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About Edith Hamilton
Edith Hamilton (August 12, 1867 – May 31, 1963) was an American educator and author who was "recognized as the greatest woman Classicist". She was sixty-two years old when The Greek Way, her first book, was published in 1930. It was instantly successful, and is the earliest expression of her belief in "the calm lucidity of the Greek mind" and "that the great thinkers of Athens were unsurpassed in their mastery of truth and enlightenment".
In 1957, when the Book-of-the-Month Club selected The Greek Way (1930) as a featured book, it enhanced her efforts at directing the American mind towards Ancient Greece, despite it having been published twenty-seven years earlier. Moreover, by then, she already had published other books, among them The Roman Way (1932), Mythology (1942), and The Echo of Greece (1957); to date, at the high school and university levels, Mythology remains the premier introductory text about its subject. The New York Times has described her as the Classical Scholar who "brought into clear and brilliant focus the Golden Age of Greek life and thought ... with Homeric power and simplicity in her style of writing".
Early life and education
Edith Hamilton was born in Dresden, Germany, to Gertrude Pond Hamilton and Montgomery Hamilton, a scholarly man of leisure; she also had three sisters, Alice, Margaret, and Norah. Describing her Fort Wayne, Indiana, childhood, she said, "My father was well-to-do, but he wasn't interested in making money; he was interested in making people use their minds"; thus, her father guided her towards the Classics, and, when she was seven years old, he began teaching her Latin, then French, German, and Greek.
In the early 1880s, she attended Miss Porter's Finishing School for Young Ladies in Farmington, Connecticut, afterwards attending Bryn Mawr College, in Pennsylvania. Upon earning her B.A. and M.A. degrees she won the Mary E. Garrett European Fellowship, which allowed her to continue her studies in Germany.
Studying in Germany
In 1895 Edith and her sister Alice traveled to Germany to study humanities and classics at the University of Munich, recognized as a center in classical studies. At the time, most North American women chose to register as auditors and Edith and Alice were among the first women to audit classes. Their adventures in Germany have been well preserved and publicized in Alice's autobiography.
According to education historian Sandra Singer, "The sisters' first destination was the University of Leipzig. Edith had just graduated in classics from Bryn Mawr and was recipient of a European fellowship, while her sister Alice had recently completed her medical degree at the University of Michigan (1893)." When they arrived in Leipzig, they found a fair number of foreign women studying at the university. They were told that they could attend lectures but would not be able to participate in discussions. Alice had come to Germany to continue her studies in pathology. Edith, however, had come to Germany to study classics, and attended the lectures.
According to Alice, Edith was extremely disappointed with the lectures she attended. The lectures were thorough, but lost sight of the beauty of literature by focusing on obscure grammatical points. "Instead of the grandeur and beauty of Aeschylus and Sophocles, it seemed that the important thing was their use of the second aorist," she said.
When the sisters discovered that women were still not allowed to earn a doctoral degree at Leipzig, they decided to try their luck at the University of Munich. As it turned out, notes Sandra Singer, "Munich was hardly much of an improvement over Leipzig for Edith. At first it was unclear whether Edith would be able to audit lectures at all ... [but] she was finally able to attend lectures, because there was tension within the classics department between the Protestants and the Catholics." The Protestants supported Edith and she was allowed to attend classes, albeit under trying conditions. According to Singer, "She had been told that a little alcove would be built in the lecture hall where she could sit behind a green curtain."
But as Alice writes in her autobiography, when Edith arrived, "she was forced instead to sit on a chair up on the platform beside the lecturer, facing the audience, so that nobody would be contaminated by contact with her." She remembered Edith saying, "The head of the University used to stare at me, then shake his head and say sadly to a colleague, 'There now, you see what's happened? We're right in the midst of the woman question.'"
Edith intended nonetheless to remain in Munich and earn a doctoral degree, but her plans changed. She was persuaded to return to the United States to take over as head of the recently opened Bryn Mawr Preparatory School for Girls in Baltimore. While she never completed her doctoral degree, she did become an "inspiring and respected head of the school for twenty six years."
"I came to the Greeks early," Hamilton told an interviewer when she was 91, "and I found answers in them. Greece's great men let all their acts turn on the immortality of the soul. We don't really act as if we believed in the soul's immortality and that's why we are where we are today."
Upon retiring, she moved to New York City and wrote and published various articles about Greek drama. Although she was long recognized as the greatest woman classicist, she was 62 when she published her first book, The Greek Way, in 1930. For 50 years before that her "love affair with Greece had smoldered without literary outlet".
Her approach to mythology was entirely through the literature of the classics, for she had not traveled to Greece and was not an archaeologist. The Greek Way drew informative comparisons between life in ancient Greece and current Greek life. The Roman Way (1932) provided similar contrasts between daily life in ancient Rome and the current life. Other works published over the next three decades led to her traveling to Greece in 1957 at the age of ninety.
But although her books were successful, she "nevertheless saw that it was hopeless to persuade Americans to be Greeks. In The Greek Way she conceded that life had become far too complex since the age of Pericles to recapture the simple directness of Greek life... the calm lucidity of the Greek mind, which convinced the great thinkers of Athens of their mastery of truth and enlightenment."
Edith Hamilton's correspondence and papers are at Princeton University. She is the subject of a memoir by Reid, Edith Hamilton: An Intimate Portrait.
Her sister Alice went on to become an integral part of Hull House in Chicago, which offered food, shelter, and education, as a charity on the part of wealthy donors and scholars who volunteered their time. She later became a noted "pioneer in industrial medicine and a professor at Northwestern University and Harvard Medical School, where in 1919 she became Harvard's first woman professor.
Her younger sister Margaret also studied in Munich for one summer in 1899 with a close college and family friend, Clara Landsberg. Landsberg was from Rochester, New York, where her father was a Reform rabbi. After graduating from Bryn Mawr, Landsberg also became a part of Hull House and shared a room with Alice. She eventually left Hull House to teach Latin at the Bryn Mawr while Edith was headmistress. Alice considered Landsberg part of the Hamilton family: "I could not think of a life in which Clara did not have a great part, she has become part of my life almost as if she were one of us." Margaret later taught English at Bryn Mawr and took over as head of the school when Edith retired.
In 1950 she received the honorary degrees of Doctor of Letters from the University of Rochester and the University of Pennsylvania. She was also a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
She considered the high point of her life to be a ceremony in Greece in 1957 when she stood in the theater of Herodes Atticus and King Paul of Greece awarded her the Golden Cross of the Order of Benefaction, making her an honorary citizen of Athens. Nodding to the applause of cabinet ministers, diplomats and Athenian intellectuals, "she walked to the microphone and in a firm voice cried, 'I am an Athenian citizen! I am an Athenian citizen! This is the proudest moment in all my life.'"