New Kentucky Hall of Fame writers followed similar paths but found different voices
They were two small-town Kentucky boys who went to study literature at Stanford University. They ended up at ground zero of California’s emerging counterculture with beatniks, hippies, rock ‘n’ roll and psychedelic drugs.
Read “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” Tom Wolfe’s famous 1968 book about author Ken Kesey’s LSD-fueled travels with his group of “merry pranksters,” and you will find these two names: Ed McClanahan and Gurney Norman.
Next month, you also will find them in the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame.
The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning has chosen McClanahan, 86, and Norman, 81, both of Lexington, as this year’s living inductees into the hall of fame. They will be honored Jan. 30 at 7 p.m. at the Kentucky Theatre, 214 E. Main St. The event is free and open to the public.
“Ever since we started the hall of fame (in 2013), people have mentioned those two names together,” said Neil Chethik, director of the Carnegie Center. “When are you going to get Gurney and Ed?”
They are the last two of the so-called “Fab Five” Kentucky writers of their generation to join the hall of fame. Wendell Berry and Bobbie Ann Mason were added in 2015 and 2016. James Baker Hall (1935-2009) joined in 2014.
McClanahan and Norman said their literary careers, which focus on autobiographical fiction and prose, began with hearing stories in childhood. Norman grew up in a dysfunctional Appalachian family, often living with grandparents. McClanahan came from a family of Bracken County court clerks.
“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.”
That is where they became friends with Kesey, most famous for his novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” They became part of the bohemian community near campus that also included a young musician, Jerry Garcia.
Norman’s novel “Divine Right’s Trip,” about hippies who move from California to Eastern Kentucky, was serialized in The Last Whole Earth Catalog, the counterculture bible. His other books include “Kinfolks: The Wilgus Stories,” and “Ancient Creek: A Folktale.” He has taught English at the University of Kentucky since 1979.
McClanahan, who taught English at UK, Northern Kentucky University and in Oregon and Montana, is best known for his funny coming-of-age novel, “The Natural Man” and book of stories, “Famous People I have Known.”
Chethik said both are at least as accomplished as teachers as they are as writers. “They not only know writing, but they know how to tell a writer to keep going,” he said. “Together they have spawned hundreds of writers.”
Joining McClanahan and Norman in the Hall of Fame will be four deceased writers:
- Sue Grafton (1940-2017), a novelist born in Louisville who became famous for her “alphabet” series featuring private investigator Kinsey Millhone.
- Jane Gentry Vance (1941-2014), a poet born in Lexington, was Kentucky Poet Laureate and a University of Kentucky English professor.
- Alice Allison Dunnigan (1906-1983), a journalist born in Russellville and became the first black woman reporter credentialed to cover the White House and Congress.
- Helen Thomas (1920-2013), a journalist born in Winchester who covered the White House for more than 60 years.
“We’re really proud that two of the pioneering women journalists in history of the White House press corps were from Kentucky,” Chethik said. “We thought this was a good year to honor them, because of the challenges journalists, and especially women journalists, face right now.”