Born 12 August 1867, Dresden, Germany; died 31 May 1963, Washington, D.C.
Daughter of Montgomery and Gertrude Pond Hamilton
In the record of Edith Hamilton's work as an educator and writer, one glimpses strong models and an abiding confidence in herself and her traditions. Born abroad, Hamilton was only six weeks old when her parents returned with her to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where her Irish grandfather had settled in the early 1800s. There, in an affluent and cultivated atmosphere, she was early introduced to the classics. After attending Miss Porter's School in Farmington, Connecticut, she received her B.A. and M.A. (1894) from Bryn Mawr College, majoring in Latin and Greek. She was a fellow in Latin at Bryn Mawr the next year, and received a one-year fellowship to study in Leipzig and Munich, where she was the first woman ever admitted.
From 1896 to 1922, Hamilton was headmistress of the Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore, which set new standards for the intellectual potential and achievement of young women. Personal magnetism, an unquestioned faith in the value of classical learning, and the determination that all 400 of her girls would succeed made the school popular. Many of her former students remained her devoted disciples.
After retirement, Hamilton published a series of articles on Greek theater later collected in The Ever-Present Past (1964), a posthumous volume including a prologue by her friend and companion, Doris Fielding Reid. Hamilton maintained she had been bullied into writing; urged by friends to record thoughts that had crystallized over decades of studying and teaching, Hamilton proceeded with an almost evangelical fervor to produce volume after volume of materials relating to the ancient world, especially Greece, but also Rome, the prophets and teachers of the Old Testament, and finally the world of Jesus Christ.
Although aspiring to the objectivity of positivism, these works never question the supremacy of Western culture or the elitist conception of progress that is its underpinning. In The Greek Way (1930) and its updated version, The Great Age of Greek Literature (1943), Hamilton attempts to recreate the "Greek miracle" through the words of her favorite authors. (There is no mention of Sappho.) The question she does not pose is how to march forward from perfection.
Readers may be disturbed by cross-cultural comparisons: "The English method is to fill the mind with beauty; the Greek method was to set the mind to work." Her generalizing tendency, however, forces one to make interesting and provocative connections, and it is offset by copious textual examples. Normative implications remain a problem: comparing the amplification of Hebrew prose with the brevity of Greek, she merely cites as proof Pericles' statement that "we are lovers of beauty with economy." Hamilton neglects scholarly apparatus, but her works retain their validity as a general introduction to the ancient world for the intelligent, nonscholarly reader, and for high school and college humanities students.
Her best-known work, Mythology (1942), recounts with authority and charm the stories of the (mainly Greek) gods, goddesses, heroes, and nymphs. One wishes she had made a greater effort to situate the myths historically and analytically. Cultural bias prevented her from looking beneath the outermost layer to determine possible sources, earlier forms, and cultural significance. Not surprisingly for her time, Hamilton subscribed to the "early science" and "primitive literature" theories of mythmaking. To her credit, she sensed these theories do not carry one very far.
Witness to the Truth (1948) separates the experience of Christ, likened unto Socrates, from history, theology, and the church. Hamilton eliminates all religious phenomenology save faith in order to focus upon the ethics and the metaphysics of Christ-likeness. In her view, the gospel of love breaks "through all restrictions, family, nation, race."
Among other awards, Hamilton received the Golden Cross of the Order of Benefaction from King Paul of Greece in 1957, at ceremonies on the stage of the ancient theater of Herodes Atticus in Athens, and was proclaimed an honorary citizen of Athens. A member of many professional organizations and a well-known woman of letters in her own time, Hamilton is unjustifiably ignored by critics of ours.
The Klubwoman (1925). The Roman Way (1932). The Prophets of Israel (1936). Three Greek Plays (1937). Spokesmen for God: The Great Teachers of the Old Testament (1949). The Echo of Greece (1957).
Cole, R. W., Mythology: A Critical Commentary (1966).
CB (Apr. 1963, July 1963). NCAB. Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). TCA, TCAS.