Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 813
The renowned classicist Edith Hamilton was born in Germany while her mother was visiting relatives. The misconception that she was of German descent created problems for Hamilton with the passport division of the U.S. State Department throughout her life. In fact, the Hamilton family was primarily of Northern Irish descent and had settled in Fort Wayne, Indiana, decades before Edith Hamilton’s birth.
Her father, Montgomery Hamilton, who had inherited family wealth and never practiced any profession, spent much of his time studying in his personal library and often read to Edith and her younger sister, Alice (who later went on to obtain a medical degree). Besides Alice, Edith had three other younger, talented siblings, Margaret, Norah, and Arthur. Edith spent her early years in Fort Wayne playing with her siblings and other relatives as well as reading anything that she could get her hands on. No doubt, her passion for scholarship derived from this reading-intensive childhood and the gifted intellectual nature of all of the Hamilton children.
Hamilton received her secondary education at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut, which was the first school that she ever attended. By all accounts, the school encouraged very little academic growth within the young women who attended it, but Hamilton made the best of the experience and was soon prepared for college. She then attended Bryn Mawr College, finishing her bachelor’s degree in classics in a mere two years, and won a European Fellowship from the college that enabled her to pursue further study in Europe. Hamilton chose to attend classes first at the University of Leipzig and then at the University of Munich; instead of obtaining a doctoral degree from Munich, though, she decided to return to the United States in the fall of 1896 and assume the post of headmistress of the Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore, a college preparatory school for women. She served in that capacity for twenty-six years, retiring from the Bryn Mawr School in June of 1922.
Hamilton devoted the next forty years to her writing career, although she did not initially set out to become a publishing scholar of the classics. While living in New York City in 1924, she became acquainted with a circle of intellectuals, among whom was Rosamond Gilder, an editor for Theatre Arts Monthly. After some coercion, Gilder convinced Hamilton to publish an article in the magazine concerning tragedy. Several other articles on Greek tragedy followed. Her articles attracted the attention of Elling Aannestad, an editor with the W. W. Norton publishing company, who subsequently urged Hamilton to produce a book on Greece. Again acting only after considerable pressure, Hamilton wrote her first book, The Greek Way, published in 1930. The book earned for Hamilton immediate critical praise and solidified her reputation as an important classicist.
After the publication of this book, Hamilton made her first visit to Greece; afterward, she visited Egypt as well. Returning to the United States, she quickly produced her second book, The Roman Way, which also met with instant critical acclaim. In this book she explores Rome by wholly depending upon the commentary of Roman writers. In 1936 Hamilton published Prophets of Israel, followed the next year, in 1937, by Three Greek Plays, her translations of Prometheus Bound, Agamemnon, and The Trojan Women.
In 1942, a revised edition of The Greek Way, with five new chapters, was issued; in that same year, Hamilton’s most well-known work, Mythology, was published. Within the book are retellings of many Greek myths, enhanced by Hamilton’s clear and direct prose style. A credit to Hamilton’s enormous flexibility as a scholar and writer is the fact that she followed up this work with a study of the Christian Gospels and Jesus entitled Witness to the Truth: Christ and His Interpreters. Her last publications were Spokesmen for God: The Great Teachers of the Old Testament, The Echo of Greece, The Collected Dialogues of Plato (a collaborative editing effort with Huntington Cairns), and the posthumously published collection of Hamilton’s essays and addresses, The Ever-Present Past.
Edith Hamilton received numerous honorary degrees and awards throughout her lifetime. She was given honorary doctorates in literature by the University of Rochester (1949), the University of Pennsylvania (1953), and Yale University (1959), and Groucher College of Baltimore, Maryland, extended to her an honorary doctor of laws degree in 1962. No doubt her most treasured achievements, however, included two awards given to her in Athens by the Greek people. In 1957, the Greek government invited Hamilton to visit Athens, where King Paul of Greece granted her the Gold Cross of the Legion of Benefaction and the Athenian people made her a citizen of Athens.
By the time of her death in 1963, Edith Hamilton had become one of the most notable classicists of the twentieth century. Her works made the wisdom of Greece, Rome, and the early Christian world accessible to millions of scholarly and nonscholarly readers alike.