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

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1. …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. 2. 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. 3. “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.” 4. 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. 5. “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. 6. “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. 7. I 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. 8. “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.