I was reading some stories for Fifth Wednesday Journal, when it struck me how many writers seem fascinated with rural life. The percentage of stories I see that take place in country settings far exceeds the percentage of the population that actually lives there. Let’s just say I read more than my share of stories about men with pickup trucks, shotguns and dogs … and the women who love them.
I’ve noticed that in some of these stories, the characters are made to sound something like hillbillies, or at least what the writer thinks hillbillies should sound like. All that reminded me of the stories of Breece D’J Pancake, who was from West Virginia and was known for his stories about the places in which he grew up. As you might imagine, the people in his stories sound not like hillbillies, but people.
Pancake was an extraordinarily tragic figure. As a graduate student at the University of Virginia, he never fit in with the kids from affluent families in his writing classes, and so began to deliberately style himself as an uncultured hillbilly. His stories were elegiac yet brutal portrayals of life in Appalachia. He had four of them published in The Atlantic. Several critics considered his work to be genius. Joyce Carol Oates said his stories were “as compactly and tightly written as prose poems and should be read (and reread) with extreme care.”
Why don’t we have more of his work? Pancake died in 1979, at the age of 26, probably from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
The Atlantic maintains links to the Pancake stories they published, and they are worth a read. One doesn’t see work of this depth much these days.
And here is a link to Oates’ essay on Pancake: