Featured Guest:
Professor Ray B. Browne

Each issue of Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900 to present) we feature an interview, or a conversation, with a preeminent scholar in the field of American popular culture studies. This fall 2002 edition, we are featuring Professor Ray B. Browne who founded the Journal of Popular Culture and the Popular Culture Library at Bowling Green State University in 1967, the Center for the Study of Popular Culture at BGSU in 1968, the BGSU Popular Press and the Popular Culture Association in 1970, the Department of Popular Culture at BGSU in 1972, along with the Journal of American Culture and the American Culture Association in 1978. He has penned almost a thousand book reviews, published about two hundred articles, and written or edited over sixty books, one of the most notable of which is his 1988 history about the battle to establish popular culture as a legitimate field of study, Against Academia.

Clearly, popular culture studies would not be where it is today—if it would even exist at all—without the contributions of this important scholar. He has even 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. In a democracy like the United States, it is the voice of the people — their likes and dislikes — that form the lifeblood of daily existence, of a way of life. Popular culture is the voice of democracy, democracy speaking and acting, the seedbed in which democracy grows. Popular culture democratizes society and makes democracy truly democratic. 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.

This fall, we caught up with Professor Browne to ask him about this struggle to legitimize the study of his beloved popular culture.

Americana: We know you began in folklore. What first attracted you to the formal study of everyday life?

Browne: I have always had a great deal of hope for the possible accomplishments of human intelligence if properly used, and to me so-called "higher education" was the route to that accomplishment. But I have thought that this "higher education" meant teaching the mind to think, not necessarily to remember. In other words, thinking was more important than remembering.

Growing up in Alabama, I looked over at the University of Alabama—and other colleges—and thought I saw that there was a great field of everyday life that needed to be studied and understood. From 1947-50 I taught at the University of Nebraska, famous for the folklorist Louise Pound, who had just retired, and my deep feeling for the importance of folklore was strengthened.

Americana: Tell us about your time at UCLA. Isn't that where you first formed this idea of studying something called "popular culture"?

Browne: After three years of teaching at Nebraska, I went on for a Ph.D. at UCLA. There my feeling about the importance of the study of everyday culture was strengthened—or perhaps allowed—by two of my professors, Wayland Hand, folklorist, and Leon Howard, an important scholar in American literature. Wayland did not understand what I was talking about when I told him I wanted to study "popular culture," that is everyday culture as distinguished from folklore (though they are essentially the same, except in different media). Leon Howard understood what I was talking about and allowed me to go ahead, especially after doing a summer's collecting of folksongs in Alabama. I told him about collecting The Lord's Prayer as a folksong. He thought that was significant.

Americana: Why is the study of popular culture important?

Browne: For a civilization to flourish and continue, it is important that all aspects be known because up until recently they were recognized as inseparable. For example, in England and Western Europe there was no separation of "elite" and common culture until the sixteenth century, when the powerful realized that by using their power they could pull themselves "above" the so-called masses. In early America, there was less distinction between the levels of society though the Reverend Cotton Mather, though preaching to the masses, detested some of their attitudes and practices. Even Benjamin Franklin, who published for and understood the common people, thought their music very crude and detestable.

But increasingly our culture is coming to realize that the proper study of a democratic society is its democratic cultures and practices, all. Some may be more desirable and respectable, but as Lincoln might have said, some cultures are desirable to some of the people some of the time and as such they are valuable as evidence of that segment of society. This evidence is clearly visible now in the interest we are seeing among archeologists who are digging around in tombs of the dead, not looking for gold but for everyday artifacts.

Americana: After you received your Ph.D. from UCLA in 1956, you went on to teach at the University of Maryland and then at Purdue. While at Purdue you hosted the Mid-American Conference in Literature, History, and Folklore in 1965 and another conference in 1967. That conference seems a pivotal point in the popular culture movement. Tell us about that time in your life.

Browne: I was fortunate to get my first job at the University of Maryland, where Carl Bode was the most influential member of the English Department. He had been in on the founding of the American Studies Association and had urged it to be more inclusive than the mixture of literature, history and philosophy, which it centered on. He was very supportive of my interest in popular culture because that was exactly what he was interested in. He continued to be one of my strongest supporters throughout his life.

In 1960, I went to Purdue, where I found a chair of the department who would support any kind of creative energy, Barriss Mills, and a faculty of young and ambitious people who would help me. Early on at Purdue, I met Russel B. Nye from Michigan State who was at that time interested in all aspects of popular culture and especially young people's literature. Early on, he and I planned to hold a conference on popular culture at Purdue. The administration and faculty were supportive or at least not obstructive.

Americana: What made you push for the formation of the Popular Culture Association at the 1967 American Studies Association in Kansas City?

Browne: I had been around academia long enough to realize that conferences and associations are vital constituents of success in that world. The two conferences at Purdue were successful. The papers were published or were at least noticed. Ever since going to Purdue, I had planned on establishing a journal of popular culture, though in fact I didn't really know what I was thinking about. Russel Nye thought it a great idea, and I just let the idea simmer. I had been a little pushy in the American Studies Association asking for development in new fields, and when the national meeting was held in Kansas City in 1967 I proposed to the officers that I would host the second meeting in Toledo if they would let me try to establish a Popular Culture Association, again not quite realizing what I was talking about.

Americana: What kind of resistance did you encounter when you were first forming the PCA?

Browne: The meeting to establish the PCA was exciting. Two hundred of the finest minds at the conference attended the meeting and were enthusiastic about the whole idea. We appointed a couple of officers, or rather I announced myself as secretary-treasurer and Russel Nye as President, and we went on from there. I proudly announced to my colleagues, especially the senior faculty at Purdue, that we had established the PCA and that we would act as a strong assisting arm to the American Studies Association.

Several of them, however, were less enthusiastic than I had expected and explained that in the world of academia nobody helps anybody else but only competes. Though I was convinced of the desire to broaden and assist the American Studies Association, my colleagues have through the years proved right. In academia, ideas seem to be located on territory that has been staked out with "No Trespassing" signs everywhere, and when there is some borrowing, infringing, "rustling," whatever one wants to call it, there is resentment. Despite the fact that academic scholars ride on the backs of footnotes, they seem not to want to expand the general fields of knowledge. At least that seemed to be the case until the study of popular culture forced the American Studies scholars—and other humanities scholars—to reexamine their fields and attitudes.

Americana: Why did you move to Bowling Green State University in 1967? Was the administration supportive of your ideas toward the future development of popular culture studies such as the formation of the Journal of Popular Culture?

Browne: At Purdue, I had helped a colleague, Donald Winkelman, edit Abstracts of Folklore. He went to BGSU because he could get more support there and invited me to come over. I went over to talk to the English Department and Administration and told them I wanted to establish a Journal of Popular Culture. All seemed to agree that it was a great idea. I guess I should qualify "all" with "most." They wanted a folklorist and I could masquerade as one.

Americana: You were a member of the English department faculty when you first arrived at BGSU. What kinds of problems did you encounter with other faculty members?

Browne: A new battle was shaping up at Bowling Green. Once I got there, I started pushing my interest in popular culture and started introducing popular culture into my folklore classes. I was reprimanded several times, but since I had tenure I ignored the reprimands. The faculty grew increasingly restive, but the administration became more and more supportive. The faculty campus-wide also grew more and more polarized. Individuals in several departments were supportive, but mainly the important individuals in all departments were quiet or hostile. Finally, conditions in the English Department became so uncomfortable for all that they told the provost I could not stay in English any longer. He, however, told them that they had to keep me since "nobody else on campus would take me." So I had little recourse but to found my own department—with one colleague. That, however, was not easy. Several chairs of other departments, fearing competition or just out of prejudice, said that the college did not need any more departments, and they would oppose this establishment. The dispute went on for a year until the Dean of Business in disgust finally said that he had had enough of such nonsense: they should found the department and then go on to important business. I always thought he was a wise man.

Americana: You were able to establish a master's program in your department, but never a Ph.D. program. Why?

Browne: While in English, I had been directing Masters and Ph.D. degrees, and since they needed me they let me continue that course. Because we had only two in Popular Culture, the administration felt that we could hardly give advanced degrees though I continued to direct both in English. Finally, I persuaded the administration to let us give Master's degrees in Popular Culture and was on the verge of getting the Ph.D. when the budget in Columbus was cut and Popular Culture could not hire appropriate faculty for the courses. Now, for at least fifteen years, the establishment of the Ph.D. in Popular Culture has been on hold. It may not come to fruition.

Americana: In 1978, you formed the American Culture Association along with the Journal of American Culture. Why did you feel that was necessary?

Browne: Russel Nye and I spent countless hours talking about how we could make the PCA grow and more nearly accomplish our goals. Each time we agreed that we needed more "respectability," and I was determined to get it. One cold February Sunday morning while I was at home, I hit on the solution: establishment of the American Culture Association and the Journal of American Culture. I called Nye to ask him about it, and his answer, as usual, was "Why not?" I then called Carl Bode, who said I should not do it, it was the dumbest idea I had ever had. So, with a vote of two to one, I announced the establishment of both and started to work on them. (It is interesting that some five years after the establishment of the ACA Carl told me one time that he had been wrong in not recognizing its potential.) It was an instant success. Those professors who for one reason or another had not wanted to be caught dirtied by studying popular culture could study American culture and hold their heads up, and publish in JAC, though they had long since been publishing in JPC. Anyway, from the beginning the American Culture Association has been a success though more modified than I had expected. Apparently, the thousands of scholars interested in popular culture want to take it straight, not strained through the sifter of American. JPC still has more than three times as many subscribers as JAC. That is testimony to the strength of the popular culture movement.

Americana: In 1988, you published your history of the popular culture movement, Against Academia. Why did you feel it was important to publish such a history?

Browne: I wrote an "in your face" history because many of the members of the PCA asked me to and because I really wanted the story to be told. I don't know how many people it annoyed, but I do know that it satisfied a lot of members. They were proud of having been a part of such a major movement in academia.

Americana: How has your wife, Pat Browne, contributed to the popular culture movement?

Browne: I am pleased to say that I have always had a strong helper in all my projects in my wife, Pat. At times, she has opposed an idea, hoped I would not attempt it. But once I have started the motor, she has worked wholeheartedly to make it succeed. She helped me establish and run the Popular Press in 1970, the journals in 1979 and 75, and she has edited her own journal, Clues, quite successfully. In 2002, the Midwest Popular Culture Association recognized her many contributions to the study of popular culture, especially in keeping Popular Music and Society alive when it had no editor, and her myriad other contributions. She literally has worked day and night, seven days a week to help me and academia mature in popular culture studies.

Americana: At the end of your biography written by Gary Hoppenstand and published in Pioneers in Popular Culture Studies, Hoppenstand writes, "The more things change, the more they stay the same, unless one makes a Herculean effort to interrupt the circular flow." Have things "stayed the same" for the most part or have significant changes been made in terms of academic acceptance of popular culture studies?

Browne: Pat and I have now retired and turned over further development of popular culture studies to other people. We hope our accomplishments have been substantial. During our watch, the humanities have developed from an elitist discipline to a more inclusive one. Now, all aspects of everyday life are being studied in so-called "higher education." That is an opening of the door through which education should and will pass.

Americana: What more remains to be done?

Browne: The success of the movement now has apparently obviated the need for a Ph.D. degree in the study of popular culture. In academia, the blue ribbon goes with the Ph.D., the department, and holder. But in many colleges and universities to get the authority to grant the Ph.D. one must demonstrate that other schools grant it, and therefore it is needed. Such effort now might be difficult. The study of popular culture is so widespread throughout academia that one can get a Ph.D. in popular culture studies in various other disciplines. So the argument might be made that such a degree in a Popular Culture Department is unnecessary. I believe otherwise. As I read hundreds of papers and books I see that the study of popular culture is weak in two ways: most people look erroneously upon popular culture as media studies, and many elitists who study popular culture do so wearing gloves, so they won't get their hands dirty. So the study of popular culture should be pursued by properly trained popular culture scholars. Otherwise, the discipline is going to go off on misguided tracks and be forced to be corrected down the road. One of the costly characteristics of Americans is to build now and correct later. Now that the building is in the first stages we should be sure we are laying the correct and lasting foundation.

I wish Pat and I had twenty more years in the vineyard.

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