The Natural Man
by Ed McClanahan
A Profile of Ed McClanahan
The following profile of the author of The Natural Man was written for KETs Signature series showcasing contemporary Southern writers. It is adapted from the teachers guide to that series.
Ed McClanahan remembers himself as a 6-year-old sitting beside his aunt while she read him poetry. It was a summer afternoon; a breeze was blowing the curtains over the daybed. She was reading Shelley, Longfellow ... Shakespeare. Ive always thought, Well, OK, something was passed on from that. I wanted to write or to be an artist.
He was born in 1932 and grew up in Brooksville, a small rural town in Northern Kentucky. His father ran an oil distributorship; his mother was a schoolteacher. A childhood illness held him back a year from entering school, but, he recalls, I had all these aunts who were schoolteachers, so I could read like a stormtrooper by the time I started first grade.
Although he was lonely as a boy and not much of a slugger in fights, by the time McClanahan got to high school, he says, things started turning around for me. I got tall all of a sudden, girls were interested, and I made the high school basketball team. He found his new home of Maysville a hip place to be. His family lived within a block of the local soda fountain, the town movie theater, and the high school, and he wrote for the school newspaper.
After a year at Washington and Lee University, McClanahan transferred to Miami University of Ohio to study creative writing. He got Cs on his first short stories, but eventually wrote one good enough to win the college fiction prize. He then enrolled in a graduate English program at Stanford University, but soon discovered he wasnt ready and dropped out. After brief stints as a school bus driver and then a construction worker, he came home to study literature at the University of Kentucky. He wrote more fiction there and earned his masters degree.
In 1958, McClanahan went to work full time as an English teacher at Oregon State College. In the ensuing three years, he published only one short story, and by 1961 he had begun to feel overwhelmed by the prospect that he might never succeed at writing.
Spurred by his anxiety, McClanahan began working nights on a long story. I wrote in a white heat, he says, 500 words a day, seven days a week. I would teach all day, drive 80 miles to teach a night class in Portland, grab a hamburger and eat it walking down the hall on my way to class, teach three hours, then jump in my car, dash back to Corvallis, go straight to my office and write till 5 or 6 oclock in the morning, go home, sleep an hour, then get up and go teach an 8 a.m. class. It was an incredible period in my life. I lost 45 pounds and drank 25 cups of coffee every day. I was absolutely wired, just buzzing, flying around through the world.
In five months, he completed a 100-page novella titled From a Considerable Height. A publisher gave him a contract to develop it into a full-length novel, and he won the prestigious Stegner Fellowship, enabling him to return to Stanford to write fiction.
As a student at Stanford, McClanahan wrote more short stories; then, in 1963, the university hired him to teach creative writing, a position he held for the next decade. It was a time of rapid change in American society. The civil rights movement was gathering strength, the country was becoming embroiled in the Vietnam War, and the hippie culture was flourishing on college campuses.
As McClanahan has written, many of these cultural changes started in San Francisco. While he continued to work as a teacher at Stanford, he lived with his wife and children in a big old house where people constantly dropped by to visit, including Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, and other writers, professors, gurus, and political activists.
With a friend, Fred Nelson, McClanahan began producing a local magazine called The Free You, for which I composed my rhapsodic odes to the revolutionary spirit of the times. One of the earliest of these essays, Highway 52 Revisited, told of his encounter with some conservative young men at a bar in Kentucky one summer when he made one of his annual visits home.
It was a major breakthrough for me to write that piece, he later said. Addressing people in my hip community in California, having an audience that was friendly, not judgmental ... made all the difference. I learned a more personal and direct, original voice than I had ever had before. He continued to develop that voice in other creative essays for The Free You, Esquire, and Playboy.
McClanahan left Stanford in 1972. He taught college in Kentucky for one year and then in Montana for three before returning to Kentucky for good in 1976. He had discovered, I wanted at last to write lovingly of Kentucky. When, in 1980, his publisher put him under a deadline either to finish the novel hed started 20 years before or return the money hed been paid, McClanahan found he was ready to do it.
He extensively revised his earlier work to produce The Natural Man, which was published in 1983 to unanimous praise. In 1985, he published his comic memoir, Famous People I Have Known. Recently he saw the film of his 1988 short story, The Congress of Wonders, completed. And a new book, also entitled A Congress of Wonders, was published in 1996 to widespread praise. In Newsweek, reviewer Malcolm Jones Jr. wrote: McClanahan lightens not merely your wallet but your heart as well. Quaff of this literary elixir. You wont regret it.