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February 21: Paul Radin & the Trickster

February 21, 2013

A linguist, ethnologist, anthropologist, and folklorist, Paul Radin died at 75 on this date in 1959. Born in Lodz to a father who was a doctor and Reform rabbi, Radin became one of Franz Boas' anthropology students at Columbia University and did extensive fieldwork among Native Americans of California and the Great Lakes. Radin believed that understanding a society's culture required immersion in the life of that society, and he helped introduce the use of personal histories and personal psychology as anthropological tools. His sketch of a Winnebago man, Crashing Thunder (1926), written as autobiography, was the first book of its kind and is still widely read. In 1929, Radin published a grammar of the nearly extinct language of the Wappo people of the San Francisco Bay area. While hopping as a professor from college to college, he also wrote a slew of influential books, including The Racial Myth (1934); Primitive Religion (1937), which traced commonalities in all religions; and The Trickster: A Study in Native American Mythology (1956).

"Briefly stated, the underlying idea of conduct among most primitive tribes is self-discipline, self-control, and a resolute endeavor to observe a proper measure of proportion in all things." —Paul Radin