Ray B. Browne (1922-2009)
Ray B. Browne was always one to question convention and authority. As a former professor of English and literature, he broke academic conventions in the 1960s and 1970s to pioneer the study of popular culture, the study of everyday cultural life. In the process, he helped revolutionize the subject matter that scholars in English, American studies, sociology, radio/television/film, and other disciplines view as acceptable and helped drive the academic study of what most people spend most of their free time pursuing.
Born in Millport, Ala., in 1922, Browne grew up poor in the Depression, sometimes working as a teenager picking cotton for 10 cents a day. He managed to attend the University of Alabama using money earned from part-time jobs and financial support from a sister. He fought in World War II in an artillery unit in the European theater, and studied in England at the Universities of Birmingham and Nottingham for a year after the war ended. From there, he returned to the U.S. and earned a master’s degree in Victorian Literature from Columbia University. He spent two years teaching at the University of Nebraska in the late 1940s before attending the University of California at Los Angeles, earning a Ph.D. in English and Folklore in 1956.
Browne taught at the University of Maryland from 1956-1960, and at Purdue University from 1960-1967. A prodigious scholar, he published dozens of articles and numerous books in his early career. ‘However, at both Maryland and Purdue, he often chafed at what he regarded as the narrow interpretation of subject matter “worthy” of academic study. Although he was an authority on “worthy” writers such as Herman Melville and Mark Twain, he believed that cultural studies and criticism should include popular culture, the voluminous culture that falls between elite culture and folklore.
He married Maxine Matthews of Ozark, Ala., in 1965, and, in 1967, Browne moved to Bowling Green State University (BGSU) in Bowling Green, Ohio, with the express purpose of starting the academic study of popular culture. He had the support of both the dean of his college and the university president at the time. At that point, Browne’s career and the popular culture movement took off. He founded the Journal of Popular Culture in 1967 and the Center for the Study of Popular Culture in 1968. These were the first entities of their kind to focus on the study of everyday culture.
From the beginning, Browne cast his net widely. A perusal of a recent program from the Popular Culture Association annual conference includes such subjects as comic books, fashion studies, Stephen King, mystery and detective fiction, children’s literature, westerns, rock music, internet culture, sports culture, vampires, world’s fairs and expositions, food and popular culture, the Civil War, digital culture, Arthurian legends, travel culture, slapstick comedy, romance fiction, motorcycle culture, medical humanities, popular architecture and design, and hundreds of other subjects covering aspects of everyday life. Quite simply, Browne viewed popular culture as what most people spend most of their life doing.
Browne founded the Popular Culture Library at BGSU in 1970. The library now holds 190,000 books and hundreds of thousands of other materials related to the study of popular culture. The repository is perhaps the leading source for popular culture artifacts in the nation. In 1970, Browne founded the Popular Culture Association (PCA) to organize and promote the study of popular culture both in the U.S. and internationally. The national convention, held annually since 1971, regularly draws more than 2000 participants. Browne later founded a sister organization to the PCA, the American Culture Association, to focus solely on American popular culture.
Browne’s focus on everyday culture earned him many honors and high visibility in the media. He appeared several times on the CBS Evening News, as well as on the Phil Donahue show, BBC News, and other television programs. He was the subject of a USA Today Profile (December 22, 1986), and articles about him appeared in People magazine (July 11, 1977) and Rolling Stone (October 1988). Browne was quoted hundreds of times in newspapers, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Toledo Blade, and many others. He was named a Distinguished University Professor at BGSU, the university’s highest honor for professors, in 1977.
Browne’s lasting impact on academia is of major significance. While at BGSU, he wrote, edited, or co-edited more than 50 books, dozens of articles, a compendium Guide to United States Popular Culture, and hundreds of book reviews. Most universities in the U.S., and many abroad, now teach courses in popular culture (under various names) in departments of English, sociology, history, American Studies, anthropology, and others. Making these courses acceptable to university faculty and administrators, to study the culture of everyday life, is Browne’s legacy. One of the most flattering lines about Browne, which describes his life and his career perfectly, is from colleague R. Serge Denisoff in a book dedication many years ago: “To Ray B. Browne, a gentle revolutionary in the ivory tower.”
Browne was professor at BGSU from 1967 until his retirement in 1992. “Retirement” had no impact on his work, however, and he continued as Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Popular Culture, working tirelessly writing books and book reviews and promoting popular culture studies until just two months before his death. A colleague recently remarked that Browne wrote more books during his retirement years than most scholars do in a career.
Ray Browne died peacefully from natural causes on Oct. 22 at age 87 at his home in Bowling Green, Ohio. He is survived by his wife Pat, who worked with him for many years in developing the popular culture movement, as well as sons Glenn and Kevin Browne, daughter Alicia Browne, daughters-in-law Cecilia Carter Browne and Shannon Welsh, son-in-law Lawrence Kreiser, grandchildren Julia Kreiser, Kira Browne, and Anna Kreiser, nieces Barbara Moran, Patricia Taft, and Susan Borders, and nephew Robert Burns.