Recently, fiction writer Breece D’J Pancake (Grad ’79) was profiled in the New Yorker, the Oxford American and the Guardian. Random House re-released his Pulitzer Prize-nominated book of short stories, the publisher calling it a “jewel.”
It was a renaissance for the writer, but he was not here to see it; Pancake committed suicide at the age of 26 on April 8, 1979, outside Charlottesville.
In 1983, when Joyce Carol Oates reviewed Pancake’s posthumously published book of short stories, she wrote that Pancake was “a young writer of such extraordinary gifts that one is tempted to compare his debut to Hemingway’s.”
In a letter, Kurt Vonnegut wrote to novelist and UVA professor John Casey, “As for Breece D’J 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.”
Pancake was raised in rural West Virginia, and his stories are set in its farms and coal mines, trailer homes and bars. Pancake had an uneasy relationship with his beginnings—its poverty, grit and haunting beauty. While he was a student at the University of Virginia, he wrote in a letter to his mother that he’d return to West Virginia when he graduated. “There’s something ancient and deeply rooted in my soul,” he wrote. “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.”
At the University in the late 1970s, where Pancake studied with Casey, Peter Taylor and James Alan McPherson in the MFA program, he saw himself as an outsider. McPherson describes Pancake’s isolation as common among middle- and lower-class students, even as the University—and the South—transitioned into a more integrated place. But Pancake’s isolation was also part of his vocation as a writer.
“Breece worked fiercely,” says Casey. He wrote and lived in a small cabin outside of town, and, when he wasn’t writing, he was often fishing or hunting solo. Both Casey and McPherson remember him giving gifts of fish he’d caught. He seemed closer to his professors than his classmates.
Before his death, several of Pancake’s stories were published in the Atlantic. (He adopted the idiosyncratic punctuation of his middle initials—D’J—after a copy editing error in the Atlantic added an apostrophe to his name.) Pancake’s editor at the magazine said, “In 30-some years at the Atlantic, I cannot recall a response to a new author like the response to this one. Letters drifted in for months, obviously from people who knew nothing about him, asking for more stories, inquiring for collected stories, or simply expressing admiration and gratitude. Whatever it is that truly commands reader attention, he had it.”
In an essay in the Believer published decades after his death, Samantha Hunt reiterated the strength of Pancake’s prose. “Pancake distilled the power of sadness like moonshine, extracting the most potent drops for his stories,” she wrote, “sending it like a hard pinch to a numb world.”
Although his conflicts were grounded in the history of Appalachia in the mid-20th century, his stories’ themes—the decline of the family farm, the human costs of the coal industry—still resonate today. Writers as varied as Cynthia Kadohata, Andre Dubus III and Chuck Palahniuk claim Pancake as an influence. James Lasdun recently chose Pancake’s story “Hollow” as the best story of the 20th century.
“Both he and his writing are very much with me,” says Casey. “I reread his stories, and I also just remember and think of him, sometimes with a pang for what he might have gone on to do.” Pancake also found his way into Casey’s writing. In The Half-Life of Happiness, the character Bundy bares some similarity in personality to Pancake, as does Dick Pierce in Spartina and Compass Rose.
Why has Pancake’s work seen a revival? Casey offers up a simple reason: “The stories are just so damn good.”