Breece D’J Pancake’s dozen stories, completed in the last four or five years of his life, include some of the best short stories written anywhere, at any time. Forty years of the author’s absence cast no shadow. The shadings, the broad arcs of interior, antediluvian time, are inside the sentences. The ancient hills and valleys of southern West Virginia remain Breece Pancake’s home place; the specificity and nuance of his words embody the vanished farms, the dams and filled valleys, the strip-mined or exploded mountains. His stories are startling and immediate: these lives informed by loss and wrenching cruelty retain the luminous dignity that marks the endurance of all that is most human.
Breece Pancake’s stories are the only stories written in just this way, from inside the minds of protagonists coming of age in the mountains of an Appalachian world closed to others. I’ve said, in a quote for an earlier edition of his work, “Breece Pancake’s stories comprise no less than an American Dubliners.” I meant not that the author’s style is similar to Joyce’s, but that the stories are a map of their physical locality, above and below ground, just as Joyce’s stories are a map of Dublin’s streets in Joyce’s youth. And that the links between the stories are as finely calibrated, and as naturally present in the material itself, as those in Joyce’s Dubliners. Colly’s mourned father in “Trilobites” is a literary relation to Bo’s dead father in “Fox Hunters” and foster son Ottie’s never-known father of “In the Dry”; the stories share a generational, nearly biblical sense of time. There is the long-ago time in which men and women brought forth their issue in the isolated, virginal hills they owned and farmed and hunted; there is the loss of the land, of living from it; there is industrialization, exploitation, ruin.
“Trilobites,” the first in The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, is a portal to other stories as tone-perfect and wholly accomplished: “Fox Hunters,” “Hollow,” “In the Dry,” “A Room Forever,” “The Scrapper,” “The Honored Dead”—readers will have their favorites—but “Trilobites” comes first, as though clearing the way and claiming haunted ground with exhilarating precision. Colly, the story’s protagonist, was born in this country and “never very much wanted to leave,” but his father, who paid his dues in combat on the Elbe, died alone in a West Virginia field, “a khaki cloud in the canebrakes.” Colly is no good at farming the beautiful hilly land, with its dust devils and wind-furled rows of cedars, its brief rainstorms and willow-wisps, the patchy fog that curls little ghosts into the branches and gullies. All of time is a grave. “I look again at the spot of ground where Pop fell. He had lain spread-eagled in the thick grass after a sliver of metal from his old wound passed to his brain. I remember thinking how beaten his face looked with prints in it from the grass.” The loansman stands by with a contract to buy the farm, build a housing project, fill the bottoms with dirt and raise the flood line. The Permian certainty of geologic time, eons of graves, striations of rock and shifting landmass, flows through the stories, and the prehistoric Teays River, gargantuan and mighty, vanished underground, seems to pulse with absence in the prose. Colly gaffs for a turkle in a drying creek, as though wrestling a fellow survivor from its shrinking dominion; equipped with the author’s vision, he looks at the land and sees the past. “I look down the valley to where bison used to graze before the first rails were put down. Now those rails are covered with a highway, and cars rush back and forth in the wind.”
Breece’s suicide on June 8, 1979, twenty-one days before his twenty-seventh birthday, left others to champion the survival of his work. His widowed mother, Helen Pancake, dedicated herself to seeing his book published. James Alan McPherson’s foreword, and John Casey’s afterword, were written for the stories’ first publication as a collection in 1983. Both writers were his teachers; they tell us what they can of who he was, how they learned of his death, and the ways in which he approached them later in dreams and memory. They weren’t his mother or his sisters, or Emily Miller, the girl who begged John Casey to “go see” because she couldn’t. But they were his mentors and continued to support his work after his death. Like everyone intimate with a suicide, “they will take his death to their graves”: the phrase creates a burden so gravid that it defies cliché. His death, for those who knew him and are still alive, is a long time ago now, but it never goes away. That’s why suicide is a moral crime. As surely as homicide, matricide, or fratricide, it ends a lived life and opens a wound. We attend to the story of his death, a limited, fractured story, to move beyond it, past limitations and personal history. His fiction is the world he lived in, the world he made. “A long time before me or these tools, the Teays flowed here. I can almost feel the cold waters and the tickling the trilobites make when they crawl.”
I never knew Breece D’J Pancake except through his work, but his life brushed past mine three times. Born the same year, twenty-one days apart, we were raised in different versions of West Virginia. He was from the small town of Milton (population 2,500) in the southwest part of the state, and attended, in his freshman year, West Virginia Wesleyan, a Methodist college in Buckhannon, my hometown. Buckhannon (population 6,000) is in north central West Virginia, part of the Tristate Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia region then linked by straight-ticket Democratic sympathies and strong unions. I was a senior in high school in 1969–70; Buckhannon-Upshur High School won their third AAA football championship and I was in passionate “first love” with the tight end, a brilliant boy whose musician brother died in Vietnam that November. It’s odd to think of Breece living in Buckhannon. He joined the drama club but left Wesleyan (“Still nothing to do in Buckhannon?” he wrote to a former classmate) to attend Marshall University in Huntington, near his parents. After graduation, he went south, to teach at military academies in Fork Union and Staunton, Virginia. I went west, to San Francisco, then Boulder, waitressing. I’d published a few poems and wrote my first story, “El Paso,” for application to M.F.A. programs. He taught cadets, sent his work to John Casey at the University of Virginia, and began driving the forty minutes from Staunton to Charlottesville to sit in on Casey’s weekly workshops. Casey “tried to send him off to Iowa for a year to get him some more time to write,” and Vance Bourjaily accepted him into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, class of ’76–’78 (my class), but apparently didn’t offer him financial aid—or perhaps financial aid decisions were already made by the time Bourjaily read Breece’s work.
Iowa’s M.F.A. program was famous, but I went there because they offered the best financial support—in-state tuition and a small stipend. Workshop students at Iowa, pitted against each other for second-year funding, were viciously competitive, but there were no Southern codes of honor as at UVA, and class-conscious noblesse oblige did not enter into things. It would not have mattered that Breece wore jeans, flannel shirts, and boots—most of us did. And Breece’s work, in any case, would have distinguished him at Iowa, where the work itself finally defined one’s status. He would have encountered a larger, more broadly ranging group in a Midwestern landscape that promised a remove from the past.
But Breece was accepted full-time at UVA, and saw himself as John Casey’s apprentice. He went south to the antebellum-by-nature UVA campus for grad school, was eventually awarded a Hoynes Fellowship, and moved to One Blue Ridge Lane, near the university. His 12 x 12 apartment, in the east wing of a building that had been servants’ quarters for the manor house on the property, shared a circular drive with a few other cottages. His landlady, Mrs. Virginia Meade, gave occasional English department parties and “had the gall,” Breece wrote his mother, to ask Breece to tend bar: “Said if I didn’t, she’d have to hire a colored, and they don’t mix a good drink.” The Georgia expat James Alan McPherson, who won the Pulitzer for Elbow Room while Breece was his student, called UVA “a finishing school for the sons of the southern upper class,” and the English department, “the interior of a goldfish bowl … an environment reeking of condescension.”
Breece felt excluded, looked down upon, even as he achieved success. He wrote to his sister Donetta, “Made it! Atlantic bought ‘Trilobites’ for $750 … This has really set fire to Wilson Hall and the (Cross yourself) English Department. Poor second rate citizen Pancake who can’t speak the King’s English … that turkey made it.” According to his teachers and fellow students, he played up his “otherness,” exaggerated his accent, spread tales of eating roadkill and fighting in bars. The surname Pancake is an Anglicized version of the German name Pfannkuchen; he was Scottish (Frazier) on his mother’s side and took his middle initials from a printer’s error in The Atlantic galley of “Trilobites”: D. J. for Dexter John translated to the aristocratic D’J with the grace of an apostrophe. He was courtly toward women, if defensive concerning “Women’s Lib”; James Alan McPherson remembered that Breece “spoke contemptuously of upper-class women with whom he had slept on a first date, but was full of praise for a woman who had allowed him to kiss her on the cheek only after several dates.” His sympathies were for the dispossessed, the underdog, the working poor. “I am sick to my stomach of people who drive fine cars, live alone in big apts., never worked a day in their lives,” he wrote to his mother of Albemarle County, Virginia, soon after moving to Charlottesville. “This county is second in the country for millionaires—LA county being first. It do get hard to swallow.”
Milton, in southern West Virginia, did not breed millionaires. The novelist Mary Lee Settle, a West Virginia native who taught at UVA, addressed West Virginia/Virginia cultural dissonance in her novel Clamshell: “Physically, [VA] is only a barrier of mountains away, across the Allegheny Divide, but to us Virginia is our Europe, hated and loved, before which we are shy, as Americans are shy in Europe.” Northern West Virginia towns were more like small towns in Pennsylvania or Ohio; Virginians didn’t matter at all to us. My family’s Ohio relatives hosted my brothers when they worked summer jobs in Youngstown’s steel mills; we would have seen antebellum pretensions as laughable. But southern West Virginians, even those descended from aristocratic Lost Cause Virginians, can still find themselves particularly disparaged by Virginians.
This was news to me until a somewhat famous Virginia writer delighted in informing me that he and his wife had grown up deriding West Virginians across the Tug Fork River: “We could actually see them on the opposite bank at high school parties, and we’d throw beer cans and cat-call them.” He seemed to think that real or imagined disparities of wealth and “prestige” on two sides of a river had to do with the inbred superiority of Virginians, rather than the economic advantage of slave-state evil that plantation Virginia practiced so enthusiastically. Most Americans, even now, are unaware that West Virginia seceded from Virginia in 1863 to stand with the Union, that West Virginia’s state motto, “Mountaineers are always free,” is a reference to Virginia’s slavery economy and unjust taxation of its “western frontier.” West Virginia, the only Appalachian state entirely located within the Allegheny, Blue Ridge, and Appalachian mountain ranges, was and remains geographically and culturally isolated. Virginia considered the land—so towering, pristine, majestic, navigable only by river—worthless, until Big Timber and Big Coal colonized the state anew.
Breece was insulted by what he considered superficial representation of his home place, as in Harry Caudill’s influential Night Comes to the Cumberlands, and the “selling short” of his frugal, morally upright people. He connected, through his idolized father’s experience, to Depression-era, World War II standards of masculinity. The wrinkly old boundary post in “Trilobites” is a monument: “Pop set it when the hobo and soldier days were over. It is a locust-tree post and will be there a long time.” Like many writers, Breece didn’t belong in the place where he was born, but knew its history in myriad detail, swearing eternal allegiance in his writing and being. He didn’t play sports, which so define boys in rural small towns; he wasn’t meant for mine or factory work (his father once warned him, “Son, you’d better get an education because those hands will never fit a shovel”), but loved the land down to the strata and composition of the mountains themselves. A good student, he wrote about working-class characters whose families did not possess the measure of security his own had managed to attain. A farmer in “The Honored Dead” angrily refuses his son an education: “Everybody’s going to school to be something better … I don’t care if they end up shitting gold nuggets. Somebody’s got to dig in the damn ground.” The farmer isn’t wrong. Every word and phrase and punctuation mark in a Pancake story is perfectly chosen; each story engages our complex empathy and presents unresolvable dilemmas. Breece did meticulous research on doghole mining, long-distance trucking, Holiness congregations, serpent handling, and more; typically, he wrote fifteen drafts of each story, but his unerring sense of the culture and sound of his characters was bred-in-the-bone.
A large rectangular slab marks Breece’s grave in Milton Cemetery. Its border, the letters of his name, his dates, a small, centered cross, are raised in brass. His parents’ graves are just beside. His stone, flat to the ground, seems to deepen into the earth like a pillar. Two weeks before he died, Breece wrote to his mother about a dream he’d had: “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, as if it were all a game, and they were playing it too. Then winter came with heavy powder-snow, and big deer, horses, goats and buffaloes—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.”
The miraculous, exhilarating truth is that Breece D’J Pancake fought his way out of any dream, no matter how pervasive or foretold, with the sheer power of his dedication and intent, his genius and his passion, in language that is his alone. Truly great work delivers worlds that are known rather than merely understood or apprehended. His stories will be read as long as American stories survive, passed on, head to heart.
Jayne Anne Phillips, a finalist for the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award, was born and raised in West Virginia. She is the author of two short story collections, Black Tickets and Fast Lanes, and five novels: Machine Dreams, Shelter, MotherKind, Lark & Termite, and Quiet Dell.
Excerpted from The Collected Breece D’J Pancake: Stories, Fragments, Letters. Introduction copyright © 2020 by Jayne Anne Phillips. Published by Library of America. Used with permission.