysters on the half shell and read poetry to raise questions in people’s minds. Sometimes we’re called the North Star State, sometimes the Gopher State, but really we’re the Recovery State, where Hazelden was born and various programs for curing chem-dep and other addictions. AA is big. There are thousands of big rooms full of folding chairs where people hear accusatory talks and then break up into discussion groups.
Bob Dylan was from here but he loved Woody Guthrie, the itinerant life, the train whistle in the night, surrealist poetry, none of which are popular here, and we have no idea where he is now. Some say he has a big farm near Moose Lake but who cares? Prince was a greater musician but came to a tragic end, there being no good recovery program for addicts so rich and famous. Fitzgerald is our one great writer in the American Pantheon and he was good but no Hemingway.
We are a producer of losing presidential candidates, McCarthy and Humphrey in 1968, Mondale in 1984, and Harold Stassen who unsuccessfully sought the presidency nine times, surely an all-time record. When you are Right and you know it, there is no shame in losing, quite the contrary, and Minnesota is tied with Utah and Vermont as Most Righteous State. Two years ago, when George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis cop, thousands of righteous Minnesotans rioted for days. Cops had killed Black men before but this death was caught on video on a cellphone so it was harder to ignore and thousands of outraged whites went out and burned down their neighborhoods and young Democrats came up with the line “Defund the police,” which will be a millstone around the necks of liberal politicians for years to come and assist a right-wing minority in maintaining power.
Minnesota has had its visionaries, like the Mayo brothers who created a medical clinic organized like a farmers’ co-op, but the Scandinavian Lutheran culture of Good Enough did not encourage breakthrough advances. What do you need a laptop computer for, darling — you already have an Underwood typewriter. And we have a phone in the kitchen — why do you need to carry one in your pocket?
And so we have a serious shortage of billionaires. There’s some old flour and grain money around, a lumber baron or two, and Scotch tape is still selling well, but we lack the oligarchs who might donate a couple billion to the U of M for a Climate Institute or establish a first-class psychiatric hospital. So we make do. It could be worse, as we say. We lie dying and you ask how we feel and we say, “I’ve felt better.” No big deal.
Minnesota is my home forever. The Keillors came in 1880 and spawned me in 1942, a squinty country kid riding his bike to the downtown library, skipping his swim lesson at the YMCA to sit and read books and then lying to my mother that I was learning to float. I’ll never be a New Yorker but I live there because it gives me the same wonderment I felt riding my bike up Hennepin Avenue in 1955. I take the B train to the public library and sit among young Asian college kids, none of whom know me from a bale of hay, and in their midst I feel young and ambitious again. I sit down with a page of writing and feel it might turn into something sort of marvelous.
Awards mean everything in the writing biz and if you win a big one, Pulitzer or National Book, you’ll wear it on your sleeve forever after, it will precede your name in every review, but I’m a Midwesterner, suspicious of medals and titles. I only care what my readers think. I only want to be known by my own. When I do readings, I decline an introduction, I just go out and talk and try to make sense.
When I die, my ashes will come back to the little cemetery north of Anoka, where the other Keillors are, and if a kid walks into the Anoka Library and asks for a book of mine, I hope the librarian gives him Boom Town. It’s my best book and I wrote it this year. And now I’m working on two others, but who knows? All I know is that a writer is someone who writes. So off I go. Catch you later.