The Millions

American Myth: The Short, Beautiful Life of Breece D’J Pancake


…I want to know my country. I want to touch, taste, smell and hear as well as see this land. If it stinks of manure on the fields I want to know it. If the water on any given mountain is sweet I want to know just how sweet. I want to hear the wind in the grass as well as see it push the trees around. But most of all I want to feel all of these things. I want to know firsthand. I don’t want the Greyhound Company or any other pumping stale reconditioned air into my lungs or pre-recorded sound into my ears. If I have to be an American (and I do) I don’t want to be sold short on my own country.

Those words were not written by Jack Kerouac or Woody Guthrie. If you paste them into Google the results you get refer mostly to Walt Whitman poems. “Song of Myself.” “Leaves of Grass.” “Song of the Open Road.” The truth is a nineteen-year-old kid named Breece Pancake from Milton, West Virginia wrote those lines in a letter to his mother in 1972.

Breece D’J Pancake would have turned sixty-five this month. Pancake may have been the best American writer of his generation, but many people still don’t know who the hell he was. He put a shotgun in his mouth on Palm Sunday in 1979 when he was only twenty-six. He left twelve posthumously-published short stories, The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, which were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

Pancake has become a semi-mythical figure of American literature, a hillbilly Hemingway for those few — heavy on writers and academicians — who do know of him. Parts of the myth he created for himself through the way he lived his life and the foggy circumstances surrounding his death. The rest of the myth we’ve created ourselves around the legacy of his extraordinary writing.

, writing in a letter to , Pancake’s teacher and close friend, wrote of 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.” has compared him to and called his story collection “no less than an American Dubliners.” song “River Town” was inspired by one of Pancake’s stories. “He (Pancake) could really have been the future.” Even the singer is a fan, demonstrating that Pancake’s writing has the power to resonate with a younger generation thirty-eight years after his death.

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