31 March 2011

How to shout Minnesotan: Pawlenty and the authentic voice

Minnesotans have been talking lately about how their former governor Tim Pawlenty talks Minnesotan, or doesn't.

Along with some at the Washington Post and New York Times, Minnesota Public Radio detected a marked change in Pawlenty's accent at a recent speech in Iowa. While the Times noted that Pawlenty, a native of St. Paul, "suddenly developed a Southern accent as he tried connecting to voters by speaking louder and with more energy," Minnesotan commentators characterized the change as a deliberate attempt to come across as "folksy" and more like "an average person."

This characterization might strike those outside the state as odd since for many of them, the elongated vowels and regional idioms could hardly seem more folksy, even quaint, something the Coen Brothers (raised in a Jewish household in a suburb of Minneapolis) played with in their mostly-accurate and mostly-loving send-up of Minnesotan speech disguised as a crime drama, Fargo.

The debate hits home for me, not just as a native of rural Minnesota, but as one who consciously shed his accent while in college on the West Coast. I've come to regret this, but to recover it now would be as much an affectation of my actual roots as Pawlenty's drawl is an affectation of his counterfactual roots. My explanation of his embarrassing attempt, apart from bad judgment, is that Northern Midwestern English lacks a tradition of mellifluous shouting in public life, a way to deliver ringing, stirring oration at a high volume and emotional pitch. By contrast, Southern-inflected oratory--with the fluid musicality of its multisyllabic vowels--has a tradition that has benefited hugely from Southern Baptist and Methodist preaching styles. What is soul in Minnesotan?

Walter Mondale sounded too nice, like a middle school civics teacher who could be terrorized by 13-year-olds. Former governor Jesse Ventura is a formidable bellower, but he comes off a bit like, well, a professional wrestler. The elegant senator, poet, and five-time Democratic presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy had a style that was not unappealing, but it shied away from the broad vowels of the deep accent. For inspiration of a tradition that could be, I would point to the late poet Bill Holm, undoubtedly one of the most soulful people I've ever met. As Garrison Keillor eulogized him in 2009, Bill was
a great man and unlike most great men he really looked like one. Six-foot-eight, big frame, and a big white beard and a shock of white hair, a booming voice, so he loomed over you like a prophet and a preacher which is what he was. . . . the sage of Minneota, a colleague of Whitman though born a hundred years too late, a champion of Mozart and Bach, playing his harpsichord on summer nights, telling stories about the Icelanders, and thundering about how the young have lost their way and abandoned learning and culture in favor of grease and noise.
I had the privilege of growing up around Bill, not far from Minneota, and witnessing how he held forth from the piano bench with hours of cigarette-stained ragtime at the house parties thrown by my mother and my father, a colleague of Holm's in the English department of Southwest Minnesota State University (also the home of Howard Mohr, author of the hilarious How to Talk Minnesotan). Here is a brief video clip of Bill speaking to kids about the death of Senator Paul Wellstone and a radio remembrance that captures his wonderful voice.

And so I say to my fellow Minnesotans: If we must augment our voices when we get behind a podium--there being nothing objectionably "inauthentic" about this inherently--we can do no better than this Holm-spun soul.


  1. Not many better than Bill at raising a roof, although your dad's pretty good behind a podium, too. The politician who perhaps sets the standard for public speaking by Minnesota politicians is Humphrey -- a bit of a high-pitched voice, but he conveyed a great deal of sincerity, and the pure need for social justice in some of the greatest speeches of the 20th century.

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