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Ed McClanahan
A Conversation

- Part 1 - Part 2 -

Guy | Cool. So you’re living away from your home, Kentucky. You’ve been to Oregon and California, my town. Talk a little bit about the correspondence among your friends that you met back here. Talk about how that friendship developed and continued.

Ed | Well, while I was in Oregon and first Jim and Wendell, and then later Gurney, were at Stanford, we all stayed in touch. I made several trips down to California to visit Wendell, and Gurney at one point came up to see me in Oregon. And Jim, by that time, was in Seattle. I think he was going to graduate school at Washington or taking graduate courses, I believe. And his then wife, Joan, was teaching in Seattle at UW. And they came to Corvallis to visit, and Kit and I went up to Seattle to visit. And so we all stayed in touch.

I was thinking just the other day about this. When Kesey’s novel was published, and I was still teaching at Oregon State, Kesey, after the novel was—after Notion, I’m talking about; no, I’m sorry, after Cuckoo’s Nest was published—Kesey went home to Springfield, Oregon, which he was a native of, to research his second book, Sometimes a Great Notion, which, of course, is about logging, the logging industry in Oregon. And at that point, I hadn’t, of course, met him. But Notion—I mean, Cuckoo’s Nest—came out that fall, the fall of ’61, and I had read reviews of it—excellent reviews that it was getting. I remember one in Time magazine that really praised it.

And Jim Hall wrote me a letter—I think Jim was in Seattle by that time—but he wrote me a letter and said, “You know, you must go and meet this young writer, Ken Kesey.” And he referred to him as “that gregarious young genius.” And so I went over to Eugene and looked Ken up somehow, and got together with him, spent an afternoon with him. And that’s when our friendship started, and it lasted 40 years. That was in November of ’61, and he died in November of 2001.

But I was getting letters from Wendell, who was by that time back in Kentucky ... No, he wasn’t; he was in New York. Wendell had gone to New York and was teaching at NYU, where he was director of freshman composition, believe it or not. And so I was hearing from him there, and I went to see him in New York. We took a trip to New York one Christmas, Kit and I did, and went to visit Wendell. And so we all stayed in touch.

And Gurney wrote me some wonderful letters from Palo Alto about these wonderful experiences he was having on Perry Lane with these wild people that he was encountering and made me just slather to get there, you know. I wanted desperately to be a part of all this.

And so it was all part of our ... The dynamic was that we just stayed together. Wendell once referred to the four of us as a “collapsible parallelogram”; that is, you know, go this way and that way, and some of us would be here and others would be there, but we all would stay connected somehow. And it was pretty amazing friendship and lasted a long time and survived a great deal, and has thrived in the end and has been a great sustaining factor for all of us, I think.

Guy | So you’re not a school of writers; you’re not alike as writers ...

Ed | Right. We don’t write a thing alike, I don’t think. There’s absolutely no similarity between anything any of us ever wrote and anything any of the rest of us ever wrote. But yet we all seem to benefit and profit from each other.

I’ve tried a time or two [to write in a similar way]. In fact, in the story that I wrote, that I spent my year on the Stegner Fellowship writing—which many, many years later became a story called “Finch’s Song” in my book Congress of Wonders—but I spent the whole year that year writing the story about a school bus accident which was terribly Wendellian. It was kind of an imitation Wendell. And I remember I sent a copy of it to Jim after that year, and he wrote back and said, “Well, I think this sounds too much like Wendell.” And I said, “Oh,” you know. But he was right. I mean, he was right. I had unconsciously tried to imitate Wendell, and it just didn’t work for me, you know. And it took 30 more years of unwriting that story to make it my story and not Wendell’s story. Which was, you know, from my point of view, it was worth every minute of the 30 years because I loved the story. I mean, it came out to be one of my favorite pieces of fiction, actually: the story “Finch’s Song.”

Guy | Lead me into reading an excerpt from that letter that Wendell wrote to you, if you would.

Ed | Yeah. Wendell wrote me a letter in 1970 after Ken Kesey and his friend, Ken Babbs—his friend and my friend, Ken Babbs—and several other Prankster folks and I visited Wendell in Port Royal, Kentucky, down in Henry County ... up in Henry County, on the banks of the Kentucky River. And Wendell wrote a marvelous poem about it called “Kentucky River Junction.” And he sent me a poem, and he sent a letter along with it testifying to the fact that he had felt terribly uncomfortable in the creative writing classes at Stanford with these guys from the West Coast because he had felt like a displaced person. He was out there from Kentucky, and he didn’t understand how the urban Western mind worked at all—or thought he didn’t—and was dreadfully uncomfortable while he was there. And only realized years later that he had a friend ... had had a friendship with these guys that he hadn’t suspected existed at the time.

And so the letter is all quite wonderful, but this one paragraph from it really is a remarkable statement, I think. He says ... This is Wendell in 1970 writing about, in part, about the classes that he had taken at Stanford in 19 ... in the late 1950s. He says: “I think the crisis of my life was the discovery that I was a Henry County poet, a kind of creature that, so far as I knew, had no precedent in creation and that I feared was contrary to evolutionary law. I think I went around for years suspicioning that I was the sole member of an otherwise non-existent species. It was like I began with one foot on the ground, very uncertainly balanced, and all my work has been the slow descent of the other foot. Now I think the other foot has come all the way down and planted itself in Henry County along with its mate. And that was the only way I could get my head free of the fear and the combativeness I used to feel. I mean, when a Henry County poet begins at last to see himself as one of the natural possibilities of Henry County and not an evolutionary accident, then he quits worrying so much about getting stomped out and begins going out grinning, saying over and over to himself ‘I am possible. I am possible.’ And having become convinced of the possibility of so odd a creature as himself, he joyfully concedes the possibility of a Kesey and a Babbs and a McClanahan and a Norman and a Hall, all rare creatures of all sort, and rare creatures of all sorts. And that’s a long way from our old wish that people would confirm my existence by agreeing with my opinions.”

Wonderful statement; lovely, lovely statement, I think, and an invaluable one, you know. It tells you ... It tells one how to ... how it’s possible to be a Kentucky writer, to be a person of this place.

Guy | Of the classes at Stanford: Were they combative?

Ed | You know, I don’t think that Babbs and Kesey thought of Wendell as being combative at all. I think they liked him and respected him. But he didn’t think they did. And he was quite sure that they, at the time, that they thought he was a hick and a clod. And I don’t think there was any reason at all for him to think that, but he felt defensive, you know, because of his accent, and the fact that he didn’t feel that he had been anywhere, you know. And they had seen the world, to some extent—some small extent—and were experimenting with Bohemian life and so forth. And Wendell didn’t ... He wasn’t ever going to be comfortable with that. And so I think that’s where it all comes from. I don’t think he ever was ... I don’t think they ever really came to blows in any fashion at all, even verbal blows, but ...

Guy | So Wendell’s back in Kentucky. All of you left Kentucky, went elsewhere for long periods, and then all of you have returned. Can you talk about that?

Ed | Yeah, well, I’ve often said that 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. But I had to come back to Kentucky to write it correctly, to write what was really in my heart. The first version of Natural Man was a sort of diatribe against small-town life and the constrictions of it and the ways in which it had oppressed me and the freedom of my spirit and all that when I was growing up. And, you know, it took going away to get all that said. And then it took coming back to Kentucky to realize that I didn’t really feel that way about it at all anymore, you know.

Ed McClanahan as Captain Kentucky I had, in my youth, I had felt that I had to free myself from my roots in Kentucky. But oddly enough, once I got to California, you know, I called myself “Captain Kentucky.” I was a hippie in California calling myself “Captain Kentucky.” As I enjoyed saying many times, while Daniel Boone turned over in his grave, I was wearing my cape and cycle boots and stuff in California and calling myself “Captain Kentucky.” And all those years I was in California, I made an absolutely conscious effort to maintain my Kentucky accent. I wanted that identity somehow. And I didn’t want to give that up.

And when I came back to Kentucky to stay, I began to kind of realize why that was—why it was that it had meant so much to me—because I could, you know, I could recognize myself again when I got back to Kentucky. You know, they say ... People used to talk about how you had to go out and find yourself, you know. I think that’s what Wendell said one time, that that’s what patchouli oil was for: so hippies could find themselves. Just follow your own scent, and you’ll get there eventually.

But I had to come back to Kentucky to realize what it was that I really wanted my novel to be about. And what I wanted it to be about ... You know, I had written a novel of alienation and rejection originally, and what I ended up with was a novel about friendship and reconciliation. And there’s a world of difference between the two, and yet it’s the same novel. The story never changed at all, but the feeling did. All that’s behind the story is totally different from what it was in its first, original version.

Guy | When you came back, did you come back in part because of the different friends who had already returned? I guess Wendell was back, and Gurney was ... I don’t think Gurney was back, or he was back?

Ed | Gurney was back off and on. Wendell certainly was here, you know. Except for those couple of years that he was teaching in New York and, you know, his few years in California, too, and then he had a year in Europe on a Guggenheim Fellowship. But aside from that, Wendell’s never lived anywhere but Henry County for all practical purposes.

And by the time I came back, Jim Hall was in Connecticut, but he was bouncing off of Kentucky in a regular way even then. And Gurney, by that time, was back here in Kentucky working as the editor of the Hazard Herald. And Bobbie Ann, of course, by then was in Pennsylvania, but I didn’t really get to know Bobbie until much more recently. We corresponded off and on for several years. And when she began to publish, I began reading her work right away and admiring it. And, you know, after she started publishing, then I began to realize what a true Kentuckian she really was because her stories at that time were all Kentucky stories.

And of course, when I came back to Kentucky in ’76, I came specifically because there was a little empty house next door to Wendell’s house down on the Kentucky River, a house that belonged to Wendell’s Uncle Jimmy. And Uncle Jimmy agreed to let me live there for nothing. And nothing was what I had in those days, and so I came back here with my second wife, Cia, and we moved into this little tenant house down the road from Wendell’s. And I would not have been there if it hadn’t been for Wendell. I don’t know where I would have been, but probably I would have tried to come back to Kentucky anyway, somehow or another, because by that time my children were here, and my mother was a Kentuckian all her life and was here then. And so I would have tried to find a toehold in Kentucky somewhere. But if it hadn’t been for Wendell, I wouldn’t have gone to Henry County, that’s for sure.

But I moved in, or we moved in, next door to Wendell in ’76 and stayed in that little tenant house for the next ... basically for the next five years. Moved out in 1980, but only moved a couple of miles up the road. We finally had gotten together enough to be able to buy a house. And so we became residents of Port Royal, where we lived for another ten years.

Guy | Your friendships, this group of writers, continue to be an inspiration to all of you, I’m sure. And in the current work, the piece you’re at work on, doesn’t it come out of some Henry County court case or something?

Ed | The story I’m working on now, which is a sort of left-handed, latter-day sequel to The Natural Man, my novel, is a novel called The Return of the Son of Needmore, which basically takes place in Brooksville, the town that I grew up in, in Bracken County. But it also incorporates a lot of the experiences that I had during the time that I lived in Henry County, including the fact that I was on a jury up in Henry County while I lived there. And this novel is basically about a guy who’s ... about Harry Eastep, the representative, my representative, in The Natural Man, who is again my representative in this novel and who serves on a jury in a murder trial. And the courthouse that’s described and the town that’s described in this new novel is Brooksville. But the experience of being on a jury was an experience that I had in Henry County. And there are a number of ... Well, there’s an awful lot of stuff, in fact, in this new novel that I would not have been able to write had I not lived those years in Henry County—things about small-town life and in a more modern context, you know. I knew what it was like to live in Brooksville in the 1930s and ’40s, but I wouldn’t have known what it would be like to live in a small town in the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s if I hadn’t lived in Henry County.

Guy | When we interviewed you about six or seven, six years ago, ’94 or something like that [for Signature], you said you didn’t want to write any more long fiction. And we’ve got you under the lights again. What was with that?

Ed | Well, I think probably the dumbest thing I ever said in a public context was when I declared on television that I was finished writing, that I was going to quit. I had two books, and I was perfectly satisfied with them, and that was all I ever wanted to accomplish. And I think I knew that that wasn’t true even while I was saying it, but I don’t know quite what prompted me to say it. I guess I thought, “If I say this, I won’t have to write any more books,” you know.

But I did have to write some more. I’ve got two more books, and a third little book coming out next year from Larkspur Press [Fondelle, or the Whore with a Heart of Gold: A Report from the Field, 2002]. And I’m, you know, poking away, plugging away, on this novel, which I hope will find its way into existence and print in the not-too-distant future. It’ll be awhile yet, but I’d like to finish it up in the next couple of years or so.

Guy | Let me digress, and tell me about ... We’re back to Bob Hazel and Company. I asked you about ... I think I can find a photograph of the campus bar, off-campus bar that was called ... what was it?

Ed | The Paddock?

Guy | The Paddock, yeah.

Ed | Well, we spent many, many hours hanging out at the Paddock, which was just off the UK campus, just around the corner from this very building where we are now on Rose Street. And it was ... The atmosphere in the Paddock was just kind of wonderful. There was this really nice guy named Fred who owned it. I can’t remember Fred’s last name. And his wife was also awfully nice; I don’t remember her name. But they would, you know, they would let us run a tab for beer, and they were just real sweet, generous people. And they also served really good fried bologna sandwiches, which you could get at lunch, and it was kind of a wonderful place.

We spent a huge amount of time hanging out in there, partly ... Well, it was hangout both for writers and the art students at UK. And partly that was because it was so handy to the Art Department. It was right down the street from the Fine Arts Building, which is right next door to this building. And, well, there was a wonderful guy who was an abstract expressionist painter on the faculty here then, a guy named Fred Thorps, who was great—tall, very imposing-looking guy, big shambling fella, who had been a basketball star in New York City in his youth. And Fred was a wonderful abstract expressionist painter, and really attracted ... People gathered around him. He had a lot of charismatic qualities like Bob Hazel. And Bob Hazel and he were very fast friends; they hung out together all the time. And so we would go to the Paddock with Fred and Bob.

And then Bob had a friend here in town, a wonderful kind of literary ... Dostoevskian literary figure named Wade Donahue—or Donahoe; I can’t remember which ... Donahue, I believe. And Wade was a really smart guy who was ...

Guy | Pick that up from “Wade was a smart guy ...”

Ed | OK. So Bob Hazel had this friend named Wade Donahue, who was a very smart, interesting guy. He was sort of a drunk and sort of a Dostoevskian figure, but he had read everything, and he had really an encyclopedic knowledge of literature. And then the young art students—Skip Taylor was one of them. Skip was over there a lot. And there was a fella named Don Sanders, I think was his last name, who used to ...

Guy | Talk to me a little bit about your generation of writers influencing successive generations. I mean, isn’t it a little bizarre that your generation of writers came out of a place known for its high illiteracy rate? Talk about that a little.

Ed | Well, as young Kentuckians, I think, you know, we were pretty much isolated from the literary world. We didn’t have any predecessors to speak of, you know. I suppose, you know, you could say that John Fox Jr. and James Lane Allen and Jesse Stuart were predecessors, but we didn’t think of them that way, really, and I don’t think ... I think most of us felt like we didn’t want to be in that line of descent at all. But I think that the young writers who are now coming along in Kentucky do think of us as their predecessors, and that’s a very gratifying feeling, from my point of view. I’m sure everybody else agrees, you know, all the rest of us.

But I think that, you know, that [we] actually have made some room for writers like Chris Holbrook, who wrote a wonderful book called Hell and Ohio, a book of stories which I think he would be the first to say owes a great deal to Gurney’s book Kinfolks. Johnny Payne has written a fine novel or two; and Silas House, I’m sure, feels he’s got a debt of gratitude to Gurney’s ground-breaking work in Appalachian writing. Mike Kelsay referred to me as his drinking buddy lately in print, and I was glad to be there. Mike’s a really good writer, and I think, you know, that there’s something of what I could call influence on my part in Mike’s book, which is called Too Close To Call.

And so I think, you know, that there really is a kind of line now of Kentucky writers that’s traceable. I don’t think, you know, as I say, Wendell and Gurney and Jim and I came out of nowhere. I don’t. And I suppose that’s partly why we’re all ... [why] our writing is all so different among the four of us, you know. We don’t have common roots in that sense, you know—in the literary sense—at all. And so I think that our commonality is in the fact that we’re all Kentuckians and we have some experience in common. But, you know, Jim was a city boy here in Lexington. Wendell and I were small-town or country guys, and Gurney was from the mountains. And among us, we kind of ...we cover all knowledge.

Guy | Well, that’s a good place to stop.

Ed | Why not? It’s good enough; yeah.

- Part 1 - Part 2 -