Hamilton, Edith (1867–1963)
Scholar of the ancient classical world who communicated her passion to her students as well as readers of The Greek Way. Born Edith Hamilton on August 12, 1867, in Dresden, Germany, of American parents; died on May 31, 1963, in Washington, D.C; daughter of Montgomery Hamilton and Gertrude Pond Hamilton; sister of industrial reformer Alice Hamilton (1869–1979) and artist Norah Hamilton (b. 1873); was home schooled until 16; attended Miss Porter's School in Connecticut for two years; Bryn Mawr College, B.A., M.A., 1894; studied classics in Germany at the University of Leipzig, 1895; first female classics student at the University of Munich; never married; lived with Doris Reid; children: adopted Dorian Reid in later life.
Took over administration of Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore (1896); served as headmistress (1906–22); after retirement, began second career as essayist on the classics, first in New York City (1924–43), then Washington, D.C. (1943–63); actively involved in the arts until her death at age 95.
The Greek Way (1930, revised, 1942, 1948); The Roman Way (1932); Three Greek Plays (1937); Mythology (1942); Witnesses to the Truth: Christ and His Interpreters (1948, revised, 1957); Spokesmen for God (1949); The Echo of Greece (1957); (coedited with Huntington Cairns) Collected Dialogues of Plato (1961). Reviews and essays collected in The Ever Present Past (1964).
Edith Hamilton achieved fame as an essayist on the ancient world, but only her closest friends realized that writing was actually her second successful career, launched after her retirement as headmistress of the Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore. In every activity she undertook during her long life, however, Hamilton stressed the importance of intellectual excellence and clear thinking. She was as familiar with the literature of ancient Greece as she was with the Nobel winners of the 20th century, and as quick to point out the dangers of ignorance in the atomic age as well as the Biblical era. As educator, commentator, and author, she encouraged all to be "caught up in the world of thought."
Edith Hamilton's commitment to promoting education was spurred by her own mental gifts as well as by her uneven experiences as a young woman seeking quality education. Hamilton never actually attended school until the age of 17. In many families, this would have left a severe academic handicap, but the Hamilton family was not ordinary. In the closing years of the American Civil War, Montgomery Hamilton of Indiana had been sent abroad by his family to recuperate from his military service. While in Germany, he met and married Gertrude Pond, a New Yorker, whose family had moved abroad to manage their sugar business during the war years. Shortly before the couple returned to the Hamilton farm in Fort Wayne, Indiana, their first child, Edith, was born in Dresden.
In Indiana, the young Hamiltons lived in the shadow of Montgomery's father, an Irish immigrant who had become a successful farmer and entrepreneur, and Montgomery's mother, an avid reader and fan of Susan B. Anthony . Montgomery never inherited his father's commercial talents, but he shared his mother's reverence for books and her insistence that women as well as men deserved a superior education. The Hamilton children had no formal lessons but were pressed to read history and literature by their parents. They were taught French by Gertrude, German by the servants, and Latin and Greek by Montgomery. Edith remembered sitting down to study Latin with her father at age seven.
Edith thrived during her years of home schooling. She was a "natural storyteller" who would entertain her siblings and cousins by reciting poems and retelling favorite stories. Often she would leave off the endings to make the younger ones read the works themselves. AlthoughPage 729 | Top of Article Edith was considered by her siblings to be the star pupil, all the Hamilton's later enjoyed active intellectual lives. Alice Hamilton , the second child, became a physician specializing in industrial medicine and the first female to serve on the faculty of Harvard Medical School. Quint and Margaret Hamilton became teachers, while Norah Hamilton pursued a career as an artist associated with Hull House in Chicago.
As each turned 17, the young women of the family were sent to Miss Porter's School in Connecticut for two years. Miss Porter's, one of the most famous finishing schools for young women in the nation, exposed Edith to students from different backgrounds but did little for her academics. The school was typical of the schools of the era in that it emphasized social preparation rather than intellectual training. Students were allowed to avoid the subjects they disliked, and even the subjects which Edith enjoyed were taught with little enthusiasm. Alice Hamilton remembered the classics professor staring at the ceiling while his charges recited passages from the text. There was little opportunity for discussion, and few teachers expected the young women to take an interest in the material.
The flaws of their secondary education became more apparent when Edith and Alice returned home to Indiana. The two sisters quickly assessed the diminished family financial situation and decided to prepare themselves for professional careers. Alice chose to enter medicine, while Edith decided to seek a teaching career. Miss Porter's had done nothing to prepare the two for college entrance exams. For example, Edith, who had never studied mathematics in her life, would now have to pass an exam in trigonometry. After a year of home study in Indiana, she passed the entrance exam to Bryn Mawr College and left for Pennsylvania.
Bryn Mawr was decidedly different from Miss Porter's. When Edith arrived in the early 1890s, the school had been open barely ten years. M. Carey Thomas , a tireless champion of women's education, had recently assumed the presidency. Thomas' insistence that women should prepare themselves to be self-supporting was highly controversial. More typical was the opinion of G. Stanley Hall, the president of Clark University, who insisted in 1904 that education led to "mental strain" in women and promoted a "slow evolution of fertility" that ruined the institutions of marriage and the family. Even some of the Bryn Mawr faculty, chosen from the most promising young scholars of their fields, had reservations about the college. Woodrow Wilson, who joined the staff as a young professor of political science in the 1880s, worried that teaching women would harm his professional reputation. For Edith Hamilton, however, Bryn Mawr provided not controversy but the intellectual challenges she craved.
Greece never lost sight of the individual, and I'm afraid we have; that frightens me much more than the Sputniks and the atomic bombs.
After only two years of study, Edith graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1894 with a B.A. and an M.A. in Classics. She was awarded a fellowship to study in Europe, and she and Alice (who had recently completed medical school) decided to spend a year in Germany, first at the University of Leipzig, then at the University of Munich. The two soon found that the prejudice against women in academics was not confined to the United States. Edith's request to study Latin and Greek literature at the University of Munich stunned the classics department. No women had ever enrolled in the lectures, and, because many of the students were divinity students, it was assumed that the presence of a woman would be offensive and disruptive. After intense debate, Edith was accepted, but the question of her seating still provoked concern. Some faculty proposed that she be seated in a specially constructed, curtained cubicle where she could listen but would not be seen. In the end, Edith was seated on the stage behind the lecturer, in full view of the students, but safely away from physical contact with the divinity students. Alice's experience in the laboratories of the university was less dramatic, but both sisters noted that they were only tolerated at the universities because they were foreign women. German women would have faced far greater opposition.
In 1896, M. Carey Thomas wrote Edith and asked her if she would consider taking over the administration of the Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore. An extension of Bryn Mawr College, it was the only women's private high school in the nation which aimed strictly at college preparation. Although a few other public and private women's high schools were capable of preparing students for college entrance exams, the Bryn Mawr School was the only school which did not offer an easier, non-college prep track. All students were required to pass the entrance exam for Bryn Mawr College in order to graduate.
Thomas, who was from Baltimore, understood that few Baltimore families felt comfortablePage 730 | Top of Article with the intellectual and physical demands made of their daughters at the school. Thomas knew that any administrator would face a difficult time maintaining the high standards of the school, and her invitation to Edith Hamilton was a mark of great respect. Although Edith had once considered completing a Ph.D. while in Germany, she was unimpressed with the education she was receiving in Munich and ready to return to the States. In 1896, she settled in Baltimore.
Although Hamilton remembered feeling "terrified" and unqualified initially, she became a successful administrator. She maintained the high intellectual tone of the school, despite frequent parental requests to simplify the curriculum, and was revered by her students. One recalled that Hamilton brought with her the "air of having come from some high center of civilization." She was not afraid to branch out from traditional academic concerns; her proposal that the Bryn Mawr basketball team play a match against another nearby girls' school was regarded as scandalous because the girls' names would be reported in the newspapers. Hamilton met with the editors of the Baltimore press to request their cooperation, and the match was played without news coverage. In 1906, Hamilton's talents were recognized when M. Carey Thomas appointed her first headmistress of the school. There had been no headmistress during the early years of the high school. Thomas felt that teachers had an easier time resisting the opposition of the parents if complaints had to travel the 125 miles to Thomas' office in Pennsylvania.
In 1922, after 26 years with the Bryn Mawr School, Edith Hamilton retired. Though only 54 years old, she was physically and emotionally exhausted and anxious to leave behind both the responsibilities of headmistress and the social circles of Baltimore which had never fully understood her commitment to education for women. The one exception was the family of a former student, Doris Reid. Doris' parents had formed a close friendship with Edith and invited her to vacation with them for several summers on Mount Desert Isle, Maine. The year of her retirement, Edith had the vacation cottage winterized and remained on the nearly deserted island with Doris, and Doris' five-year-old nephew Dorian Reid. Years later, Edith spoke of this year as a dark period of her life when she battled depression and feelings of failure. During the winter, however, she gradually recovered her health and enthusiasm. She alternated her time between reading her much-loved British detective stories and tutoring Dorian. By 1924, when Doris accepted a job in New York City, Edith was ready to move on as well.
During her first years in New York, Hamilton considered herself a retiree whose prime responsibility was in providing a safe and happy home for Doris, Dorian, and Dorian's siblings, who, for family reasons, soon joined the household. Throughout their lives, the Reid children remained close to Hamilton. Many of them lived with Doris and Edith until they left for college and joined them for summers in Maine even after they had spouses and children of their own.
Gradually, Hamilton's circle began to grow beyond her new family, and within a few years she had established what one friend, John Mason Brown, recalled as the "Edith Hamilton Club." Her circle included publishers, editors, and writers who listened attentively as Hamilton explained the virtues of classical literature. One remembered that she spoke of the ancient authors as if they were her own children, anxious that all her listeners would befriend them. Another, who worked for Theatre Arts Monthly, encouraged Hamilton to write up her discussions. Hamilton protested but eventually published several essays on Greek literature in the magazine. The essays caught the eye of an editor at Norton, who began pressuring Hamilton to produce a book. Again, Hamilton protested. The editor continued to pursue her, and years later, when Hamilton was asked how she began her writing career, she insisted, "I was bullied into it."
The Greek Way, a collection of essays on the esthetics of Greek literature published in 1930, launched Hamilton in a new career at the age of 62. She had worried that libraries were filled with books on the classical world, and that yet another book (especially one by an unknown and uncredentialed author) would pass unnoticed. Initially, her fears seemed justified, the book received favorable reviews but inspired no dramatic sales. Over time, however, interest in the book increased rather than declined. The Greek Way went through several reprintings and in 1957, 27 years after its publication, remained so popular that it was chosen as a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection. Hamilton followed the first work with The Roman Way (1932), Three Greek Plays (1937), Mythology (1942), Witnesses to the Truth (1948), Spokesmen for God (1949), The Echo of Greece (1957), and The Collected Dialogues of Plato (1961).
Hamilton's popularity was not due to her subject matter so much as her understandable and intriguing writing style. She did not offer herPage 731 | Top of Article readers finished judgments on the literature of the ancient world but invited them to join with her in exploring the mental worlds of the past. Hamilton used the same techniques she had used on her siblings as a child: she teased the reader with the implications of the literature but left out any plot synopsis. Her work had to be read as a companion to the literature, not a substitute. Finally, Hamilton avoided the techniques of the professors she endured in Leipzig and Munich, who seemed more interested in the grammar of the ancient Greek and Latin than in the ideas conveyed. Her words in the preface to The Roman Way easily explain Hamilton's approach to all literature, "What the Romans did has always interested me much less than what they were, and what historians have said they were is beyond all comparison less interesting to me than what they themselves said."
Hamilton was always quick to point out the relevance of ancient literature to contemporary debates, but she did not restrict her energy to studies of Greece and Rome. Witnesses to the Truth explored the world of the early Christian writers, while Spokesmen for God examined the Old Testament prophets. Nor did Hamilton shy away from discussing 20th-century literature. In 1929, her essay "Sad Young Men" lambasted Joseph Wood Krutch, Aldous Huxley, and their brethren for their attitude of fashionable despair with modern life. Hamilton found nothing original in their lamentations. She encouraged them to read a bit more widely in order to see that their assumption of "decay" was nothing new; hopelessness, she said, was a perennial cry of humankind. Ironically, it was Hamilton, the 60-year-old classicist, who encouraged the young modernists to concentrate on the advantages of the present. What, she wondered, would Mr. Huxley do if "confronted with a sabre-toothed tiger, when he cannot face a Victrola and can hardly endure a motor car?" In 1952, she penned a similarly controversial critique of William Faulkner, who had recently won a Nobel Prize. While admitting his gifts as a writer, she questioned his "puritanical" discomfort with women's sexuality and his insistence
on a reverse romanticism that tainted all with moral filth. John Mason Brown noted that every work of Hamilton's reflected her preoccupation with the "moral and intellectual foundations of modern civilization."
In 1943, the Hamilton-Reid household moved to Washington, D.C., where Doris had accepted a new job. Edith was 75 at the time, but her writing energy was undiminished. Her writing habits, however, drove publishers crazy. She wrote on scraps of paper and the backs of envelopes; an editor once called her about a fragment of a soup recipe that appeared in the middle of a poetry translation.
During these years, Hamilton became a respected commentator on education. Just as she had at Bryn Mawr, she maintained her insistence on quality education as a fundamental condition for civilization. She reminded Americans that the Greeks and Romans were important not only for what they had done, but for how they had failed. In 1932, she compared American technological achievements to the advances of the Roman empire, but reminded her readers that the Roman "failure of mind and spirit" occurred when material development outstripped human development. In 1958, during the debate over the National Defense in Education Act (a Cold War initiative to preserve American superiority through specific education programs), she noted that "beating the Russians" was not a healthy rationale for education. More pointedly, she stressed that the Greek democracies had collapsed due to the decay of domestic civic culture, not foreign threats.
During her final years, Edith Hamilton was honored at home and abroad. In Washington, she was sought out by writers such as Robert Lowell, Stephen Spender, and Robert Frost, as well as by cultural representatives of President John F. Kennedy, who sought her opinion on the construction of a new cultural center (later known as the Kennedy Center) on the Potomac. She was granted honorary degrees by the University of Rochester, the University of Pennsylvania, and Yale University, and offered the Women's National Press Club Award and the Jane Addams Medal for Distinguished Service. In 1957, Hamilton journeyed to Athens at the invitation of the Greek government where King Paul I presented her with the Gold Cross of the Legion of Benefaction and the mayor of Athens made her an honorary citizen. During her final years, she recorded programs for network television and the Voice of America, and made several pleasure trips to Europe with Doris. When Hamilton was 92, an editor asked if she would consider translating the Oresteia. "No," she responded, "I am saving translating for my old age." In 1963, Edith Hamilton died at home in Washington of natural causes.
Brown, John Mason. "The Heritage of Edith Hamilton: 1867–1963," in Saturday Review. June 22, 1963, p. 16–17.
"Edith Hamilton," in The New York Times. June 1, 1963, p. 22.
Hamilton, Alice. Exploring the Dangerous Trades: The Autobiography of Alice Hamilton, MD. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1943.
Knight, Edgar. ed. Readings in American Educational History. Appleton, 1951.
Reid, Doris. Edith Hamilton: An Intimate Portrait. NY: W.W. Norton, 1967.
"A Conversation with Edith Hamilton" (Broadcast) Wisdom Series, NBC, 1959.
"Echoes of Greece" (sound recording), Recorded live at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Washington, D.C., January 31, 1958, Spoken Arts, c. 1966.
Hamilton Family Papers and Edith Hamilton Papers filed at Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College. (Most early family papers were destroyed by a flood in 1938.)
Janice Lee Jayes, Department of History, The American University, Washington, D.C.