Ed McClanahan, a writer who turned a small-town Kentucky childhood and his California adventures as a Merry Prankster into an enduring and beloved literary career, died Saturday at home, his family said. He was 89.
McClanahan, a master of the short story who also wrote novels, nonfiction and poetry, was known as one of Kentucky’s Fab Five, a literary pantheon comprised of his friends Wendell Berry, the late James Baker Hall, Bobbie Ann Mason and Gurney Norman. He was inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame in 2019.
“Ed and I started talking in the spring of 1957 and we haven’t stopped til now,” Berry said on Saturday. They met at a bibliography class at the University of Kentucky, connected again at Stanford University, and stayed friends for 64 years. In California, Berry recalled, he and McClanahan and Norman spent hours together talking. “It was a necessary conversation — we were Kentuckians from different parts of this highly diverse state and we needed to talk to each other.”
Berry said he can look over his own work now and find sentences influenced by McClanahan’s style of speaking and writing.
“Ed was one of the best writers of my time,” Berry said. “He was almost perfect in the way he made his sentences, the way he heard his sentences. He had a very large sense of humor and it came to rest on his language.”
McClanahan was born in Brooksville in Bracken County. He received an undergraduate degree from Miami (Ohio) University in 1955, and masters from the University of Kentucky in 1958. In 1962, he was named a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, and remained there for 10 years as the E. H. Jones Lecturer in Creative Writing. While at Stanford, he met Ken Kesey, author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and his band of Merry Pranksters, (documented in “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” by Tom Wolfe), as they traveled the country in a school bus named Furthur. McClanahan was known as “Captain Kentucky,” and wore costumes like a cape, Air Force sunglasses and gold cowboy boots. His memoir, “Famous People I Have Known,” published in 1985, describes many of these exploits.
His first book, “The Natural Man,” described as a funny and poignant coming of age novel, was published in 1983. He also taught generations of writers and English majors at UK, Northern Kentucky University and in Oregon and Montana.
Lexington photographer Guy Mendes met McClanahan 52 years ago when McClanahan knocked on his door wearing a moose lodge band director’s hat.
“He was real tall and real funny and he’s been funny ever since,” Mendes said. “He’s the funniest man I’ve ever known. Ed could make you laugh until you cried — he was a very funny writer who could use elaborate prose to get his humor across.”
Mendes recalled McClanahan speaking to a group of high school and college kids who asked him if there was really “Free Love” back in the 1960s.
“Well,” McClanahan replied, “it wasn’t free, but it was pretty damn cheap.”
In a 2019 interview, McClanahan told Tom Eblen that his Bracken County upbringing provided his foundation as a writer.
“Most of my story listening took place in places like the pool hall and hanging around the drugstore where all the people from the courthouse came and went,” McClahahan said. “I was kind of hooked on language in some weird way, just like someone who was going to be a painter would get interested in color.”
Eblen was part of a weekly writers’ lunch with McClanahan.
“Ed wrote mostly about his own foibles and the colorful characters he met on his life’s journey from small-town Kentucky to counterculture California and back,” Eblen said. “He had a keen eye for absurdity and an ear for irreverent humor, and he brought it all together in loquacious, well-crafted prose. Whether you were reading Ed’s stories or spending time with him, you always came away feeling better for the experience.”
Frank X. Walker, the director of the UK Creative Writing Program, said he was saddened to lose “someone who had made so many of us laugh so hard for so long.
“Ed was a pillar in the community of writers of his generation that established Lexington and Kentucky as a legitimate literary hotbed,” Walker said. “His mentorship and support of a whole generation of younger writers will be missed.”
McClanahan was a fixture on Walton Avenue in a bungalow where he lived and wrote; neighbors got nearly daily waves as he would walk through the neighborhood. His last two books were published in 2020, and his last public appearance was at the Kentucky Book Fair, where he appeared with Norman and Mason.
“It was great to see him at the book fair earlier this month, weak but determined to be there to sign his books and greet friends and fans,” Mason said on Saturday. “He was the warmest, sweetest, funniest guy—a dear friend.
“He was a supreme literary stylist and humorist,” Mason said. “He worked lovingly on every word. He always has a blast with words, running the language around in circles.”
He is survived by his wife, Hilda, and four children, Kristin, Caitlin, Annie , and Bill, and four grandchildren. He was predeceased by one son, Jess McClanahan.
Funeral arrangements are incomplete at this time.