American Myth: The Short, Beautiful Life of Breece D’J Pancake

June 26, 2017 | 3 books mentioned 25 13 min read


…I want to know my country. I want to touch, taste, smell and hear as well as see this land. If it stinks of manure on the fields I want to know it. If the water on any given mountain is sweet I want to know just how sweet. I want to hear the wind in the grass as well as see it push the trees around. But most of all I want to feel all of these things. I want to know firsthand. I don’t want the Greyhound Company or any other pumping stale reconditioned air into my lungs or pre-recorded sound into my ears. If I have to be an American (and I do) I don’t want to be sold short on my own country.

Those words were not written by Jack Kerouac or Woody Guthrie. If you paste them into Google the results you get refer mostly to Walt Whitman poems. “Song of Myself.” “Leaves of Grass.” “Song of the Open Road.” The truth is a nineteen-year-old kid named Breece Pancake from Milton, West Virginia wrote those lines in a letter to his mother in 1972.

Breece D’J Pancake would have turned sixty-five this month. Pancake may have been the best American writer of his generation, but many people still don’t know who the hell he was. He put a shotgun in his mouth on Palm Sunday in 1979 when he was only twenty-six. He left twelve posthumously-published short stories, The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, which were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

Pancake has become a semi-mythical figure of American literature, a hillbilly Hemingway for those few — heavy on writers and academicians — who do know of 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.

Kurt Vonnegut, writing in a letter to John Casey, Pancake’s teacher and close friend, wrote of Pancake: “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.” Joyce Carol Oates has compared him to Hemingway and Jayne Anne Phillips called his story collection “no less than an American Dubliners.” Mark Knopfler’s song “River Town” was inspired by one of Pancake’s stories. “He (Pancake) could really have been the future.” Even the singer Lorde is a fan, demonstrating that Pancake’s writing has the power to resonate with a younger generation thirty-eight years after his death.


I open the truck’s door, step onto the brick side street. I look at Company Hill again, all sort of worn down and round. A long time ago it was real craggy, and stood like an island in the Teays River. It took over a million years to make that smooth little hill, and I’ve looked all over it for trilobites. I think how it has always been there and always will be, least for as long as it matters. The air is smoky with summertime. A bunch of starlings swim over me. I was born in this country and I have never very much wanted to leave. I remember Pop’s dead eyes looking at me. They were real dry, and that took something out of me. I shut the door, head for the café.

-from “Trilobites”

Breece Pancake was from Appalachia. The town of Milton lays hard by Interstate 64, halfway between Charleston and Huntington along old Route 60. The landscape is flatter here, more Midwest than mountain. I take the exit and drive back and forth looking for the small white house with the gabled front I’d seen in the picture. The public library where his mother worked is still here. So is the small cluster of Main Street buildings, one of which used to house the West Virginian restaurant, the model for the café in “Trilobites.” It’s a Mexican restaurant now and the brick streets have been paved over. I take it all in. Kids riding bikes. The old Methodist church. The funeral home. I get lost in a neighborhood of modest houses and turn down a narrow extension and there is the cemetery, worn cedar trees lining the hill. He’s up there somewhere. I realize he could probably see this hill from behind his house. I continue on. But the old house is gone. The barn too. There’s a Go-Mart and a Biscuit World restaurant where it once stood. It looks just like the rest of America now. There is nothing to see here.

“Trilobites” is Pancake’s most well-known story, the first to be published by The Atlantic, and the one that introduced him to America. Pancake’s stories all share that strong sense of place — his native West Virginia — and reflect his particular Appalachian experience. His distant cousin, the acclaimed writer Ann Pancake, never met Breece. In her wonderful essay, “Brush Breaker,” she admonishes the critics who sometimes accuse him of capitalizing on narrow cultural stereotypes or of class appropriation:

What Breece does is dishonored by the word “represent.” His art does not evoke. It invokes. Out of the immateriality of language Breece generates the rumple of West Virginia land, the texture of its trees, the smell of its weather, the taste of dirt and air, and most remarkable of all, he wraps it all in that complex caul of love and hate, longing and grief, beauty and repulsion, that shrouds the West Virginian heart when it contemplates its place. For me, the stories’ subject matter is secondary…

But his writing should not be valued solely for its descriptive power of place either, argues Andre Dubus III:

It would be a mistake to consider these stories merely regional, for they go far too deeply for that; by giving us the hollows of West Virginia, its farms and coal mines, barrooms and motels, fighting grounds and hunting grounds and burial grounds, but, most significantly, by giving us its people in all of their tangled humanity, Pancake has achieved the truly universal.


“This story is about learning how to fight fate.”

-Pancake’s handwritten note on his story, “A Room Forever”

Breece Pancake could see the future of America and it must have scared the hell out of him. Born in 1952 and coming of age in the late ‘60’s and early 70’s, he was part of the first generation of Appalachian writers to experience and benefit from the post-World War II industrial boom and its associated rise in standards of living, as well as to see the beginnings of its collapse. Just as many “Southern” writers of the preceding generation were shaped by their own particular Deep South rural environment, Jim Crow, and the Great Depression, Pancake’s writing was informed by his own place and time: the northern Appalachians, more Rust Belt than Dixie, after electrification and interstate highways, the Great Society and television had come to the mountains. He had travelled to the American southwest and California and Mexico. He’d spent time in Washington, DC. Pancake was no rube come down from the hills in buckskins, as is sometimes portrayed.

While many of his themes, characters and settings appear in “traditional” forms that could have just as easily been penned by earlier Southern authors, his writing is nothing like theirs. Embedded subtly within both his stories and personal letters are references and commentaries on a litany of more modern concerns reflective of America’s cultural issues of his time: the Vietnam War; the ’73 Oil Crisis; labor’s decline; women’s liberation; racial equality; drug abuse; economic stagnation; environmentalism; and the growing urban/rural cultural divide. In some ways, it’s as if Pancake was a canary somewhere deep in the American coal mine, warning us of the methane building up, and of the explosion that would inevitably follow. Unfortunately, the canary is always the first to die.

Pancake, caught up in a fast-changing America, still preferred to write on his old 1920’s Underwood typewriter. He longed for literary success like Sherwood Anderson and Hemingway, two of his literary idols. His middle-class youth was spent similar to many in Milton, hunting, fishing, and hiking the woods along the ancient Teays River Valley looking for fossils. He wrote short articles for the local newspaper, went to summer camp sponsored by Union-Carbide, his father’s employer. He loved the folk singers Phil Ochs and Gordon Lightfoot yet he scrawled the lyrics of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” on the cover of his sketch pad.

His childhood friend, Rick Blenko, remembers spending days with Breece as two kids “not quite fitting in,” cruising around Milton in Pancake’s Volkswagen Fastback and going to Clint Eastwood movies. “Breece would sometimes mimic the dress of Eastwood, wearing Johdpur boots, a Mexican blanket slung over his shoulder and smoking cigarillos.” They were enthralled by the BBC television show The Prisoner, a sci-fi, cold war, psycho/spy-thriller that developed a cult-like following. “I really liked the “Prisoner” logo he had custom-made and glued on the left side of the dash,” says Blenko, who also recalls late-night drag races and spins through neighbor’s lawns. “My thoughts of Breece? As you go through life, it’s amazing what you can do if you have ideas, drive, ambition sometimes driven by great angst. Breece superseded anything he could have imagined. Had he lived, I think he would have been writing novels and a world class storyteller. When you die, you are fixed in that age you died, so Breece for me is always in his 20’s.”

Pancake began writing in earnest during the aftermath of Watergate. The country was mired in the malaise of Ford and Carter. His stories, reflecting both the political/economic times and elements of his own personality, are often described as “dark” or “depressing” and his characters as feeling trapped by their own circumstances, caught between two pulling worlds. After graduating from Marshall University in 1974, he was teaching at military academies in Fork Union and Staunton, Virginia, beginning to refine and develop his own writing voice, when he met John Casey in the Spring of 1975. Casey, who deservedly gets credit for “discovering” Pancake and bringing him to the University of Virginia a year later, writes in the Afterword to Stories, “Breece didn’t know how good he was; he didn’t know how much he knew; he didn’t know that he was a swan instead of an ugly duckling.”

At UVA, Pancake quickly came to despise the genteel class-snobbery he felt in Charlottesville, a town that has perfected it to an art form. One of Pancake’s teachers, the British poet Richard Jones, once wrote to him of his time living in Charlottesville, “There’s a peculiar unreality in our Virginian lives. We float on a sea flavoured with apricot brandy and never seem to get our feet down to earth.” Like many West Virginians of the great diaspora, however, Pancake’s feet were still planted firmly in the dark dirt and rock scree of his native State. Despite his modest but middle-class upbringing in Milton, he always felt himself an outsider in the much-tonier Charlottesville.

One friendship he did form was with the writer James Alan McPherson, who had just moved from Baltimore to teach at UVA. McPherson, who would become the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, shared the social pressures of being viewed as an outsider in Charlottesville. “Breece Pancake was a West Virginian, that peculiar kind of mountain-bred southerner, or part-southerner, who was just as alienated as I was in the hushed gentility of Wilson Hall,” he wrote.


“I stop in front of the bus station, look in on the waiting people, and think about all the places they are going. But I know they can’t run away from it or drink their way out of it or die to get rid of it. It’s always there, you just look at somebody and they give you a look like the Wrath of God.”

– from “A Room Forever”

The sky is a perfect blue. The rolling hills overlap their shades. Brilliant dapples of the pink and creamy white of redbud and dogwood blossoms pock the textures of green. It is springtime in Virginia. Driving into Charlottesville’s Farmington Country Club I cross over the railroad tracks then drive up a narrow entry road flanked by sentries of old cedars. It takes me past the golf course and swimming pool lined by whitewashed horse stables, past the tennis courts and the white-columned clubhouse originally designed by Thomas Jefferson in 1803 as a plantation home. Workers are cutting the grass low, manicuring the tees and greens, making things perfect. A little farther on the road dips and curves into a small wood and becomes Blue Ridge Lane. A cluster of houses tuck themselves behind circular driveways, tall boxwood hedges and blooming azaleas, hidden from the road the way multi-million dollar houses often are. The houses front the sloping fairway and I can glimpse through the old trees the domed clubhouse looming at the top of the hill and, farther to the west, the even taller mountains in the distance. It is a pastoral scene. A polo-shirted man driving a golf cart waves and smiles. It is hard to imagine that anything could ever go wrong on Blue Ridge Lane.

When Pancake was accepted into the graduate writing program at UVA and moved here, Farmington Country Club still had a whites-only membership policy and had been embroiled in controversy for a number of years. It even counted as one of its members then-UVA President Frank Hereford. This is where Pancake lived and wrote and worked while he was in Charlottesville, in a rented room in the home of Virginia and Everett Meade on the club grounds. To supplement his meager teaching stipend, he worked in the kitchen of the clubhouse grill, serving up sandwiches to the golfers and the swim moms. He abhorred the class and racial divisions he soon found. In a letter to his mother he wrote of a stinging conversation with his new landlady:

Mrs. Meade is throwing a party for the Eng. dept. and had the gall to ask me to tend bar. Said if I didn’t, she’d have to hire a colored, and they don’t mix a good drink. That tells me where I stand as a Hillbilly — one notch above the colored — only because I can mix a good drink. If Mrs. Meade forgets herself and invites me, I’ll decline on the basis of not having any shoes, and having to tend my still and welfare check.

I don’t bother looking for the address to the old Meade house at One Blue Ridge Lane — the house numbers have all been changed. There are discreetly-mounted cameras and security signs. The Meades had a gardener dig up and remove the blood-stained dirt under the apple tree years ago. It looks just like a postcard. There is nothing to see here anymore.


“If only one thing is true to being a writer, it is to remain at once the most moral man and most repentant sinner God could want.”

– Breece Pancake, scribbled note

Pancake had a moralistic streak that may have been a reflection of his traditional upbringing or a counter-reaction to the loosening mores of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s and his own internal struggles. Despite frequent inclusions of sex and violence within his own stories, he was not a fan of Allen Ginsberg. “Ginsberg thought he had something new when he incorporated perversion into poetry, but Sophocles wrote about a son who killed his father and married his mother. This was written nearly four thousand years ago and it’s much finer poetry than ‘Howl,'” he wrote in a letter to his parents.

But Pancake also seemed to be trying to find a middle, more progressive ground, as he wrote in the same letter: “I guess I find fundamentalists — hard-shells, foot-washers — even Methodists a bit hard to take at times. Super-dedicated people bore me. They have no sense of humor, no reception to different ideas, nothing — only their cause, and that makes them singly hard-headed, and generally sickening.”

This inner struggle to define for himself what is moral can be found throughout the characters in Pancake’s stories and in his letters. It also played out in his life through his growing religiosity. Having been raised a temperate Methodist he was an enthusiastic convert to Catholicism in Charlottesville, even joining the Knights of Columbus chapter of St. Thomas Aquinas parish. Despite his continual money worries, he donated all of the $750 he earned from selling “Trilobites” to the church. John Casey, who Breece had asked to sponsor him and act as his religious godfather, wrote, “As with his other knowledge and art, he took in his faith with intensity, almost as if he had a different, deeper measure of time. He was soon an older Catholic than I was. I began to feel that not only did he learn things fast, absorb them fast, but he aged them fast.”

Barbara Dignon was a young organizer of church social events. “Breece seemed to always be nearby, not in the group, but near enough to hear conversations…I can’t remember him ever joining in. I think he was looking for a family to belong to. But he didn’t have the social skills needed to do that. He broke my heart.”

Pancake, despite his social anxieties, did manage to develop several friendships with women while in Charlottesville. The most serious was with Emily Miller, a fellow UVA student. Miller’s parents actively discouraged her relationship with Pancake, and she would become the second woman to reject an offer of marriage from Pancake, following a broken engagement while he was still at Marshall. He believed it was because Miller’s parents, being “a good Southern Virginia family” from Richmond, felt he was not a worthy suitor and the rejection appears to have greatly affected him. In his final letter to John Casey, he discussed his love for her and wrote “I’m not good enough to work or marry, but I’m good enough to write.”

Pancake was clearly a torn man at the time of his death, heartsick, worried about money and jobs, drinking, and suffering from the loneliness he felt in Charlottesville. He had been shaken by the deaths of his father from Multiple Sclerosis and one of his best friends in a car accident several years earlier. His letters begin to speak cryptically of premonitions of his own death. In the end, it’s a common story.

coverI reach into the last acid-free archival box of the Breece Pancake collection housed in West Virginia University’s Wise Library. Unlike the other ten boxes filled with his letters and story drafts (Pancake was a tireless self-editor, often rewriting his stories twenty times,) this box holds only two items: a heavily tabbed and annotated King James Bible and a small, simple cross made from palm fronds. I lift the cross out and hold it in my hand and my mind begins to run. I’d known about Pancake for some years having grown up and attended college in West Virginia before — just as he had — being accepted to graduate school at UVA. But I hadn’t fallen down the Pancake rabbit hole until I read Thomas E. Douglass’s A Room Forever, a comprehensive (and the only) biography of Pancake.

I stare at the twined palm, twirl it in my fingers. It was stuck inside his bible, the one he had tabbed and highlighted in brightly-colored markers with passages that reference “poetic wood” — lyrical verses filled with words of figs and apple trees, mountains and flora. There is no way to know for sure when the small cross was placed there.

In a letter to his mother several weeks before he shot himself, Pancake describes a dream he had. Like his writing, it is filled with both beautiful and violent imagery.

Last night I dreamed of the “happy hunting ground.” I passed through a place of bones that looked human, but weren’t—the skulls were wrong. Then I came to a place where the days were the best of every season, the sweetest air and water in Spring, then the dry heat where deer make dust in the road, the fog of fall with good leaves. And you could shoot without a gun, never kill, but the rabbits would do a little dance, all as if it were a game, and they were playing it too. Then Winter came with heavy powder-snow, and big deer, horses, goats and buffeloes [sic] — all white — snorted, tossed their heads, and I lay down with my Army blanket, made my bed in the snow, then dreamed within the dream. I dreamed I was at Fleety’s, and she told me the bones were poor people killed by bandits, and she took me back to the place, and under a huge rock where no light should have shown, a cave almost, was a dogwood tree. It glowed the kind of red those trees get at sundown, the buds were purple in that weird light, and a madman came out with an axe and chopped at the skulls, trying to make them human-looking. Then I went back to the other side of both dreams.


“I think he threw himself into the faces of the gods…I think that Breece wanted love, the certainty of love, more than anything else in the world.”

-James McPherson in a letter to Breece’s Mother

In his book, Myth and Reality, the philosopher Mircea Eliade speaks of the world as composed of two parts, the “sacred” and the “profane,” and of a “nostalgia for the primordial.” “Exile is among the profoundest metaphors for all human life,” he wrote.

Breece Pancake wrote a note on a form describing what “Trilobites” was about: “For me at least, we are suckers for the roots that hold us.” He could never escape his memories of the land, the culture, the people that had formed him, just as the ancient Teays had carved out and scoured the valley he knew so well. He was a man trapped and overwhelmed by his own uniquely American nostalgia, a nostalgia for things that once were and no longer are.

In her essay “On Nostalgia,” Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson writes, “The danger with nostalgia is that it does not liberate the mind; it traps it. Let’s use a nostalgic metaphor and compare it to amber. The mind, under nostalgia, becomes a fossil, entombed in honey-hued resin.”

A fossil. Like a trilobite. What was once alive is now only stone. It’s all that is left for us to build our myths upon. Sometimes it is enough.

is a writer and poet in Baltimore, Maryland. He thanks the West Virginia and Regional History Center of West Virginia University Libraries for their assistance and access to the Papers of Breece D’J Pancake.


  1. The Best American writer of his generation based on a handful of stories. Okay. Get a hold of yourself.

  2. Thank you for writing this essay. I really enjoyed it more than I’ve enjoyed a literary essay in a long time.

  3. The American craving for Authenticity (with or without scare quotes) is understandable but it has a distorting effect on the Arts; if only we understood that our default notion of the Authentic comes straight from “Madison Avenue” (or whatever it’s called, now): the more barefooted, gap-toothed, straw-chewing and homily-spouting the better. It explains everything from Lil Abner to the Beverly Hillbillies to Gomer Pyle to Mumford and Sons (which is, after all, a British attempt to feel Authentic in a kind of post-Springsteen, Tom Joad-ish way). This obsession spawned JT Leroy, True Detective, Paula Deen and “Honey Boo Boo”, no?

    In many ways it’s the “White” attempt to showcase the “White” answer to Soul but it narrows the possibilities of the Authentic. William S. Burroughs was authentic as they come (as were Paul Bowles, Lucia Berlin, Grace Paley and T. Pynchon ) and he pushed the boundaries *horrendously far* and extended the vocabulary… while Pancake rather assiduously avoided the crossing of certain imaginary state lines. If you’re going to be a pet, be a scary pet. I like the scary pets.

    I own Pancake’s collection of stories and I enjoy it, but passages like this are pure hokum (the literary equivalent of 20 seconds of a Buddy Ebsen buck-and-wing):

    “The place is empty, and I rest in the cooled air. Tinker Reilly’s little sister pours my coffee. She has good hips. They are kind of like Ginny’s and they slope in nice curves to her legs. Hips and legs like that climb steps into airplanes. She goes to the counter end and scoffs down the rest of her sundae.I smile at her, but she’s jailbait. Jailbait and black snakes are two things I won’t touch with a window pole. One time I used an old black snake for a bullwhip, snapped the sucker ’s head off, and Pop beat hell out of me with it. I think how Pop could make me pretty mad sometimes. I grin.”

    Pancake had a good ear (he was his own Lish, apparently, and therefore better than Carver); if he came up with the title “Trilobites”, he was a marketing genius and master of the Hi/Lo style. I also can’t help wondering if he was mocking the NY Hipsters who would have eaten that kind of thing up. Shazaam! Well, he was smarter than Thom Jones.

    I got paid a large fee for writing the lyrics for a crappy Euro-Pop girl-group song, once, because they wanted it to feel kind of Hip-Hop-ish and, being of Color, the A&R turned to me for help. I invented a word, for the tune, that the producer and Label Head totally believed was Authentic: “Jickity” (sp?). They loved it. I tell my American friends that story all the time (esp. my AFOC) and we laugh our asses off.

    I’ll bet Pancake laughed his ass off more than once. Maybe too much…

    PS The quote from KV (an infinitely stronger writer who probably had a license to kill himself every bit as early as Pancake did) shows how sweet, and sweetly afflicted with Aristocratic Hoosier guilt, KV was. The thing is, KV lived and got better and better at writing, rendering “what ifs” unnecessary. Why not celebrate the What Weres as fondly as the What Ifs?

  4. Nice tiptoe around homophobia regarding Ginsberg, very nimble. Also is it me or is Appalachia been making the rounds lately? That and televisual Alaska. As far first impressions of a writer goes, not my thing so far. Still curiosity is the killer.

  5. @steven

    Madison Avenue explains all kinds of things, no argument. What it swings and misses on is precisely what Pancake doesn’t: locality. His “good ear” doubled as his actual ear. Having spent half-a-lifetime with feet on the ground in places like Tulsa and Elkins, WV and Funny River, AK I’d more inclined to accept that he wrote what he heard going on around him. Was he capable of slathering on the twang on occasion? Yep. Still, his stories, not mine. But was he beholden to some reductively satisfying Quest for Authenticity? No. You made that up. Perhaps the German craving for Pop Authenticity has gotten to you, dimmed your eye. This kid was possessed of an ethos that Madison Avenue couldn’t hit with a scoped-up big loop Winchester ’94 30-30, the trigger set at 8 ounces.

    Mumford and Sons and Gomer Pyle? C’mon. No doubt, Pancake got a kick out of the success of his writing, why not? And yet it didn’t prevent him from swallowing the barrel. How’s that for authenticity?

  6. Il’ja

    The Authenticity Industry I’m talking about is not something I claim that Pancake was in charge of. In other words, I’m not saying Pancake was pretending to be Pancake, I’m saying “Authenticity” is the marketing hook/ legend and that the Authenticity Industry narrows our sense of the Authentic to a few corny tropes. And I stand by my opinion that the passage I cite is pure hokum and that Pancake sank to that from time to time.

    “I’d more inclined to accept that he wrote what he heard going on around him.”

    I’d say he was more of a Writer than you give him credit for being, in that case (unless he was surrounded by Writers). He chose his words carefully and arranged them Artfully to produce the desired effect and, at times, he went a little far with the technique of *the awkwardly-lyrical, sprinkled liberally with arcane lingo*. His sentences (descriptive technique and anti-boredom jump-cuts, especially) remind me of Bruce Chatwin’s, with the luridity turned a tad high. I like the work but I detect the carny barker.

    But why not generate an interesting, analytically detailed comment on Pancake’s work, if you treasure it, or in direct response to the article, rather than focusing your commentary on my commentary?

    As a Writer, I’m not interested in any Writer’s aura or legend (or not in the way I’m supposed to be), I’m interested in the nuts and bolts and gears of the Written Machine. I know that can get up the occasional Fan’s nose.

    Pancake’s oeuvre is small enough that mastering it, and coming up with a few good paragraphs in its defense, should be no problem… and I’d be interested in reading what you have to say about the work.

  7. PS

    “Perhaps the German craving for Pop Authenticity has gotten to you, dimmed your eye.”

    Unless you’re Pancake’s close friend or relative, I don’t quite get why you think a catty remark is called for in response to a comment that wasn’t aimed at you in the first place?

  8. Wonderful essay. I would love to see more of these!

    My only quibble, as others have noted, is the moniker of being the best writer of his generation. Talented, sure and lots of potential. But why not say his cousin Ann for the title or a million other writers. Perhaps his untimely death has something to do with this.

  9. @Steven

    I won’t be writing a few paragraphs in direct response to any essay – and I’m repeating myself – this articulate and well considered. There’s no need. Lots of other reasons come to mind, but mostly this, and I quote (me):

    “This kid was possessed of an ethos that Madison Avenue couldn’t hit with a scoped-up big loop Winchester ’94 30-30…”

    The author of the essay addresses that ethos and the (dare I?) authentic conflict it give rise to in Pancake’s life. The marked-up King James and the palm frond cross he found in the archives are the giveaway. There was no faking it for Pancake. The hilarity, the grotesquery, and the withering self-scorn he dealt with were real and largely shape my view of the how and the why of his work. The demons that lurked in the boy’s head supplanted any possible use he could have made of “marketing genius” or “mastery of hi/lo”. More repetition, and I stand by it: what he saw all around him he wrote. That’s not denigration of his skill; good writers pay attention. But good writers are not always so wracked by guilt, and these stories are confessionals or they’re nothing at all. The dude is reflecting and then riffing on Bible stories and, in the end, it kills him. That’s a shtick Madison Ave doesn’t get. AT. ALL. Vonnegut did, though. What did he call him? “Sincere”.

    Finally, I addressed you, Steven, in particular, because you’re equivocating all over the page with the “Madison Ave drives know-nothing American cravings for Authenticity. Lil’ Abner, True Detective, “White” cornpone, etc., distorting the Arts. Exhibit A: the work of DJ Pancake, the unscary, fully complicit, marketing savant, assiduously laughing his ass off at the rubes who can’t see through his act. Bad pet! Meanwhile, in enlightened Germany, das glücklichste Volk are simply jickity with nuance and sophistication. But I like Pancake’s book. And Bruce Chatwin.”

    If that’s the paradigm for an analytically detailed response, then I’m not up to the task.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t speak cat.

  10. il’ja

    That’s not really much of an interesting or enlightening essay on Pancake’s work, but I’ll take it as an accurate reflection of Internet Culture c. 2017.

    “The dude is reflecting and then riffing on Bible stories and, in the end, it kills him.”

    How exciting, Il’ja: you’re 27 again! Tell me a cool story about Hendrix, too. You’re like a DFW fanatic with 2% of the work load! Cool.

    “Meanwhile, in enlightened Germany, das glücklichste Volk are simply jickity with nuance and sophistication.”

    The most garbled part of your hissy fit? Looks like it.

    Hey, Il’ja: was that *you* I corresponded with, privately, via email, last year? Because that “Il’ja” seemed a lot smarter, had more of a sense of humor and a more “cosmopolitan” view on all kinds of things (cough) than the guy doing the spittle-flecking White Knighting in this thread. Two different personalities, almost…

    Back to the book: have you read the preface? I’m seriously interested in what you (or anyone) makes of McPherson’s preface, especially the last couple of pages. Very peculiar.

  11. SA

    What in the preface did you find peculiar? I thought it was well written and insightful.

  12. @el shano

    I thought it was well-written, too, but I’ve wanted someone to explain his oblique remarks, on the suicide, for years. Do you know what he was hinting at…?

  13. SA

    McPherson’s remarks are oblique, because I don’t think he really knew the exact reason(s) either, but what he hints at was Pancake’s solipsistic life,and the need he had to break free from it when factoring in his intellect and the persona he derived from it and how his social skills rendered that desire futile. In short, I think he was saying the cause was compounded lonliness, and I think he was trying to say it in an aesthetically sentimental way which may explain why it seemed so oblique. Anyway that’s what it meant to me. I haven’t read the stories yet, but I’d like to hear other’s opinions about the preface and stories.

  14. el shano

    When McPherson writes the following paragraph and sums it up with the last sentence I cite, below…

    “I called Charlottesville immediately and was told certain facts by Jane Casey, John’s wife: Breece had been drinking. He had, for some reason, gone into the home of a family near his little house and had sat there, in the dark, until they returned. When he made a noise, either by getting up or by saying something, they became frightened and thought he was a burglar. Breece ran from the house to his own place. There, for some reason, he took one of his shotguns, put the barrel in his mouth, and blew his head off.

    I have never believed this story.”

    … that’s a pretty strong… and mystifying… statement. It’s even weirder in light of the passage where he mentions the time he tries to call Pancake about seeing the new Lina Wertmüller film (by that way: that reference alone is a moment of fresh air seeping in through the thick Cocoon of Authenticity Hokum that Pancake has been entombed in; it was just as much a violation of my “authenticity” to see that film as it was McPherson’s and it would have been a violation of Pancake’s ):

    “I telephoned Breece to see if he wanted to go. There was no answer. When I called later I let the telephone ring a number of times. Finally, a man answered and asked what I wanted. I asked for Breece. He said I had the wrong number, that Breece did not live there anymore. There was in the tone of his voice the abrupt authority of a policeman. He then held the line for a moment, and in the background I could hear quick and muffled conversation between Breece and several other people. Then the man came on the line again and asked my name and number. He said that Breece would call me back. But then Breece
    himself took the telephone and asked what it was I wanted. I mentioned the movie. He said he could not see it because he was going to West Virginia that same evening, but that he would get in touch with me when he returned. I left town myself soon after that, and did not see Breece again until early September. That was when he gave me the trilobite, and shortly afterward he made me promise that I would never tell anyone about the night I called him the summer before.”

    It’s doubly-weird that McPherson thought this was significant enough to include in the Preface/Eulogy.

    Anyway, I’m still hoping that a Breece D’J Pancake expert can come along and clear this up for me!

  15. SA,

    Yeah you’re right, he’s implying something there but it’s not really clear. I guess the word suicide in quotes should’ve clued me in. Maybe there’s more in the biography, have you read that?

  16. el shano!

    Haven’t read the biography and, to be honest, I’m not sure if I’m interested enough to buy it. I like those stories in his collection but do I need to read such a young Writer’s bio? When I do read Writer’s bios (I bought Patrick French’s relentless bio of Naipaul finally, a couple of weeks ago) I tend to skip to the middle… the childhoods never interest me and Pancake’s bio would have to be mostly material dealing with Pancake’s pre-20s, wouldn’t it?

    If you have the cash and haven’t done so already, I’d say it’s worth it to buy Barry Hannah’s “Ray” after you finish Pancake’s collection. Hannah was only ten years older than Pancake and, for me, it’s a literary injustice to claim that Pancake was the best writer of any generation with Hannah in it. But read both Writers and you can see a progression: Pancake developed a powerful descriptive tool and a strong voice in his short time and Hannah had all that that plus Wit.

  17. SA

    Thank you for the recommendation and responding to me.. I’ve never heard of Barry Hannah before but I will definitely check it out now. That’s one of the reasons I come to a website like the millions, to learn about books and authors I couldn’t hear or learn about anywhere else. Thanks.

  18. For what it’s worth, I’ve never quite understood the Cult of Pancake, beyond the obvious fact that like other artists who die young, he provides a relatively blank screen for people to project their image of him onto. I own the collection and like it, but to claim he was the best writer of his generation is just preposterous. Haven’t read it in a while, but what I remember about it is, as Steven says, a fair amount of kinda hokey southernness, some pretty slow and meandering MFAish stories, and a great amount of high quality descriptive language, especially regarding the West Virginia landscape that he so obviously loved and was animated by. He might have had greatness in him, but it is not, by my lights, fully manifest in the collected stories.

    Also as Steven says, Barry Hannah was a true original, constitutionally averse to any kind of cornponeness, and a towering figure of southern literature that it’s rather silly to talk about in the same breath as BDJP.

  19. I’m a native West Virginian born a year later than Breece. Here’s what I remember from my late teens and early twenties. There were jobs! From the age of eighteen I worked summers in the steel mill and the oil refinery and the strip mines. The chemical plants were also an option. Deep mining operations, however, didn’t hire stupid kids for just a few months. Every job paid union wages, letting me put myself through college and grad school with zero debt at the end of it all. What’s more, those work experiences gave me an assload of material for stories, poems, and novels. Today West Virignia’s economy revolves around A) oxycontin and B) narcan. Well, I guess that’s still good story material, no?

    Breece was a damn good writer (no, not the caliber of Hemingway or Vonnegut, or even Jayne Anne Phillips IMHO), but let’s face it. He wrote of a very narrow slice of a very narrow world. He wrote that narrow slice eloquently, and I continue to read that small collection every couple of years. I’ll probably pick it up again now, provoked by Murphy’s eloquent and heartfelt essay. If Breece were a baseball player, would you vote him for Hall of Fame? Well . . . Hall of the Very Good, I’d say.

  20. @mark

    Thanks for the Jayne Anne Phillips reference… will begin digging!

    Also: yes: a sense of proportion is what the Lit World needs. If we strip the texts of all the biographical varnish and default Hype we will see them as new. And maybe a few Writers, lacking in marketing glamour (or who are too damned ugly, old or peculiar) will shine? Let the work speak for itself.

  21. Great work. I just caught up on this after reading, re-reading, reading, re-reading …his moving and visceral last letter to John Casey March 1979 – two weeks before he died. Each time I read the letter I get so much more out of it. The letter features in More Letters of Note and is titled ‘Remember?’

  22. I’m a long time late to this piece on Pancake. While there wasn’t much new to me about the man written here, it’s only because I was so obsessed with Breece from the week “The Stories of. . . .” came out. That was fifteen years or so before the internet was really even a thing. I didn’t need anyone to tell me that it was a perfect collection of short stories. I say that as a writer from a family of writers, painters, and musicians, most of whom have achieved great success. Most of the rest killed themselves, drank themselves to death, or spent much of their life in mental institutions (as has been my case). Many of the most successful killed themselves, as well (four, in that camp). Still, I received my MFA from Iowa, like many others, so well known. I say this only to give my background as it relates to Breece Pancake.

    I have a couple points I’d like to make:

    1. Breece Pancake was yoked with the title of “the greatest writer of his generation” after he was cold and dead. It’s unfair to him and his work to hang that albatross on his headstone. Though any attention brought to his work, I applaud. Young writers have new windows open to the world whenever one reads Pancake for the first time.

    2. The second issue stems from the first. When you call anyone “the best” of their generation, you’re throwing the corpses and lives’ work of real artists into a bunch of demolition derby cars with a cinder block on the gas, only to step back and watch them all destroy each other. Having endless pissing contests about who was the “greatest” is a fool’s errand, at best, and a totally transparent lack of respect for the WORK, at worst.

    Show me a writer who thinks Pancake is overrated, and I’ll show you a writer no one’s ever read.

    And then there are comments like this:

    “PS The quote from KV (an infinitely stronger writer who probably had a license to kill himself every bit as early as Pancake did) shows how sweet, and sweetly afflicted with Aristocratic Hoosier guilt, KV was. The thing is, KV lived and got better and better at writing, rendering “what ifs” unnecessary. Why not celebrate the What Weres as fondly as the What Ifs?”

    I’m sorry, but this ⬆️ is just too much hubris for me.
    So, this poster believes Vonnegut didn’t know what he was saying when he made his now famous quote about Pancake? That he was blinded by his “Aristocratic Hoosier guilt?” Funny how he never walked back that comment – ever. And your comment about KV having “every license to kill himself every bit as early as Pancake did,” and then implying that HE DIDN’T shows your utter and complete ignorance of mental illness. Some people plan it, but most it comes on suddenly, and when it does, there is nothing you can do. Killing or not killing yourself is not a matter of willpower and choice. And to act like Pancake shouldn’t be celebrated for his work because he killed himself is a sign of flabby empathy. You’re caught up in the suicide and the readers that might attract while obviously missing what was in the work. You nor I will EVER approach that level of writing. I readily concede that Pancake isn’t the greatest writer of his generation, but that’s because there is no such thing. There is only the top shelf. The shelf where artists who have produced fully-formed and realized works exist. On that shelf it is only a matter of taste who one prefers. But on that shelf, none is the best. Vonnegut is on that shelf. Pancake is on that shelf. And as to why can’t we celebrate the “What Weres,” I think Vonnegut, Atwood, Oates, et al, have been celebrated plenty, if not too much (Vonnegut excluded).

    And lastly, Thom Jones was a friend of mind. I’m not sure what was being implied by the comment about him. I will say that Jones, like Pancake, could shove a sock in the mouth of anybody trying to disparage his work. He’s as unsung as anyone. Every bit as top shelf as Carver, and he was a great guy.

    Okay. Thanks for reading. I think my comment is longer than the whole post. It happens. I won’t be back for a dialogue (especially since this post is two years old). Anyways, thanks for the great story. Anybody wanting to be a short story writer, I would highly recommend REALLY studying both Breece Pancake and Thom Jones – no matter what some snarky MFA flunkie (who thinks he’s a writer while also moonlighting as Vonnegut’s analyst, postmortem) has to say about them. (Only ribbing you, dude. You don’t write like a flunkie. I just wanted to write the word.😉)

    All of it,


Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.