My hope is that those who do not know the classics will gain in this way not only a knowledge of the myths, but some little idea of what the writers were like who told them—who have been proved, by two thousand years and more, to be immortal.
–from the foreword to Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes
Edith Hamilton's most famous book, Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes (1942) is still one of the most commonly used texts in high school and college classes. Her many books include The Greek Way (1931), The Roman Way I (1932), and Collected Dialogues of Plato (1961). She published her last book at age 90.
Born to American parents in Dresden, Germany, Edith Hamilton grew up in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. Her wealthy father disapproved of public schools, educating his daughters at home. There she learned Latin, Greek, French, and German. (She remembered being "distressed" at age seven when her father told her to translate Caesar after six weeks of studying Latin.)
He later sent Edith and her sister Alice to Miss Porter's School in Farmington, CT. (Alice Hamilton, by the way, became Harvard's first female professor and was one of the first people to study diseases of the workplace, including the toxicity of lead paint.) Because Miss Porter believed that girls didn't need a college education, though, Edith Hamilton felt unprepared for college and took a year to study at home for Bryn Mawr College's rigorous entrance exams. She was admitted and received her master's degree in 1894. After further study at the University of Munich, she returned to the United States in 1896 to become headmistress of Baltimore's Bryn Mawr School for Girls, one of the first college preparatory schools in the United States for girls, where she remained until her retirement in 1922. A Bryn Mawr senior in 1909 said, "Miss Edith...talks to us as nobody else in the world could talk and when she finished you feel as if you had been to an especially beautiful and impressive church service." In 1954, the school named a building for her.
According to Bryn Mawr School Latin teacher Mary Armstrong Shoemaker, "One day when a friend confessed that she did not really know the difference between Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus (the three great Greek writers of tragedy), Edith cried, 'My dear child,' leapt to her feet, and began pulling volumes off the shelves, translating bits from each poet and explaining their differences with such humor and passion that someone who was there said 'She made me feel she must have just had lunch with Aeschylus.'" Trinity College Professor Barbara Sicherman says that Hamilton "demystified the classics for readers who no longer knew them firsthand."
In addition to her knowledge of the classics, her page numbering was also legendary. Her companion, Doris Reid, said, "She will be absorbed in what she is writing and after finishing, say, page 2, she will write 2 at the top of the next bit of paper. A friend of ours once said to me, 'I just went up to see Edith, and the whole room was covered with page 11.'"
Shortly after President John Kennedy's assassination, his wife Jackie [who coincidentally also graduated from Miss Porter's School] gave a copy of The Greek Way to his brother Robert, who spent a lot of time reading it during that period of mourning and later said that it provided him great comfort. According to historian David J. Schmidt, "[Robert Kennedy] wasn't considered to be a deep thinker, but Hamilton opened his eyes to fate and the Greek view of tragedy and tragic events... [which often contains] a note of foreboding. That hit a chord with Kennedy, having experienced the event not once but three times with his own siblings." Kennedy was especially taken with the line from Aeschylus's Prometheus "In agony, learn wisdom."
For relaxation, according to her life partner Doris Fielding Reid, Hamilton read murder mysteries. "The house is always full of books about the body in the bathtub or the corpse in the cellar," she once said, to which Edith Hamilton added, "I do not wish to read any book dealing with people, who, if they came to tea...would bore me."
Hamilton's 90-year life divided almost into thirds: 28 in study, 26 in teaching, and 36 in writing.
She said, "A people's literature is the great textbook for real knowledge of them. The writings of the day show the quality of the people as no historical reconstruction can."
After Hamilton retired as Bryn Mawr's headmistress, she and Reid lived in Maine, New York, and Washington, DC. She died in New York in 1963.
Places of interest:
- 1314 Park Avenue--Hamilton lived here from xxxx to xxxx. (A few years after she left, by the way, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald moved in across the street.
- Bryn Mawr School, which moved in the 1930s to its current location, 109 W. Melrose Avenue, was, when Edith Hamilton was headmistress, located on the southwest corner of Cathedral and Preston Streets, where the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall now stands.