Saturday, October 24, 2009

Ray Browne: Pioneer of Popular Culture

Bowling Green State University announced yesterday that
Dr. Raymond B. Browne, who was instrumental in establishing the first full-fledged department of popular culture in the United States at Bowling Green State University in 1973, died Oct. 22 at home in Bowling Green, Ohio. He was 87.

Internationally recognized as a publisher and expert in popular culture, Browne is often credited with coining the term and as being among the first to propose its serious study.
The Browne Popular Culture Library, which bears his name, includes among its many collections
a wide range of romance materials from novels to valentines. The collection includes more than 10,000 volumes of category romance series from publishers such as Harlequin, Silhouette, Loveswept, Candlelight, Ecstasy, and others. The holdings also include a sizable collection of mass market novels, including Georgian, regency, gothic, contemporary, and historicals.

Additional "romantic" items can be found in the Library's various special collections, including large holdings of ephemeral items, such as movie advertisements, posters, and press kits. A unique collection of romance publishing-house book marks and a large selection of valentines from various eras may also be found in the Browne Popular Culture Library.

In addition, the Library has manuscript collections containing correspondence, fan mail, literary manuscripts, and galley sheets from many prominent romance writers, includings Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Cathie Linz, and April Kihlstrom.
The library also holds the "RWA’s organizational archives documenting its founding [...] and following its growth into the world’s largest non-profit genre organization."

According to a "biographical sketch" of Ray Browne provided by the Browne Popular Culture Library
He received his PhD in American literature, folklore and history from UCLA in 1956. He accepted a position in the English department at the University of Maryland. While at Maryland his interest in American Studies expanded after meeting Carl Bode, one of the founders of the American Studies Association. Bode was part of a growing number of scholars who believed that academia needed inter and multi-disciplinary approaches to the study of the humanities and of literature. Browne embraced this view.

After not receiving tenure at the University of Maryland, he assumed a post in the English department at Purdue in 1960. Between 1965 and 1966 he was instrumental in arranging two Purdue conferences intended to broaden the traditionally narrow approach to studying culture. Browne would remain at Purdue until Bowling Green State University offered him a folklore professorship in 1967. In 1968 research facilities began to emerge as the Center for the Study of Popular Culture and the Popular Culture Library. In 1970 the Popular Press was established. Gradually he introduced a popular culture curriculum into his folklore classes, creating much unpopularity within the English department. This in turn would lead to the establishment in 1971-1972 of a separate Department of Popular Culture at BGSU chaired by Ray Browne. After being away for a year at the University of Maryland, he returned to BGSU in 1976 and remained until his retirement in 1992.
An obituary at CBC News recounts that
"Culture is everything from the food we've always eaten to the clothes we've always worn," he said in a 2003 interview with The Associated Press.

While many in the field credit Browne with coming up the name "popular culture," no one could say for sure whether he originated it. He said he made a mistake in 1967 when he first used the phrase.

"If I had called it everyday culture or democratic culture, it would not have been so sharply criticized," he said.
Initially, as mentioned in another obituary, this time in the Telegraph,
Professors at universities nationwide thought Browne, an English professor, was trying to demean or trivialise what they were teaching when he founded the popular culture department.

But he insisted that interest was genuinely rooted in finding out how society affects culture, and how culture affects society. The concept of popular culture as an object of study has been embraced worldwide, and it is commonly taught as part of a range of university courses.
He was interviewed in 2002 by Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture and
provided us with our most thorough and lasting definition of popular culture:

Popular culture is the way of life in which and by which most people in any society live. [...] 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.


  1. As current Head of the Browne Popular Culture Library, I have had the opportunity to know and work with Dr. Browne for a number of years. He has been a great supporter of our collection and an active scholar, only slowing down this past year. I will miss the excitement and love he had for popular culture as he came in almost every week with a new book or a new author he had found and you could see the excitement shining in his face. He also had this great vision of seeing everything from wall paper patterns to romances to comics to matchbook covers as all being part of popular culture and worthy of preserving and studying. This vision has helped create over the past 40 years the great archives we have here at BGSU. We will miss him.
    Nancy Down

  2. I fully sympathise with your loss. I didn't know Ray Browne, but as a hispano-medievalist I came to know Professor Alan Deyermond, who died last month. As I was putting together my blog post, I couldn't help but think of Alan.

    Like Ray Browne, Alan Deyermond was an outstanding figure in his field. His obituary in The Guardian described him as "the English-speaking world's leading scholar of medieval Hispanic literature." Like Ray Browne, he had built up the field in which he worked, encouraging others and being "instrumental in the founding of Tamesis Books" and "the Publications of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar" (The Times), perhaps not unlike the way in which Ray Browne was instrumental in the founding of the Popular Press.

    From what you say about Ray Browne's "excitement shining in his face" it seems they had even more in common: their deep love and enthusiasm for their subject which they could communicate to others, and personalities which challenged and enthused others.

    As academics, they leave their fields bereft, and as people they will be greatly missed.