Conversations with Scholars of American Popular Culture: Ray B Browne

By Browne, Ray B. | Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Conversations with Scholars of American Popular Culture: Ray B Browne


Browne, Ray B., Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood


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.

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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. …

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