Monday, November 9, 2009

Captain Kentucky, aka Ed McClanahan


(Ed McClanahan & Wavy Gravy, 2004; photo by Pat Mackey)

Tucked away in their cells of good living and almost invisible to the global economy are Guy Davenport, our leading man of letters; Jonathan Greene, poet and publisher, Dobree Adams, weaver, at Riverbend Farm; Guy Mendes, photographer; Ed McClanahan novelist-- there are many many more. Kentucky produces home-grown eccentrics: Henry Faulkner, Sweet Evening Breeze, Bradley Harrison Pickelsimer come to mind. And lots of country artists: the great wood carvers Edgar Tolson and Carl McKenzie; Minnie Black, who made critters out of gourds until she was nearly 100. And who knows what goes on in the little towns like Sugartit, Decay, Viper, Chicken Bristle, Red Hot, Hippo, Shoulder Blade, Nada, Crum, Bugtussle, Ruin, Awe, Stop, and Monkeys Eyebrow? Maybe Kentucky is too strange for the industrial/military complex?

--Jonathan Williams, Spring 2004


Kentucky, home of straight bourbon whiskey and the Kentucky Derby, is also home to poet Wendell Berry, novelist Bobbie Ann Mason, and the final resting place of Thomas Merton (at the Abbey of Gethsemini in Bardstown, where he spent 27 years as a Franciscan monk). This extended roll-call of individuals is meant to illustrate the unique variety of Kentucky genius: in the hills and hollows of what so often gets disparagingly called "backwoods Appalachia" is a native intelligence that any other region of the country would be hard to equal.

Ed McClanahan, born in Brooksville, now 75, has a lengthy and varied writing career that itself finds little comparison. The gadfly McClanahan has published in college journals, Esquire magazine, literary quarterlies, Playboy, Rolling Stone; published collections of short stories, two novels, and teaches today at Northern Kentucky University not far from Cincinnati. Yet this brief resume merely hints at his role as a participant in, and observer of "the Sixties," as the decade is so designated these days, quotation marks included. His stint at Stanford University, beginning in 1962, followed an academic arc from classes with writer Wallace Stegner (meeting William Styron, Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov) into his own transformation as -- well, as McClanahan describes it:


It was an exhilarating time to be at Stanford. The anti-war movement and the civil rights movement and the Free University movement and the hippie movement and what we might call, in retrospect, the General, All-Purpose Up Yours movement were all flourishing, and I was ardently attached to each and every one. By the mid-sixties I was industriously insinuating myself into every sit-in and teach-in and be-in and love-in that happened along. I was also going around the campus in a knee-length red velvet cape, accessorized with a mod-bob haircut and granny glasses and Peter Pan boots. "Captain Kentucky," I styled myself, while Daniel Boone turned over in his grave.

Stegner graciously maintained a friendship with this "psychedelic eyesore," even to sharing his office space. They discussed the inevitable cultural chasm that began to open around the University, and for McClanahan the course was set. There were friendships with Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady in 1964 (though a still, small voice told him "he'd missed the boat" by not joining the Merry Pranksters on the "Furthur" trip east -- he was a family man by then), Richard Brautigan, Robert Stone. He taught writing at Oregon State, the University of Montana, the University of Kentucky.

He was early -- 1964 or so -- in the elect of the new, hip writer, as designated by Esquire magazine. Perhaps this was due to the novella he had under contract, then called "From a Considerable Height." The literary establishment was shifting; the old lions were being shuttled to Squaresville. "Little old unpublished me," McClanahan wrote in Famous People I Have Known. "Suddenly wallowing right up there cheek-to-jowl with the biggest fish in the biggest pond of all: Mailer! Styron! Baldwin! Salinger! Bellow! And . . . McClanahan?"

The very next issue of Esquire contained a letter demanding to know who the hell McClanahan was, and what he had to show for himself. What happened, between the writer's early canonization and the publication of that novella years later (in 1983) at the age of fifty-one, was what McClanahan called "the best and worst thing that could have happened to me." He got a case of writer's block on the novel that wouldn't resolve itself until 1980.

As his writing became more personal -- "following my nose, my muse, and sometimes my muse's nose" -- there were rejections. A 1985 piece commissioned by Esquire called "Where I Live" was turned down for the reason that it was "not upscale literary New York enough for this magazine."


Country people are more trusting -- therefore more generous and kinder -- than megalopolitans, suburbanites, and other backward races because, if you'll pardon the tautology, they're more secure. Here in Port Royal we're here among friends. One tries to pull one's weight, of course; for a while there I cut tobacco and bucked hay and forked manure and castrated calves like a very son of the soil. But in the ledger where such accounts are kept, we'll never get our books to balance because our friends just keep right on being good to us. Not that folks hereabouts don't set great store by their independence. Consider, for example, my friend and nearest neighbor, Kelsie Mertz, a farmer, trapper, beekeeper, occasional fiddler, and pretty fair Sunday painter, who takes his independence very seriously: ask Kelsie to sell you one of his pictures and he's liable to tell you to go paint your own if you like it so damn much. "Some people," says Kelsie indignantly, "think that if you've got something nice, they ought to have it!" Just so.

Yet a completed novel eluded him. By the mid-1970s the novella with the lofty title "From a Considerable Height" grew into an unfinished novel tentatively called A Hell of a Note. In early 1980, almost complete, McClanahan referred to it as Stepeasy. Then in a tangle of nerves, in March 1981 he rewrote the novel -- from first-person to third-person -- and the novel was finally published as The Natural Man. His friend Tom Marksbury wryly commented: "Maybe shit just happens, but magic takes some marinating."

By 1985, in what looked deceptively like rapid sequence, McClanahan published Famous People I Have Known. Its centerpiece -- a meditation on Little Enis Toadvine of Lexington, the self-appointed All-American Left-Handed Upside-Down Guitar Player -- had appeared in Playboy eleven years earlier. Then, in 1996 came a collection of three long stories titled A Congress of Wonders -- stories tugging at him since 1962. McClanahan, the anointed "new kid of 1964," found himself in the literary game for the slow-motion long haul.

In 1998 he published another collection of magazine pieces and stories -- My Vita, If You Will -- that indicates there will be even more McClanahan fables from far and near. It includes his memorial to Neal Cassady, early stories from his student days at Miami (Ohio), and two new pieces -- "Great Moments in Sports" and "Another Great Moment in Sports." He writes -- faster. He has developed a surer hand about writing, that trick he describes as "performing brain surgery on yourself." His website promises he's working on a a sequel to The Natural Man, called The Return of the Son of Needmore. Wait for it.


(McClanahan's collection of boots; photo by Jonathan Palmer)

McClanahan, still "out there" off the cultural grid in Kentucky, likes it that way. Again, from the rejected essay "Where I Live":
Ah, but the compensations! Our TV reception's not too good, and we almost never have to go to the movies. John Y. Brown, Jr. and Phyllis George have moved to New York, and that's been a great comfort. There are no sushi bars in Port Royal, no Volvos, no Hairless Krishnas, and hardly any joggers. We have more cows than people -- a social order in perfect balance. The world our children grow up in will be circumscribed, but they'll know it inch by inch; their society will be small but it will last them all their lives. As long as they behave themselves, they'll never run out of friends.
(BellemeadeBooks is taking a brief break this month. This post originally appeared in 2008.)

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