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Pulitzer Prize nominated Breece D'J Pancake to be celebrated on June 29

Jun. 25, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

MILTON -- In his life, Breece D'J Pancake published six short stories.

Terse and haunting, his words painted Appalachia as it is -- captivating and complicated.

As set in place as a trilobite buried in time in these hills, Pancake's words won't leave us alone.

Nominated posthumously for the Pulitzer Prize for the 1983 collection, "The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake," Pancake, who committed suicide in 1979, will be celebrated Saturday, June 29, at an event called "Discovering Appalachia Through The Writings of Breece D'J Pancake."

To honor his writing on Saturday, June 29 -- what would have been his 61st birthday -- the library is offering a free, day-long symposium.

It runs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and honors the ever-rippling legacy of the 1974 Marshall University graduate who was often compared to Ernest Hemingway and who Kurt Vonnegut wrote "was merely the best writer, the most sincere writer I've ever read."

Free and open to the public, the symposium features keynote speaker Grace Toney Edwards, a professor emeritus in English and Appalachian Studies from Radford University in Virginia.

Robert L. McDonald, the associate dean of academic affairs at Virginia Military Institute, will present his exhibit "Native Ground," which can be viewed at the Milton Library throughout June. McDonald uses a primitive hand-held camera to capture the personal spaces and landscapes of writers from the American South ranging from James Agee and William Faulkner to Zora Neale Hurston. Native Ground is an exploration of the role place plays in shaping the literary imagination.

Visiting associate professor at Marshall University and author, Marie Manilla ("Shrapnel" and "Still Life With Plums") will do a reading from one of his shorter works to analyze it with the audience.

Project director for the West Virginia Literary Map, Phyllis Wilson Moore will discuss the accomplishments of Pancake and personal friend of Pancake and associate librarian Lynn McGinnis will head a panel of his friends and will lead a walking tour of Milton that will begin at 4:30 p.m. at the library and end around 6 p.m.

Milton Public Library director Georgina Doss said since his mom donated a personal display case that draws in fans from around the country, the library has always been one of the first places folks stop if they are in the area to get directions to the Milton cemetery and to see the personal items of Pancake.

"We have had in people from all over the U.S. and from Canada come in," Doss said. "Mostly its people from out of state and what I find is kind of funny is that they look at that case with such reverence. The people who like Breece Pancake, really, really like his works, so we have a lot of phone calls from people coming through the area who want to see his grave."

While the small shrine of sorts has been a draw for a couple decades, the idea to do something greater this year, pivoted on a visit a couple years ago by McDonald, who was putting together "Native Ground," an exhibit of 23 black and white photos shot of the places known to some of Appalachia's most revered authors.

"It just got me to thinking when Rob McDonald came and then probably six months ago Phyllis mentioned it to me and suggested I have Grace Edwards come and do the program," Doss said. "I felt like if I was going to do this I really wanted to have more than one person. I wanted to make sure enough people are doing this to make it worth having."

Doss ended up working with McDonald to also have "Native Ground" shown at the main branch of the Cabell County Public Library where it has been this spring.

"For some reason I never thought about him being right up there with Tennessee Williams and Hemingway and Zora Neale Hurston. I never thought of him being in that category of an author," Doss said. "I thought it would be good for people here since Breece is far more well known than people think he is."

Doss said she's hoping for a great crowd. Once they put it on Facebook it had 1,200 hits within six hours.

For those who can't make it, Doss has made arrangements with the WV State Library Commission to come out and film the discussions to edit into a DVD capturing the day.

They hope to have the DVD ready about a month after the event.

For McGinnis' part, she will draw on her friendship with him.

McGinnis used to drive Pancake to Marshall where he completed a bachelor's degree in English education in 1974.

"We rode to Marshall together and I just saw Breece as just one of the guys, one of the neighborhood boys you grew up with," McGinnis said. "He was different. He was not a jock. He was a bright guy and witty and clever and nobody would have ever suspected that he would not be here for a long, long time... We never doubted he would be successful. It's unfortunate that he is not around to enjoy it. I don't think he would be excited about the fame but he would have enjoyed his success and seeing that his talent was recognized."

If You Go:

WHAT: Birthday celebration for the late Milton native writer Breece D'J Pancake featuring guest speakers from around the country, an exhibit, "Native Ground," of famous writers' homeplaces, a walking tour and more.

WHERE: Milton branch of the Cabell County Public Library at 1140 Smith St., Milton

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, June 29

HOW MUCH: Free and open to the public

DID YOU KNOW? A 1974, Marshall graduate, Breece D'J Pancake was nominated posthumously for the Pulitzer Prize for the 1983 collection, "The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake." Pancake, who committed suicide in 1979, was often compared to Ernest Hemingway. Kurt Vonnegut wrote that he "was merely the best writer, the most sincere writer I've ever read."

CONTACT: Call 304-743-6711 or email milton@cabell.lib.wv.us for more info