"He'll Always Be a Part of Us": Folklore in the Stories of Breece D'J Pancake

Article excerpt

What little work exists from the short and tragic life of Breece Pancake has garnered an unprecedented amount of attention and praise from the literary world since his first publication in 1977 (Douglass xii). The significance of these works to modern fiction and Appalachian literature has been well documented, but an essential element in his stories has heretofore gone unnoticed or ignored. It is therefore that I will employ the method set forth by Alan Dundes in 1965, first setting out to identify the elements of folklore present in Pancake's writing, and second interpreting their function in the work (136). By doing so, I hope to not only demonstrate the existence of folkloric elements in Pancake's stories, but also the integral role that these elements play in understanding the works as a whole.

Many works of literature contain elements of folklore. It is often so deeply embedded into an author's thought process that pieces may subconsciously pour out into a work that will be recognized by a folklorist. These elements, although present, are not always essential to the understanding of the work; however, in certain cases, this folklore is such an important part of the story or structure of the literature that, regardless of whether its inclusion was intentional or subconscious, it cannot be ignored without also ignoring one of the main functions of that particular work. The latter is the case with the stories of Breece Pancake, as the folklore is so prominently featured and interwoven into the themes of writing that it plays an integral role in interpretation. This connection, whether intentional or unintentional, is both functional and meaningful.

Folklore presents itself in many ways in Pancake's stories, most notably through farming techniques, mining and other occupational lore, material lore, and an element of oral history, story-telling, and verbal performance. In fact, occurrences of significant folklore are present in nine of the twelve stories published in the collection. For the sake of brevity, this essay will focus mainly on elements of verbal performance, folk knowledge, and family traditions and rituals.

In "Trilobites," young Colly and the much older Jim share a morning cup of coffee that turns into a verbal joust reminiscent of the African American tradition described by Zora Neale Hurston. Colly narrates, "I think of Pop, and try to joke. 'You stink so bad the undertaker's following you,'" to which Jim retorts, "You were the ugliest baby ever born, you know that?" (24). Another instance of this type of verbal performance occurs in "Fox Hunters," as a group of men sit around a camp fire on a hunting trip, when one of them spouts off a lyric: "The Holy Pole is in your hold, so work yer ass to save your soul" (80). Another oral form of folklore, in "Fox Hunters," which again conjures up images of Hurston's stories, is an exaggerated story-telling reminiscent of old time lying contests. Two men of the hunting party, Enoch and Bo, tell each other hyperbolic stories on the way to the camp site. Bo "tells the afternoon dream as a fact, adding color and characters as he went," and Enoch clearly stretches the events of his past into the stuff of legend, relaying a story of his father's meanness which culminates in his own sexual experience with a prostitute at the age of eight (76). This oral performance extends to the urban-legend, nearly ghost-story-like tale of the hitchhiker killings told in "Time and Again," in which only the bones of the victims are ever found.

Like the verbal performance detailed above, elements of folk knowledge exist throughout the stories as well. Cattle pray for rain in "Trilobites," there is a notion that "ever'thin's poison on dog days" in "The Mark," and an old man has "an oath to stop bleeding" in "The Honored Dead," all of which are instances of folk knowledge spread down through the generations (27, 64, 93, 115). An especially intriguing instance of this type of folklore is in "The Mark," in the form of a makeshift pregnancy test in which a rabbit is killed and the woman's blood is pumped into its veins. …