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Vol. 14, no. 2
April - May 2011


Hawai'i's Folklorist 
Story by Adrienne LaFrance
Illustration courtesy University of Hawai'i Press (© 2007)
In the early twentieth century, Martha Beckwith authored seminal texts on Hawaiian culture, texts that are still widely used -- and are now being re-examined.
It was from a small theater in Poughkeepsie, New York, some five thousand miles from Honolulu, that in the 1920s Martha Beckwith stormed out of a “genuine Hawaiian hula” show after scolding the impostors for staging it in the first place. As the story goes, Beckwith—a folklorist and anthropology professor at Vassar College who had spent the majority of her adult life studying Hawaiian culture—was thrilled when she saw advertisements for the hula show in the college town and insisted a friend join her. But when the vaudeville performance began, Beckwith was irate to find the dancing girls from Manhattan knew nothing of authentic hula.


“This is unscholarly,” she whispered to her companion, according to a 1951 Christian Science Monitor article about the incident. “I must protest.” Her friend begged her not to make a scene, but Beckwith could not remain quiet. She stood up from her seat in the middle of the theater and spoke: “In the interest of truth, I must denounce this performance.” The audience began to titter around her as she went on. “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.”


By this time the crowd had worked itself into a racket. Audience members jeered at Beckwith for the interruption: “Sit down!” “Go ahead, old lady! Tell us about the hula!” Beckwith, undeterred, raised her voice above the din, still attempting to inform the audience about hula until the stunned girls onstage continued their performance. At that point Beckwith motioned to her companion. “We will not stay for such an unscholarly performance,” she announced. And they left the theater.


This tale and others like it perfectly capture Beckwith’s spirit, say those who know her story. “She was just a feisty, feisty woman,” says Julia Morgan, a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the University of Hawai‘i who has studied Beckwith. Certainly the tale does more to convey Beckwith’s passion than the few photos of her that remain. On the Vassar College website she appears calm and rather plain. There is light in her eyes, though her smile is so slight that it barely marks a dimple on one cheek.


In the small theater that day, before a rather appalled audience, Beckwith presented herself as an authority on Hawaiian culture—a role she would take on throughout her life and that is the basis of her legacy. Today, Beckwith is referenced in everything from folklore journals to Hawai‘i guidebooks, and volumes from the scholarly body of work she left behind are available everywhere. More than half a century after her death, Beckwith’s books earn top reviews on Amazon.com, and she’s often described as being the “definitive” source on varied Hawaiian cultural topics. But Beckwith’s work is not without controversy as scholars dig into her past and struggle to understand her motivations.