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Sunday, January 29, 2006

Keillor on Lévy

Many, many, many years ago (pretty close to thirty, as I can recall) I stumbled across the voice of Garrison Keillor on some local public radio station. Despite ups and downs in his career and my listening habits, I have always admired and remained in awe of this entertaining genius. Just yesterday, as we were driving to some event, we tuned into a little piece of a prairie Home Companion show being broadcast from Purdue University's campus, and within those few minutes were heard a bit of information on the legacy of that institution (and its links to, among others, Amelia Earhart and Lillian Gilbreth) as well as a rendition of a song about Indiana written by Hoagy Carmichael. And just as we reached our destination, Keillor was starting on his weekly (well, at least any week the show is on) "News from Lake Wobegon"). For those unfamiliar with it, that is the kind of show it is, and my regret is that I don't find time to listen to it regularly.

I bring this up because this morning's New York Times Book Review features (on its front page actually) a wonderfully devastating critique of Bernard-Henri Lévy's American Vertigo -- an anticipated work that hints (in its subtitle, of all places) at significance as following in the "Footsteps of Tocqueville." By the time Keillor is into his second paragraph, you realize that those footsteps are Tocqueville's ghost as it moves quickly to distance itself from this book.

But while the book might not be worthy of attention, certainly Keillor's attack on it -- no punches pulled -- most certainly is. Read with an awareness of Keillor's wonderful voice and style, it is about as entertaining as any review can be.

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Comments on "Keillor on Lévy"


Blogger meditations71 said ... (11:30 AM) : 

Hi Mel:

I enjoyed listening to Keillor when living in the US and his "Prairie Home Companion" is one of the (few) US radio programmes that I miss.

However, I was sort of astounded by his response to Levy's book (rather overshooting the author's intent and actual arguments, I thought) and the "prominent" place his response was accorded in the NY Times.

Unfortunately a good comment in yesterday's Irish Times on Keillor's somewhat hysterial response (?) is not available without a subscription :(

Keillor is good at describing upper mid-western Lutherans but his review of Levy shows a remarkable dose of provincialism.

I was even sympathetic to a commentary by Hitchens (and that's not often) in this matter:

Ugh. Perhaps I should work instead...


Blogger Mel said ... (12:47 PM) : 

Thanks for your comments Stefan.

Yes, Keillor certainly generated some heat for Levy when he was here. The review hit just a Levy was making the "rounds" of interviews on his promotional tour, so he spent time at each defending himself -- or in some cases attacking Keillor as francophone. See the NY Sun interview at There was also an hour on a Boston-based national talk show (one of the more credible ones):

Interestingly, a colleague of mine teaches a seminar on Tocqueville and Twain, and I am hoping to get some reaction from him on this little ocntroversy -- we tend to think of Keillor as our modern Twain, and Levy (or at least his editors) has pretensions to his being the modern Tocqueville. Twain was five years old when the full edition of Democracy in America (the 8th edition, 1840, was the first to contain both parts of the completed work) was published in English, so he obviously could not review it. But I've seen references to some famous passages from Twain's books that seem to paraphrase some well know Tocquevillian observations, so it is likely he would not have done to Alexis what Keillor di dto Henri....


Blogger meditations71 said ... (3:37 PM) : 

I suppose my first reaction would be that de Tocqueville and Twain must be so much more exciting than "BHL" and Keillor.

Moreover, perhaps it is fair to say that Twain at his peak was America's first truly world famous literary figure, and in that sense in a completely different league than Keillor. Somehow I can't imagine Twain being able to fit within the confines for the "midwestern sensibilities" of Keillor's world! :)


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