It’s All Greek to Her

The woman who brought mythology to the masses

Edith Hamilton, seated, and her sister Margaret, ca. 1890-1900 (Wikimedia Commons)
Edith Hamilton, seated, and her sister Margaret, ca. 1890-1900 (Wikimedia Commons)

American Classicist: The Life and Loves of Edith Hamilton by Victoria Houseman; Princeton University Press, 528 pp., $39.95

Nineteen-fifty-seven was the year when Edith Hamilton, a widely read translator of classical literature and ideas, finally achieved the status that had long eluded her—that of bona fide public intellectual. Her book The Echo of Greece not only sold out its first print run but also received favorable reviews from eminent scholars who had, she felt, previously snubbed her. More meaningful to her by far, the Greek government invited her to Athens that summer for a performance of her translation of Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound. Onstage at the theater of Herodes Atticus, in the presence of the U.S. ambassador to Greece, Hamilton was made an honorary citizen of Athens by the city’s mayor. She gave a short speech, calling the occasion her proudest moment, to a standing ovation as camera bulbs flashed. The next night, Hamilton scrambled up the slope of the Acropolis to see the moonlit Parthenon one last time. She was three days shy of 90 years old.

Although Hamilton’s Mythology (1942) remains a much-loved compendium of Greek and Roman legends, its author at some point slipped into obscurity. American Classicist, the first full-length biography of Hamilton, attempts to pull her out of it. Victoria Houseman unspools a life that was both remarkably long and remarkable, full stop: Edith Hamilton became America’s foremost interpreter of the classical world despite her gender, her lack of a PhD, and her very late start (she published her first book in her 60s). She was also an accomplished educator and the long-term partner of another woman, Doris Fielding Reid, with whom she raised a son.

Born in 1867, Edith Hamilton grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Her father was from a prominent local family that made its money through land and commercial ventures. But books interested him more, and he and his wife schooled Edith and her siblings at home. Edith, the eldest, began learning Latin around age 10, then Greek.

At 16, she went to Miss Porter’s School in Connecticut. Not long after that, her father’s grocery business, which he had pursued halfheartedly, foundered. Worries about money were to dog Edith’s early adulthood. She delayed college so that the family could afford to send her younger sisters to Miss Porter’s. It was during this period, as she read the Odyssey and taught Sunday school, that her ambition to earn a doctorate crystallized.

Hamilton arrived at Bryn Mawr College when she was 23. Although the curriculum was demanding and she had to study long hours, she still found the time to make friends. One of them was to become especially significant to her: Lucy Martin Donnelly. Hamilton was awed by Donnelly’s writing talent and high aesthetic standards, and in midlife they became extremely close, traveling overseas and nursing each other through periods of illness.

Hamilton realized early on that she was attracted to women. The culture at Bryn Mawr at the time was shaped by romantic same-sex friendships, emotionally intense partnerships that were sometimes but not always physical. The college’s president, M. Carey Thomas, shared her home on campus first with Mamie Gwinn, an English professor, and later with philanthropist and suffragist Mary Elizabeth Garrett. Houseman doesn’t try to shoehorn these “Boston marriages” into later categories of sexual identity, but she leaves mostly undiscussed the harsh social penalty for overt homosexuality at the time.

After beginning a doctoral dissertation—on the dreary topic of the use of the genitive case by Seneca the Younger—Hamilton received a scholarship to study in Europe. She was the first woman formally admitted to the University of Munich. But her lack of funds led her to give up her studies and accept a position as headmistress of Baltimore’s Bryn Mawr School, founded by leaders of the college.

Hamilton spent 26 years in Baltimore. She was an energetic leader who cemented Bryn Mawr’s evolution from a glorified finishing school into a rigorous college-prep academy—an arc that paralleled women’s advances during the Progressive Era. In the 1920s, her relationship with Thomas, who was chair of the academy’s board, began to sour, and things deteriorated further when Hamilton began living with a former student—Reid, who was 28 years her junior.

Unlike Lucy Donnelly, who seems to have rejected a physical relationship with Hamilton, Reid committed herself wholly to their life together. They were in some respects an odd couple, disparate not only in age but also in their interests: Reid was a concert pianist (she later switched to stockbroking) who liked fast cars. But the partnership, along with her departure from the Bryn Mawr School, was liberating for Hamilton, and she threw herself into studying Greek and writing.

The word Houseman uses repeatedly to describe Hamilton’s style is lucid. Hamilton bristled at any hint of mannerism—she dismissed Ovid as “frivolous”—and at avant-garde modernism, too, although that didn’t stop her from collaborating on translations with Ezra Pound when he lived in St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C. It was evident to her that the Greeks really believed in their myths, so a good retelling of them needed to have conviction. The prose in Mythology is vigorous and often memorable: “So the God of the Vine was born of fire and nursed by rain, the hard burning heat that ripens the grapes and the water that keeps the plant alive.” For Hamilton, ancient Greece was the apex of civilization, a culture in which the mental and the spiritual were perfectly fused. Fifth-century BCE Athens, in her view, did not emerge from the societies that preceded it but sprang up new and unbidden, like Athena from Zeus’s head. Greece was distinct from and superior to Egypt, Persia, and Rome, all of which channeled the “spirit of the East,” she wrote in The Greek Way (1930), a spirit that “never changes” and is “forever aloof from all that is modern.”

Needless to say, this is a reductive and chauvinistic argument. The idea that Greece stood loftily apart from any other culture it encountered has crumbled in the face of scholarship mapping extensive cross-cultural ties. The ancient world is currently seen as polycentric and interlinked, to the extent that many universities now offer majors not in classics but in ancient Mediterranean studies.

The idea that Greece stood loftily apart from any other culture it encountered has crumbled in the face of scholarship mapping extensive cross-cultural ties.

The contrast between Hamilton and the leading classical popularizer so far of the 21st century—Mary Beard—is revealing. Hamilton never had much time for the Romans, despite her deep study of Latin and publishing The Roman Way in 1932. She saw Rome as being “far removed from the Greek spirit.” Beard, a Roman historian, rejects any such dichotomy (“The Greek city-states were as keen on winning battles as the Romans were, and most had little to do with the brief Athenian democratic experiment,” she writes). Beard stresses the diverse, polyglot nature of the Roman world while delving into its less admirable aspects and the lives of those on its margins. In a multicultural society alive to questions about race, class, and gender, it’s not surprising that her books are bestsellers.

Noting that it wasn’t uncommon for someone of Hamilton’s generation to look at the Greeks as the first moderns, Houseman tries to place her classicism in context. She was a devout Christian who found spiritual ballast in Plato as well as St. Paul. Her politics leaned center right, then libertarian. When she and Reid were living in Georgetown, they befriended Republican noninterventionists like Ohio Senator Robert Taft and worried about creeping totalitarianism.

“In her private life and in her public writing, Edith Hamilton was a strong advocate of individual freedom,” Houseman writes. What she saw of that freedom in the Greeks was perhaps what she cherished most about them and was undoubtedly intertwined with her anticommunism (she was also, Houseman notes, a pacifist and an opponent of both fascism and anti-Semitism).

Recent years have seen efforts to reclaim overlooked women classicists of the past, such as Betty Radice, who edited and translated Penguin Classics editions of ancient texts, and Kathleen Freeman, a scholar of Greek in early-20th-century Wales. Many of these women, like Hamilton, did not chart the usual course through the academy because of sexist barriers and were treated with condescension by their male peers. Edith Hamilton’s contribution is undeniable, and thanks to Houseman’s biography, her importance as a classicist and woman of letters has been restored.

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Amanda Kolson Hurley is an editor at Bloomberg Green and the author of Radical Suburbs: Experimental Living on the Fringes of the American City.


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