Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2023
489 pp., $39.95

It’s been almost a century since Edith Hamilton published her classic The Greek Way, and during those years, countless thousands of readers have encountered Greek culture for the first time through her works—which include Mythology, The Echo of Greece, and translations of Plato, Euripides, and others. During her lifetime, in fact, she became so celebrated that the Greek government gave her its highest civilian award and made her an honorary Athenian citizen. Robert F. Kennedy was such a devotee that he quoted her in several speeches; his gravestone even features one of her translations of Aeschylus. Yet despite her achievements, Hamilton has never been the subject of a full biography until now.

Part of the reason is that many of her papers were lost in two floods that damaged her home in the 1930s. When, after her death, her publishers released a brief biographical sketch written by longtime companion Doris Fielding Reid, they prefaced it with a note explaining that those losses meant that “no conventional biography of this great lady . . . could be written.”1 But with American Classicist, Victoria Houseman has undertaken what might aptly be called the herculean task of assembling the story of Hamilton’s life—from her birth in Germany in 1867 to her retirement and literary eminence in Washington, D.C., during the Eisenhower and Kennedy years—from those records that do survive.

That scholarship is a remarkable achievement. Unfortunately, however, Houseman does a poor job shaping the fruits of her research into an appealing narrative. American Classicist focuses overwhelmingly on Hamilton’s domestic life—which might have been understandable if she had been an adventurer or political figure outside the pages of her books, but the opposite is true: Beyond her writing, Hamilton’s life was mundane. It was in her writing and thinking that she shone; yet in a book approaching five hundred pages, Houseman omits almost entirely any discussion of her ideas or any comparison of her work with that of her contemporaries.

To summarize briefly, Hamilton was the oldest of four daughters born to a moderately prosperous family of bankers and grocers; was homeschooled before matriculating at Bryn Mawr College, where she majored in ancient languages; then she quit graduate studies to take a job running the girls’ school that Bryn Mawr operated in Baltimore. She kept that job for more than a quarter century before retiring at the age of fifty-four and starting her writing career. She never married but had close relationships with several women, particularly Doris Reid, a former student almost thirty years her junior. They lived together in New York, Maine, and D.C., for three decades, and Houseman draws the obvious conclusion that they were lovers, but she admits that she found no definitive evidence of this. In fact, it appears equally likely that they were what an older generation called “spinsters”—women without interest in romantic affairs of any kind.

But the true drama of Hamilton’s story is to be found in her work as a cultural scholar, translator, and literary critic. . . .

Edith Hamilton introduced thousands of readers to Greek culture for the first time. Now @VictoriaHousem1 has finally given us the first full biography of Hamilton's life.
Click To Tweet

1. Doris Fielding Reid, Edith Hamilton: An Intimate Portrait (New York: Norton, 1967), 9.

2. Edith Hamilton, The Greek Way (New York: Norton, 1993), 16.

3. Hamilton, Greek Way, 18–19.

4. Hamilton, Greek Way, 19.

5. Hamilton, Greek Way, 24.

6. Hamilton, Greek Way, 25.

7. Hamilton, Greek Way, 172, 174.

8. Edith Hamilton, The Roman Way (New York: New American Library, 1963), 117.

9. Hamilton, Roman Way, 119.

10. Hamilton, Roman Way, 120.

11. Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, ed. G. W. Kitchin (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2001), 80.

12. Hamilton, Roman Way, 120.

13. Hamilton, Roman Way, 120–21 (quoting Bacon).

14. Hamilton, Roman Way, 123.

15. Edith Hamilton, The Ever-Present Past (New York: Norton, 1964), 162.

16. Hamilton, Ever-Present Past, 162.

17. Hamilton, Ever-Present Past, 165.

18. Hamilton, Ever-Present Past, 166.

19. Hamilton, Ever-Present Past, 164.

20. Edith Hamilton, Witness to the Truth: Christ and His Interpreters (New York: Norton, 1948), 211.

21. Hamilton, Witness to the Truth, 217–18.

22. Judith P. Hallett, “‘The Anglicizing Way’: Edith Hamilton and the Twentieth Century Transformation of Classics in the U.S.A.,” in Judith P. Hallett and Christopher Stray, eds., British Classics Outside England (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009), 15; Barbara Sicherman, “Edith Hamilton,” in Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, The Reader’s Companion to American History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991), 484.

23. David Greene, trans., “Oedipus Rex,” in Sophocles I (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 202.

24. Hamilton, Greek Way, 36; quoted in E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951), 64.

25. Wallace I. Matson, Grand Theories and Everyday Beliefs (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 66.

26. John Mason Brown, “The Heritage of Edith Hamilton,” Saturday Review of Literature, June 22, 1963, 17.

Return to Top
You have loader more free article(s) this month   |   Already a subscriber? Log in

Thank you for reading
The Objective Standard

Enjoy unlimited access to The Objective Standard for less than $5 per month
See Options
  Already a subscriber? Log in

Pin It on Pinterest