Ed McClanahan, a writer who turned a childhood in a small Kentucky town and his Californian adventures as a jolly prankster into a lasting and beloved literary career, died at home on Saturday, his family said. He was 89 years old.
McClanahan, a short story master who also wrote novels, non-fiction and poetry, was known as one of Kentucky’s Fab Five, a literary hall of fame made up of his friends Wendell Berry, the late James Baker Hall, Bobbie Ann Mason and Gurney Norman. He was inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame in 2019.
âEd and I started talking in the spring of 1957 and we haven’t stopped until now,â Berry said on Saturday. They met during a bibliography class at the University of Kentucky, reconnected at Stanford University, and remained friends for 64 years. In California, Berry recalls, he, McClanahan, and Norman spent hours together talking. “It was a necessary conversation – we were Kentuckians from different parts of this very diverse state and we had to talk to each other.”
Berry said he can now examine his own work and find phrases influenced by McClanahan’s speaking and writing style.
âEd was one of the best writers of my time,â Berry said. âHe was almost perfect in the way he made his sentences, the way he heard his sentences. He had a really great sense of humor and it depended on his tongue.
McClanahan was born in Brooksville, Bracken County. He received an undergraduate degree from the University of Miami (Ohio) in 1955 and an MA from the University of Kentucky in 1958. In 1962 he was appointed Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, and there remained for 10 years as an EH Jones speaker at Creative Writing. At Stanford, he met Ken Kesey, author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, and his group of Merry Pranksters, (documented in “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” by Tom Wolfe), as they walked through the country in a school bus named Furthur. McClanahan was known as “Captain Kentucky” and wore costumes like a cape, Air Force sunglasses, and golden cowboy boots. His memoir, âFamous People I Have Known,â published in 1985, describes many of these feats.
His first book, “The Natural Man”, described as a funny and poignant novel about maturity, was published in 1983. He also taught generations of English writers and majors in the UK, to Northern Kentucky. University, Oregon and Montana.
Lexington photographer Guy Mendes first met McClanahan 52 years ago when McClanahan knocked on his door with a Moose Lodge conductor cap.
âHe was really big and really funny and he’s been funny ever since,â Mendes said. âHe’s the funniest man I know. Ed could make you laugh until you cry – he was a very funny writer who could use elaborate prose to convey his humor.
Mendes recalled that McClanahan spoke to a group of high school and middle school students who asked him if there really was “free love” in the 1960s.
“Well,” McClanahan replied, “it wasn’t free, but it was damn cheap.”
In a 2019 interview, McClanahan told Tom Eblen that his upbringing in Bracken County allowed him to found his writer.
âMost of my story listening took place in places like the pool hall and around the drugstore where all the people in the courthouse came and went,â McClahahan said. “I was a bit addicted to language in a weird way, just as someone who was going to be a painter would be interested in color.”
Eblen was part of a weekly writers lunch with McClanahan.
âEd wrote primarily about his own weaknesses and the colorful characters he encountered on his journey from small town Kentucky to the Californian counterculture and back again,â Eblen said. âHe had a keen sense of the absurd and an ear for irreverent humor, and he put it all together in talkative and well-crafted prose. Whether you read Ed’s stories or hang out with him, you always feel better about the experience.
Frank X. Walker, UK Creative Writing Program Director, said he was saddened to lose âsomeone who had made so many of us laugh for so long.
âEd was a pillar of the writing community of his generation that made Lexington and Kentucky a rightful literary home,â Walker said. âHis mentorship and support to an entire generation of young writers will be missed. “
McClanahan was a staple on Walton Avenue in a bungalow where he lived and wrote; neighbors were getting waves almost daily as he walked around the neighborhood. His last two books were published in 2020 and his last public appearance was at the Kentucky Book Fair, where he appeared with Norman and Mason.
âIt was great to see him at the book fair earlier this month, weak but determined to be there to sign his books and say hello to his friends and fans,â Mason said on Saturday. âHe was the warmest, sweetest, funniest guy, a dear friend.
âHe was a literary stylist and a supreme comedian,â Mason said. âHe worked with love on every word. He always plays around with words, spinning his tongue in circles.
He is survived by his wife, Hilda, and four children, Kristin, Caitlin, Annie and Bill, as well as four grandchildren. He was predeceased by a son, Jess McClanahan.
Funeral arrangements are incomplete at this time.
This story was originally published November 27, 2021 11:46 a.m.