In Memoriam: John G. Cawelti

John G. Cawelti

Former Popular Culture Association President John George Cawelti died May 30, 2022, in Louisville, Kentucky.  He was born December 31, 1929, in Evanston, Illinois.  John received his undergraduate degree from Oberlin College in 1951 and his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Iowa in 1956 and 1960, respectively.  He was a professor of English and humanities from 1957 to 1980 at the University of Chicago and a professor of English from 1980 to 2000 at the University of Kentucky, where he received the Distinguished Professor Award in 1994 from the College of Arts and Sciences.

John was one of the founders of PCA.  He served as Vice President from 1971 to 1972 and as President from 1975 to 1976.  PCA annually presents the John G. Cawelti Award to recognize “important scholarly texts that advance the study of popular and American culture.”

John provided some of the intellectual cornerstones of the academic study of popular culture.  He stressed the concept of formula in the study of popular genres, highlighting the distinctions between formula and form and between convention and invention.  He referred to genre as a collective dream.

John was a prolific scholar of the popular arts and other topics.  His books include Apostles of the Self-Made Man (University of Chicago Press, 1965); Sources of the American Republic: A Documentary History of Politics, Society, and Thought (revised edition, two volumes; Scott, Foresman, 1967-1969; coauthored with Marvin Meyers and Alexander Kern); The Six-Gun Mystique (Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1971; 2nd edition, 1984) and The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel (Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1999); Focus on Bonnie and Clyde (an edited volume; Prentice-Hall, 1973); Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture (University of Chicago Press, 1976); The Spy Story (University of Chicago Press, 1987; coauthored with Bruce A. Rosenberg); Leon Forrest: Introductions and Interpretations (an edited volume; Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1997); and Mystery, Violence, and Popular Culture (University of Wisconsin Press / Popular Press, 2004).

In addition, John published many articles in journals and magazines.  His articles and chapters most directly connected with PCA and its people and journals include “The Concept of Formula in the Study of Popular Literature” (Journal of Popular Culture, 1969); “The Spillane Phenomenon” (Journal of Popular Culture, 1969); “Popular Culture Programs” (Popular Culture and Curricula, edited by Ray B. Browne and Ronald J. Ambrosetti [Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1970]); “Notes Toward an Aesthetic of Popular Culture” (Journal of Popular Culture, 1971); “Myth, Symbol, and Formula” (Journal of Popular Culture, 1974); “Some Reflections on the Videoculture of the Future” (Journal of Popular Culture, 1974); “The Joys of Buchaneering” (Essays in Honor of Russel B. Nye, edited by Joseph J. Waldmeir [Michigan State University Press, 1978]); “The Question of Popular Genres” (Journal of Popular Film and Television, 1985); “Faulkner and the Detective Story’s Double Plot” (Clues, 1991); “Masculine Myths and Feminist Revisions: Some Thoughts on the Future of Popular Genres” (Eye on the Future: Popular Culture Scholarship Into the Twenty-First Century, edited by Marilyn F. Motz, John G. Nachbar, Michael T. Marsden, and Ronald J. Ambrosetti [Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1994]); “Popular Culture / Multiculturalism” (Journal of Popular Culture, 1996); “Searching for Scarlett: The Quest for Southern Identity in the 1980s and 90s” (Studies in Popular Culture, 1996); “The Question of Popular Genres Revisited” (In the Eye of the Beholder: Critical Perspectives in Popular Film and Television, edited by Gary R. Edgerton, Michael T. Marsden, and Jack Nachbar [Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1997]); and “Regionalizing America: A New View of American Culture After World War II” (Journal of Popular Culture, 2002).

John served in the U.S. Army as a second lieutenant.

He was married twice, to Nellie Elizabeth Offringa and to Mary Catherine Flannery.  John was stepfather to Jon Fasanelli-Cawelti; father to Brent Cawelti and Andrea Cawelti; and stepfather to Jonathan Flannery and to Benjamin Flannery.

Information about John’s life and work is included in Don F. Rogerson’s Why Pop? A Conversation About Popular Culture with John Cawelti (Chandler and Sharp, 1973); Stephen Tatum’s “John G. Cawelti: Rhetoric of Motives” (Pioneers in Popular Culture Studies, edited by Ray. B. Browne and Michael T. Marsden [Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1999]; “Western Sightings–John G. Cawelti in Conversation with A. Robert Lee,” Weber–The Contemporary West (volume 19, issue 1, Fall 2001); and the chapter “Mystiquing the Western, or How I Started Doing Popular Culture” in John’s book Mystery, Violence, and Popular Culture.


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