Published October 10, 2019
On a bright blue-gold October day, the leaves just turning, Garrison Keillor appeared at the Meeting House in this Berkshire town. For weeks there had been mutterings and protests: Why should the New Marlborough Village Association give a platform to a man who had been accused of “inappropriate behavior” two years ago and fired from Minnesota Public Radio?
True, his case had been minor compared with those of, say, Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose and #MeToo’s Great Satan, Harvey Weinstein. And it was never clear what Mr. Keillor’s offenses had been, or how bad. No matter—Mr. Keillor, 77, is enrolled among the sinners. The director of the Village Association threatened to resign unless the show was canceled. “Unfortunately,” one local woman wrote, “men of ego, hubris and entitlement continue to behave in such ways while being elevated in business and society with little consequence.”
Despite such complaints, the show went on. Some 300 showed up to hear Mr. Keillor interviewed by the author Simon Winchester. They filled every pew in the former Congregational church. Mr. Winchester expected trouble. None came.
I sat in the rear. Instead of angry politics, we got something more interesting—90 minutes of Mr. Keillor’s muted Minnesota Zen, a comedic art form, contiguous to religion, that he invented a long time ago.
He made himself, in effect, the hero of one of his Lake Wobegon stories—or rather the antihero, since no one is a hero in Lake Wobegon. He said his mother warned him when he was a child against regarding himself as anything special. He has perfected a metaphysics of self-deprecation. At the microphone, he is the opposite of a “man of ego, hubris and entitlement.”
He said his given name was Gary. He changed it to Garrison because “I just liked the idea of a place where troops were quartered.” That confused the authorities and kept them from arresting him for draft-dodging in the Vietnam years, he claimed. We laughed, and the laughter was sacramental. Without quite understanding it, we were granting him absolution.
Some 35 miles east-northeast of here, in Northampton, Jonathan Edwards preached his fierce sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” during the First Great Awakening. In the midst of America’s Fifth Great Awakening, the Awakening of the Woke, here sat Garrison Keillor, a sinner, bearing witness, though slyly.
He paid a steep price for his sins, whatever they were. He said it didn’t matter—it was “injustice on behalf of a good cause.” The “good cause” was #MeToo. “The way you change behavior,” he said, is through fear—the same point that Jonathan Edwards made. It “is to whack prominent men with a two-by-four.”
Like the great and subtle showman that he is, Mr. Keillor suddenly recited, from memory, a poem by Mary Oliver called “Wild Geese,” the one that begins: “You do not have to be good.”
The line was almost too perfect. From the grave, Mary Oliver addressed Garrison Keillor through the ventriloquism of his own voice. She went on, reassuring him softly: “You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.”
Mr. Morrow is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.