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Ed McClanahan, "Captain Kentucky" and "Fab-Five" Writer, Dead At 89

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One of the Commonwealth’s most celebrated writers has died. Arlo Barnette reports.

Ed McClanahan died at home on Saturday at the age of 89. He was inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame in 2019.

From the Carnegie Center For Literacy and Learning:

When Ed McClanahan’s novel The Natural Man was published in 1983, Wendell Berry said, “Others have observed the natural man in the American condition before, but nobody has done it with such good humor. Ed McClanahan’s good humor both sharpens his eye and gentles his vision. I don’t know where else you would find workmanship that is at once so meticulous and so exuberant.”  McClanahan is known for his rollicking, good-naturedly crude humor, and a creatively extensive vocabulary. He has been compared to American humorists such as Mark Twain, John Kennedy Toole, and S. J. Perelman.

McClanahan was born in Brooksville, the seat of Bracken County. He is a graduate of Miami (Ohio) University (A.B., 1955) and the University of Kentucky (M.A., 1958). He received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University in 1962 and remained at the university as the E. H. Jones Lecturer in Creative Writing until 1972.  While at Stanford, he was nicknamed “Captain Kentucky,” a persona he assumed when he became a member of Ken Kesey’s band of “Merry Pranksters.” He wore various costumes, including a cape (often an American flag), Air Force sunglasses, and gold cowboy boots.

McClanahan and his contemporaries Wendell Berry, James Baker Hall, Bobbie Ann Mason and Gurney Norman were considered the “Fab Five” group of Kentucky writers, products of the creative writing program at the University of Kentucky.  Professors Robert Hazel and Hollis Summers were influential in fostering these exceptional writers.

The title story of A Congress of Wonders was made into a prize-winning short film in 1993. McClanahan was the subject of an hour-long documentary on Kentucky Educational Television in 1994. His writing has appeared in numerous magazines, including Esquire, Rolling Stone, and Playboy. He twice won Playboy’s Best Non-Fiction award.

McClanahan is a master short-story writer.  In a Starred Review of Publisher’s Weekly, the reviewer praised O the Clear Moment: “Playful, self-deprecating and wickedly sharp, McClanahan’s nine autobiographical short stories delve into youthful shenanigans and poignant first love in the late 1940s in Bracken County, Kentucky.  McClanahan has an enormously personable style . . .” Alison Hallett of the Portland Mercury said of the book: “McClanahan’s skills as a humorist are predicated on a deep respect for language, and the book’s best moments come when McClanahan indulges in the rhetorical flourishes that make his lowbrow subject matter all the funnier.”

McClanahan taught English and creative writing at Oregon State University, Stanford University, the University of Montana, the University of Kentucky, and Northern Kentucky University.

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