Thursday, February 24, 2011

These Mountains, These Words: Part 1

The following is the introductory first section of an extended critical essay I wrote on the life and writings of Breece D'J Pancake. I may post additional sections here as a series of sorts because the essay is lengthy and there's no need to be long-winded all in one day. Better to let the air out a bit at at a time. I hope you enjoy. Thanks for reading.


These Mountains, These Words:
The Selfless Writings of Breece D’J Pancake

On April 8, 1979, graduate student Breece Pancake walked into his backyard in Charlottesville, Virginia, sat beneath an apple tree, put the barrel of a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

He was 26 years old.

The act gave birth to perhaps one of the more enduring mysteries the world of literature has yet provided, and left many to speculate and question, search for answers. In an August 2002 letter to John Casey, Pancake’s former teacher, famed writer Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “I give you my word of honor that he is simply 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.”

The aftermath was a strange one. His teachers and his mother, Helen, worked tirelessly over the course of the next four years compiling his body of work, which consisted exclusively of neatly trimmed short stories, into a collection which was then shopped around until published in 1983. The morbid stigma surrounding the publication was the subject of much discussion. This young man had killed himself on the verge of an astounding literary career. Critics, even those who joined in, were quick to give any praise heaped on the finished collection a skeptical eye, conjuring references to the posthumous publication of John Kennedy O’ Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces as a possible catalyst toward a trend of holding tortured artist in perhaps too high regard based solely on the circumstances surround their early death. But Pancake’s work withstood the speculation, even if the reasons for his suicide did not.

Pancake’s work, his style, was not complicated, writer Andre Dubus III summarized it in three words: “subject, verb, object." Like the hard, grainy surface of a rough-cut kitchen table, his words are oak, slammed with elbows and dream-talk and love and hard-won food, desire and hope, family and perseverance. But could this power and control of language sustain nearly thirty years of interest in his work? Having only three short stories published before his death and, four years later, a single, Pulitzer-nominated collection simply titled The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, how did this young West Virginia son make such an impact? The answer could be found in the West Virginia native’s ability to remove himself, the young and talented writer at work, from the written page.

Just as he left friends, family and colleagues in 1979, disappearing and taking with him the stories yet to be written, Pancake’s prose leaves not a single trace of selfish pride behind, that sentence slapped on the page as a self-presented badge of honor, written for no other purpose but to exclaim one’s own personal talent. Each word found on any page of any story in Pancake’s body of work is performing a single function – to serve the characters who are pushing and climbing and struggling stubbornly through to find their own destinies. Across this temporal scope there is no intrusiveness, no vanity to Pancake’s words. The power of his art is not in service to anyone other than Colley, Enoch, Harry, Alena, Buddy or any of the other characters who speak to us through Pancake’s pen. Each sentence has an understood majesty, like the sloping hills and ridges of the Appalachian Mountains of which they tell, rounded and simple, beaten down to reveal shale-bone against an unpretentious blue summer sky, but full of the richness of history, fossils and the mined out black strips of long-dead giants trapped beneath that beauty.


  1. interesting. I've heard of this writer but am not familiar with any of his writing. Can you direct me to something that is a 'must read' of his?

  2. There's only the one collection to work from, and that's usually found in any bookstore. Another book, not so easy to find, is called A Room Forever. It's a mini-biography which also includes select letters and much of his ephemera.


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