What is goodness? A Platonic idea glowing in the ether above ancient Athens? A code of conduct inscribed on stone tablets? A proper level of detachment and inner calm achieved through meditation? In these books, two Minnesotans offer their observations on goodness from a Midwestern, commonsensical perspective. Common sense is a social construct, of course, as is the Midwest, but I'm from Minnesota, so the perceptions of Keillor and Hassler seem comfortable to me. [End Page 193]
Homegrown Democrat, rev. ed., by Garrison Keillor. Penguin, 2006. 259 pages, paper, $12.00.
Garrison Keillor, known for his imaginary small town, Lake Wobegon, and for his radio program, Prairie Home Companion, wrote Homegrown Democrat to encourage voters to defeat George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election. Bush's victory should've killed the book, but Homegrown Democrat lives on. In 2006 Keillor issued an updated version that may have influenced the midterm elections and definitely deserves the attention of creative nonfiction writers.
Keillor begins with a simple declaration:"I am a Democrat, which was nothing I decided for myself, but simply the way I was brought up, starting with the idea of Don't take all the cookies, even though nobody is looking. Think about the others. Do unto them as you would have them do unto you, which is the basis of the simple social compact by which we live." While presenting himself as a small-town Minnesotan, Keillor lauds the public school system for its democratizing effects in the classroom and on the playground. So powerful was the influence of this inexpensive education—the author worked his way through the University of Minnesota by overseeing a parking lot—that Keillor laments the recent triumph of selfish economics over public support for higher education:"You don't encourage invention and ambition by giving a quarter-million-dollar tax break to a $15-million-a-year man. Give the bus driver's bright children a chance to get a great education for free. That's an investment." While at the university, one spring Keillor helped other residents of Minneapolis and St. Paul build a dike of sandbags to keep the Mississippi River from overflowing and destroying homes.
Forget all the political jabber and gossip, all the theoretical balderdash and horse feathers, here is reality: the river rises up in its power and majesty, and the people rise up in theirs, and while one can only do so much, you must do that much, and we did. None of the news reports captured the reality of that event, which was the spirit of the crowd, of which I was one. An experience that warms a Democrat's heart, a scene from Grapes of Wrath, or the crossing of the Red Sea. The People, yes.
Homegrown Democrat goes on to cover Keillor's career, but, like a good citizen of Lake Wobegon, he remains humble. In 1969 an editorial assistant at the New Yorker decided to elevate a piece of his from the slush pile [End Page 194] to the editor's desk. "[M]y association with that magazine was a powerful juju," he says, that led to a radio program, books, and a film, but Keillor credits that anonymous assistant for setting things in motion.
Homegrown Democrat is as much social critique as it is memoir. He reminds the reader of the many things that Americans owe to the Democratic Party, including civil rights, women's rights, and clean air. Conversely, Keillor blasts the current conservative notion that free enterprise will somehow ensure domestic tranquility. Instead he places faith in people called to public service. Take the rescue squad, for example, which he says "can get to you anywhere in St. Paul in four minutes or less. That is official policy. . . . if you urgently need help, someone will be there before panic sets in. In the suburbs, thanks to Republicans and their code of personal responsibility, the coronary victim will have time to read the entire Gospel of St. Mark before help arrives." Although he is harsh on current Republican leaders, he pays homage to "the other GOP," the one that existed in his youth. He...