June 26, 2013

The Honored Dead: Breece Pancake

This past weekend, during a work trip that involved flying, I had the chance to re-read the first and last book of someone I consider to be West Virginia's finest writer, Breece Pancake. His book is the posthumously published The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake. The book was published posthumously because he committed suicide at around the age of 27 back in 1979.

I'm prejudiced here. Breece and I are from the same town, which shows up in his book as Rock Camp. He was around the age of my older brother. His dad and my dad had an issue or two in common. And I worked with his mother Helen at the Milton library for several years, including the time from Breece's death until after his book was first published. Helen and I spent just about every Tuesday evening and every other Saturday together for several years and became very close.

We talked constantly about Breece, getting new stories published, how the book was coming together, poring over reviews, taking people on "the 10 cent tour" of Milton and the sites in the book.

I admit that I hesitated a good while before actually reading the book the first time. Then I sat and read it through in a sitting. It was painfully riveting and I felt the same feeling of awe at the end that I did when I read things like Othello or the tragedies of Aeschylus. In the years since, I have felt like the keeper of some private shrine in his honor.

This Saturday the Milton library is hosting an all day symposium on his work. Here's a bit about Breece from the Atlantic, the first major magazine to publish his work. There's only one error in it (no mining in Milton and not much timbering either). I could find no errors in this piece from the Oxford American. In fact, I found something new, a letter from the late great Kurt Vonnegut to Breece's friend and teacher John Casey, himself a winner of the National Book Award.

In the letter, Vonnegut said,

"As for Breece D'J Pancake: I give you my word of honor that he is merely 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."
I think Vonnegut was on to something. I always felt that Breece tried to make himself hard enough to say what had to be said without flinching or breaking...and didn't succeed.

As I write this, I can't get some lines from Nietzsche out of my mind: "What matter thyself, Zarathustra? Say thy word and break into pieces!" Except it did matter and the loss was even greater than the word.

No comments: