- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 19, 2003

BOWLING GREEN, Ohio Does wallpaper reflect how society has evolved? Do comic books hold the key to enlightenment? Ray Browne thinks so. Mr. Browne, 81, is a pioneer in the study of popular culture a phrase he is credited with coining. The now-retired Bowling Green State University professor in 1972 founded the first academic department devoted to studying what he called "the people's culture."
Mr. Browne for decades has worked to convince academics that seemingly insignificant elements of our lives provide snapshots of society.
"Culture is everything from the food we've always eaten to the clothes we've always worn," he said.
Much can be learned from bumper stickers and cartoons, said Mr. Browne, who has written more than 70 books on popular culture, including the "Guide to United States Popular Culture."
He stopped teaching English when he founded the department, and he began lecturing on pop culture. His teaching days have been over since 1990, although he still spends time on campus researching and writing.
He is working on five books, including a popular culture textbook.
Mr. Browne, whose gray hair and suits don't distinguish him from other campus professors, said he made a mistake in 1967 when he came up with the phrase "popular culture."
"If I had called it everyday culture or Democratic culture, it would not have been so sharply criticized," he said.
Universities for centuries eschewed the study of popular culture, said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.
"Ray Browne and few others began to realize how silly that was," Mr. Thompson said. "One of the great ways to open up the secrets of our lives is to look at things we use by choice.
"If you're going to understand our history, you also better understand about lawn ornaments, holiday songs and comic books."
Professors at universities nationwide thought Mr. Browne was trying to demean or trivialize what they were teaching when he founded the popular culture department.
That wasn't the case, he said.
His interest was rooted in finding how society affected culture and how culture affected society.
Dozens of schools now offer classes rooted in popular culture.
At least once a week, Mr. Browne thinks of a new subject to explore; some are a little more off-the-wall than others.
He usually will call a colleague and pitch the idea often without luck.
He recently came up with: how Western cowboy movies influence the Americanizing of immigrants.
"I can't do a book on everything I think of," he said. "That's another great idea that will never amount to anything."
Another book he still is awaiting is a history of wallpaper.
"The covering of walls has been one of the most important items in housing since the beginning," Mr. Browne said. "But nobody ever wrote a book on it."
There is something artistic about the thousands of patterns that have adorned walls throughout history, he said.
"Wallpaper simply is about as decorative as any of the arts, but it's not looked upon as that," said Mr. Browne, who grew up during the Great Depression. He recalled that the walls in that era were covered with comic strips and newsprint.
"Wallpaper became popular in the 19th century around the Civil War. It was a way for the rich to distinguish their housing from the poor."
That story may have to wait: He can't find anyone interested in exploring the subject and doesn't have the expertise or time to pursue it himself.
Although interest in the study of popular culture has grown, Mr. Browne said, he and others still face battles.
Last summer, Bowling Green shut down the Popular Press, which Mr. Browne had founded. The university decided the independent publishing unit was becoming too costly and sold it to the University of Wisconsin.
In early January, Mr. Browne filed a lawsuit against the university's foundation, saying that it never used $42,000 he donated to enhance the popular culture program he created.
University officials would not comment on the lawsuit.
"I'm still pushing the rock up the hill," Mr. Browne said.
He still receives dozens of new books each week to review and digest. They are stacked on chairs and piled in corners of his office inside the university's library: books about the history of domestic advice, Shakespeare-inspired mysteries, newspaper coverage of women's executions. Underneath that stack is a weighty three-volume set on the history of food and culture and a book about popular Russian songs titled "Songs for Fat People."


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