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May1999
The Natural Man
by Ed McClanahan
In His Own Words
Quotations from Ed McClanahan


The following profile of the author of The Natural Man was written for KET’s Signature series showcasing contemporary Southern writers. It is adapted from the teacher’s guide to that series.

      While recognizing that the novella he wrote in 1961 was much improved by his revision of it 20 years later, McClanahan recalls that writing it while teaching composition full time constituted a critical stage in his development as a writer. Though teaching grammar was “an onerous chore,” he found himself “interested in the mechanics of the language in a way I never had been before.... I was really getting my hands into the machinery of the language.”
      He also drew inspiration from the companionship of several poets on the college faculty. “Language was falling out of these people ... one of them was always assonating and alliterating. It was wonderful.”
      Though he concedes that the novella’s style was “poetic,” it also had a “gloomy ... confessional tone.” He’d intended it as “a searing indictment of Southern small-town values.” Monk McHorning was a villain. “He represented all the insensitive louts who mistreated me in my childhood. It was ... about rejection and alienation.“
      But 20 years later, no longer embittered, McClanahan changed the point of view to the third person and, searching for a way to write kindly of Monk, found the answer in the nonfiction portrayal he’d already written of Little Enis, whom McClanahan had found endearing though also “rude and crude.” In profiling Enis, McClanahan had been content simply to quote and describe his subject without criticizing him. Likewise, he now decided, “The way to render Monk was simply to let him be himself, to lighten up on him, to leave off judging him.”
      Of his work now, McClanahan says: “For me, where the act of writing really goes on is in the interplay between the written voice and the spoken voice. I like for there to be a counterpoint between those two things ... to write in a deliberately overblown literary voice which plays off against these really earthy voices of my characters. And, to some extent, I like to amalgamate the two voices, so that sometimes I can get both of them going at once in a kind of weird harmony.”
      Reflecting on his affection for detailed description of small-town life, he says: “There exists this amorphous, shapeless mass of human experience. There’s not an atom of it that isn’t potentially a work of art. All that’s required is an artist to single it out and ... reveal it for what it really is.”
 

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