Where the Story Takes You
Remembering Captain Kentucky, author Ed McClanahan
By Rhonda Reeves
One of Kentucky’s most well-known and beloved writers died Saturday, November 27, 2021 at the age of 89.
Author Ed McClanahan was an alum of Stanford’s prestigious Wallace Stegner Fellowships and part of Kentucky’s infamous quintet of literati that included friends Gurney Norman, Wendell Berry, Bobbie Ann Mason, and the late James Baker Hall.
The Bracken County native was born in 1932 and was a writer and teacher for most of his working life. In his high school work as a sports writer who transitioned to obits, he discovered a keen dislike for deadlines and writing under pressure, and went on to build a solid literary career of fiction and imaginative non-fiction. Some of his best known works include The Natural Man, Famous People I Have Known, and A Congress of Wonders. As “a glamorous freelance writer,” his vita includes award-winning work for Esquire, Rolling Stone, and Playboy (“Grateful Dead I Have Known” was his breakout piece), and more than three decades as a frequent Ace contributor. He founded the Ohio / Kentucky / Indiana Writers’ Roundtable, a popular conference that was hosted for many years in Augusta/Maysville, and later, Carrollton Kentucky. He was the recipient of two Yaddo fellowships, and an Al Smith Fellowship.
McClanahan’s legacy as a teacher included creative writing stints at Oregon State University, Stanford University, the University of Montana, the University of Kentucky, and Northern Kentucky University. He was profiled as part of KET’s Signature Series in 1994.
In a 1996 Ace interview, he estimated his literary career (at the time) to be “roughly 217 years.” Invited to update the figure a few decades later, he estimated it at “217 years and 15 minutes.”
In 2001, memorializing the indignities of aging, and describing himself as an “unreconstructed old hippie,” he wrote a jaunty essay, “Old Hippie Gets New Hip,” mocking his prior pronouncements that, “I alone had stood steadfast against the ravages of time, I alone of all my motley tribe was still in the Woodstock of my youth. In support of this dubious assertion, I offered the unassailable argument that I hadn’t had a physical in eighteen years, and I was feeling great. Feeling great, that is, with two small exceptions: I couldn’t see, and I couldn’t walk.” As he good-naturedly acknowledged at the time, he’d always believed “even if I lived to be a hundred, as a perennial flower child I still wouldn’t be old enough for cataracts. But that was before I almost ran over the cow.”
“My fiction is largely a re-imagined version of things that really happened in my life, whereas my non-fiction is to a considerable extent a pack of lies.”
When his friend, former Kentucky poet laureate James Baker Hall died in 2009, he eulogized him in “The Elastic Trapezoid Minus One.” He described how the four famous friends came to be, writing, “Wendell Berry, Gurney Norman, James Baker Hall, and I — fledgling writers all — became cohorts and close friends when we were students in the UK English department in the second half of the 1950s. (Bobbie Ann Mason arrived at UK just as I was leaving, and we didn’t meet till many years later.) Between 1958 and 1962, all four of us snagged Wallace Stegner Fellowships in Creative Writing at Stanford University, and during those years and many more to follow, although we lived, variously, in California, Oregon, Seattle, Europe, New York, Kentucky, and Connecticut, we steadfastly maintained our four-cornered friendship—an ‘elastic trapezoid,’ Wendell cleverly labeled it — no matter where, individually, we happened to find ourselves. Eventually, of course, we all ‘found ourselves’ — figuratively as well as literally — right back in Kentucky where we started; the trapezoid had finally stabilized, and squared its corners.”
His detours out west included time spent as part of Ken Kesey’s band of Merry Pranksters, where he was dubbed Captain Kentucky. He’s often credited with inviting Tom Wolfe to visit the gang in California, a visit which ultimately resulted in 1968’s seminal counter-culture chronicle, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Many years later, McClanahan wrote “Furthurmore, An Afterword,” an account of the Merry Pranksters’ reunion, among other things.
Interviewed on the occasion of turning 70, he had a new book coming out, Fondelle, and confirmed his plans to never retire, contradicting a rumor — that he had started — admitting sheepishly, “I said back in 1993 that I intended to quit writing when I finished A Congress of Wonders, the book I was then working on. Dumbest thing I ever said—and worse yet, I said it on television! Of course it took another three years to finish that book, and by the time it came out, the next book already had me by the shorthairs,” adding definitively, “There’s no retiring from this beastly trade, once it gets its hooks in you.”
He remained true to his word, releasing Not Even Immortality Lasts Forever in early 2020, just before the pandemic shut down gatherings such as book tours. He characterized it as “fiction-infused autobiography,” and it was followed by a collaboration with JT Dockery on a graphic version of his novella, Juanita and the Frog Prince. Most recently, he hosted his usual popular table at the 2021 Kentucky Book Festival earlier this month.
In a 2011 behind-the-scenes preview of the Ed McClanahan Reader, he said, “My writing more or less lives in the interface between experience and imagination; I like to say that my fiction is largely a re-imagined version of things that really happened in my life, whereas my non-fiction is to a considerable extent a pack of lies—because sometimes, as my friend Chuck Kinder says, ‘you just have to go where the story takes you.’
In 2019, he and Gurney Norman were inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame, and with three projects in the works at the time, he said, “I’m keeping busy.”
Wendell Berry once summed up his longtime friend’s writing, “I don’t know where else you would find workmanship that is at once so meticulous and so exuberant.”
This article also appears on page 18 of the January 2022 print edition of Ace.
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