Edward Poage McClanahan was born in Brooksville, Kentucky in 1932 to Edward Leroy and Jesse (Poage) McClanahan. He attended school there and later in nearby Maysville, Kentucky where the family relocated in 1948. McClanahan graduated from Miami University with a B.A. in English in 1955 and from the University of Kentucky in 1958 with a M.A. in English. McClanahan taught English at Oregon State University, 1958-1962.
He received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in 1962 and remained at Stanford University as E. H. Jones Lecturer in Creative Writing until 1972. During his time at Stanford, while also known by his hippie moniker "Captain Kentucky," McClanahan became good friends with author and fellow Stanford attendee Ken Kesey. McClanahan was an active member of Kesey's band of Merry Pranksters. His memoir, Famous People I Have Known, humorously recollects many of his Prankster experiences.
In 1968, he signed the "Writers and Editors War Tax Protest" pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War.
McClanahan later taught at the University of Montana (1973–1976), the University of Kentucky, and Northern Kentucky University. He was released from his contract at NKU before receiving tenure, which allowed him to complete his most recognized novel The Natural Man.
Following Kesey's death in 2001, McClanahan edited Spit in the Ocean # 7: All About Kesey, a collection of stories, poems and essays about Kesey. Spit in the Ocean # 7 was the last volume of a literary magazine Kesey himself conceived in 1973 and thereafter sporadically self-published. Each Spit in the Ocean volume featured a different theme and editor; the last Kesey-published edition, Spit in the Ocean # 6, had been released over 20 years before, in 1981.
McClanahan married Katherine Andrews in 1957 and they had three children: Kristin, Caitlin, and Jess. In 1975, he married Cia White (daughter of journalist and writer William S. White) and they had two children: Annie June and William. McClanahan currently resides in Lexington, Kentucky with his third wife, Hilda. He is active in Kentucky literary circles and can occasionally be seen, in full "Captain Kentucky" regalia, guest-lecturing to University of Kentucky creative writing workshops.
McClanahan has been a writer since the mid-1950s with short stories, essays, and reviews in such magazines as Esquire, Playboy, and Rolling Stone. In 1972 and 1974, he received Playboy's award for nonfiction.
Known for his rollicking, good-naturedly crude humor and a creatively extensive vocabulary, McClanahan, along with contemporary authors Wendell Berry, James Baker Hall, Bobbie Ann Mason and fellow Prankster Gurney Norman, is considered a member of the "Fab Five" group of Kentucky writers.
The Natural Man had its inception in 1961 and was finally published in 1983 to great acclaim. McClanahan has frequently thanked Northern Kentucky University for firing him as it allowed him the opportunity to finish the novel, which was completely rewritten from first to third person.
- One Lord, One Faith, One Cornbread, Fred Nelson & Ed McClanahan (eds.) (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books), 1975. ISBN 978-0-385-04220-8
- The Natural Man (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux), 1983. ISBN 978-0-374-21969-7
- Famous People I Have Known (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux), 1985. ISBN 978-0-374-15329-8
- A Congress of Wonders (Washington, DC: Counterpoint), 1996. ISBN 978-1-887178-12-9
- My Vita, If You Will: The Uncollected Ed McClanahan (Washington, DC: Counterpoint), 1998. ISBN 978-1-887178-77-8
- Fondelle, or, The Whore with a Heart of Gold: A Report from the Field (Monterey, KY: Larkspur Press), 2002.
- A Foreign Correspondence (Tucson: Sylph Publications), 2002. ISBN 978-0-9673004-4-3
- Spit in the Ocean #7: All About Ken Kesey (New York: Penguin Books), 2003. ISBN 978-0-14-200363-3
- O The Clear Moment (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint), 2008. ISBN 978-1-58243-430-8
- "Writers and Editors War Tax Protest" January 30, 1968 New York Post
- Bartholomew, W. E. Ed McClanahan: A Descriptive Bibliography, 1954-2000 (Tucson: Sylph Publications), 1999. ISBN 978-0-9673004-0-5
- "Edward Poage McClanahan", The Kentucky Encyclopedia, John E. Kleber (ed.) (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky), 1992. ISBN 0-8131-1772-0
- Sigelman, Lee. "Solitary, Poor, Nasty, Brutish--and Tall?: Man and Society in The Natural Man", Journal of Kentucky Studies (September 1985): 198-212.