Research beyond borders

Nathaniel Bright Emerson (1839–1915). Unidentified photographer. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Image courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

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Born and Raised in Hawai‘i

Nathaniel Bright Emerson (1839–1915). Unidentified photographer. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Image courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

In our latest Blog Post, Tom Smith, Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) International Placement Scheme Fellow from the University of Cambridge, talks all things Emerson.  The post was completed during Tom’s time at the Huntington Library, whilst undertaking an AHRC Funded Placement.  Details of the 2018 Scheme can be found on the website, and the closing date is 25th January 2018. Tom is one of a number of fellows that have written Blogs, and many can be found within the pages of the Research beyond the Borders Blog by clicking on “International Placement Scheme” within “On this Blog”.


Click on “International Placement Scheme” within ‘On this Blog’

One of the greatest joys for historians doing archival research is the opportunity to become lost in someone else’s world. I had this experience during my recent fellowship at The Huntington as I delved into the papers of Nathaniel Bright Emerson (1839–1915), a physician, ethnologist, and author of several books on Hawaiian mythology.

I’d suspected Emerson would be a figure of interest in my research into the religious dimensions of American empire building in the Pacific Ocean in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. What I didn’t anticipate was how the richness of his personal papers would draw me in. As I got to know Emerson, I saw a complex figure emerge whose published works did not appear to fully represent the thoughts of the man himself. This complexity suggested something broader about the uncertainties of American engagement with the Pacific in this period.

Emerson was born in Waialua on the Hawaiian island of Oahu to Ursula Emerson and the Reverend John S. Emerson, who arrived from the United States as missionaries in 1832. Educated first at Punahou, the school for mission children in Honolulu, Nathaniel then studied at Williams College in Massachusetts, served in the Union Army during the Civil War, and trained as a medic at Harvard and in New York. He returned to Hawai‘i in 1878, ultimately taking up the presidency of the Hawaiian Board of Health.

Title page of Emerson’s book Unwritten Literature of Hawaii: The Sacred Songs of the Hula, published by the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology in 1909. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Image courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens

Despite his medical expertise, Emerson’s greatest passion was for the Hawaiian past, and he pursued this interest with vigour from the end of his tenure at the Board of Health in 1890 until his death. In particular, he was a keen collector of Hawaiian folklore, asserting the need to gather and commit to paper fragments of oral tradition before the onslaught of “civilization” transformed Hawai‘i beyond recognition. Emerson published three major works on the subject of Hawaiian tradition, beginning with a translation of Hawaiian historian David Malo’s work in 1898, released under the title Hawaiian Antiquities. Next came Unwritten Literature of Hawaii: The Sacred Songs of the Hula in 1909, followed by Pele and Hiiaka: A Myth from Hawaii shortly before his death in 1915.

Through his ethnological studies of the Hawaiian people, Emerson was able to enhance his reputation as a man of science. In particular, Unwritten Literature of Hawaii was picked up and published by the Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution, leading one reviewer in the New York Daily Tribune to proclaim that Emerson’s conclusions were “asserted on the authority of Uncle Sam himself.” Emerson’s books suggested that he was dispassionately to add to the sum of the world’s knowledge about indigenous peoples. But what struck me as I pored over his unpublished essays, literary work, and correspondence was that in private he appeared to understand Hawaiian tradition in rather more poetic terms.

Detail of an article about Emerson’s book Unwritten Literature of Hawaii in the New York Daily Tribune, Sunday, Jan. 23, 1910. 

Image courtesy of  The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens  The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

I got the sense that Emerson felt somewhat alienated from modern American life and was looking for an outlet through which he might express his sense of connection to the natural beauty of the land of his birth. He disdained urban life, prudish and inflexible moral codes, and the ignorance of Americans regarding Hawai‘i, even claiming that “I have been ready at times to exclaim with Wordsworth: ‘Great God! I’d rather be a pagan.’” He meanwhile celebrated Hawaiian tales as being “saturated with the salt air of the Great Ocean,” “redolent of perfumed mountains and rustling palms,” and “reminiscent of the glory and awe of volcanic mysteries.” Emerson’s private ambition to be a short-story writer failed to bear fruit, but he identified in Hawaiian tradition a source for the words which he could not find. He styled himself as mediator between Hawaiians’ responses to the landscape around them and the written word.

Given Emerson’s obvious romanticism, it is interesting that his conclusions should end up being accepted as scientifically authoritative. His insistence on the primarily poetic, literary nature of Hawaiian tradition obscured insights into the ways in which Hawaiians understood their island world. For them, traditional accounts were profoundly connected to the narration of Hawaiian history and had ongoing resonance in contemporary politics and society.

By denying the relevance of Hawaiian lore as a historical source, Emerson partook in the efforts of his fellow mission children and grandchildren to undermine the indigenous population and to lay their own claims to dominance. This position would become most visibly expressed by the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 and the annexation of the islands to the United States in 1898.

Emerson and other mission descendants also shared an uncertain identity, caught between Hawaiian birth and American “civilization.” The fact that these architects of American empire in Hawai‘i experienced such uncertainties suggests to me that the foundations of American empire in the Pacific were often shaky. In the end, it made me wonder if we should understand American imperialism as something other than all-powerful or inevitable.

A page of Emerson’s unpublished and undated essay “General Remarks on Translation.”           Image courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.  

Tom Smith is an AHRC Funded PhD Student, based at the University of Cambridge.  Tom wrote this Blog, whilst based at the Huntington Library, as part of the AHRC’s International Placement Scheme.  This text and allied images appear courtesy of and with gracious thanks to Kevin Durkin, Editor of Verso.

The post originally appeared in Verso, the blog of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Collections, and the original post can be viewed here:

The International Placement Scheme opens the door to research, and new experiences. 2018 Applications open until January 25th 2018.

For queries regarding applications for this year’s scheme, please contact Ian Howard at AHRC or telephone +441793 416095

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“Happy Hunting!”: Adventures of an AHRC IPS Fellow at the Huntington Library

In this guest blog, Natalie Cox, doctoral candidate at Warwick University reflects on her recent AHRC International Placement Scheme Fellowship at The Huntington Library, California. 



With the Californian sun blazing down, I was welcomed through the wrought iron entrance gates by the gold letters declaring “The Huntington Library” and led down a grand driveway by a lush procession of palm trees and an array of flowering plants. What a beautiful start to my first day as an AHRC International Placement Scheme (IPS) Research Fellow, and one I was to enjoy everyday between January and April this year. How did I get here? Well, I was the recipient of a three-month AHRC-funded IPS fellowship at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. My project was to ‘travel through text’ with famed explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton and see how he read textual sources in his personal library, which is held at the Huntington.


photo%202Based at the Munger Research Centre, the reading rooms quickly became familiar and friendly spaces. I joined a lively research community and was encouraged to make trans-Atlantic connections, mixing with prestigious researchers at the Library’s weekly coffee afternoons, working group lunches and evening socials. The Huntington has a strong core of PhD students from local universities who gave helpful advice on researching and living in CA (the burning issue being the best place to get ice cream!). I developed a strong working relationship with Rare Books Curator, Alan Jutzi, as he took an enthusiastic interest in my project and was always available to answer my queries, even seeking my opinion on newly catalogued items. The greatest privilege of working at the Huntington was being surrounded by 120 acres of the most beautiful botanical gardens. The scenery was spectacular. My working days were enlightened by sun soaked lunches and creativities were sparked by walking through the glorious landscapes – my favourite place to wander was the lily ponds.

My home office

My home office


I lived close to the Library in a house with a pool in Northern Pasadena that I shared with two professional actors, two cats and a dog. It had great transport links and, with new friends from Library, I was able to experience the diverse and entertaining culture of California. I found myself in the audience for late night talk shows, attended my first baseball game, visited many museums and escaped to the beach. Going further afield, I took a whirlwind trip to Vegas and drove the Pacific Coast Highway from San Diego to San Francisco.



Zuma Beach, Malibu

Being at the Huntington was a wonderful experience that was so much more than three months of reading in the CA sunshine. It has added a great wealth of knowledge to my PhD by providing a unique case study using materials I could not access anywhere else. I hold a Collaborative Doctoral Award with Warwick University and the Royal Geographical Society and undertaking this Fellowship has enabled me to enhance this collaboration through forging an international network of colleagues and friends. My conversations with the Curator have continued since my return to the UK and there is definitely scope to build a larger project from this research beyond my PhD.



The Paris Hotel, Las Vegas

The Paris Hotel, Las Vegas

Dodgers Stadium, LA

Dodgers Stadium, LA

Discover more about my CA adventure: Tweeting @nataliercox

Natalie Cox, University of Warwick

This year’s round of the International Placement Scheme (IPS) is now open for applications. Please see the AHRC website for more information (

The IPS scheme is an annual programme providing Research Fellowships to AHRC/ESRC-funded doctoral students, early career researchers and doctoral-level research assistants.  The IPS scheme offers dedicated access to the internationally renowned collections/ programmes/ expertise held at seven world-leading, international institutions:

Harry Ransom Center (HRC), The University of Texas at Austin, USA

The Huntington Library, California, USA

The Library of Congress (LoC), Washington DC, USA

National Institutes for the Humanities (NIHU), Japan

Shanghai Theatre Academy (STA), Shanghai, China

Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., USA

The Yale Center for British Art (YCBA), Connecticut, USA

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Notes from the Huntington Library, California

headshotJoan Redmond is a History PhD student from Dublin, studying seventeenth-century Irish history at University of Cambridge. From July to October 2013, Joan was researching at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, as part of the AHRC International Placement Scheme.

While I was packing up my College room and getting ready for a four month research trip to California, the question I was asked most often was, ‘Why are you going to California for research?!’. Yes, Los Angeles may seem like an odd destination for a student of seventeenth century Ireland and its religious changes, but I was bound for the Huntington Library, a semi-hidden treasure of rare books and manuscripts, located in the rarefied surroundings of San Marino, a prosperous city just north of LA in the San Gabriel Valley.

My research focuses on the period 1641-1660 in Ireland. It was a time of great rebellion, religious division and civil war across Ireland, England and Scotland. Pretty exciting stuff for a historian, right? And from July, I was bringing my warring Irish subjects to southern California, and to the Huntington.

Japanese_GardenThe Huntington actually consists not just of the library, but of an extensive art collection and acres of beautiful, themed gardens: thus there is the famous Japanese Garden, the strange and creepy Desert Garden, and the multitudinous varieties of roses in the Rose Garden (my particular favourites being the Anne Boleyn, Dolly Parton, and of course the St Patrick roses). The Huntington provides a unique environment for scholars, ranging from the compulsory 11.45-1pm lunch break, to free coffee and biscuits on Tuesday afternoons.

Huntington_LibraryThe Huntington was founded when railway tycoon Henry E. Huntington decided to build a winter house for himself and his wife Arabella in sunny California; after their deaths, the house and gardens were left in trust, as well as the extensive rare book and manuscript collections that Henry had gathered across his lifetime, and Arabella’s art collection. Together, these form the academic paradise that is the Huntington, one visited by thousands of tourists every year, but also catering for several hundred Readers, there to consult the scholarly materials, and top up their Vitamin D.

1641_rebellionThe major collection for my work was the Hastings Irish Papers, a vast collection spanning from the late sixteenth into the eighteenth century. These papers are a treasure trove of information about seventeenth-century Ireland, with glimpses into everyday life and high politics. Personal highlights included a disputed marriage case involving a recently widowed, conveniently wealthy woman, in which one of the chief witnesses was a little boy ‘hiding in the chimney-piece’; what happened subsequently we unfortunately do not know, as a response to the letter describing this case does not survive.

Grand_CanyonMy four months at the Huntington also provided ample opportunity to experience American life, and to partake of that great US tradition, the roadtrip. I attended two baseball games, one on each coast, and now have my loyalties divided between the LA Dodgers and the Boston Red Sox. Los Angeles and southern California is also home to a huge diversity of cuisines, with Mexican and all varieties of Asian being especially well represented; I consider it a particular achievement that I did not come home about 10 stones heavier! I saw the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Yosemite, and San Francisco, all fantastic in their own way, and each contributing to a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

Dodger_StadiumDespite the impression of non-stop fun and holidays, I can assure you (and my supervisor!) that there was also work done: the documents I found and the information gathered have provided some critical context for my PhD. I am very grateful to the AHRC for the opportunity to go to the Huntington, and to everyone who looked after me while I was there. It has been an incredible experience on many different fronts, and one I will genuinely never forget.

The AHRC’s annual International Placement Scheme (IPS) provides funded research fellowships of up to 6 months at world-leading international research institutions such as The Huntington Library, the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian. Applications for IPS fellowships are invited until 15th January 2014.

Talk to current IPS fellows and AHRC staff in a Twitter chat from 2-3pm on Wed 11th December @ahrcpress, #AHRCchat.