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Ed McClanahan
A Profile

Ed McClanahan Ed McClanahan Ed McClanahan

Ed McClanahan, James Baker Hall, and Gurney Norman have shared a peripatetic existence. Wendell Berry once referred to the four of them as a “collapsible parallelogram.” And Ed may have collapsed more than any of them.

Unable or unwilling to conform to the rigid atmosphere of Washington and Lee College as a freshman, Ed bailed out after a brief stint there to attend—and graduate from—Miami of Ohio. After graduate work at UK, he left for the Left Coast, and it suited him just fine. The first stop was a writing instructorship at Oregon State, then enrollment into the Stanford Writing Program, a move shared by Jim, Wendell, and Gurney. There he cultivated, among other things, relationships with Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone, and—most importantly—Ken Kesey. Ed didn’t just experience the 1960s; he wallowed in them. And he is quick to elaborate upon the importance of his travels on the evolution of his novel The Natural Man:

“I had to go to California, or the West Coast, to write The Natural Man. I had to be somewhere far, far away from Kentucky to write that book,” he says. “But I had to come back to Kentucky to write it correctly—to write what was really in my heart.”

The Natural Man began as a sort of exposé of small-town life—a young writer railing about the pettiness and provincialism of the town whose dust he has shaken off his boots. But a strange thing happened to Ed and his boots when he got to California:

“In my youth,” he recalls, “I had felt that I had to free myself from my roots in Kentucky. But oddly enough, once I got to California, I called myself ‘Captain Kentucky.’ While Daniel Boone turned over in his grave, I was wearing my cape and cycle boots and stuff and calling myself ‘Captain Kentucky.’”

And so, “I had to come back to Kentucky to realize what it was that I really wanted my novel to be about. I had written a novel of alienation and rejection originally, and what I ended up with was a novel about friendship and reconciliation.”

—Tom Thurman
Photos © copyright James Baker Hall. Used by permission.