North American Scholar

HAMILTON, Edith

  • Image
  • Date of Birth (YYYY-MM-DD): 1867-08-12
  • Born City: Dresden
  • Born State/Country: Germany
  • Parents: Montgomery & Gertrude Pond H.
  • Date of Death (YYYY-MM-DD): 1963-05-31
  • Death City: Washington, DC
  • Education:

    B.A., M.A., Bryn Mawr, 1894; Lat. fell., 1894-5; European fellow, 1895-6; study at Leipzig & Munich, 1895-6; D. Litt. U. Rochester, 1949; U. Pennsylvania, 1953; Yale, 1959; D. Leg. Goucher Coll., 1963.

  • Professional Experience:

    Headmistress, Bryn Mawr School (Baltimore) 1896-1922; Nat. Achievement Award, 1950; memb. NIAL, 1957; Gold Cross of the Legion of Benefaction (Greece) & hon. citizenship, Athens, 1957; Constance Lindsay Skinner Award, 1958; AAAS, 1958-63; Women's Nat. Press Club Award, 1959; Award for Distinguished Service Bryn Mawr Coll., 1960; Jane Addams Medal for Distinguished Service, Rockford Coll., 1962.

  • Publications:

    The Greek Way (New York & London, 1930; rev. expanded & reissued 1942 as The Great Age of Greek Literature); The Roman Way (New York, 1932); The Prophets of Israel (London, 1936); Three Greek Plays: Prometheus Bound, Agamemnon, The Trojan Women (trans.) (New York, 1937); Mythology (Boston, 1942); The Great Age of Greek Literature (New York, 1942); Witness to the Truth: Christ and His Interpreters (New York, 1948; rev. 1957); Spokesmen for God: The Great Teachers of the Old Testament (New York, 1949); The Echo of Greece (New York, 1957); The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. with Huntington Cairns (Princeton, 1961); The Ever-Present Past (New York, 1964).

  • Notes:

    In citing Edith Hamilton for distinguished service on its 75th anniversary in 1960, Bryn Mawr College observed that “she began to write at the age of sixty after having retired from a first career as Headmistress at the Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore” and that she has written “with eloquence and style worthy of her classical examples.” Hailing her as “one of the great pioneer generation which fought for women's rights in education,” the citation continues, “Sixty-five years later, the feminist battle long won, she can say 'It's so pleasant, so much more agreeable to be educated than not to be.' “ It concludes, “Known to the American public through popular magazines, radio and television, her books sold by the hundreds of thousands, Miss Hamilton—a woman of 'wit and humanity'—has probably done more than any living American to inspire an interest in classical civilization. She has written: 'To rejoice in life, to find the world beautiful and delightful to live in, was the mark of the Greek Spirit.' She has helped the modern world to rejoice.''The immense popularity of Edith Hamilton's books and personality with the educated U.S. reading public in the 1930s and 1940s paved the way for two distinctly American phenomena of the next decades. One was the cultural hegemony and celebrity status achieved by Gilbert Highet of Columbia University. Unlike Hamilton, Highet was a serious scholar, teaching, publishing, and occupying a named professorship in a distinguished university classics department at the same time that he popularized the legacy of classical antiquity to a larger audience. The other was the development and proliferation of college- and university-level courses on classics in translation, which have enabled the study of the classical world to survive and thrive in the United States at the same time that it has rapidly lost ground elsewhere.The admiration evinced for Edith Hamilton's writings by leading American figures in American intellectual and public life extended her sphere of influence to the political scene. Her most notable devotees in this regard were the wife of President John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (Onassis), and the president's brother, Senator Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY). The latter drew lasting spiritual solace from her books after John Kennedy's assassination, incorporating her translations of phrases from Greek literature into memorable speeches. “To tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of the world,” for example, resounds in Kennedy's speech eulogizing the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered a few months before he himself was murdered in 1968.Edith Hamilton's books have justifiably received accolades for their elegance of expression, and for instilling a wider awareness of what the modern West owes to classical and Biblical antiquity. But they interpret ancient texts in an idiosyncratic manner, at times mistranslating passages or taking them out of their literary context. In emphasizing “truths of the spirit” and the contributions of the Greeks as “the first Westerners” and lovers of freedom, she misinterprets Greco-Roman civilization to a significant extent, idealizing the achievements of the ancient Greek world, particularly of fifth-century B.C. Athens, and undervaluing those of the Romans.

  • Sources:

    Helen Bacon, Notable American Women: The Modern Period, ed. Barbara Sicherman & Carol Hurd Green (Cambridge, 1980) 306-8; Rosamond Randall Beirne, Let's Pick the Daisies: The History of the Bryn Mawr School (Baltimore, 1970); John Mason Brown, “The Heritage of Edith Hamilton: 1867-1963,” Saturday Review (22 June 1963) 16-7; Alice Hamilton, Exploring the Dangerous Trades (Boston, 1943); NatCAB 52:289; NYTimes (1 June 1963) 21; (16 June 1963) IV: 10; Doris Fielding Reid, Edith Hamilton: An Intimate Portrait (New York, 1967); Barbara Sicherman, Alice Hamilton: A Life in Letters (Cambridge, 1984); idem, The Reader's Companion to American History (Boston, 1991), 483-4; WhAm 4:398; John B. White, “The Hamilton Way,” Georgia Review 24.2 (Summer 1970) 132-57; see also Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times (Boston, 1979); Harris Wofford, Making Sense of the Sixties (New York, 1980).

  • Author: Judith P. Hallett