April 8, 1979: Writer Breece D'J Pancake Commits Suicide


  Writer BreeceD’J Pancake died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on April 8, 1979. The South Charleston native grew up in Milton, which became the fictionalized setting for many of his short stories.

A graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan and Marshall, Pancake taught at two military schools in Virginia before entering the University of Virginia’s Creative Writing Program, where he was influenced by authors James Alan McPherson, Peter Taylor, and Mary Lee Settle. He began writing human interest stories for a Milton newspaper and working on a series of short stories. His big breakthrough came in 1977, when the Atlantic Monthly published his story “Trilobites.”

West Virginia was a popular locale for Pancake’s tales. In addition to Milton, which he fictionalized as “Rock Camp,” he wrote about the southern coalfields, Huntington, the north-central mountains, and curvy roads like Route 60 across Gauley Mountain. His stories are stark, with ironic humor, featuring characters who are trapped either by forces beyond their control or by their own past.

A collection of his short stories was published in 1983, four years after his death, bringing Pancake widespread acclaim in literary circles.