Ray Browne, 87, Founder of Pop-Culture Studies, Dies

Historians in the News

Ray B. Browne, who more than four decades ago founded the academic discipline of popular-culture studies, and who in the years that followed presided over the somewhat unlikely, often uneasy and almost always stimulating marriage between the ivory tower and Mickey Mouse, Madonna and Michael Jackson, among many other subjects, died on Oct. 22 at his home in Bowling Green, Ohio. He was 87.

His niece Barbara Moran confirmed the death, saying it was from natural causes.

At his death, Professor Browne was a distinguished university professor emeritus at Bowling Green State University, where he had taught from 1967 to 1992. A folklorist and literary scholar who specialized in Twain and Melville, he founded the university’s department of popular culture, the first such academic department in the country, in 1973.

The news media often credited Professor Browne with having coined the term “popular culture,” but according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the expression goes back at least to 1854, when it appeared in print in The Defiance Democrat in Ohio. But it is fair, and entirely fitting, to say that Professor Browne popularized the phrase.

For decades a highly visible public intellectual, Professor Browne was quoted often in major newspapers and profiled in People magazine. He wrote nearly a dozen books and edited more than 40 others.

Among the titles he edited are “Lincoln-Lore: Lincoln in the Popular Mind” (1974); “The Defective Detective in the Pulps” (1983; with Gary Hoppenstand); “Forbidden Fruits: Taboos and Tabooism in Culture” (1984); and “The Gothic World of Stephen King” (1987; with Mr. Hoppenstand). All were published by the Popular Press, which Professor Browne founded in 1970 with his wife, Pat Browne. Inaugurated at Bowling Green, the Popular Press is now an imprint of the University of Wisconsin Press.

Popular culture casts a wide net. It takes in dime novels, tabloid newspapers and TV weathermen; the Monkees, the Muppets and “The Love Boat”; T-shirts and G-strings; baseball cards and tarot cards; infomercials, Chatty Cathy dolls and needlepoint pillows; Bob Hope, Tiny Tim, Archie Bunker and Erica Jong; Tupperware, cream pies and Spam (both kinds); hood ornaments, Harlequin romances, “Leave It to Beaver” and a great deal else. For some, this ecumenicalism is part of the field’s appeal. For others, it is precisely what makes it seem unfit for scholarly consumption.

Professor Browne was often called upon to defend the honor of his discipline, the object of wide derision when it was begun and the subject of renewed attacks by traditionalists amid the canon wars of the 1980s. (The two-credit course on roller coasters, rides included, that Bowling Green offered in 1978 came in for a particular drubbing by scholars and the media.)

“I’ve been criticized for three things,” Professor Browne told The Chicago Tribune in 1988. “Wasting taxpayer money, embarrassing my colleagues and corrupting youth.”

His reply to his critics was simple and eloquent. “Popular culture is the voice of democracy, democracy speaking and acting, the seedbed in which democracy grows,” he said in an interview in 2002 with Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900 to Present). “It is the everyday world around us: the mass media, entertainments and diversions. It is our heroes, icons, rituals, everyday actions, psychology and religion — our total life picture. It is the way of living we inherit, practice and modify as we please, and how we do it. It is the dreams we dream while asleep.”...

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