Breece D'J Pancake Pancake, Breece D'J (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Breece D'J Pancake 1952–-1979

(Born Breece Dexter Pancake) American short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Pancake's short fiction career through 2002.

Pancake is known for his critically acclaimed collection of short stories, The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake (1983). Published four years after Pancake's death, the volume is his only published work and features stories set in the Appalachia region of rural West Virginia. His spare, direct style of writing and his focus on young, masculine protagonists have inspired comparisons to the short stories of Ernest Hemingway.

Biographical Information

Pancake was born on June 29, 1952, in Kanawha County, West Virginia. He attended West Virginia Wesleyan College in 1970 and received his B.A. from Marshall University in 1974. For a few years after receiving his undergraduate degree, he taught at Fork Union Military Academy and Staunton Military Academy. He did graduate study at the University of Virginia in the late 1970s. His first published story, “Trilobites,” appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1977. In the ensuing months the magazine was inundated with requests from readers for more of Pancake's short fiction. In 1978 they published another of his short stories, “In the Dry.” On April 8, 1979, Pancake died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His only collection of short fiction, The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake, was published posthumously in 1983. The volume garnered laudatory reviews from critics and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Set in the impoverished, rural Appalachia region of West Virginia, Pancake's stories address the tenuous nature of emotional and sexual intimacy, issues of emptiness and isolation, and the role of violence and fate in the lives of individuals. “In the Dry” chronicles the visit of Ottie, a nonunion truck driver, to his foster family in Appalachia. During the brief visit, Ottie's foster family is disturbed by his presence: his father taunts him; his mother barely tolerates him; his disabled friend's discomfort serves to remind Ottie of his role in the car accident that caused his friend's injuries; and his foster sister desires a sexual relationship with him. “Fox Hunters” recounts the story of sixteen-year-old Bo Holly as he participates in his first foxhunt. Initially Bo joins in the macho ritual of drinking and bragging, but ends up vomiting from the alcohol and attempting to shoot the hunting dogs in order to save the fox. In Pancake's best-known story, “Trilobites,” a young man named Colly reflects on his deceased father and his unfulfilling life on the family's farm. Like the fossils covered by rock and sediment for which he searches, Colly feels trapped by circumstance. After hearing from his mother that the farm might be sold, Colly has a furtive sexual encounter with his old girlfriend and considers retracing his father's overseas travels.

Critical Reception

The reaction to The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake from readers and critics alike was almost universally positive. Reviewers praised Pancake's strong sense of place and deft utilization of detail to evoke the loneliness and desperation of life in the Appalachia region of West Virginia. His short stories are often compared to those of Ernest Hemingway, particularly for his spare, direct style and his focus on rough, macho male characters. Other critics have found parallels between his work and that of Flannery O'Connor, Sherwood Anderson, John Steinbeck, and James Joyce. Pancake has been considered a regional writer, and his place within the tradition of Southern literature has been another topic of critical discussion. Recent commentators have investigated his status as cult figure and question whether his work actually lives up to its exceptional reputation.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake [also published as Trilobites and Other Stories] 1983

Patricia Vigderman (review date 19 March 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Vigderman, Patricia. “K-Marts and Failing Farms.” The Nation 236, no. 11 (19 March 1983): 345-47.

[In the following excerpt, Vigderman favorably compares Pancake's short stories to Bobbie Mason's Shiloh and Other Stories, asserting that Pancake's fiction “offers the deep pleasure of art created out of the need to transform suffering.”]

It's all the more exciting, therefore, to turn to The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake, for here is fiction that offers the deep pleasure of art created out of the need to transform suffering. Four years ago, before he was quite 27, Pancake killed himself. These twelve stories are all we will ever have from him, but they may well be read for generations to come.

While [Bobbie] Mason's characters 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, rocky and infertile, carved out of land five other states didn't want. From this damp and chilly landscape, from failing farms and young men who leave them to work as miners or truck-drivers or gas-station attendants, Pancake creates stories that are as carefully (and wittily) observed as any of Mason's. For him, however, the social and family dramas, the inescapable situations, are not simply performances. As in classic tragedy, his heroes' failures affirm the absolute value of what they've lost.

Colly, the hero of “Trilobites,” has collected rocks and fossils since childhood. He has lived all his life on his father's farm, but he has no talent for farming (“Couldn't grow pole beans in a pile of horseshit,” he says to himself). He is connected to the land by his passion for its geological secrets. Colly's father is dead, his mother is about to sell the farm to a developer and move to Ohio, and his emotional grounding has been shaken loose.

Part of Colly's desperation is his disappointed love for Ginny, who helped him hunt for fossils when they were children, who was his lover in high school and whom he had expected to love forever. Home on a visit from her Florida college, Ginny is bored, restless. She seems false—“talking through her beak,” Colly calls it. She hardly remembers how close they used to be.

Pancake's language brings Colly alive; we join him in his loneliness. Wading into the creek at the...

(The entire section is 1082 words.)

Daphne Merkin (review date 9 May 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Merkin, Daphne. “The Aura of Suicide.” New Republic 188 (9 May 1983): 36-7.

[In the following review, Merkin asserts that the stories comprising The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake do not live up to their critical reputation.]

Suicides are special cases: they demonstrate, beyond recall, the grimmest of convictions about life; we walk on tiptoe around them. Writers who kill themselves, it seems to me, are doubly silencing. The act casts so long a shadow across the work that to try and speak in terms of talent rather than of pain is to indicate one's own lack of feeling. And perhaps, however indirectly, this is part of the intention. It is...

(The entire section is 1594 words.)

Raymond Nelson (review date winter 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Nelson, Raymond. “Hills of Home.” Virginia Quarterly Review 60, no. 1 (winter 1984): 169-73.

[In the following review, Nelson explores the defining characteristics of Pancake's short stories.]

Breece David John Pancake was blessed or cursed with the true creative gift. In 1979 he called off his experiment with life, just as he was coming into full possession of his talent. At least for the time being, those facts of biography are likely to dominate responses to his work. The elegiac note has already crept into early reviews of this remarkable first and last book of stories [The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake], and it informs the memorial essays...

(The entire section is 1596 words.)

Paul Hendrickson (review date 10 December 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Hendrickson, Paul. “The Legend of Breece D'J Pancake.” Washington Post (10 December 1984): C1, C6.

[In the following review, Hendrickson provides an interview with Pancake's mother and an overview of Pancake's life and career.]

To get there, you take I-64 and blur by towns named Nitro and Hurricane. Off to the side are giant generator cones spewing fumes into a yellow sky. Pumps suck at ancient gas fields in the earth: Union Carbide, not coal, is king in this corner of West Virginia, which is down below Charleston, where the Mud River winds and the fields are green with corn and cane.

“Well, Lordy, look what you brought,” says the...

(The entire section is 3459 words.)

Ellesa Clay High (essay date fall 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: High, Ellesa Clay. “A Lost Generation: The Appalachia of Breece D'J Pancake.” Appalachian Journal 13, no. 1 (fall 1985): 34-40.

[In the following essay, High investigates the role of kinship in Pancake's short stories.]

Where do we go from a world of insanity?
Somewhere on the other side of pain.

—T. S. Eliot

Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong,
West Virginia, Mountain Momma,
Take me home, country roads.

—John Denver

The fine old Appalachian institution of “kinship” extends far beyond the nuclear family, embracing ranks of ancestors as well as a network of living...

(The entire section is 3992 words.)

Geoffrey Galt Harpham (essay date summer 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. “Short Stack: The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake.” Studies in Short Fiction 23, no. 3 (summer 1986): 265-73.

[In the following essay, Harpham contrasts Pancake's stories with those of James Joyce, perceiving the short story as the suitable genre for Pancake's ability as a writer.]

One difference between the short story and the novel can be seen in the fact that while the death of the novel has been heralded since the beginning of Modernism, nobody has proclaimed the demise of the short story. While the novel seems an art form unusually responsive to and dependent upon particular cultural and ideological conditions, the short story has...

(The entire section is 4352 words.)

Albert E. Wilhelm (essay date fall 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Wilhelm, Albert. “Poverty of Spirit in Breece Pancake's Short Fiction.” Critique 28, no. 1 (fall 1986): 39-44.

[In the following essay, Wilhelm identifies poverty of spirit as a unifying theme in Pancake's stories.]

In 1979 when Breece D'J Pancake committed suicide at the age of twenty-six, he left behind a collection of short stories that has received wide critical acclaim. Pancake was born in Milton, West Virginia, in 1952. He attended Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, and later participated in the creative writing graduate program at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. While he was still alive, many of Pancake's stories...

(The entire section is 2798 words.)

Cynthia Kadohata (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Kadohata, Cynthia. “Breece D'J Pancake.” Mississippi Review 18, no. 1 (1989): 35-61.

[In the following essay, Kadohata offers a biographical and critical profile of Pancake.]

A few years ago, when I first read Breece D'J Pancake's stories, I knew I had to know more about him. The Atlantic Monthly Press published his collection of stories in 1983, four years after he killed himself at age twenty-six. The collection, tense and paradoxical with startling descriptions, is written as if Pancake were possessed by his home state of West Virginia the way you can be possessed by another person. The paradox is here: these are stories about the power of redemption...

(The entire section is 9239 words.)

David Montrose (review date 23 October 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Montrose, David. “In a Melancholy State.” Times Literary Supplement (23 October 1992): 21.

[In the following mixed review, Montrose deems Trilobites and Other Stories “an intimately frustrating memorial, testifying to potential rather than achievement.”]

On April 8, 1979, at Charlottesville, Virginia, Breece D'J Pancake blew out his brains with a shotgun. He was twenty-six. In 1983, thanks to the efforts of Pancake's widowed mother and admiring literary figures, his fictional oeuvre—this collection of stories—was published in America and earned a coterie following; now, thanks to a long-standing devotee at Secker, it has reached...

(The entire section is 627 words.)

David Stevens (essay date spring 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Stevens, David. “Writing Region Across the Border: Two Stories of Breece Pancake and Alistair MacLeod.” Studies in Short Fiction 33, no. 2 (spring 1996): 263-71.

[In the following essay, Stevens considers Pancake and the Canadian writer Alistair MacLeod as regional writers.]

In a Tennessee folk tale from the early twentieth century, a Yankee traveling salesman receives a dose of regional wisdom when his car breaks down in the southern backwoods.

Judging from the last hour of his trip, the salesman decided his best chance of reaching civilization lay in abandoning the road and cutting through the surrounding forest, which...

(The entire section is 4241 words.)

Greg Bottoms (essay date September-October 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Bottoms, Greg. “Sentimental, Heartbroken Rednecks.” Poets & Writers 29, no. 2 (September-October 2001): 19-25.

[In the following essay, Bottoms discusses Pancake as a Southern writer and offers a thematic overview of his short fiction.]

Unless a writer is extremely old when he dies, in which case he has probably become a neglected institution, his death must always seem untimely. This is because a real writer is always shifting and changing and searching. The world has many labels for him, of which the most treacherous is the label of Success.

—James Baldwin, “Alas, Poor Richard”


(The entire section is 4245 words.)

Susan Salter Reynolds (review date 7 July 2002)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Reynolds, Susan Salter. “Discoveries.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (7 July 2002): R-15.

[In the following review, Reynolds investigates the role of shame in Pancake's short stories.]

Some writing comes from the ego, some from the id. Breece Pancake is one of those writers who burst on the world with great promise, publishing his story “Trilobites” in The Atlantic in 1977, but left in great sorrow, shooting himself. His brief oeuvre is all id: rough and random and sometimes irrational. It is often hard to tell whom the main character in these stories is talking to, his dogs or his woman (both are called “her” or “she”).


(The entire section is 286 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Casey, John. Afterword to The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake, by Breece D'J Pancake, pp. 171-78. Boston: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1983.

Reflects on the author's friendship with Pancake.


Douglass, Thomas E. A Room Forever: The Life, Work, and Letters of Breece D'J Pancake. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1998, 260 p.

Book-length study on Pancake's life and work.

Finnegan, Brian. “Road Stories that Stay Home: Car and Driver in Appalachia and The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake.Southern Literary Journal 29, no. 2...

(The entire section is 219 words.)