“Captain Kentucky” takes us on a road trip through the Commonwealth and the places that informed his literary roots.
Driving along Paris Pike on a bright, chilly winter morning, I knew that I had much more ahead of me than rolling hills and ridge lines—as beautiful as those would prove to be. Several luminaries of Lexington’s arts scene are packed into the rental car with me: writer Ed McClanahan, musician Mark Vanderboegh, and photographer Guy Mendes, who graciously provided all of the images for this feature.
What, one might ask, was I doing driving the backroads of Kentucky with these guys? It’s a fitting question, and one I’ve reflected on several times in the weeks since. The simplest answer is that Ed agreed to let us accompany him on a tour of some of his childhood haunts—the communities of Maysville, Augusta, and Brooksville. The more complicated answer is that, over the last few years, I have been fortunate to learn more about Kentucky, a state in which I lived for a little more than a decade before being transplanted to the Rust Belt city of Buffalo, New York, from several of her more important descendants, including Brooksville’s own, Captain Kentucky.
Kentucky is Ed’s childhood home. He has deep roots here. The boy who would become Captain Kentucky, Edward Poage McClanahan was born to Edward and Jesse McClanahan on October 5, 1932, in Brooksville, Kentucky. That’s where the family lived until Ed was about 16, when they moved to the nearby town of Maysville. Ed ventured outside Kentucky for his undergraduate education, earning a B.A. in English from Miami University in 1955, but returned to the Commonwealth as a Masters of Arts student at the University of Kentucky, from which he graduated in 1958.
For nearly two decades, Ed answered the call of the west coast. He taught at Oregon State University, and served in several capacities in Stanford University’s Creative Writing Program with Wallace Stegner. Ed’s “Captain Kentucky” persona was born during his decade in California. That’s also where Ed fostered lasting friendships with non-Kentuckians, such as Ken Kesey, and fellow Kentuckians Wendell Berry, Gurney Norman and James Baker Hall. Through these relationships, he came to an understanding of his place in the larger literary and cultural world, and to an even fuller appreciation of Kentucky’s place in his own world. The Commonwealth soon called the Captain home.
While working on a book about America’s honky-tonks, Ed wintered in Port Royal, Kentucky, near his friend and fellow author, Wendell Berry. Following that brief stop, Ed might have hit the road to continue his research (research for which he was possibly particularly well-suited), but that road circled back to Kentucky (and to Port Royal) in fairly short order. Ed moved to Lexington nearly a decade later, where he continued to write as well as teach others about the craft of writing; passing on his passions both for his calling and for his state.
Kentucky lives and breathes in nearly every word Ed writes and says.
Ed is a writer and storyteller for whom such roots matter. I discovered exactly how much on our trip through important places in Ed’s life. Over and over during our day together, as I cruised the Commonwealth with Captain Kentucky, Ed regaled us with details that show up both in his short stories and in The Natural Man, his novel published in 1983. Kentucky and her people play even more prominent roles in Ed’s nonfiction works. Whether standing outside the old soda shop in Maysville, his mother’s former home in Chatham, the jailhouse that once held Old Two-Nose Jukes, or hearing tales of Little Enis, the world’s best left-handed upside-down guitar player, Kentucky lives and breathes in nearly every word Ed writes and says.
It’s not enough to say that Kentucky matters to Ed, though. For a state and region that is often portrayed as backwards, Kentucky has countered these too-easy assumptions with an array of native artists and thinkers who loom large in American culture. Sitting with Ed in his fabulously, eclectically decorated office—surrounded by photographs of literary figures and greats of the last 50 years or so—it’s clear that Ed McClanahan belongs in this company. Providing his readers glimpses in how Kentuckians experience life both within and beyond the state’s borders, Ed complicates our understanding of how the Bluegrass State has contributed to American society. Standing at the intersections of Kentucky, Appalachia, and the countercultural movement, Ed and his writings illustrate at least some of the ways the Commonwealth ought to be celebrated for its place in American life.
Certain things have come to signify “Kentucky” in the popular conscience. Colonels. Bluegrass. Tobacco. Bourbon. Racehorses. College basketball. For me, though, that list is incomplete without Ed McClanahan.
Perhaps the best way to draw attention to the life of Captain Kentucky is to encourage you to begin reading some (and ideally all) of the many words Ed has written. To that end, here is a suggested list from which you might dive into the literary world of Captain Kentucky, beginning with two collections of fiction and then moving on to selections from his creative nonfiction:
• The Natural Man (1983): his novel focusing on Kentucky high school basketball and the experiences of the boys who played it.
• A Congress of Wonders (1996): a wonderful collection of three short stories, including one about the above-mentioned “Two-Nose” Jukes. If you can locate the version Ed produced of him reading these stories, you are in for an even bigger treat.
• “A Misdemeanor Against Nature,” “The Day the Lampshades Breathed,” “Little Enis: An Ode on the Intimidations of Mortality,” and “Ken Kesey, Jean Genet, the Revolution, et Moi” in Famous People I Have Known (1985)
• “Captain Kentucky ‘Visits’ the Left Coast: A Memoir of Wallace Stegner,” “Great Moments in Sports,” and “Grateful Dead I Have Known” in My Vita, If You Will: The Uncollected Ed McClanahan (1998)
• “Fondelle or, The Whore with a Heart of Gold” and “Dog Loves Ellie” in O the Clear Moment (2008)
• “Snarly Pete on the Ramparts” in Oxford American (Spring 2017); includes a a wonderful accompanying photograph by Lexington’s own Guy Mendes.
• Perusing Ed’s website is always a delight. See more at edmcclanahan.com.
Richard A. Bailey is an associate professor of history at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. Lexington resident Guy Mendes is an acclaimed photographer whose work has been featured in numerous publications, collections and exhibits.