Grave of literary genius Breece D’J Pancake uncelebrated at Milton

1979
Grave of literary genius Breece D’J Pancake uncelebrated at Milton
Buried in Milton, Pancake ended his life at 26, though considered one of the most talented writers in America.

MILTON, W.Va. — Breece D’J Pancake soared like a meteor through the American literary universe in the late 1970s and early 1980s. wrote of him, “I give you my word of honor that he is merely the best writer—the most sincere writer I’ve ever read.”

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Pancake is perhaps known as much for his short stories as for his tragic passing: he ended his life at 26, just as his ascent to literary stardom began. 

David Sibray visits the grave of Breece D'J Pancake at the Milton Cemetery.

Breece Dexter John Pancake was born June 29, 1952, and grew up in Milton. His father, Clarence, worked for Union Carbide. After her husband’s death, his mother, Helen, worked as a librarian at the Milton Library for many years.

Pancake cherished his time in Milton. He enjoyed hunting, fishing, camping, and listening to older folks tell stories. He was not athletically inclined and seemed to have little interest in a career of manual labor. From an early age, however, he demonstrated a talent for writing.

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Pancake graduated from Marshall University with a Bachelor’s in English in 1974 and briefly taught English at two military academies before being accepted into the creative writing program at the University of Virginia.

It was a golden opportunity for Pancake, but he hated life in Charlottesville. He felt alienated at the university and criticized Virginia society's condescending attitude towards West Virginians. In a letter to his mother, he griped that his landlady compelled him to tend bar at a party because she did not want to hire an African American for the job.

However, his time at the university allowed him to hone his skills. He struck gold in 1977 when his first short story, “,” was published in The Atlantic Monthly, one of the country's leading literary and cultural magazines. It was an instant hit.

The Atlantic received an unprecedented amount of mail from admiring readers. When his story was first published, The Atlantic accidentally misprinted his middle initials, using “D’J” instead of “D.J.” He liked the mistake and kept it as his author name. After “Trilobites,” he followed with several additional short stories for The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and other national publications. All met with critical acclaim. Publishing giant Doubleday even expressed interest in a book deal with Pancake. 

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While he enjoyed swift and rising success, he was haunted by personal demons. The death of his father and a close friend just weeks apart in 1975 greatly affected him. A girlfriend rejected his marriage proposal at the urging of her wealthy family.

He drank heavily. The isolation and social stigma he experienced in Virginia took its toll. He was homesick. In one letter, he wrote, “I’m going to come back to West Virginia when this is over.

"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. And I don’t want to look for it because I might find it and have to leave.”

On the evening of Palm Sunday, April 8, 1979, under circumstances somewhat unclear, Pancake ended his life with a shotgun blast to the head. 

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In the aftermath, Pancake’s mother and two of his professors, James Alan McPherson and John Casey, were determined to secure the recognition he deserved.

At the time of his death, he had published six short stories. Among the few manuscripts left behind were an additional six completed drafts. These 12 stories were collected and published in a single volume, "The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake," in 1983. Pancake’s first and only book was a huge success. It was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction but lost to the novel "." The collection is studied in many literature classes. 

His stories are gritty and realistic. They tell much in short, sparing language. They often revolve around the plight of blue-collar workers struggling against the physical and moral decay of an Appalachian society in the throes of de-industrialization. His subjects are farmers, coal miners, barge workers, and mechanics. They experience loneliness, despair, and purposelessness but are also moored to their environments. They live and breathe Appalachia.

A note of warning: these stories are not for the faint of heart. Violence, sex, and vulgar speech permeate his writings. One story involves an interaction with a teenage prostitute. Another graphically describes a pregnant deer being killed and gutted. Yet his blunt, merciless storytelling aptly illuminates the harsh realities of life in rural West Virginia.

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His upbringing in Milton, West Virginia, in the Teays Valley, inspired many of his stories. Several are set in the fictional town of "Rock Camp," modeled after Milton. The name came from Rock Camp Road, located just south of US-60. The café in “Trilobites” is modeled after a restaurant in town. The covered bridge in the story “The Honored Dead” is based on Milton’s historic Mud River Covered Bridge.

Interest in his works has remained strong over the years. English professor Thomas Douglass wrote the first biography of Pancake, "A Room Forever," in 1998. In 2002, the stories “Trilobites” and “Fox Hunters” were included in the West Virginia University Press anthology book "Backcountry: Contemporary Writing in West Virginia."

Library of America published "The Collected Breece D’J Pancake," a single volume including his original book, letters, and drafts of unfinished stories, in 2020. Most recently, an article on Pancake served as the cover story for the Winter 2023 issue of Huntington Quarterly magazine. 

Pancake is buried beside his parents in Section G, Row F, Plot 72 at Milton Cemetery, near the Summers Avenue entrance. The cemetery is on a hill overlooking the valley where Pancake grew up.

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Milton has changed dramatically in the decades since Breece D'J Pancake's death. Main Street has become an ocean of asphalt and chain stores. While a few of the older commercial buildings stand intact, they struggle to compete with shopping plazas and fast-food restaurants. A Wendy’s occupies the lot where Pancake’s family home once stood. 

Perhaps due to the nature of his writing or his tragic death, Milton has done little to commemorate its homegrown literary icon. Fans know to visit the Milton Public Library, where his mother, Helen Pancake, worked for decades. Inside is a display case containing books, pictures, and other memorabilia from Breece Pancake’s life.

Travelers often come here first to read the directions to his grave, written by Helen herself. From this modest tribute, they make their way to Pancake’s modest resting place and contemplate the oversized mark he left on American literature.

The small town of Milton in Cabell County lies between Huntington, West Virginia, and Charleston, West Virginia, along both US-60 and I-64. Its biggest attractions for visitors are the Blenko Glass factory, the Milton Flea Market, and the annual West Virginia Pumpkin Festival. Less obvious is the community’s association with one of the great American writers of the late twentieth century, a young man that many critics once considered the next Ernest Hemingway.

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