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Breece D'J Pancake
1952 - 1979
"I'm going to come back to West Virginia when this is over. There's something ancient and deep-rooted in my soul. I like to think I have left my ghost up one of these hollows, and I'll never 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." 1
- Breece Pancake, from a letter to his sister while he was at the University of Virginia
Breece Pancake grew up in a tight-knit Cabell
County family. He rambled the woods and was known as a person who marched to his own drum. He died of a self-inflicted gunshot in 1979, when he was a 26-year-old graduate student in writing at the University of Virginia. His only book - 12 short stories - was published after his death. It was immediately declared a literary masterpiece. Decades later, his reputation still grows, and students in many top writing schools, nationwide, study his work.
The characters in the 12 stories of The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake struggle to get by. Many are deeply connected to the mountains, small towns, animals and broken dreams of the landscape around them. "All his stories are about people under pressure," his biographer, Tom Douglass, said, "layers and layers of pressure, of inabilities, of impossibilities, of closing doors.
"His work ethic was astonishing," Douglass wrote. "He was a night owl. He'd wake in the wee hours of the morning and write. His fiction is very tight and well-phrased, and that comes from writing over and over and over again. Some of these stories, he wrote maybe 20 times, maybe 10 handwritten drafts, then maybe as many typewritten drafts. He told his students to 'look upon your stories as a fine wine, one aged and well-made, not as a cup of instant coffee. Rewriting is the key to refined fiction.'"
Among his fellow graduate students, he stood out with his big Army belt buckle, blue jeans and hill twang. "He was so different from all those little mealy-mouthed graduate students," his friend Nancy Ramsey recalls. "There was Breece, coming down the hall with his cowboy boots clicking and stomping."
While he was still at the University of Virginia, his stories were published in The Atlantic Magazine and The New Yorker, and major publishers were soliciting him for more stories and a book. He died of a self- inflicted, unexplained gunshot wound before he graduated.
From a Breece Pancake story: Hollow 8
WV poet Kirk Judd read this passage. Hear more, including an entire Pancake story on the audio program.
When life gets rough, Pancake's characters can't take a vacation or fly off somewhere. Most of them find comfort or meaning in the natural world. They go off into the woods. In this story, with everything falling apart, Buddy goes hunting before the sun comes up.
By the time Buddy crested the ridge, he could feel the pain of trailer heat leave his head, and he stopped short of the salt blocks he'd laid out last fall. He held in a breath to slow the wheezing, and when it stopped, sat on his old stump, watching the first mild light of the sky glow brown. He loaded his gun and watched a low trail in the brush, a trail he saw through outlines of snow in the ghost light. From the hollow, dog yelps carried to the ridge. The trail was empty.
Behind him, something rattled in the leaves, and he turned his head slowly, hearing the bones in his neck click. In the brown light, he made out the rotted ribs of an old log barn he had played in before they sold the land, moved to the hollow. Something scurried past it, ran away from him and up the ridge. From the baying of the dogs below, he was sure it was a fox.
Between the clouds and the hills hung the sun, moving fast enough to track, making the snow glisten on the branches. When he looked away from the sun, his eyes were drawn to the cool shadow of a deer standing against the yellow ribbon of sunlight ...
An activity to go with this passage: for more advanced students:
Read at least four of Breece Pancake's stories. Make notes as you go along on your reaction to the themes, phrasing, characters, anything that strikes you.
Look at the six quotes in the box below, answering the question: "Why he is so celebrated?"
Choose one of these quotes as your thesis to prove or disprove. Use specifics from your notes to support your points. You can also quote from the script or any of the research links below.
At some point, adopt first person and help the reader see the place where you grew up and tell us how you think that affects your reaction to Pancake's stories.
Breece Pancake published only one book. Why is he so celebrated?
“I give you my word of honor that he is merely the best writer, the most sincere writer I’ve ever read."
- Kurt Vonnegut
"The book reminded me of Joyce's Dubliners. I think it's on that level. It's about a culture from inside a culture. And he makes that culture universal in a beautiful, powerful way."
- Jayne Anne Phillips
For me, his book just took the top of my head off. It said that knowing about West Virginia is sufficient to make literature."
- Pinckney Benedict
"West Virginia was the subject for him. He recast the stories that were told to him, recast the things that he observed in an artistic way - in a way that's not usually seen or thought of when it comes to West Virginia and Appalachia. He was able to make it the stuff of art. - Tom Douglass (Pancake biographer)
"He had that kind of empathy for the underdog, the alienated, the people on the outs. And he does it so well in his stories that, if you don't know anything about his personal life, you think he must have lived that way, just because he's such a great artist at it. He was able to imagine a character fully." - Gordon Simmons, Appalachian writing scholar
"It would be a mistake to consider these stories merely regional, for they go far too deeply for that. By giving us yhe hollows of West Virginia, its farms and coal mines, bar rooms and motels, fighting grounds and hunting grounds and burial grounds, but most significant, by giving us its people in all their tangled humanity, Pancake has achieved the truly universal." ~ Andre Dubus III
Five ways to get the most from this web site:
1. Listen to the entire program. Hear Breece's stories, readings, advice.
2. Read / download the program transcript. Read it as you listen. Mark passages you want to remember.
3. Read / download the table of contents. It makes it easy for you to locate short passages.
4. Using the script and/or table of contents, find short tracks you can drop into classroom sessions or presentations. It's easy! Click here for instructions.
5. Explore activities that help students learn from these writers.
To listen to the whole program or an individual track, go to the Breece Pancake audio tracks page.
Research Breece Pancake
Unearthing Breece d'J Pancake (The New Yorker 2014 )
Breece d'J Pancake: The Short Story Project
Breece Pancake: "Something ancient in my soul." The Guardian (London, England)
"All of Time is a Grave." The Paris Review (2020), by Jayne Anne Phillips
A Room Forever: The Life, Work and Letters of Breece D'J Pancake, by Tom DouglassThe Collected Breece
Pancake: Stories, Fragments, Letters. Intro by Jayne Anne Phillips
"I think Breece would tell people from this state, from the region, that you can have a creative life. That you can express yourself as an artist, not just recognized in your own state, but recognized in the whole country and around the world.
"He saw that the ordinary things in West Virginia are really worth writing about. He showed would-be writers that the things around them are worth writing about. That’s what he’s saying: that this place, this culture, though it’s derided through stereotype, has something vital to say to the rest of the country."
- Tom Douglass, Breece Pancake biographer