What defines Southern writers is not so much their birthplaces and geographic origins but how they take those origins forward with them in their writing. It’s quite possible to be born, say, in Atlanta or Charleston yet only write science fiction, rarely if ever returning to origins of place. But for a true Southern writer there is a sense of extending what others have done in our literature and making place as crucial as character. That’s one of the key reasons Faulkner remains so important to us, and why later writers like Clyde Edgerton picked up on his style and continue it. Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, and Edgerton’s small towns in North Carolina alike form a presence larger than the characters and plots with which their respective writer populate them and, in a way, stand in for a greater—yet unique and local—Southern experience.
So it is also with the unique and ultimately tragic case of Breece D’J Pancake, a man with an almost absurdly odd (but true) given name and far too short a life. Despite his sad and truncated life, Pancake provided us with perhaps the best literary representation of his home state of West Virginia of any twentieth century writer of fiction. He prospered in financial and career terms in a way which set him apart from his humble roots in rural Milton, West Virginia, yet that success was not enough to save him in the end, as he took his own life at the young age of twenty-six.
In those short years, he had earned a BA in English from West Virginia’s Marshall University, was a graduate student in the prestigious creative writing program at the University of Virginia, and had taught English at two distinguished military academies, Fork Union and Staunton. It might seem at first glance that Pancake’s life eclipsed the world he came from, but that is not the case, and it was by his own design: Pancake as a student at University of Virginia deliberately distanced himself from his fellow graduate students, known for their preppy affluence, and maintained his “hillbilly” image—he may have even accented it and played it up a little. Pancake loved hunting and fishing in the hills and hollers of his home state, and it was in these same locations where his stories took place.
The stereotypes of West Virginia are both representative of those of the larger rural South and distinct to the Mountain State: concepts of isolation, limited education, stubborness, and poverty are tropes that factor into—rightly or wrongly—many literary perceptions of the South. Unique to West Virginia, however, is the almost devotional attachment to the state that many West Virginians feel—not just to a home or even a hometown but to the entire state—and also the particular cloistering effect of the state and thereby of community. These are all themes in Pancake’s short stories, and while they may sound largely negative on the surface, he mines them for their truths. Stereotypes often obscure reality, even if they insist instead that they build on it, and Pancake strips away the normal glosses used by writers to embellish fiction, leaving only a narrative informed—fictional, yes, but fully informed—by a long-experienced reality.
It should be noted that Pancake set out to be a teacher and not a writer. Teaching school was a respectable profession and a pragmatic one as well: it helped people and improved society, but it also was a career field in demand, even in remote parts of West Virginia. Marshall University, moreover, has always been very highly regarded as a teachers’ college. Pancake’s goal was not to become a renowned writer of short stories nor even a teacher at a prestigious military academy, although these were his ultimate destiny anyway. He seemingly only set forth to garner a job he could depend on and in a field he enjoyed, and as his mother was a librarian, teaching seemed a logical fit. It’s hard not to muse over what else he might have accomplished had he lived longer—a novel, movie scripts, a university professorship.
Yet salvation is not always what it’s cracked up to be, as Pancake proves in his short story “The Salvation of Me” about a talented high schooler who dreams of making it to Chicago and the benefits and perils alike found there. Pancake’s attention to detail and culture are as inclusive to Chicago and Detroit as they are to his native West Virginia: he describes how the temperature at O’Hare would be slightly warmer—no matter how cold—than the downtown, for instance, and how one could walk the streets of Detroit and actually see Gladys Knight on her way shopping or other celebrity sightings of the time.
It was easy for a small-town boy in his small-town gym class or in the local garage (working on cars perhaps older than he was) to have such dreams. So many boys like that might have dreamed of New York or Los Angeles, but Chicago probably seemed all the more real and tangible: NYC or LA would be running away, probably fruitlessly, but Chicago could be turned into a practical narrative of betterment. West Virginians, no matter how downtrodden, do not run away—they are a proud folk determined on finding real solutions instead of hiding from their problems. Chicago would appeal to that spirit.
In a way (I won’t give the true sense of it away), that is the story of “The Salvation of Me,” but the story is, as always is the case with a Breece Pancake tale, a story of the left-behind. It’s the story of being a boy in high school, be it in a small town in West Virginia or an expensive and respected military academy in Virginia. It’s the story of boyish yearning, beyond all else, but a cautionary tale of how foolhardy such yearning may become.
One of the most depressing and defeating incidents in Pancake’s own life mirrored those of the men who populate his stories: his longtime girlfriend declined a future with Pancake as her well-to-do parents disapproved of her marrying the former schoolteacher and struggling writer. In Pancake’s fiction, men—or boys—are the primary characters, and women mostly fill in as factors to drive the plot forward—though “forward” might not quite be the best of terms for it. The women in the stories are looking to marry well, or at least well enough to raise themselves out of their situations. They’re often cheaters, liars, or simply too good for the men who pine after them.
However, it would be a vast mistake to see Pancake’s writing as misogynistic. What he captured in his fiction was a very real cultural shift in the 1970’s: traditional families were starting to feel economic strains, and the conventional place of the woman as mother and housewife was starting to slip to a greater variety of options for women. Just as the high school boy longed to leave for Chicago, plenty of girls longed to improve on their own fortunes one way or another. Miners’ wives complaining of their poverty and husbands’ long hours were very real stories, though not ones that always ended as unhappily as in Pancake’s fiction.
It is hard, however, to blame Pancake for depicting women as being less than trustworthy and placing money above love, when he himself experienced this fate despite his efforts—mostly realized—to be a productive, respectable member of society. And it is indeed in that situation we find the locus of the sorrow of the miner, the high-schooler with dead-end jobs on his horizon after graduation, the lonely housewife: West Virginia’s hollers and hills were nurturing but also devoid of sustainment. They were nostalgic and warming, yet hard and forbidding. They could not be painted with a few quick brushstrokes and instead needed pithy, deep, and often harrowing literature to tell their stories both sorrowful and triumphant. Breece Pancake provided those stories.
The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake was published by Back Bay Books in 2001 and is still available today as the primary collection of Pancake’s work.
All supporting photos are glimpses of West Virginia shot by the author, Mike Walker.
SEE MORE MIKE WALKER WEST VIRGINIA PHOTOS HERE