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Breece Pancake, Author, Papers

Collection Number: A&M 3306

Scope and Contents

There are seven series in this collection:

Series 1. Breece Pancake Correspondence, 1966-1979 and undated
Series 2. Helen Pancake Correspondence, 1952-1994 and undated (bulk 1979-1994)
Series 3. Writings and Related Materials, 1963-1993 and undated (bulk 1975-1978 and undated)
Series 4. Biographical and Genealogical Materials, 1925-1993 and undated (bulk 1968-1993)
Series 5. Subject Files, 1971-1992 and undated
Series 6. Addenda, 1978-1979 and 1999-2000
Series 7. Oversize

Series 1. Breece Pancake Correspondence, 1966-1979 and undated, contains approximately two hundred fifty letters chiefly written by Breece Pancake to his parents between 1966 and his death in April 1979. There are also several letters between Breece and his sisters, Donnetta and Charlotte; friends Matthew Heard and Mike Jennings; and Phoebe-Lou Adams at The Atlantic Monthly. Letters chiefly record Breece's work on his short stories and his daily activities at college in West Virginia in the early 1970s; while teaching at military academies in Virginia in the mid-1970s; and during his graduate studies in creative writing at the University of Virginia (U.Va.) in Charlottesville in the late 1970s. Topics also include Breece's desire to better himself; his goals for life; his views on human beings and relationships; and his feelings about West Virginia and its people.

Approximately forty letters between Breece and his parents from 1970 to 1973 document Breece's studies at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon and the family's life back in Milton. Helen and Bud share news from home and Breece shares stories about college life, including his classes, living in the dorm, difficulties at school and his desire to transfer to Marshall University. From January to April 1972 Breece writes from Arizona, where he is visiting his sister Doni and traveling out West. Topics include finding odd jobs; rappelling, horses, exploring the area; a Gordon Lightfoot concert; a trip to Mexico; his plans to return home; and plans for going back to school.

Almost eighty letters from the mid-1970s document the two years Pancake spent teaching at the Fork Union Military Academy (1974-1975) and the Staunton Military Academy (1975-1976) in Virginia. Fork Union letters primarily describe his teaching and social life. Topics include his classes and students; hiking on his own and with his students; his friendship with Matthew Heard; his finances and expenses; and his growing unhappiness in his position. Letters from the fall of 1975 relate to the death of his father that September and the death of Matthew Heard two weeks later. Pancake also writes about his teaching; his stories, including "The Mark" and "The Hollow"; his social life; moving into Sarah Nutt's apartment; his new car; family and friends; and his plans to attend the University of Virginia. Mixed within his news about daily activities are comments about his desire to keep getting better in life; not being satisfied with life; his desire to be himself; and on not understanding people.

Approximately 135 letters from the fall of 1976 to the spring of 1979 document Breece's life during his three years in the creative writing program at the University of Virginia. They describe his difficult adjustment to graduate school and life in Charlottesville as well as his success with writing and publishing his short stories. Topics related to his coursework, professors, and writing include the demands of graduate school; John Casey; Richard Jones; James McPherson; Mary Lee Settle; Peter Taylor; the progress of his writing; publishing his short stories in The Atlantic Monthly; his literary executorship; and searching for teaching jobs. Pancake also writes about his personal life, daily activities, and his surroundings. These topics include his finances; his social life, including girlfriend Emily Miller; visits to Sarah Nutt; his participation in the local Catholic Church; his landlady, Virginia Meade; and class consciousness in Charlottesville. Breece's letters from 1977 to 1979 also reveal his feelings of isolation and unease in Charlottesville and his homesickness for West Virginia. Also included are several letters received after Breece's death in April 1979.

Series 2. Helen Pancake Correspondence, 1952-1994 and undated (bulk 1975-1994), consists of more than 700 letters written to and from Helen Pancake. With the exception of a few early letters, most of the correspondence begins after Breece's death in April 1979. Letters from 1979 and 1980 are largely sympathy notes containing explanations of how people knew Breece and what he meant to them. Primary topics in most of the letters are the publication of Breece's stories and book and projects related to Breece's work, including films, plays, and articles based on his stories. Scattered throughout are letters from people describing how Breece touched their lives. This series is arranged in alphabetical order according to the last name of the correspondent. Folders also contain any other letters from that correspondent. For example, the John Casey folders include not only letters between Casey and Helen, but also letters between Casey and other people related to his role as Breece's literary executor. Letters from Helen Pancake are usually identified as copies; some are handwritten while others are photocopies.

Many of the correspondents can be grouped into the following categories: Breece's friends, (Kathleen Devereux, Matt Jennings, Matthew Heard, Sarah Nutt, John Shaffer, and Rick Wilson); people connected to Breece's life at the University of Virginia (John Casey, Richard Jones, James McPherson, girlfriend Emily Miller, landlady Virginia Meade, Raymond Nelson, Father Pat O'Connor, Charles Perdue, Peter Taylor, and Anthony Winner); Breece's former professors and students (including Michael Beasley, John Harrison, John McKernan, William Sullivan, and Albert Wilhelm); editors at The Atlantic Monthly and others associated with publishing Breece's stories (Phoebe-Lou Adams, Peter Davison, and Robert Manning and editors at Antaeus); people working on projects related to Breece's stories (Russ Barbour of WPBY-TV in West Virginia, filmmaker Jeffrey Davidson, biographer and historian Thomas Douglass, woodcut artist Richard Gerber, filmmaker and producer Mark Rance, and writer Topper Sherwood); people who wrote about Breece's life and work (Grace Toney Edwards, John Foster, Paul Hendrickson, Darla Radcliffe, and Robert Sumney); Helen Pancake's family and friends (Patricia Bins, Helen Heard, Matthew Heard, Charlotte Pancake, Donnetta Pancake, and Susan Maslowski); and other West Virginia authors (Pinckney Benedict, Mary Lee Settle, and Lee Maynard).

Letters from frequent correspondents such as John Casey, Peter Davison, Thomas Douglass, Richard Jones, James McPherson, and Emily Miller comment on additional subjects and provide greater insight into their relationships with Breece and Helen. John Casey was Breece's professor at U.Va., his godfather, and his literary executor. Letters between Casey and Helen date from 1977 to 1993. Early letters relate to Breece's death and his relationship with Casey. Letters from the early 1980s document Casey and Helen's efforts to publish Breece's stories and book and the publication process from their perspective. Later letters comment on projects related to Breece's work and mention Mark Rance, Russ Barbour, and Cynthia Kadohata. Casey also writes frequently of his family and writing, and the letters between him and Helen reveal a friendship that grew out of their mutual loss.

Peter Davison was the poetry editor at The Atlantic Monthly in the early 1980s and later the literary editor for Atlantic Monthly Press. These letters from 1980 to 1985 describe the process of sorting through Breece's stories and poetry for publication; publishing "The Hollow" and "The Honored Dead"; and publishing Stories in February 1983. Topics include the format of the book, contracts, the dust jacket, advertising, reviews, royalties, and the film rights.

Letters from Thomas Douglass between 1987 and 1994 chiefly chart his work on A Room Forever (1998), his biography of Breece, and Helen's assistance with the piece as she replied to his questions about Breece and the Pancake family. Additional topics include publishing "Rat Boy," the Gulf War, pictures and a woodcut of Breece, and Douglass's family and writing. Also includes several letters between Douglass and John Casey and two folders of Douglass's research materials.

Letters from Richard Jones, Breece's professor at U.Va., are from 1979 to 1993 and describe Jones's reaction to Breece's death, his daily life in London, his family, his writing and teaching, projects related to Breece and his stories, and mutual friends and acquaintances, including John Casey, Mark Rance, and Mary Lee Settle. Jones also comments on meeting the daughter and granddaughter of Virginia Meade.

James Alan McPherson was one of Breece's professors at U.Va. and wrote the forward to Stories. Thirteen letters from 1979 to 1994, mostly from McPherson to Helen, chiefly detail McPherson's relationship with Breece. McPherson describes his reaction to Breece's death, the birth of his daughter that same night, and the difficulties that he and Breece had living in Charlottesville. He also comments on Breece's book and his own family affairs.

Emily Miller was Breece's girlfriend from September 1977 to April 1979 and a student at U.Va. Her letters from 1979 to 1982 primarily describe her response to Breece's death. She remembers Breece and his love of life and writes about his memorial service and Father Pat O'Connor, the pain of Breece's death, and things that remind of her Breece. She also tells Helen about her own teaching and writing and daily activities as a graduate student.

Series 3. Writings and Related Materials, 1963-1993 and undated (bulk 1975-1978 and undated), includes handwritten and typescript drafts of short stories, story fragments, the beginnings of novels and plays, and poetry as well as published stories, book reviews for The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake, and copies of projects based on Breece's stories. Drafts of Breece's short stories include pieces that he had published or submitted for publication before his death as well as stories that were found among his belongings and published posthumously. Also included are drafts of a story about Mae Moore from the 1960s; partial drafts of two plays, "Cousins" and "Rosary"; the beginnings of two novels, "Survivors" and "Water in a Sieve,"; a paper for his Bible as Literature course at U.Va., "Happy Are They Not Born in Jerusalem"; and notes and a draft of a folklore paper he was working on at U.Va. Also included are book reviews of Stories that were compiled by Helen Pancake and drafts of the "Hollow" screenplay by Jeff Davidson (1991) and the "Trilobites" screenplay by Mark Rance (1993).

Writings are arranged in alphabetical order according to title. Some drafts are incomplete and some have handwritten annotations. Several stories are accompanied by related materials, such as copies of the folders that Pancake used to track his journal submissions and copies of the published story. Almost all drafts are undated. Note that the title of "Cowboys and Girls" was changed to "The Way it Has to Be" for Stories. The story has been filed under the latter title.

Series 4. Biographical and Genealogical Materials, 1925-1993 and undated (bulk 1968-1993), contains files compiled by both Breece and Helen Pancake that pertain to the education, family, personal life, and the death of Breece Pancake. Materials related to Breece's education and teaching include university transcripts, course notes and papers from Marshall University (1972-1974); a lesson plan and grade book from Fork Union Military Academy (1975-1976); an interview with Breece for the U.Va. newspaper in 1977; and job letters from the spring of 1979. Personal items include newspaper articles (1965-1993); Breece's 1979 pocket diary (with just a few brief entries); and a phone directory as well as various certificates and awards, including Breece's baptismal certificate in 1977 and a Virginia teaching certificate in 1979. Family materials include Clarence Pancake's 1975 obituary and clippings and photographs of his Aunt Julia Pancake Ward and her husband (1925-1968). Materials related to Breece's death include the items that were taken off the walls in his room in Charlottesville, notes related to his memorial services, his last list of things to do, and notes that Helen wrote about Breece. This series also contains five pieces written about Breece, including a transcript of the WPBY-TV program and articles written by Grace Toney Edwards, Albert Wilhelm, and Rick Wilson between 1983 and 1993.

Series 5. Subject Files, 1971-1992 and undated, chiefly contain clippings, photographs, and articles collected by either Breece Pancake or Helen Pancake. Topics include Appalachian culture, John Casey, Sam Harshbarger, Gordon Lightfoot, Milton, West Virginia, and O. Norman Simkins.

Series 6. Addenda, consists of additions made to the collection in 2000 and 2007. The first addenda includes two newspaper articles (1999, 2000) about Breece that were each sent to Helen Pancake. The accompanying letters are also included. The 2007 addition contains includes two photographs of Breece Pancake, his Bible (with his handwritten annotations), and his curriculum vita.

His copy of The Jerusalem Bible (published by Doubleday and Company, 1966) includes tabbed pages apparently indicating passages of interest to Pancake; many of these passages include his annotations. Tabbed passages include all of the following: Genesis 49:22-26 (p. 75); Judges 6:36-40 (p. 316); I Chronicles 16:30-33 (p. 516); Psalm 52:8 (p.835); Psalm 83 (p.867-868); Psalm 148:7-10 (p.929); Proverbs 11:30-31 (p.947); Song of Songs 2:3 (p. 994); Isaiah 4:2-3 (p.1148); Isaiah 22: 4-5 (p. 1175); Isaiah 40-43 (p. 1202-1212); Jeremiah 1-3, 17-20, 24 (p. 1249-1286, 1292-1293); Jeremiah 31:31-34 (p.1304); Jeremiah 32 (p. 1305-1308); Lamentations 4:8 (p.1350); Ezekiel 3-27 (p. 1362-1408); Daniel 4:16-22 (p.1432); Hosea 4-14 (p. 1455-1468); Habbakkuk 2:19 (p.1516); Zechariah 13:9-14 (p.1541); Matthew 10: 30-31 (p. 30); Mark 11:12-14 (p. 80); the Book of Luke (p.90-136); Galatians 4:25-31 (p. 326-327); I Peter 4:17-19 (p.405); and Revelation 6-11 (p. 436-439). The majority of verse annotations reference the natural environment, including: mountains, trees, fruit, and drought. Ezekiel, Chapters 20-21, are heavily annotated.

Series 7. Oversize, 1966-1985 and undated, contains a scrapbook; posters and flyers from Breece's office at Wilson Hall at U.Va.; his calendars and a sketchbook; and several oversize items compiled by Helen Pancake. The scrapbook contains newspaper clippings about Breece when he was a child, articles written by Breece for the Cabell Record in 1975, and articles about the writing program at U.Va. These articles include a piece on the professors in the writing program at U.Va., the 1977 Declaration interview with Breece, and a January 1979 article about Breece. Posters and flyers advertising concerts and lectures were apparently removed from Breece's office after his death. Also includes Breece's 1979 Sierra Club calendar with notations. Arranged according to format.


  • Creation: 1925-2000
  • Creation: Majority of material found in 1966-1994


Language of Materials


Conditions Governing Access

No special access restriction applies.

Conditions Governing Use

Permission to publish or reproduce is required from the copyright holder. For more information, please see the Permissions and Copyright page on the West Virginia and Regional History Center website.

Biographical / Historical

Breece D'J Pancake was born Breece Dexter Pancake on 29 June 1952 in Charleston, West Virginia, the son of Helen Frazier Pancake and Clarence "Bud" Pancake. He was raised in Milton, West Virginia, a small town in the hills in the southwestern part of that state. Helen Frazier (b. 1922) and Bud Pancake (1917-1975) married in September 1939 and had two daughters, Charlotte and Donnetta, shortly thereafter. Bud began working for Union Carbide Chemical Company as a shipping clerk, and remained in the job for more than thirty years. He also served in an army field observation unit in Germany for almost two years during World War II. Helen Pancake became a librarian in the Milton Public Library in the 1970s.

Breece attended Milton High School and graduated in 1970. He wrote two stories during that time, "Keeper of the Flame," which was published in the school paper in 1968, and "Rat Boy," which was rejected in the early 1970s by several publications. Breece enrolled in school at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon in the summer of 1970 and continued to study there into the fall.

When Bud Pancake was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Breece transferred to Marshall University in Huntington in order to be closer to home. The two men enjoyed a very close relationship, having spent many hours fishing, camping, hiking, and hunting during Breece's youth. However, after a broken engagement in December 1971, Pancake decided to leave West Virginia and visit his sister Donnetta in Phoenix, Arizona. He was there from January to April 1972, working odd jobs, traveling to Mexico and throughout the southwest. Breece returned to Marshall later that year and earned a BA in English in 1974 with plans to teach high school English. While there he began writing several stories, including "Stuart," "Fox Hunters," and "The Honored Dead."

Breece spent the next two years teaching at military prep schools in Virginia. In the fall of 1974 he found a job at the Fork Union Military Academy. There he met fellow teacher Matthew Heard, who quickly became a close friend and travel companion. Breece spent the following year teaching at the Staunton Military Academy. He continued writing during this time, completing "Fox Hunters" in June 1975 and "The Scrapper" in September of that year. On 8 September 1975 Bud Pancake died of complications from multiple sclerosis. Less than three weeks later, Matthew Heard was killed in a car accident. Devastated by these deaths, Breece considered returning to West Virginia. However, he was committed to his teaching job and in November he moved instead into an apartment at the home of Sarah Nutt, who became a close friend and support, and poured himself into his writing.

By the end of 1975, Breece had written several new stories, including "The Mark," and "Cowboys and Girls," which became "The Way It Has to Be" when it was published in 1983. In early 1976 he started writing "Salvation of Me," "Will o' the Wisp," which became "Trilobites," and "Time and Again." That spring, the University of Virginia's literary magazine, Rivanna, published "The Mark," and Breece decided to leave teaching and study creative writing in graduate school.

In the spring of 1975 Breece had met John Casey at the University of Virginia (U.Va.) and shown him at least two of his stories. He also attended one of Casey's classes. Breece became a full-time student in the fall of 1976 and worked with distinguished writers John Casey, James Alan McPherson, Richard Jones, and Peter Taylor. He also taught composition and fiction writing as a graduate assistant on the Emily Clark Balch and Henry Hoyns fellowships and served as a fiction consultant to the editor of Virginia Review Quarterly.

The demands of graduate school exhausted Breece and did not leave him much time for his own writing. He spent most of his time polishing his earlier work and began to enjoy more literary success. Both "Hollow" and "Cowboys and Girls" were published in the university newspaper, The Declaration, during his first semester. The Atlantic Monthly accepted "Trilobites" for publication in March 1977 and "In the Dry" in early 1978. Breece also sold "Time and Again" to the magazine Nightwork and won the Jefferson Society Prize for fiction that year. It was during the publication of "Trilobites" in the spring of 1977 that a typesetter's error changed Breece's name from Breece D.J. Pancake to Breece D'J Pancake. (Breece had unofficially changed his middle name to David and then added John as a confirmation name in 1977 when he converted to Catholicism.) He decided to keep the new punctuation and adopt the name by which he is now known. Breece also began writing "First Day of Winter," "In the Dry," and "A Room Forever" while in Charlottesville.

Despite his early literary success, Breece had difficulties adjusting to graduate school and life in Charlottesville. He rented a small apartment in the manor home of Virginia Meade and her husband and struggled to feel at home at the university, where he was bothered by class consciousness and felt alienated from many of his fellow students. However, he did meet Emily Miller, a PhD student in English at U.Va., in the fall of 1977, and the two dated until Breece's death. By the spring of 1979, Breece was close to completing his master's degree and was applying for teaching positions for the following academic year.

Breece Pancake died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on 8 April 1979 in Charlottesville and was buried in Milton, West Virginia. In the months and years after his death, Helen Pancake and John Casey worked to publish his stories. Atlantic Monthly published "The Honored Dead" in January 1981 and "Hollow" in October 1982, and Antaeus accepted "A Room Forever" for its December 1981 issue. A collection of Breece's work, The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake, was published posthumously through the efforts of Helen Pancake and Breece's literary executor, John Casey, in February 1983 by Little, Brown and Company in association with The Atlantic Monthly Press. Stories was reviewed by more than one hundred major newspapers and journals and received widespread critical acclaim as well as a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston reprinted the book as a paperback in 1984 and in 1986 Stories won the West Virginia Literary Award. Even after the book's publication, Helen Pancake continued to support her son's writing by answering the questions of those interested in understanding Breece's writing and youth in West Virginia. In 1998 Thomas E. Douglass published A Room Forever: The Life, Work, and Letters of Breece D'J Pancake. Much of this biographical information comes from that book.

In 1985 Helen Pancake sold the family home in Milton and moved to Spring Hills, Florida.


4.7 Linear Feet (Summary: 4 ft. 7 1/2 in. (nine 5 in. document cases, one 2 1/2 in. document case, one flat storage box [15 in. x 20 in. x 4 in.]))


Papers of Breece D'J Pancake (1952-1979) of Milton, West Virginia, noted short story writer who depicted the Appalachian experience of rural West Virginians. Breece Pancake had two short stories published in The Atlantic Monthly before he died of an apparent suicide on 8 April 1979. His only collection of stories, The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake, was published posthumously in 1983. Correspondence, writings, biographical and genealogical materials, and subject files document Breece Pancake's personal life and writing career from the mid-1960s to April 1979 as well as efforts made by his mother, Helen Pancake, and author John Casey to publish his stories after his death. Collection also contains subject files and oversize materials taken from Breece's office at the University of Virginia after he died. See scope and content note for details.

Physical Location

West Virginia and Regional History Center / West Virginia University / 1549 University Avenue / P.O. Box 6069 / Morgantown, WV 26506-6069 / Phone: 304-293-3536 / Fax: 304-293-3981 / URL:

Separated Materials

Original photograph to Photographs Collection, "Portraits--Pancake, Breece"

Breece Pancake, Author, Papers, 1925-2000
Staff of the West Virginia & Regional History Center
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script
Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the West Virginia and Regional History Center Repository

1549 University Ave.
P.O. Box 6069
Morgantown WV 26506-6069 US