Martha Beckwith

Martha Warren Beckwith (January 19, 1871 – January 28, 1959), author of Hawaiian Mythology. Beckwith was an American folklorist, ethnographer, and English teacher. Born in Wellesley Heights, Massachusetts, she was educated at Mt. Holyoke College and taught English there, as well as Vassar and Smith Colleges. She received her MA in anthropology and her PhD from Columbia University. She returned to Vassar as Research Professor on the Folklore Foundation and Associate Professor of Comparative Literature in 1918.

When she was a young girl, Beckwith went to the Hawaiian Islands with her parents, who were both school teachers. Her father taught at Punahou College and the Royal School, and also developed a plantation at Haiku, Maui that was later taken over by Alexander and Baldwin. The Beckwiths were related through “intricate lines of descent” to early missionaries., and Martha was the grand-niece of Mrs. Lucy Goodale Thurston, who was among the pioneer missionaries to Hawaii. Though not born in the islands, Beckwith became an adopted “cousin” to the Goodale/Thurstons. While in Hawaii Beckwith also became a friend of Annie M. Alexander who eventually sponsored the Vassar Folklore Foundation.

Beckwith wrote Hawaiian Mythology over many years, but most intensely while she was at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. Mythology is the first scholarly work recording the orally transmitted myths, legends, traditions, folktales, and romances of the Hawaiian people. Beckwith saw her work as a “guide to the native mythology of Hawaii” –which meant to her  “the whole range of story-telling”, according to fellow folklorist and Beckwith’s biographer Katharine Luomala.

Beckwith returned to the Hawaiian many times, more frequently in her later years. Her headquarters was the Bishop Museum, where she was Honorary Research Associate in Hawaiian Folklore, and where she actively engaged herself  in translating the Hawaiian manuscripts that were stored there.

Martha Beckwith’s point of view about her rigorous scholarship seemed to be that she was simply an intermediary who helped preserve for the people of Hawaii what might have been lost forever in the face of rapid cultural change.

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