Ed McClanahan

Episode #304 First Aired: May 19, 2010

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Ed McClanahan, one of Kentucky’s most vibrant, outspoken, and humorous contributors to the world of modern literature, prefaces his major work, “The Natural Man,” with a quote from James Fennimore Cooper’s “The Prairie…”

“You are of the class, mammalian; order, primates;
genus, homo; species, Kentucky.”

In the 1995 Signature series profile of this notoriously wild man of letters, Kentuckian Ed McClanahan and friends share some time to reflect upon a life made electric through the writer’s enchanted vision, mind, memory, voice, and pen. The Signature program has been out of rights for several years, so Kentucky Muse is pleased to bring this story back to the airwaves as a Muse Encore Presentation.

The program begins in northeastern Kentucky, where it is quickly revealed how McClanahan’s childhood plots the course of much of his prose. Many characters in his stories hold a verifiable place in his memory, while his early years spent roaming the storefronts, pool-halls, and high school basketball courts of Brooksville and Maysville also helped to shape a mind that can quickly expose the magic hidden in even the most seemingly mundane and wandering soul. We follow McClanahan’s blossoming literary career and his post-university travels to California, where he had been awarded the prestigious Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University in 1962, and, perhaps even more importantly, fell madly for the emerging counter-cultural literary scene of the Bryant Street House. He forged new friendships with Ken Kesey, Gurney Norman, Vic Lovell, Robert Stone, and many other modern American literary legends while taking up his exclusive moniker—“Captain Kentucky”—as a member of Kesey’s Merry Pranksters.

All of these threads weave together in the main plotline of the program—the writing of McClanahan’s great opus—”The Natural Man”—the epic tale of Harry Eastep, Monk McHoring, and the impassioned drama that is Kentucky high school basketball. It took the author 22 years, from first draft to final edit, to publish the book, now likened to Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye”.

The documentary was directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Paul Wagner and first aired on KET in 1995. Wagner examines the development of McClanahan’s often biting but always compassionate voice. The camera candidly accompanies McClanahan on visits to old haunts with old friends and colleagues to share stories, while readings from his other works, including “Famous People I Have Known,” and interviews with several avid followers outline some basic facts: that McClanahan writes to perform his highly poetic prose in the reading of it, can find the humor hidden in almost any human weakness or lesser evil, and has created a life of bringing people together, simply and surely, through the finding and telling of the truth…if only slightly embellished here and there as any true Kentucky storyteller would.

Ed McClanahan currently lives in Lexington, Kentucky, with his wife Hilda. In 2008, he published “O, The Clear Moment,” called an “implied autobiography” by the author. KET producer Tom Thurman, as a highlight to this program’s re-release, has also produced a follow-up interview to give viewers an update on some of McClanahan’s more recent works, projects, and hijinks.

Bonus Video Follow-Up Interview

In a May 2010 interview with KET producer Tom Thurman, Ed McClanahan discusses his life and reads from his works.

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Signature LIVE!

In 1996, McClanahan, shortly after the premiere of the Signature documentary, McClanahan was interviewed by Starr Lewis and took questions from high school students in the KET studio.

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Classroom Ideas

The Signature documentary on Ed McClanahan is suitable for college and high school classrooms, although teachers should preview both the film and McClanahan’s works for considerations of language and content. (McClanahan discusses his use of profanity in the SignatureLIVE! interview, noting that he used language true to his characters.)

The following classroom ideas are taken from or adapted from the Signature Teacher Guide.

  • Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” Ed McClanahan keeps three thesauruses at his writing desk. He says that, when he’s writing, he uses a thesaurus sometimes not just to find “the right words,” but to find synonyms, “to see what other nuances I can come up with. You can’t use a thesaurus haphazardly. But I find the thesaurus is like a little mine of ideas.” To discover the variety of expressions a thesaurus offers, look up these words: run, light, fair, green, tranquil. Thesauruses are arranged in different ways. You may find it easiest to use one published in dictionary form. Discuss what you find.
  • The protagonist of “The Natural Man,” Harry Eastep, loves sports writing for “the assonance, the alliteration, the sheer mythmaking hyperbole, the splendid excess of it all” [emphasis added]. Look up these terms and the term consonance. Try writing a paragraph that displays these qualities.
  • McClanahan describes an early draft of “The Natural Man” as containing language that was “jacked and pumped…I had a lot of wind in my sails.” For the fun of it, try writing a paragraph that could be described that way. For instance, try using two or three similes where ordinarily you might use only one. In “The Natural Man,” for example, McClanahan wrote not just that Newton Ockerman was fat, but that he “was as ponderous as three hundred pounds of vanilla custard on the hoof, the sort of fat man whose girth was greatest just below the belt, like a gravy boat or a soup tureen.”
  • Using the first-person point of view, write a story about a time when you were treated unfairly by someone bigger than you. Write the story again, but from the point of view of that bigger person. Then write the story yet again, using the third-person perspective. In writing one of those versions, consider exaggerating what happened or how it felt to one of the characters. What other adjustments do you have to make—in someone’s personality, in dialogue or setting—for that version of the story to be interesting?
  • Watch the segments in the Signature documentary and the short video Ed in which McClanahan reads aloud from his works. Compare hearing his words to reading them. Practice reading what you write aloud to someone at home, then read it aloud to a group.


Ed McClanahan Reading List

“One Lord, One Faith, One Cornbread.” Doubleday, 1973. (This anthology of works by McClanahan and others, co-edited with Fred Nelson, includes essays which later became chapters 3 and 4 of Famous People I Have Known)

“The Natural Man”. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1983. Reissued by Gnomon Press, 1993. (Novel)

“Famous People I Have Known.” Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1985. (Memoir formed partly from previously published material, including articles listed below)

“A Congress of Wonders.” Counterpoint, 1996. (Story collection)

“My Vita, If You Will: The Uncollected Ed McClanahan.” Counterpoint, 1998.

“Fondelle, or, The Whore with a Heart of Gold: A Report from the Field.” Larkspur Press, 2002.

“A Foreign Correspondence.” Sylph Publications, 2002.

“Spit in the Ocean #7: All About Ken Kesey.” Penguin Books, 2003.

“O The Clear Moment.” Counterpoint, 2008.

“Highway 52 Revisited.” The Free You, 196-. (Later collected in One Lord, One Faith, One Cornbread; became chapter 3 in Famous People I Have Known)

“How to Weave a Tangled Web.” The Free You, 196-. (Later Collected in One, Lord, One Faith, One Cornbread; became chapter 4 in Famous People I Have Known)

“Famous People I Have Known.” Esquire, 1969.

“Grateful Dead I Have Known.” Playboy, v. 21, #3, March 1974.

“Little Enis Pursues His Muse.” Playboy, v. 21, #3, March 1974.

“The Congress of Wonders.” Esquire, December 1988.