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