from: MARTHA WARREN BECKWITH, AMERICA’S FIRST CHAIR OF FOLKLORE
by SIMON J. BRONNER
Title: The Folklore Historian, Volume 9 Page 5
Contributors: Simon J. Bronner, Pennsylvania State University.
Folklore and American Studies, Indiana State University.
Dept. of English, American Folklore Society.
Folklore and History Section, Hoosier Folklore Society
Publisher Simon Bronner, 1992
. . . Our first dictum then of scientific method is the purely detached and objective gathering of the actual facts about folk thought, either direct from the field of folk life today, or from literary records (as Homer, Herodotus, or the Vedas) where folk ideas may be distinguished from their literary form. These facts furnish the specimens on our museum shelves, and for their sorting and arrangement and the clarifying of their relations to each other and to the whole field of kindred ideas the scientific folklorist is responsible.Martha Beckwith
…Martha Beckwith ‘s story offers insight into the emergence of American folklore studies and women’s roles within it, and lasting lessons for the practice of folklore today. To invite an interpretation of Beckwith’s vision and her achievements, I will tell her story with special consideration to the circumstances that led to the formation of her chair in folklore and her activities while at Vassar.
Martha Beckwith was born on January 19, 1871, in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts, west of Boston, to schoolteacher parents George Ely and Harriet Winslow (Goodale) Beckwith. Harriet’s mother was the great niece of a pioneer missionary to Hawaii, and Harriet was raised in the Mission home at Kailua. George also had been on the islands as a teacher and met Harriet there in 1861. Two years after their meeting Harriet and George were married. In 1867 the family moved to California, and a few years later to Massachusetts. Three years after Martha’s birth, the Beckwiths returned to Hawaii. In addition to teaching at Royal School and Punahou College, Martha’s father developed the Haiku Sugar Plantation on Maui that was eventually managed by the large shipping company of Alexander and Baldwin. While on Maui, Martha befriended Anne M. Alexander who had family ties to the company. As youths, they were among the few English-speaking white children at Haiku, and thus learned the Hawaiian language and participated in many native festivals and customs. Martha eloquently described her interest in native folklore “grown out of a childhood and youth spent within sound of the hula drum at the foot of the domelike House of the Sun on the windy island of Maui.There, wandering along its rocky coast and sandy beaches, exploring its windward gorges, riding above the cliffs by moonlight when the surf was high or into the deep forests at midday, we were aware always of a life just out of reach of us late comers but lived intensely by the kindly, generous race who had chanced so many centuries ago upon its shores.” As there was no school for white children on the island, Martha and her sister Mary were educated at home, and her parents paid special attention to language and botany. As one chronicler recalled, “Mr. Beckwith often took the girls on long trips. Together they climbed Haiku Hill, and rode to the top of Piiholo, and into the woods to collect land shells and rare ferns. Mr. Beckwith loved nature, with ardor and enthusiasm that were contagious. His sense of humor was keen, enlivening even the rudiments of Latin grammar.” While Martha’s father explored the island with his children and drilled them on French and Latin, her mother, “an expert teacher and a wise counselor,” instilled in the girls a love of folk narrative. Fleming recalls that Martha’s mother was a gifted storyteller: “‘Please Mother, tell us a story’ was the prelude to many hours of entertainment.”
Martha returned to Massachusetts for her higher education at Mount Holyoke College, a pioneering liberal arts college for women and her mother’s alma mater.
…In 1920, when she took her chair in folklore at Vassar College, she began what might be considered the foundation of modern folkloristic endeavor. She took the bold move of declaring herself in academe neither anthropologist nor literary scholar, but rather a professional folklorist.
…Henry MacCracken, President of Vassar, reported an orally circulating anecdote that exemplifies Beckwith’s seriousness in her endeavor. Sometimes the unexpected self-assertion of women professors came from the same dynamic that makes professors absent-minded-devotion to truth in one’s special field. Among my best friends on the faculty was Miss Martha Beckwith, who held at Vassar the chair of Folklore, a rare if not unique position. In her researches she had lived with the Hawaiians of the older stock, Negroes in Jamaica highlands and reservation Indians.
“Come, Miss Monnier,” she said one day; “the paper advertises a genuine Hawaiian hula at the theatre. I want you to see it. A car just went by with a big poster, too. Genuine hula, think of it!” . . .
“This is unscholarly,” said Miss Beckwith. “I must protest.”
“Please, Martha, don’t make a scene. What is the use?”
Martha rose and addressed the audience. “In the interest of truth,” she said, “I must denounce this performance. It has nothing about it that in any way represents the true hula, except the skirt, and even that is artificial. You are being taken in.”
The theatre was in an uproar. “Go ahead, old lady. Speak your mind. Tell us about the hula!” “Sit down!” Miss Martha did not sit down. She told them what the true hula was, until the petrified manager came to life and started off the hula once more.
“Come, Mathilde,” said the scholar; “we will not stay for such an unscholarly performance.” Miss Monnier followed Miss Beckwith’s stately withdrawal while the customers cheered.