Breece D'J Pancake Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Breece D'J Pancake 1952–1979

(Born Breece Dexter Pancake) American short story writer.

The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake (1982), collected and published after Pancake's suicide, received favorable critical appraisal. Joyce Carol Oates compared Pancake's debut with that of Ernest Hemingway, whose gifts were apparent in his early stories. Like Hemingway, Pancake wrote in a spare, understated prose style and achieved striking effects from the precision of well-chosen detail. Pancake's sensibility was shaped by the West Virginia cultural and physical environment in which he was raised. His stories are set in the often harsh, infertile landscape of his home region; his characters and their circumstances echo the hopelessness of the settings.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A writer, no matter what the context, is made an outsider by the demands of his vocation, and there was never any doubt in my mind that Breece Pancake was a writer. His style derived in large part from Hemingway, his themes from people and places he had known in West Virginia. His craftsmanship was exact, direct, unsentimental. His favorite comment was "Bullshit!" He wasted no words and rewrote ceaselessly for the precise effect he intended to convey. But constitutionally, Breece Pancake was a lonely and melancholy man. (p. 9)

Breece Pancake seemed driven to improve himself. His ambition was not primarily literary: he was struggling to define for himself an entire way of life, an all-embracing...

(The entire section is 637 words.)

John Casey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Breece Pancake] had a very powerful sense of things. Almost all his stories are set in the part of West Virginia that he came from, and he knew that from top to bottom. He knew people's jobs, from the tools they used to how they felt about them. He knew the geology, the prehistory, and the history of his territory, not as a pastime but as such a deep part of himself that he couldn't help dreaming of it. One of the virtues of his writing is the powerful, careful gearing of the physical to the felt.

He worked as hard at his writing as anyone I've known, or known about. I've seen the pages of notes, the sketches, the numbers of drafts, the fierce marginal notes to himself to expand this, to...

(The entire section is 689 words.)

Joyce Carol Oates

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake" offers twelve stories,] set in an impoverished region of West Virginia, by a young writer of such extraordinary gifts that one is tempted to compare his debut to Hemingway's, when the interrelated stories and prose pieces of "In Our Time" were published in 1924: this the good news. The tragic news is that this slender volume is all we will have of Breece D'J Pancake's work, since he committed suicide in 1979, when he was not quite 27 years old…. [The] stories—tense, elegiac, remorseless in their insistence on the past's dominion over the present—argue for a sensibility so finely honed, so vulnerable to the inexorable passage of time, that it is likely death appeared as a...

(The entire section is 762 words.)

Robert Wilson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake] is a satisfying volume, the world Breece Pancake created sandwiched by evocations of the creator himself. For many readers, these pages will be varnished with sadness for the writer who might have been; for me, the varnish is perhaps a shade darker, because I knew Breece slightly for the last four years of his life. How slightly I never realized until I picked up the bound galleys for this book.

We studied and taught together at the University of Virginia, where the master for young fiction writers was, and is, the short-story writer Peter Taylor. The most important thing Taylor had to teach, both through his work and his conversation, was that a writer...

(The entire section is 978 words.)

Patricia Vigderman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake displays fiction] that offers the deep pleasure of art created out of the need to transform suffering…. These twelve stories are all we will ever have from [Pancake], but they may well be read for generations to come.

While [Bobbie Ann Mason's characters in her initial volume, Shiloh and Other Stories,] are sociological types, Pancake's are individuals who act out of the kinds of necessity present in our own lives. We are not tourists in his fiction, but residents. Pancake's characters, like Mason's, belong to rural America. Mason's territory, though, is a gentle Kentucky, overrun by K-Marts and Datsun dealerships; Pancake's is West Virginia—hard,...

(The entire section is 724 words.)

Robert Towers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

At his best Pancake is an artful narrator, often indirect in his approach, slow to reveal the situation underlying the speech and behavior of his characters. Several of the pieces [in The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake] require two or more readings before their implications can be fully grasped. But what is apparent on every page is Pancake's ability to recreate, in sharp and memorable detail, the West Virginia landscape of ancient, weathered hills and hollows, of half-abandoned mining villages, rusting trailers, tank cars, sad cafés, and impoverished farms—a landscape that serves as a metaphorical equivalent for the lives of his characters, most of them trapped, crippled, or obsolete. The appeal to the...

(The entire section is 550 words.)

Daphne Merkin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The reviews of The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake have been uniformly reverent: look, we have been told, what a gift shone briefly in our midst. Robert Towers wrote an attentive, generously inclined piece in The New York Review of Books and Joyce Carol Oates went even further in a front-page rave in The New York Times Book Review [see excerpts above]. She found Pancake to be "a young writer of such extraordinary gifts that one is tempted to compare his debut to Hemingway's…." Pancake's reputation, it should be noted, preceeded him; I (and I assume others) had heard mention of his name—it wasn't, obviously, one I was likely to forget—from several magazine and book editors some time before I...

(The entire section is 1206 words.)

Bolton Davis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

From all accounts, Breece Pancake was severely locked into both categories of the dreamer and the resigned. Much of the tension in [The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake] seems to come from his desire to leave his home territory and his surrender to the overwhelming pull of the land, the people, and the expectations that are passed down through families. This tension imbued him with an unflinching and painful awareness of where he came from that, I think, makes these stories exceptional.

Many of the inhabitants in this collection have a bond with the land that goes much deeper than the topsoil that provides them with their livings. They consider the very fossils in the rocks a part of their own...

(The entire section is 667 words.)

Gregory Morris

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake, we can sense the sort of geographical despair that could drive a person to self-extinction: human life is closed in upon, almost crushed between ragged slopes of landscape, almost lost in the hollows between the rises. There is so much violence in this setting, so much bleak, gun-metal despair. It thrives in the mines, in such stories as "Hollow"; in the off-time thrills of cockfighting (and man-fighting) in "The Scrapper"; and in the simply dark and perverse private lives of the people, as in "The Mark."

However, the best stories are those in which men and women strive for a momentary redemption, for an ascension out of the emotional morass that tugs at...

(The entire section is 320 words.)

Lucinda Franks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Pancake was totally obsessed with bringing alive the voices of his impoverished West Virginia. Born in the "hollers" of Appalachia, he acquired the crust of a wisecracking hillbilly but underneath he was collapsible: the torment of his life comes up like iron spikes through the twelve stories that his former University of Virginia teachers, James Alan McPherson and John Casey, have collected in this slim volume [The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake]. The reader feels somehow impaled on his prose: frequently a single paragraph (which he rewrote dozens of times) will stand as a kind of parable, spoken in the rough and bewildered voice of the common man. His stories, like his life, are shrouded in mystery. His...

(The entire section is 529 words.)