- Tristram Potter Coffin (1922–2012)
Folklorist Tristram Potter Coffin died peacefully of pneumonia, in Wakefield, Rhode Island, on January 31, 2012. Born February 13, 1922, in San Marino, California, he was the son of Tristram Roberts Coffin and Elsie Potter Robinson. His New York Times obituary tells us that he was a descendant of a distinguished New England family that included Tristram Coffin, one of the first settlers of Nantucket.
Tris, as his friends and colleagues (and some bold students) called him, was educated at the Providence Country Day School, Moses Brown School, and Haverford College, from which he graduated in 1943 with a bachelor’s degree in English. Three years in the Army Air Corps and the Signal Corps followed. He then earned both his master’s (1947) and PhD (1949) at the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied under MacEdward Leach, then a leading figure in folklore studies. The British Traditional Ballad in North America, a landmark reference work for ballad scholars, published in 1950, was originally his dissertation. Following graduate work at Penn, he spent nine years as a faculty member in English at Denison University (1949–58), during which time he held a Guggenheim Fellowship (1953), and where the Tristram P. Coffin Scholarship was established in 1993. He was also elected into Denison’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
He returned to the University of Pennsylvania, joining MacEdward Leach at a formative moment for what was eventually Penn’s Department of Folklore and Folklife. In an essay, published in 2003 in The Folklore Historian, “Of Politics, Disciplines, and Scholars: MacEdward Leach and the Founding of the Folklore Program at the University of Pennsylvania,” Rosina S. Miller writes: “The graduate program in folklore, however, was essentially Leach’s oneman show, with help teaching the core courses from Tristram P. Coffin, his colleague in English, former student, and beloved friend. . . . [Coffin was] called back to Penn by Leach to serve as the Secretary-Treasurer of AFS.” To digress slightly, it is notable that in those early days, the Penn program—with Leach and Coffin at the center, administered by a committee, fighting to establish itself as more than that—offered training in museum studies. Public folklore, in that sense, was at Penn early, along with Tris Coffin.
Miller quotes Coffin on the establishment of the Penn program, which involved breaking away from English. Roger Abrahams’s dissertation, which became his book, Deep Down in the Jungle, “was full of obscenities of all kinds. The English department at that time was very, very conservative and a little bit on the Victorian side, perhaps. And they couldn’t stomach that thesis, and Mac had been trying for a long time to get a folklore program started and that thesis sort of broke the back of the English department and they said, ‘Get out of here! We don’t want anything more to do with you. Start your graduate program.’” This is a story Tris Coffin was fond of telling students.
I entered the Penn program in 1971, and I studied with Tris in my first semester. It was a small class—there were three students. The subject was occupational folklore. By that time, the core faculty consisted of Tris, Kenny Goldstein, Dan Ben-Amos, Don Yoder, and Tom Burns. Tris stood out, embodying his English department background and what might be characterized as an educated Yankee sensibility. His office, in the English department, had an Oriental rug on the floor; the sign on the door said, modestly, “Mr. Coffin.” His bow ties seemed part of that embodiment. But in retrospect, I realize that he was anything but the patrician scholar those trappings might have implied. His interests were in working people, [End Page 79] in sports (he was, for a time, a tennis pro), in celebrations, in the broad scope of American vernacular culture. He was fond of saying, as he writes in the preface to his 1968 Our Living Traditions: An Introduction to American Folklore, “In my wittier moments, I like to describe folklore as a bastard field that anthropology begot upon English.” And he was on the cutting edge of technology—in the 1960s he was involved...