He used his leadership role at Wesleyan University, in Connecticut, to help create some of the country’s first programs in gender studies and African-American studies, and he edited two influential journals, College English and Radical Teacher, that spread his ideas around the academic world. He invited other leftist scholars to guest edit issues, which he dedicated to then-outré topics like homosexuality in literature.
“He gave protection and cover to all sorts of radical initiatives when these were dangerous things to do,” Richard Slotkin, an emeritus professor of English and American Studies at Wesleyan, said in a phone interview.
Dr. Ohmann’s efforts set the stage for the rise of cultural studies as a discipline and the so-called culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s, in which academics like him worked to break open the canon to once-marginalized writers and artists. Such was his influence that in 1996 Lynne Cheney, the conservative former chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney, singled him out as a dangerous radical in an essay for The Wall Street Journal.
Elizabeth Bobrick, a visiting scholar at Wesleyan, wrote in the university’s alumni magazine in 1998, “In this amorphous, amoebic field” of cultural studies, “Ohmann is the closest thing to a patriarch that his chosen milieu allows.”
Richard Malin Ohmann was born on July 11, 1931, in Shaker Heights, Ohio, the suburb of Cleveland. His father, Oliver Arthur Ohmann, taught psychology at what is now Case Western Reserve University and later worked for Standard Oil. His mother, Grace (Malin) Ohmann, was a homemaker.
He received his bachelor’s degree in literature from Oberlin College in Ohio in 1952, and his master’s and doctorate from Harvard in 1960. He arrived at Wesleyan a year later.
Dr. Ohmann married Carol Burke in 1962. They separated in the 1980s, and he married Elizabeth Powell in 1990. She died in 2007. Along with his stepdaughter, he is survived by his daughter, Sarah Ohmann; a stepson, Stephen Polier; and a step-granddaughter.