This I Believe: I Believe In Lake Wobegon

Aug 18, 2016

Essayist Tony Lentz.

I believe in Lake Wobegon. I know, it's just a fictional place created by Garrison Keillor for his radio show “A Prairie Home Companion.” Yet it became much more. I believe we all owe Garrison Keillor a debt of gratitude for helping to preserve the American Dream.

Keillor’s made-up town was a little unrealistic. Lake Wobegon was an easy-going small town where people accepted each other's foibles with a benign smile. A mother encouraged a son with an unreliable tenor saying, "You have a nice enough voice." When there was illness, neighbors showed up with a "hot dish" as concrete evidence of their concern. When the arrogant youth pretended not to know his relatives as he rushed to the college admissions office, they said, "He's a good boy. He'll turn out all right."

The essential good things in Lake Wobegon never changed, and I loved the Wobegon stories for them. They were the foundations of life in the small towns I knew as a boy, even though I grew up outside Minnesota. In those small Southern towns, despite their own gothic tragedies and horror stories full of deception, deceit, and even blood--- we learned to forgive, to accept, and eventually to love each other. Passing a graveyard full of our ancestors, we found most sins were not that important in the eternal scheme of things. The vital things were a sense of humor, an acceptance of each other’s quirks and bad habits, and an underlying feeling that we were "nice enough" to belong. And we worked at being kind to one another.

With Keillor’s retirement, Lake Wobegon now becomes, like Brigadoon, a mythic town that only appears in our fevered imaginations once in a long while. Yet its power remains. The stories remind us of our better selves, of the kindness and tolerance and forgiveness that make it possible for us to live together. In today's world, small towns are disappearing at a record rate, and people are arming themselves against both real and imagined enemies.

More than ever, we need regular reminders of the lesson small town life taught in the ideal world of the American Dream. We need to remember the America open to all people of peace and goodwill, a place where people look upon the odd behavior of others with a wry smile tempered with love.

So I believe in Lake Wobegon, and in the 40 years of good Garrison Keillor has done. He's definitely more than a "good enough" storyteller. I thank him for telling stories with a hopeful and loving view of human beings in all their awkward and embarrassing moments. He preserved an ideal image of the best the American Dream had to offer. And I, for one, still believe in that, too.  

Tony Lentz is a former instructor at Penn State in oral interpretation.