Author Breece D’J Pancake, who was born in South Charleston in 1952 and grew up in the tiny town of Milton, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1979. In his brief 26 years of life, he wrote only a dozen short stories. Six were published in magazines during his lifetime and another six were included in a book printed after his death.
Over the years, Pancake’s stories have gained a cult-like following with many readers, and seem destined to be read for decades to come.
Pancake graduated from Marshall University and the creative writing program at the University of Virginia. His unusual middle name of D’J originated when The Atlantic Monthly misprinted his middle initials of “D.J.” (for Dexter John) in the byline on the first of his stories it would publish. Amused, Pancake decided not to correct the typo and instead use it on all his stories.
Now, renewed attention is being focused on the author’s work with a new hardback book being published by the Library of America. “The Collected Breece D’J Pancake” ($24.95) is being called the definitive collection, and includes his original 12 stories, a number of unpublished fragments, a lengthy selection of his letters and an introduction by novelist Jayne Ann Phillips.
In her introduction, Phillips, born and raised in West Virginia, pronounces Pancake’s stories “some of the best short stories written anywhere, at any time.”
Established in 1982, the Library of America isn’t a building, it’s a series of anthologies that sprang from the realization that many works by America’s best writers were either out of print or nearly impossible to find.
Now numbering more than 300 volumes, the Library of America is widely recognized as the definitive collection of American writing, encompassing acknowledged classics, neglected masterpieces and historically important documents.
The new Library of America edition of Pancake’s work offers a deeper look at an author whose career, as short as it was, would have a significant influence in Appalachian fiction.
‘Deeply-rooted in my soul’
Significantly for West Virginia readers, almost all of Pancake’s stories are set in his home state — a place he truly loved.
In a letter he sent to his mother Helen from Charlottesville where he was studying writing, Pancake wrote: “I’m going to come back to West Virginia when this is over. There’s something ancient and deeply-rooted in my soul. I like to think that I have left my ghost up one of those hollows, and I’ll never really be able to leave for good until I find it. And I don’t want to look for it, because I might find it and have to leave.”
Pancake’s stories take place in the little town of Milton, fictionalized as ‘‘Rock Camp,’’ or elsewhere in the state’s southern coalfields. Many unfold along curvy mountain roads. The stories are starkly written, sometimes with ironic humor, and always without sentimentality. His characters are often poor, lost or trapped, either by forces beyond their control or by their own past.
They’re coal miners, garage mechanics, truck drivers, snowplow drivers, hardscrabble farmers, waitresses, prostitutes, ex-convicts, and people on welfare or unemployed. They are not among the winners in life, but they grimly keep plodding on.
In “Trilobites,” perhaps Pancake’s best-known story, Colley, the story’s young truck driver protagonist, returns home hoping to convince his aged mother not to sell the family farm (“perhaps the last real farm left around here”). Colley is haunted by memories of his dead father. Arguing with his mother, he talks back to her — something he had never done before. Frustrated, he leaves, knowing he is powerless to dissuade her from selling. Like many of Pancake’s characters, he faces a bleak future.
A bit of explanation about the story’s odd-sounding title: Millions of years ago, part of southern West Virginia was covered by a big river, the Teays, bigger than today’s Ohio River. Pancake was fascinated by the elusive trilobite marine fossils left behind by the Teays when it disappeared.
In Pancake’s “The Scrapper,” a former professional boxer finds himself fighting a man who evidently wants to kill him, while onlookers shout and cheer. Cock fighting also plays a bloody role in the story. In “Hollow,” non-union coal miners scratch out a meager living in a dog-hole mine. In “Fox Hunters,” a band of cynical half-drunk fox hunters gather around a campfire “telling lies mingled with truth” about a dead girl they had all paid for sex.
‘Eerie ghostlike quality’
Pancake, it seems, was destined to be a writer. The early clues certainly were there.
In “A Room Forever” (University of Tennessee Press, 1998), Pancake biographer Thomas E. Douglass writes that in grade school the future writer loved to tell his young friends ghost stores. “In junior high, he began to write them down.” In high school, his stories continued to have “an eerie ghostlike quality to them.”
In 1968, Elizabeth (Toney) Reese was appointed head librarian at the Milton Library and would hold that post for 23 years until she retired in 1991. In her long tenure at the library, Reese touched the lives of many who passed through its doors — and they, in turn, touched hers.
One such was a teenage Breece Pancake.
“Breece came to see me a lot of times,” Reese recalled after his death. “We’d sit in the back room and talk about everything. He wanted me to put his name on an issue of Sports Illustrated magazine that had an article about cock fighting. I saved the issue for him. That’s where he got the material for his short story titled ‘The Scrapper.’ I found the magazine with his name on it after he died and I sent it to his mother. I became really close to Breece. I really loved him.”
Graduating from Milton High School, Pancake was an unhappy freshman at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon and his poor grades reflected that. The following year, he enrolled at Marshall University in Huntington in order to be close to his mother and father. His father was slowly dying from multiple sclerosis. Pancake’s grades improved dramatically at Marshall, where he graduated.
With his Marshall degree in hand, Pancake took a job teaching middle grades 5-8 at Fort Union Military Academy in Fort Union, Virginia. He would follow that with a stint teaching at Staunton Military Academy in Staunton, Virginia. He found teaching English to students unwilling to learn deeply unsatisfying, and the pay at the schools was poor.
While teaching at Fort Union, Pancake began driving his car (an old Cadillac convertible he called the “Great Blue Whale”) to Charlottesville to attend John Casey’s writing classes at the University of Virginia. There he studied with such authors as James Alan McPherson, Peter Taylor and Mary Lee Settle. In the mid-1970s, he wrote a handful of human interest features in The Cabell Record, the weekly newspaper in Milton.
More importantly, he began serious work on short stories, some of them later published in various literary magazines. His major breakthrough was the publication in The Atlantic Monthly of ‘‘Trilobites’’ in December 1977.
Pancake committed suicide a couple of years later, on Palm Sunday, 1979, by sticking a loaded shotgun in his mouth. What prompted his suicide remains unclear. It’s been suggested he may have been disoriented by sleepwalking.
Pancake biographer Douglass points out that “in hindsight, there were many indications of Pancake’s suicidal longings,” such as the act of giving away many personal items, including his guns, with the exception of the Savage over-under shotgun he used to kill himself.
As her son was buried in Milton Cemetery, his mother vowed that somehow she would see a book of his stories published.
“The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake” was published by Atlantic Monthly Press/Little Brown in 1983. The book included a foreword by McPherson and an afterword by Casey, both of whom had worked closely with Helen Pancake to sort through the disorganized manuscripts her son had left behind. Significantly, the book’s dust jacket featured a drawing of a trilobite.
It was McPherson who had recommended Pancake’s stories to The Atlantic Monthly, which bought two of his stories and asked him for more. In his foreword to the book, he wrote: “There was never any doubt in my mind that Breece Pancake was a writer. His style derived in large part from Hemingway, his themes from people and places he had known in West Virginia. His craftsmanship was exact, unsentimental ... He wasted no words.”
In his afterword, Casey noted that Pancake wrote almost exclusively about the part of his home state where he grew up “and he knew that from top to bottom. He knew people’s jobs, from the tools people used to how they felt about them. He knew the geology, the prehistory, the history of his territory.”
‘He had it’
Sales of the book were brisk, surprisingly so considering that the author of the stories was totally unknown when copies arrived in the nation’s bookstores.
The collection drew enthusiastic praise from such writers as Joyce Carol Oates (“one is tempted to compare his debut to Hemingway’s”) and Margaret Atwood (“an exceptional voice; gritty, mordant, invested with the texture of stroked reality”).
Phoebe-Lou Adams, his editor at The Atlantic Monthly, concluded that “whatever it is that truly commands reader attention, he had it.”
Holt, Rinehart and Winston published a paperback edition of the remarkable posthumous collection of Pancake’s stories in 1984. The book went on to be published in Great Britain, in Germany and in a Brazilian/Portuguese edition.
The new Library of America edition was released last fall. The description on the book’s Amazon page says, in part:
“‘The Collected Breece D’J Pancake’ brings together the original landmark book, several story drafts and fragments, and a selection of Pancake’s letters to offer an unprecedented picture of his life and art. Among the unfinished stories are fragments from Pancake’s two planned novels. The letters document his relationship with writers such as Peter Taylor, John Casey, James Alan McPherson, and Mary Lee Settle, and offer a picture of his collaborative relationship with his mother, who sent him newspaper clippings and helped him research his stories.”
The book is available at local book sellers, as well as online.