Thursday, June 26, 2014

Introducing Mrs. Keillor's Little Boy

(What follows is a very slightly expanded version of my introduction for Garrison Keillor's recent appearance at the bookstore.  This was something of a last minute assignment for me, though one I undertook gladly.  I only mention this by way of apology that what follows is not perhaps my best effort in this line, but nevertheless the best I could do at the time.  So nervous was I the night of, it wasn't until I saw the video later that I actually heard Mr. Keillor's response:

"Somehow I wish I had come out before that introduction, and, ugh, I only wish my mother were alive to hear it.  My goodness, she had no idea who she produced.  Well, I suppose, maybe she does hear it, somewhere."

That's both flattering and and a rather sly correction of flattery, may I say.  Still, for all it's obvious faults, here more or less is what I meant to say.)

This evening I have the privilege of introducing a writer who, among his many accomplishments, has just achieved, with this book, A Keillor Reader, a rare distinction in American letters. Some of you will be old enough to remember the Oscar winning actor and comedian, Red Buttons, a man who basically made a living for decades with just the one joke, for example:

“Alexander the Great, who said on his wedding night, 'It’s only a nickname.' Never got a dinner!”


“Lot, who said to his wife as she was being turned into a pillar of salt, 'Salt we got plenty. Coffee we need.' Never got a dinner!”

And on he would go; this one and that one... never got a dinner.

Just jokes of course, good ones, as our guest tonight might say, but the point is there to be made once more; there's been many a great and good man, and woman, as Mr. Buttons might have said, who “never got a dinner.”

More directly to the point this evening, the list of great American writers who have achieved the body of work, the readership and the reputation to justify the publication of a “Reader”is not long. (For any who might not know or remember, a “Reader” in the sense of the word just here, is an anthology of one writer's work, meant to introduce or recall the style and personality of some singular author.) Surveying just the shelves of my personal library last night, I find the following American authors with a“Reader” in my collection: Abraham Lincoln, Ring Lardner, James Thurber, S. J. Perelman, Ogden Nash, Dorothy Parker, H. L. Mencken, A. J. Liebling and Florence King. You will note the common ancestry of everyone on my list but Lincoln can be traced back, one way or another to Twain, and thence, I would hazard, to Washington Irving. There's good, common and economic sense to this precedent – though I admit to not having noticed it before last night.

Without excepting the 16th President of the United States, every writer on my list has, one way or another, at one time or another, been dismissed with the epithet of “humorist,” as if to suggest that amusement was somehow the mark of an inferior, or fundamentally un-serious artist. I need not remind this audience of the truth in the old saw as to which is more difficult, tragedy or comedy. Furthermore, I would argue that the reason every writer on my list – and again, not entirely excepting The Great Emancipator – has continued in the affection of the reading public to this day, is precisely because in addition to the quality of their poetry and prose, we recognize and appreciate a good time when and where we find one. (Any that don't, often as not, in my experience, teach literature. And the ones who think they can tell a joke and can't, teach “theory.”)

Mr. Garrison Keillor has written short stories for the New Yorker, novels, reminiscence and politics. He's written what's called a “straight” play and screenplay in his time, satire, poetry, and books for children And, I understand, he is working on a musical. And all this, I might add, while keeping what might be called his “day job” in radio since, at least, 1974.*

I can think of no other contemporary writer with whom we may all be said to feel both so familiar and foolish fond, and no other American writer of our time on whom we may still count for such wit as this:

“It is a sin to believe evil of others but it is seldom a mistake.” Worthy, I should think, of Ambrose Bierce, that. And, I know of no other American writer of whom I might unquestionably accept the truth and sincerity of the following sentiment:

“Even in a time of elephantine vanity and greed, one never has to look far to see the campfires of gentle people.”

So, tonight, joining that select company of American writers, finally, with well deserved “Readers,” it is my honor and pleasure to give you, gentle people, a great American writer, a writer who has created in Lake Wobegon a better world even than we remember, perhaps a world better than we deserve, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average,” ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Garrison Keillor.

*I would add, that in his books of Good Poems and it's sequels, and likewise Good Jokes, etc., Garrison Keillor has also contributed something every bit as rare to American letters, anthologies of lasting value.  That's no small or easy thing to do.

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