Breece D'J Pancake
Breece D'J Pancake (b. Breece Dexter Pancake, June 29, 1952 – April 8, 1979) was an American short story writer. Pancake was a native of West Virginia. Several of his short stories were published in The Atlantic Monthly and other periodicals during his lifetime. Pancake committed suicide on Palm Sunday, 1979, at the age of 26. His motives for suicide are still somewhat unclear.
Breece Dexter Pancake was born in South Charleston, West Virginia, the youngest child of Clarence "Wicker" Pancake and Helen Frazier Pancake. He was raised in Milton, West Virginia, recognized as the home of handmade Blenko Glass. Growing up in Milton, Pancake's best friend was Rick Blenko. Pancake briefly attended West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon before transferring to Marshall University in Huntington, where he completed a bachelor's degree in English education in 1974. After graduating from Marshall he spent time in the western United States, visiting his sister in Santa Fe. As a graduate student he studied at the University of Virginia's creative writing program under John Casey and James Alan McPherson. Pancake also worked as an English teacher at two Virginia military academies, Fork Union and Staunton.
As a student at the University of Virginia, appearances may have led to the belief that Pancake distanced himself from other students, in reality, his demeanor reflected his own complex inner feelings. As Ruel Foster notes in his book review of Douglas's biography of Pancake, A Room Forever: The Life, Work, and Letters of Breece D'J Pancake, "Pancake seemed to be trying to exorcise some secret psychic trauma through his writing, and it is clear that the ruins of the broken world portrayed in his fiction come from the broken world of his interior life. "
He was an avid outdoorsman who enjoyed hunting, fishing, and camping. Pancake was a devout fan of the music of folk singer Phil Ochs, who had attended Staunton Military Academy, where Pancake later taught.
The unusual middle name "D'J" originated when The Atlantic Monthly misprinted his middle initials (D.J., for Dexter John) in the byline of Trilobites, a short story the magazine published in 1977. Pancake decided not to correct it. Dexter was Pancake's middle name; he took the name John after converting to Catholicism in his mid-20s.
Pancake died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in Charlottesville, Virginia. He was buried in Milton, West Virginia. According to Foster, "One cannot consider Pancake's work without probing his tragic death. 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 commit suicide.
Pancake's papers are held at the West Virginia & Regional History Center, the West Virginia University Libraries at West Virginia University and the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia.
Pancake published six short stories in his lifetime, mostly in The Atlantic. These stories and six more that had not been published at the time of his death were collected in The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake, (1983) which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. The volume was reprinted in 2002 with a new afterword by Andre Dubus III. His vivid, compact style has been compared to that of Ernest Hemingway. Most of his stories are set in rural West Virginia and revolve around characters and naturalistic settings, often adapted from his own past. His stories received acclaim from readers and critics. The Atlantic's editor recalled receiving letters that "drifted in for months - asking for more stories - inquiring for collected stories, or simply expressing admiration and gratitude ... in 30-something years at The Atlantic, I cannot recall a response to a new author like the response to this one."
Murphy says, "Pancake has become a semi-mythical figure of American Literature, a hillbilly Hemingway for those few - heavy on writers and academicians - who do know him. Parts of the myth he created for himself through the way he lived his life and the foggy circumstances surrounding his death. The rest of the myth we've created ourselves around the legacy of his extraordinary writing."
According to Foster, "All of Pancake's stories have a dreamlike quality--they don't explain themselves and they are never unequivocal; readers must make their own interpretations. His canvas is littered with the old broken-down autos, the detritus of an industrial age-all symbols of blight and sterility."
Among the writers who claim Pancake as a strong influence are Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club and Andre Dubus III, author of House of Sand and Fog. After Pancake's death, author Kurt Vonnegut wrote in a letter to John Casey, "I give you my word of honor that he is merely the best writer, the most sincere writer I've ever read. What I suspect is that it hurt too much, was no fun at all to be that good. You and I will never know."
The song "River Town," from Dire Straits' frontman Mark Knopfler's 2015 studio album Tracker, was inspired by Pancake's "A Room Forever," the story of a tugboat mate spending New Year's Eve in an eight-dollar-a-night hotel room where he drinks cheap whiskey out of the bottle and eventually ends up with a teen-aged prostitute.
From a letter to his mother, Helen Pancake, that Pancake wrote in Charlottesville, where he was studying writing:
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.
Awards and honors
- Governor's Fellowship in Fiction Writing from University of Virginia 1976
- Jefferson Society Fiction Award from University of Virginia 1977,
- Hoyns Fellowship for Fiction Writing from University of Virginia 1978
- West Virginia Library Association Annual Book Award 1983 (posthumous)
- Murphy, Mike. "American Myth: The Short, Beautiful Life of Breece D"J Pancake". The MIllions.
- Douglas, Thomas E. (1998). A Room Forever: The Life, Work, and Letters of Breece D'J Pancake. University of Tennessee Press.
- Foster, Ruel. "A Room Forever: The Life, Work, and Letters of Breece D'J Pancake". Southern Cultures. 5 (1): 98–100 – via Project MUSE.
- Staunton Hall of Fame Archived July 18, 2011, at the Wayback Machine.
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2006-01-05. Retrieved 2006-01-05. West Virginia Wesleyan College
- Michaud, Jon (February 11, 2014). "Unearthing Breece D'J Pancake". The New Yorker – via The New Yorker.
- Transcripts of a Troubled Mind
- Whitehead, Jason (September 12, 2002). "John and Breece: Casey reflects on the summer's hottest re-release". The Hook (32).
- "In Their Own Country: Breece Pancake". Retrieved 9 December 2008.
- Biography from West Virginia Wesleyan College
- Essay on Pancake in Mississippi Review by Cynthia Kadohata
- The complete text of Pancake's "Trilobites"
- The complete text of Pancake's "In the Dry"
- The complete text of Pancake's "The Honored Dead"
- The complete text of Pancake's "Hollow"
- The New York Times Review of The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake by Joyce Carol Oates
- Murphy, Mike. American Myth: The Short, Beautiful Life of Breece D'J Pancake
- Breece D'J Pancake papers at West Virginia University
- Book Review: Ruel Foster, A Room Forever" The Life, Work, and Letters of Breece D'J Pancake by Thomas E. Douglas