A lot of people dream about finding buried treasure. Most don’t succeed, but occasionally, a rare individual actually does make a discovery worth noting. You can add Rice’s own Logan Browning to that list. Browning, a lecturer in English who also serves as editor of the Rice-based academic journal SEL Studies in English Literature 1500–1900, has uncovered a previously unpublished story by Walker Percy, the award-winning Southern writer best known for his philosophical novels set in and around New Orleans.
The discovery came about because of Browning’s association with The Hopkins Review, a literary quarterly published by Johns Hopkins University Press. The review had been out of print for more than 50 years when it was resuscitated by famed critic John Irwin, the Decker Professor in the Humanities at Hopkins, who earned his Ph.D. in English at Rice in 1970. The Rice connection went deeper when Irwin tapped Glenn Blake to serve as managing editor. Blake earned his undergraduate degree from Rice in 1979 and taught here for a number of years, and it so happened that he and Browning are good friends.
The two of them frequently talked about The Hopkins Review, and Browning contributed enough ideas, articles and book reviews to earn a spot on the masthead as an advisory editor. The first issue of the review contained unpublished pieces by Blake’s mentor, Donald Barthelme, which set Browning to thinking about his friend Tom Cowan, whom Browning met while they were undergraduates at Sewanee: The University of the South. Cowan is the nephew of Walker Percy, the distinguished author whose novels include “The Moviegoer” and “Love Among the Ruins.”
“I kept trying to downplay their expectations. I told them not to get too excited until they’d seen it. I sent copies to them, and within a few hours, they called, saying, ‘It’s fantastic. Let’s do it.’”
— Logan Browning
Past experience had taught Browning that there might be a good chance that Percy’s archives held unpublished material. Browning had served as research assistant to Robert Patten, Rice’s Lynette S. Autrey Professor in Humanities and publisher and executive editor of SEL, when he was at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina.
“Bob sent me to the Royal Archives in Windsor Castle to root around in all these old letters and records, and I got to go to the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford and its John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera,” Browning said. “After digging around in all that, I realized that no matter how well a collection has been cataloged or researched, there’s almost always going to be something that people haven’t found or that was misfiled.”
One night last year, when Browning was visiting Cowan in New Orleans, he broached the idea of searching the Percy archives to see if he could find any material that was previously unpublished.
“I’ll call Aunt Bunt and ask,” Cowan told Browning. Aunt Bunt was Mary Bernice Percy, Walker Percy’s widow.
After brief discussions with Mrs. Percy and Roy Percy, a nephew who counsels Mrs. Percy on literary matters, Browning was given permission to search the archives, which are housed in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Browning spent several days going through the archives, initially pessimistic that he would find something that was unpublished. His perseverance paid off, though, and he came away with four possibilities: three short nonfiction prose essays and a 27-page short story titled, appropriately enough, “A Detective Story.”
The three essays, it turned out, already had appeared in various small-circulation publications, but there was no trace that “A Detective Story” had ever been published.
“Finding the story was a wonderful feeling,” Browning said. “Sort of, ‘Wow, this is pretty cool.’”
The Hopkins Review editors were equally delighted.
“I kept trying to downplay their expectations,” Browning said. “I told them not to get too excited until they’d seen it. I sent copies to them, and within a few hours, they called, saying, ‘It’s fantastic. Let’s do it.’”
Securing rights consisted primarily of obtaining Mrs. Percy’s permission.
“She was very kind about it all,” Browning said. “She read the story, and I had a long telephone interview with her. I learned a lot of things — not necessarily about the story, but it was fun to talk with her.”
Browning still worries that the story actually has been published before. “I remain slightly terrified that the call is going to come in the middle of the night saying, ‘We published this,’” he said. “More and more, though, I think we’re safe, but I’m aware that these things can happen.”
Although detective fiction was popular at the time Percy wrote “A Detective Story,” Browning said that it isn’t a genre story.
“Percy seems to have had little interest in the detective story, as such,” Browning said. “You don’t even find it in his favorite reading list that comes up in his correspondence with friend Shelby Foote or in his library, much of which is housed at Chapel Hill. I’m not saying that there aren’t any detective writers in there, but they’re a very small part.”
The story, instead, is sort of a play on the detective genre.
“The protagonists are detectives only in the sense that they become detectives by deciding to look for this man who tells his wife he’s going out for cigarettes one evening and doesn’t come back,” Browning said.
The wife of the vanished man calls a couple — the husband of which is the story’s narrator — who are good friends to help her find him, and the search takes them from their small Mississippi Delta town to Memphis, Tenn.; Jacksonville, Fla.; and Cincinnati, Ohio.
“The story reveals a very curious couple’s relationship,” Browning said. “There are all kinds of hints that they didn’t like each other all that much or that they were irritated by this or that or curious about various things about each other. And there is a lot of doubling. It’s clear that the narrator has imagined doing something like this himself.”
Ultimately, the disappearance is partly solved, but an air of mystery hovers around the conclusion. An air of mystery with its own doubling also surrounds the story’s composition with relation to its time frame, stylistic elements and plot. When Browning was talking to Mrs. Percy about the story’s origin, she thought it might have been connected to an incident that involved her husband in 1972.
“One day, to Percy’s astonishment, this guy showed up at the Percy home in Louisiana,” Browning said. “Percy hadn’t seen him since college, and he told Percy that he’d just left home and not gone back after telling his wife he was going out for cigarettes.”
Despite the similarities between the incident and the setup of “A Detective Story,” 1972 seems to Browning to be too late for the story to have been written. By then, Percy had been a successful novelist for a decade, and the story exhibits stylistic elements that point to it being more of a neophyte effort.
“I never felt like I wasn’t reading a Percy story,” Browning said. “But I felt there were a few moments that weren’t quite worthy of Percy at his best, and Mrs. Percy felt the same way. I maintain this delicate balance between recognizing that it’s not Percy at his absolute best and feeling very strongly that it’s good and worthy of Percy.”
Internal evidence also points to a composition date earlier than 1972. Scenes in Memphis take place in the Peabody Hotel and the Chisca Plaza Hotel, both of which are described in their glory days, although by the early 1970s, the former was a Sheraton and the latter no longer was open. While it is possible that Percy intentionally set the story in a previous time frame, that doesn’t jibe with Browning’s perception of the author’s work.
“Consciously moving the setting back 10 or 15 years doesn’t seem to be what Percy ever tried to achieve,” Browning said. “It’s certainly possible, but my overall sense is that that isn’t the case because he doesn’t try to make anything out of it being set in an earlier time.”
Even though questions remain regarding the story’s genesis, “A Detective Story” may help scholars better understand Percy and his work.
“It won’t change the face of Percy scholarship,” Browning said, “but it does contain motifs and themes that Percy utilized in his more important work, so you can see that these concerns and interests had been a part of Percy for a long time. I hope I’m not kidding myself, but the more I read the story, the more interested I got in it. I really think it’s a pretty rich place to go to learn more about Percy.”