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She participated in a busy round of social activities on Maui and Oahu, and went swimming whenever she was near the ocean. Late one overcast wintry afternoon she pointed out to her shivering companion, half her age, the distant reef to which she had thought nothing of swimming in her youth even after a long day of picnicking and riding horseback around the island.
Then she plunged into the rolling breakers and started swimming as vigorously as if she intended not only to reach the reef but break her youthful record in doing it. In the eight years remaining to her after that, only her failing eyesight seemed to handicap her continuing to write for publication, but she was able to read what was being published in the many fields of her interest and to comment on her reading in letters to her friends, and to plan for the disposal of her remaining research papers and exceptionally fine library.
Miss Beckwith was a dedicated scholar with great powers of concentration. If she were working alone, she was quite likely to forget appointments and the passage of time. If she were working with informants, translators, or other associates, her absorption sometimes disconcerted and wearied them, for she could sit for hours almost motionless except for moving pencil or tapping finger, focusing upon the manifold possibilities of the translation of a native phrase or the rich symbolism of a character. I recall a distinguished professor of anthropology, her contemporary, telling me, still with emotion decades after the occurrence, how he had enjoyed her rapt attention to his explanation of his subject until he had suddenly felt exploited and probably as if he were one of his own Indian informants.
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That more than one ethnographer has forgotten that informants want to be assured from time to time of their value as human beings and not merely as information-relaying machines was vividly dramatized a few years ago for the Anthropological Society of Hawaii by some Micronesian guest speakers who burlesqued in pantomime the dedicated ethnographer-fidgeting informant situation which they had experienced when, after World War II, the Coordinated Investigation of Micronesian Anthropology blitzed their islands.
However, the association with Miss Beckwith provided a. She generously noted with appreciation the names of the numerous people who had assisted her in any way, but her point of view seems to have been predominantly that she was merely the intermediary who had helped them preserve for their people and science what might otherwise have been lost forever in the face of rapid cultural change.
She expected as much of them, therefore, as of herself.
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Her dedication to her work accompanied an absentmindedness with regard to many events in the outside world or a strong perturbation when she was aware of them and they violated her standards. See footnote Miss Beckwith herself, because of her semidetachment, often described most entertainingly bits and pieces of modern American culture that had captured her amused attention.
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She had many warm friends, however, who appreciated her single-minded devotion to scholarship and her courage in the many difficulties of research in her chosen field. She was a charming and beautiful woman, the best type of Victorian lady and scholar. Her interest in Hawaiian literary materials is worth emphasizing because she showed it from the beginning of her career when she selected the romance of Laieikawai to translate and study for her doctoral dissertation.
The romance was a nineteenth-century newspaper serial based upon an oral narrative which Haleole, a creative writer, reinterpreted in the hope of founding a Hawaiian literature. At the beginning of this century, when Miss Beckwith was starting out in anthropology, the emphasis was more on recovering or reconstructing the pre-European culture of natives than on what the natives had done with European culture.
Alien European influences were weeded out of source materials to reveal the old. Miss Beckwith, it appears, early realized the significance of studying the post-European period in itself, of describing it as it existed, and of valuing it, first and foremost, regardless of what alien influences blended with the old, as still the culture of the natives.
That she did not always fully enough sort out native from European traits and track down all the foreign strands led to some criticism of both her Caribbean and Pacific research. Burrows, for example, differed with her on how to evaluate the Christian influences on Hawaiian mythology and on the descriptions of Hawaiian culture by Kepelino, Kamakau, and other compatriots of Haleole.
Miss Beckwith, it seems, read the accounts written by native Hawaiians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as if she were Hawaiian. She saturated herself in the materials and was carried along by the continuity that she recognized as present in Hawaiian tradition despite the dynamic processes of change in pre-European or post-European times. Introduced traits, whether Tahitian or European, in Hawaiian tradition must somehow harmonize or reflect an earlier, existing matrix or they would not have been accepted.
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This point of view can be discovered, I think, not only in Hawaiian Mythology and in the preface to the translation of. Kepelino but in the study of the Kumulipo. It was still to her the Kumulipo of the Hawaiians. How do the Hawaiians accept her intensive scholarship? I do not attempt to say but cite what struck me as poignantly indicative.
Despite the training the students of Boas got in folklore and the work many of them have done in it, Martha Beckwith was one of the few to become better known as folklorist than anthropologist although she also contributed to the ethnography of Hawaii, Jamaica, and Dakota Indians. Ethnography and oral narrative art are united in her work; one illuminates the other. That this is not more widely realized stems perhaps from her unwillingness or inability to emphasize the interpretations that flash up from her assemblage of empirical data. Often they are hidden among the data where those who consult her writings only for reference material too easily overlook them or maybe discover them only after the insights have been more dramatically presented in the work of others.
Her basic procedure, exemplified in the Polynesian research, was, I think, to bring to light source data that might otherwise be overlooked and lost, to draw from them their inherent organization, and to sketch the outlines of their structure. She did not seek as a rule to solve a specific problem or to test a particular hypothesis, but to make a clearer overall map of the field than existed so that later more problem-oriented followers might benefit. The work has had less notice than it deserves. Of one of its contributions, Daniel G. Hoffman wrote, on page , of the Journal of American Folklore in , twenty-nine years after its publication:.
She proposed that isolation through time of a group with its own distinctive culture, and the resultant stability of that culture, were the prerequisites for folklore. She found the isolation to be either spatial, occupational, linguistic, religious, or racial, or any combination of two or more of these factors. We can verify these criteria by mentioning the findings of some of our principal collectors and folk historians.
In presenting the Hawaiian text of the romance of Laieikawai and her literal translation, Miss Beckwith prefaces them with a fine analysis of Hawaiian narrative art as revealed through this romance and other Hawaiian narratives, discusses Hawaiian narration in relation to that of the rest of Polynesia, and dwells extensively on the interaction of narrative with the rest of the aristocratic culture, and calls attention to the sociological importance of the customs mentioned in the narratives.
Similar analyses appear in her later studies. Dorothy D. Lee, in a discerning review of that important work Hawaiian Mythology , writes:. For me, the value of this work lies in the fact that it is the only study of mythology I know in which the writer has not intentionally or unconsciously, interfered with the ideas which are presented.
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She draws no distinctions where the Hawaiian does not draw them. She has steeped herself so thoroughly in her material, that she accepts what most of us would have tried, at best, to justify. In this way, she can transfer directly to the reader, Hawaiian concepts unacceptable to the reasoning of the Euro-American mind. Here the concept is active and real. It is treated with respect; it is not explained away either rationally or on historical grounds; neither is it squeezed into an acceptable shape through the mold of scientific thought.
The importance of her work in translating Hawaiian source material, garnering information on the culture, and creating paths for later students to follow in the chaotic and complex jungle of Hawaiian mythology are familiar to all. Little known, however, is her first paper, published in , which probably summarizes part of her M. In the tribes studied and the point of view expressed, it recalls the work of Ruth Benedict, a later student of Boas.
Beckwith once mentioned in passing to me that Boas had indeed called Mrs. The long, detailed, and generally complimentary review by Melville J. Herskovits is of particular interest because of his specialization as an Africanist.
She tries to see the culture of the Jamaicans as a whole, and she describes it as a unit as she would describe the culture of any distinct people. Whatever defects the book had in treatment, he said, were those of a first study. It did not pay enough attention to examples of individual behavior or to variations from accepted patterns. Herskovits differed with some of the interpretations which he regarded as not taking. His hope was to be realized, for during the last decade some Yale graduate students in anthropology have done fieldwork in Jamaica.
Two or three whom I talked to at some anthropological meetings in Philadelphia in the summer of asked me to tell Miss Beckwith if I should see her in Berkeley on my way back to Honolulu how much they admired the accuracy and range of her Jamaica research. They had apparently found it a solid foundation on which to build.
Although Herskovits felt that Beckwith did not tell enough about individual behavior in Black Roadways , American anthropologists in the late s were only gradually shifting from generalized descriptions of culture to more consideration of individual personality in culture. I contrasted this amount with the page of information I had scraped together about narrators from published records of other American anthropologists relative to a widely diffused American Indian tale which I had once stud-.
Probably the freshness and relative fullness with which Beckwith sometimes describes a Jamaican, Indian, or Hawaiian cultural situation in which she was a participant-observer reflects her combined training in English literature and anthropology. One even catches some of the flavor of the larger social circle in which she moved on her field trips. Certainly one wishes for far more than she gives of the living quality of a culture but much comes through. Beckwith makes a pretty good case of taking materials in Indian English, allowing for lapses of Indian memory and not retouching the material to enhance its attractive-.
That she apparently recorded a few stories in the native language is suggested by her statement that a month passed before her interpreter could dictate the English translation of a certain narrative to her. With her fellow anthropologists she worked on New World Negro and American Indian folklore and culture, but she also ranged into the folklore and customs of historical America. She wrote several reviews of books on American regional culture by Constance Rourke and other writers. As a member of the National Committee in of the National Folk Festival she wrote descriptions of the folk festivals she attended.
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As a trained anthropologist teaching comparative literature and folklore at Vassar, Beckwith seems to have served as a liaison between anthropology and the humanities. What her anthropological colleagues learned from the Celtic, Scandinavian, and other literary references is hard to say. Her detailed footnotes with their references ranging far in space, time, and cultural level are to me, at least, twinkling, if sometimes puzzling, beacons to mark the common humanity of storytellers and chanters, whether ancient or modern Greek and Hindu, medieval Celt and Scandinavian, or modern Hawaiian and Jamaican.
There she seems to eschew a common origin for similarities in world-wide stories with these themes and to describe the Polynesian variants as perhaps taking shape in Samoa and spreading eastward into other archipelagoes which reinterpreted them and used them as symbols, couched in terms of personalized nature philosophy and romantic fiction, to describe particular historical events.
The interest shown in her work by Gaelic scholars and poets, some who had taken refuge in the United States during the first quarter of this century after Irish political difficulties, is marked.
Boris Artzybasheff is showing us New York. Joseph McGarrity is giving a party; a poet himself, a magic-master of words, he is eager to show Martha Beckwith some Irish poets and let her hear songs in Gaelic. The world range of her interests made clear to her the common humanity of mankind expressed through his oral narrative art. There, wandering along its rocky coast and sandy beaches, exploring its windward gorges, riding horseback 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 latecomers but lived intensely by the kind, generous race who chanced so many centuries ago upon its shores.
And then a tropical rain came over us and we were shrouded in a lovely mist as we placed a fragrant flower lei for Martha. Three Hawaiian women came and sang her favorite hymn. The sky was then aglow with colors as a beautiful rainbow appeared at the close of this fitting and simple memorial.