Tristram P. Coffin, Folklorist, Dies at 89
By MARGALIT FOX
Tristram P. Coffin, a folklorist who unearthed worlds of meaning in the ordinary rituals of which nearly every American partakes, including holidays, baseball and sex, died on Jan. 31 in Wakefield, R.I. He was 89.
The cause was pneumonia, his family said.
Professor Coffin, a retired member of the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote many books for a popular readership. They include “The Book of Christmas Folklore” (1973), “Uncertain Glory: Folklore and the American Revolution” (1971) and “The Old Ball Game: Baseball in Folklore and Fiction” (1971).
If folklore, as Professor Coffin cheerfully wrote in the introduction to “Our Living Traditions” (1968), a volume he edited, is “a bastard field that anthropology begot upon English,” then he came at the field unequivocally from the English side, mining literature high and low — novels, plays, poems, folk songs — for what it revealed about ritual and belief of all kinds.
Little escaped his scrutiny, from “The Great Gatsby” (Daisy Buchanan, he argued in a 1960 article, is a Jazz Age incarnation of the beautiful, seductive Fairy Queen of Celtic lore) to “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (an evocative scene, he pointed out, centers on the old folk belief that loaves of bread, filled with quicksilver and floated along a river, will locate a drowned body).
Professor Coffin was a particular authority on English, Scottish and American ballads, which together are a glorious narrative riot of love, war, sex, death, jealousy and superstition. These themes, as he said in a 1957 essay, reveal much about the minds and mores of the “folk” who transmit the ballads.
“A ballad survives among our folk because it embodies a basic human reaction to a dramatic situation,” he wrote, adding: “Ballads resemble gossip. They are transmitted like gossip, and their variation comes about in much the way gossip variation occurs.”
Professor Coffin trained his eye not only on word but also on deed: the celebratory rituals and everyday rites that to folklorists are suffused with meaning.
He wrote about holidays, including official ones, like Thanksgiving (possibly descended from Lammas — “loaf mass” — an ancient British festival celebrating the harvest), and unofficial ones, like Groundhog Day (heir to a similar European rite involving a badger).
He wrote about sports, arguing that as depicted in news accounts of the 1910s and afterward, Babe Ruth — with his prodigious public abilities and private appetites — was an archetypal “prowess hero” in the tradition of Paul Bunyan.
In “The Proper Book of Sexual Folklore” (1978), Professor Coffin took on a subject of universal interest, ranging over its manifestations in literature and in games like spin the bottle, in which children began to enact adult social roles.
Tristram Potter Coffin was born in San Marino, Calif., on Feb. 13, 1922, the son of Tristram Roberts Coffin and the former Elsie Potter Robinson. His was a distinguished family: a 17th-century forebear, Tristram Coffin, was among the first settlers of Nantucket.
Tristram P. Coffin received a bachelor’s degree in English from Haverford College in 1943. After wartime service in the Army Air Forces and the Signal Corps, he earned master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied under the distinguished folklorist MacEdward Leach.
Professor Coffin taught at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, before joining the Penn English faculty in 1959. After Professor Leach established the university’s graduate program in folklore in 1962, Professor Coffin held joint appointments in English and folklore.
In the mid-1960s Professor Coffin was the host of “Lyrics and Legends,” a series about folk songs, broadcast nationally on public television.
A resident of Wakefield, Professor Coffin is survived by two sons, Mark T. and Jonathan P., known as Jock; two daughters, Patricia C. Fry and Priscilla C. Widlak, known as Ricki; 11 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. His wife, the former Ruth Anne Hendrickson, whom he married in 1944, died last year.
Professor Coffin returned often to his great scholarly love, the Anglo-American ballad. In his academic writings he argued that many ballads, especially those about the death of the hero, had arisen out of narrative obituary verse, a curious type of folk poetry for which he had great affection.
Printed on broadsides and read or sung at funerals, narrative obituary poems flourished in 18th-, 19th- and early-20th-century America. They were graphic, purple and obsessively interested in the particulars, as in this verse from 1910:
The car came rushing down the line,
The motorman saw him, but not in time,
Then quick as a lightning flash, not long,
Which hurled him into the great beyond.
In deference to norms held dear, the like won’t be attempted here.