Note: Howard Mohr, the author of “How to Talk Minnesotan,” a humorous “visitor’s guide” first published in 1987, has died at age 83.
DULUTH — In 1987, the year my family moved from Duluth to St. Paul, a slim paperback with a starving farmer on the cover suddenly became ubiquitous. That Christmas, it seemed like everyone who didn’t already have one got a copy of “How to Speak Minnesotan.”
Howard Mohr’s satire couldn’t have come at a better time to make a splash. The author’s main calling card was an involvement story on “A Prairie Home Companion,” and Minnesota was enthralled with how the show’s creator, Garrison Keillor, had become a celebrity through low-key stories from the small town life in North Star. State.
It was just a year before the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden opened, with “Spoonbridge & Cherry” instantly becoming iconic as a new local sight, and the Minneapolis skyline was changing, with the Wells Fargo Center also opening in 1988 for almost match the IDS Tower in height. Pop music was chasing Prince’s cool “Minneapolis Sound,” and in the most recent presidential election, Minnesota had produced a major party candidate.
(Of course, in the general election, Walter Mondale won only his home state, but that was one more state Gary Hart won against Ronald Reagan.)
Filled with a sense of national relevance, many Minnesotans found it safe and reassuring, not to mention unexpectedly lucrative, to simultaneously embrace a regional identity as the land of outspoken Scandinavian farmers. Keillor’s book “Lake Wobegon Days,” published in 1985, sold more than a million copies worldwide, affirming Minnesota’s mildly self-deprecating hunger for humor.
“How To Talk Minnesotan” was in print at the time, but was never intended to match the sales numbers of “Lake Wobegon.” While it trafficked in many of the “Prairie Home” tropes (the bogus ads promoted Raw Bits cereal and Baxter Bus Tours of Minnesota (“free Minnesota breakfast, free Minnesota nap”)), “How to Talk Minnesotan” it hit its sweet spot with local audiences who recognized the real ideas behind Mohr’s “language guide.”
The book’s first lesson introduced readers to “the three Minnesota conversation workhorses”: “Stakes” (“if you can’t think of anything else, say ‘Stakes'”), “That’s different” (” a general response on neutral ground, with the mere suggestion of opinion”) and “Whatever” (“expresses emotional turmoil of many varieties”).
“How To Talk Minnesotan” was successful enough to spawn a sequel (“A Minnesota Book of Days,” 1989), a public television special (1992), a musical (1997), and a “revised for the 21st century” reissue. (2013). ). However, at the time of the latter, Mohr’s not-so-hot-button views on topics like smartphones and social media had more to do with the author’s advanced age than his regional identity.
Today, the whole project of simultaneously promoting and lampooning Minnesota’s identity as a land of single Norwegian farmers is past its expiration date.
Keillor, exiled from public radio in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations, now plays small theaters to audiences of die-hard fans instead of headlining the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand. In today’s pop culture atlas, Keillor’s Lake Wobegon shares an appendage with Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Given that reality, what’s remarkable about “How to Speak Minnesotan” is how well much of it holds up.
Lutefisk gets a whole chapter, right. Entries about, say, Minnesota poker parties (“If no one has heard the one about the lame Norwegian with priapism, the game stops”) don’t necessarily recommend the book today. Still, the guide resonates beyond outdated Scandinavian stereotypes.
The book grew out of a series of “Minnesota Langage Systems” excerpts that Mohr wrote for “A Prairie Home Companion.” In an introduction to the revised edition, the author explained that he was inspired by a German phrase guide for English-speaking visitors. “Hears!” Mohr remembered thinking. “Why not write a visitor’s guide to Minnesota?”
“How To Talk Minnesotan” gave Mohr the opportunity to explore, over the course of a book, the various dimensions of what is alternately celebrated and (now, more commonly) vilified as “nice Minnesota.” In Mohr’s account, Minnesotan sociability is grounded in a stoicism born of the need to survive brutal winters, tempered with a generosity that can be expressed as stridently as anything else in the “Minnesotan” vocabulary.
Mohr warned visitors that in Minnesota, sharing a meal often turns into an epic struggle between a guest who has an obligation to decline (“abrupt and eager acceptance of any offer is a common mistake made by visitors to Minnesota” ) and a host that has a higher capacity. obligation to insist (“Why don’t you eat it? Go ahead. Then we can wash the pan”). When the meal is finally over, there is a Minnesota Long Goodbye, a multi-step procedure that hinges on the non-negotiable ending, where “departers are in the car and hosts are at the open driver’s window, leaning in.”
Throughout the book, Mohr’s motive is that Minnesotans are extraordinarily reluctant to speak directly. Lesson 2 is titled “The Power of the Negative” and advises that “Minnesota prefers to express their positive feelings by using negatives, because it naturally levels things out.” It could be worse.
A chapter on body language begins with the rule: “Two Minnesotans standing never face each other during a conversation.” A chapter on the phrase “I don’t know” recommends its use to tone down any statement that might seem too direct. Mohr explains that it’s in good taste to simply hint at an opinion, without expressing it explicitly: “See who’s running for governor? I dont know.”
It is all very well, of course, not to express a strong political opinion when you are a member of a privileged group that benefits from maintaining the status quo. “How To Talk Minnesotan” landed in an era when it seemed like a funny joke to many Minnesotans to uncritically conflate “fourth-generation Norwegian immigrant” with “Minnesotan.”
At the same time, when the ethnic trappings are stripped away, Mohr’s book stands as the work of a writer who had a keen ear for how a variety of then-culturally dominant Minnesotans shaped their social interactions. In that sense, it’s an essential document of a certain time and place in the state’s history: the book was never “How to Talk Minnesotan,” really, but it did describe how many Minnesotans talked.
The author was a scholar who taught English at Minnesota Southwestern State University. He was also, at one point, a newcomer to Minnesota: he was born in Des Moines. By gently poking fun at his adoptive status, Mohr captured the angst of social interaction in some ways that remain specifically Minnesota and in others that are simply human.
Its section on “Talking Money,” for example, still holds up in the Venmo era. (“You must have worked an hour out there in the cold.” “I worked two and a half hours out there in the cold, Arnie, but I’m not taking your money.”) If you visit the State Fair, you can still see tens of thousands of Minnesotans dutifully following Mohr’s rules of elliptical body language. Even some of Mohr’s specific phrases are still useful, of course.
“When I’m introduced to strangers, especially Minnesotans,” Mohr wrote in 2012, “it’s not uncommon for them to say after a moment’s pause, ‘You’re the guy who wrote that book.’ I like that label, as you can imagine.
As far as legacies go, it’s not such a bad deal.