A New Biography: “American Classicist: The Life and Loves of Edith Hamilton”

“To know Greek is to know yourself.” -A Professor of Classics

Victoria Houseman’s new biography, American Classicist: The Life and Loves of Edith Hamilton, is sparkling and compelling.  The first half reads like a particularly exciting school story.  Homeschooled by her parents,  Hamilton (1867-1963) became obsessed with Greek and Latin, which she continued to study at Miss Porter’s School with other equally intense, well-educated girls. Later at Bryn Mawr College, which she entered at age 24 due to financial problems, she found rapport with a community of women with similar interests, who worked 10 hours a day, but still found time to socialize. Finally she studied in Germany on a European travel scholarship. 

Hamilton was determined to have an academic career. But instead of going on for a doctorate after she finished her B.A. and M.A. simultaneously in 1894, she accepted a position as headmistress at Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore. Whether by design or default, many women of Hamilton’s generation, and our own, became teachers, but Hamilton had hoped to teach at Bryn Mawr or some other college. She was reluctant to sign on at a mediocre primary and secondary school for girls. 

Edith Hamilton

But she had to shore up the family finances:   her father had become an alcoholic after his company went bust, and her mother and a sister were frequently ill.  Edith made the best of the situation by shoring up the reputation of the school among the elite of Baltimore.  And she developed a supportive  school community, inspired partly by the culture of Bryn Mawr College and partly by philosophy, which encouraged teachers and students to pursue individual talents.

After 25 years as headmistress, she was exhausted, bored, and often ill. She resigned (for the third time: they didn’t want to let her go) in 1922.  As she told her partner, Doris Reid, she looked forward to getting back to Greek. And she finally had time to translate Greek tragedies. A film version of her translation of Euripides’s Trojan Women was released in 1971, starring Katharine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave, Irene Pappas, and Genevieve Bujold.   

It is as a twentieth-century writer and “influencer” that  we remember Edith Hamilton. Her popular books, The Greek Way (1930) , The Roman  Way (1932), and Mythology (1942), created a sensation. Hamilton especially admired the Greeks, and inspired the post-war generation, who were struggling in a financially unstable society and a changing culture, to respect Greek philosophy, history, and the arts.

She tried to explain the Greeks’ ability to rise above their problems.

The Greeks knew to the full how bitter life was but also how sweet. Joy and sorrow, exultation and tragedy, stand hand in hand in Greek literature, but there is no contradiction thereby.  Those who do not know the one do not really know the other either.  It is the depressed, the gray-minded people, who cannot rejoice just as they cannot agonize.  The Greeks were not the victims of depression.

Her style is a bit sentimental, but The Greek Way and The Roman Way were Book-of-the-Month hits when they were published in an attractive two-volume set.

Victoria Houseman, the author of this brilliant biography, regards Hamilton as a pioneer among women classicists.  Though Hamilton was a classics superstar at a time when few women had college educations, she may not have been as well-respected among classicists as the biographer implies.

In my undergraduate years, I noted the lack of women’s translations. I asked my Greek professor if Edith Hamilton’s translations were any good.

He took the question seriously and addressed me as an equal. “There’s a lot of Edith Hamilton there, but perhaps not much Euripides.”

I intend to read Edith Hamilton now that I have read the biography. But whatever I may have to say, there is no denying that she influenced generations of common readers and that her books are still in print.

4 thoughts on “A New Biography: “American Classicist: The Life and Loves of Edith Hamilton””

  1. There’s a story that Robert Kennedy read The Greek Way when he was grieving his brother John, and found inspiration in it to carry on.

    1. It is probably true. She was invited to JFK’s inauguration, but was unable to attend due to illness and inclement weather.

  2. No need to apologize — your last sentence is half-apologetic. The outline of her life until she resigned from
    the mediocre resembles Dorothy L Sayers (Sayers insisted on the L). Then Dorothy began to write the Wimsey books while she had made a bad heterosexual marriage, while it seems Hamilton was able finally to turn to her love and lived with another lesbian (?) woman. The parallels and contrasts are striking. Did Hamilton make money from her books? enough to count or change her life to be more comfortable? I’d like to know.

    1. Hamilton was very successful: books published, a few of her translated tragedies staged, constant invitations to speak, even invited to JFK’s inauguration. An American Mary Beard? Only with a more sentimental attitude toward the ancient Greeks.

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