By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Ray Browne, 87, an Ohio university professor who championed popular culture as a serious academic field, initially to the guffaws or contempt of colleagues who saw little value in exploring the significance of wallpaper, bubble gum wrappers and Farrah Fawcett's hair, died Oct. 22 at his home in Bowling Green, Ohio. No cause of death was reported.
When Dr. Browne joined the English department at Bowling Green State University in 1967, he was determined to broaden the connection between folklore and popular culture.
He incorporated musty copies of TV Guide and Ladies' Home Journal into his traditional curriculum, much to the chagrin of co-workers who did not consider those magazines reputable classroom texts. He later said his efforts were criticized as wasting taxpayer money, embarrassing the school and "corrupting youth." Dr. Browne's superiors reprimanded him but also saw the potential in his earnest and scholarly approach to the field of popular culture.
With support from the administration to make his passion an area of independent study, Dr. Browne splintered from the English department and founded the popular culture department because "nobody else on campus would take me." Today, Bowling Green State is still the only university with a popular culture department and now has 12 instructors and professors.
"Most people at the time thought popular culture was trivial," said Marilyn Motz, interim chairman of Bowling Green State's Department of Popular Culture. "But he took it seriously and showed that popular culture is intertwined with politics, ethics and religion and that those subjects are often discussed through pop culture."
Dr. Browne wrote nearly a dozen books, including "Against Academia" (1989), a manifesto defending the academic study of popular culture on the premise that one person's trash is another person's treasure.
"It is the everyday world around us: the mass media, entertainments and diversions," he told the journal Americana. "It is our heroes, icons, rituals, everyday actions, psychology, and religion. . . . It is the dreams we dream while asleep."
Ray Broadus Browne, a banker's son, was born Jan. 15, 1922, in Millport, Ala. During the Depression, he helped his family by picking cotton and wrangling logs at a sawmill. In World War II, he served in Europe with an Army artillery unit, but he said he spent more time in the stockade because "I did not have enough 'sirs' in my vocabulary."
He graduated from the University of Alabama with a bachelor's degree in English in 1943 and received a master's in comparative literature from Columbia University in 1947. He received a doctorate in English and folklore from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1956.
Early in his career, he taught at the University of Nebraska, the University of Maryland and Purdue University in Indiana. In 1967, he founded the Journal of Popular Culture, the field's first scholarly publication. He later formed the Popular Culture Association, the American Culture Association and the Journal of American Culture.
His first wife, Olwyn Orde, and their son Rowan died in a car accident in 1964. Survivors include his second wife, Alice Maxine "Pat" Matthews of Bowling Green; two sons from his first marriage, Glenn Browne and Kevin Browne; a daughter from his second marriage, Alicia Browne; and three grandchildren.
Thousands of popular culture artifacts are stored at Bowling Green State in the Ray and Pat Browne Library for Popular Culture Studies. Dr. Browne retired in 1992 and took senior status at the university.
With his second wife, he co-edited the Guide to United States Popular Culture (2001). The book is 1,010 pages thick and has more than 1,600 entries explicating the widely varied field. A selection of entries from the "B" section reads: the "Batman" TV show, "Battlestar Galactica," the Beach Boys, Beale Street in Memphis, the Beatles, "Beavis and Butt-Head," Bebop, the Bee Gees, Harry Belafonte and John Belushi.
Dr. Brown noted how some American icons pass through time without leaving a mark on history, while others spur creativity and change.
"It's a dynamic in society that really does keep us pretty much alert," Dr. Browne told the New York Times last year. "I'm not sure that fads aren't fertilizer to American Culture."