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.

A Role Model for the 1960’s: “Harriet the Spy”

If you were a girl in the 1960’s, you were nine or ten when you read Harriet the Spy. The cover art was irresistible: a bespectacled girl in a hooded sweatshirt and jeans strolls through a run-down New York neighborhood carrying a notebook, with a flashlight hooked to her belt. You didn’t wonder why the gear: it seemed natural, especially for Harriet, an aspiring writer who spied on people and took notes. And when her writing got her into trouble, we empathized.

I read Harriet several times as a child – probably the last time was in seventh grade. Many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers have cited it as a major influence. In Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, a book about a reading one book a day for a year, Nina Sankovitch mentions that she so identified with Harriet that she insisted on carrying a notebook and a flashlight. Mystery writer Cara Black also read Harriet. “Of course, I ate tomato sandwiches and wanted to be a spy. They wouldn’t take me. So I turned to writing.” And Jonathan Franzen wrote a blurb on the cover of the anniversary edition (see picture at top of page).

Why am I thinking about Harriet the Spy? My husband alerted me to a review in The New York Review of Books of a new biography by Leslie Brody, Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy.

Knowing absolutely nothing about Fitzhugh, I have read the opening chapters with fascination. Fitzhugh was primarily an artist,which makes sense, since her bold, witty illustrations are as important as the text. Her humorous depictions of the characters’ self-absorption and androgynous style underscored the growing resistance to traditional femininity. So many of us identified with Harriet, partly because of the freedom of her clothes. It was the boys’ sneakers we especially liked.

Illustration of Harriet by Louise Fitzhugh

Fitzhugh, raised in the South by wealthy parents, escaped from Memphis when she and her girlfriend Amelia hatched a plan to attend Bard College. She became an artist in New York, with varying degrees of success. In the photos, we see an impossibly tiny Louise who looks like a little boy. Though Fitzhugh was a known lesbian artist, her sexuality was kept under wraps in terms of author information available to the public: it would have ruined her children’s writing career to be known as gay.

Louise Fitzhugh and photographer Gina Jackson, about 1952.

I have always understood that Harriet the Spy is a classic, frequently compared to The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird. And so I was astonished to learn that some reviewers disliked it when it was published in 1964.

Brody writes:

Some children’s books critics simply couldn’t get over how “nasty” they thought she was, and what “a horrid example” she set. … When Harriet says, “I’ll be damned if I’ll go to dancing school,” she sends up a howl as staggering – in its way – as Allen Ginsberg’s poem by the same name.

Brody, a witty, compassionate writer, places Fitzhugh’s life and quirky work in the context of her times. She points out that Fitzhugh and Betty Friedan were writing breakthrough books the same year. Women’s lives were changing.

Long live Louise Fitzhugh’s books! By the way, she also wrote two sequels to Harriet the Spy, The Long Secret and Sport. Harriet is the best of them, if I remember correctly, but perhaps the others are worth a second look. I lost my copies long, long ago.