Author Picture

Martha Warren Beckwith

January 19, 1871

Martha Warren Beckwith (January 19, 1871 – January 28, 1959) was an American folklorist and ethnographer and philosopher. She was born in Wellesley Heights, Massachusetts. In 1920, Martha Beckwith became the first person to hold a chair in Folklore at any college or university in the country.

The Folklore Foundation, established at Vassar, with a donation by the naturalist Annie Alexander, was an unprecedented institution. With its establishment, Vassar College suddenly became a centre of research in the almost entirely new field of folk culture, while Martha Beckwith had a major part in emancipating the general attitude towards folklore studies in the first half of the twentieth century, which were tainted too often with terms originating in nineteenth centre colonialism. Her book Jamaica Anansi Stories (1924), republished in a revised edition by VAMzzz Publishing as Anansi, Jamaican stories of the Spider God, typifies her, in those days quite unique opinion on folklore. While many early folklorists believed that the term “folk” only referred to the oral culture of “savages”, Beckwith maintained that all cultures had folk traditions that warranted investigation. Many scholars also drew a firm line between “folk” and other “higher” forms of artistic expression. Beckwith believed both belonged in the literary tradition.

Read more about Beckwith in the Post Scriptum of Anansi.