Edith Hamilton

Edith Hamilton (1867-1963) was an excellent teacher, scholar, and writer. She was a gifted storyteller and had a phenomenal memory. Starting at the age of 63, Hamilton published a number of acclaimed books on Greek and Roman culture, was made an honorary citizen of Athens, and was awarded several honorary doctorates.

Edith Hamilton was born in Dresden, Germany, on August 12, 1867, while her mother was visiting relatives. After two months her mother returned with her to the United States, but thereafter, many people thought that she was of German extraction. Her great grandfather, the first of the family to come to North America, was the youngest son of a branch of the wealthy Hamilton family of Northern Ireland. Realizing that as the youngest son, he would not inherit much, he immigrated to Canada. His genteel status was not suited to manual labor, but he finally landed a job as a deck hand on one of the flat-bottomed boats used on frontier rivers and canals. On one such trip, he apparently jumped ship at Fort Wayne, Indiana, which was then part of Canada. He bought large tracts of land cheaply, and eventually became very wealthy. Hamilton sent for his son, Allen, from Northern Ireland.

Allen's son, Montgomery, married Gertrude Pond. Montgomery, Edith Hamilton's father, who never worked a day in his life, was a voracious reader and an educated man but was interested mainly in literature and religious heresies. According to his daughter, he was a horrible teacher. Her mother encouraged Hamilton to play outdoors and to learn foreign languages.

Hamilton, the eldest of five children from an exceptionally gifted intellectual family, was raised on a family estate with many servants, many relatives, and no need for outsiders. She was withdrawn, intense, moody, and somewhat depressive. However, she was also caring, a gifted storyteller, and had a phenomenal memory. She learned French at an early age from her mother and German from servants. Her father taught her Latin at the age of seven and Greek at eight. She was also a voracious reader, but was especially interested in ancient Greece. Her sister Alice says of her in Edith Hamilton: An Intimate Portrait, by Doris Fielding Reid, "Edith had intense emotions. She had her times of joyous gaiety over the beauties of the outside world or a new book or some amusing family episode, but she had her sudden deep depressions that mystified me."


Determined to be Educated

At the age of 16, Hamilton attended school for the first time at Miss Porter's School in Farmington, Connecticut, along with her three sisters, Alice, Margaret, and Norah. About this experience, Hamilton stated, "We weren't taught anything." Since all courses were elective, a young woman did not have to take any she was weak in or did not like.

Hamilton decided to attend Bryn Mawr College in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, even though Miss Porter did not believe in college for women, and her family objected strenuously. It was necessary for Hamilton to study subjects not taught at Miss Porter's School, such as trigonometry, which Hamilton taught herself from a book, in order to pass the college entrance examination.

While at Bryn Mawr, Hamilton successfully fought against a rule that smoking would automatically lead to expulsion. She majored in classics and finished in two years with a Master of Arts degree in 1894. She was awarded the European Fellowship given to the most outstanding woman in the graduating class to enable her to study for a year in any foreign country.


Travel and Study Abroad

In 1895, Hamilton traveled with her sister Alice, who had recently become a doctor, to Germany. She and Alice were the first women at the universities of Leipzig and Munich. They first studied at the University of Leipzig, where Hamilton was very disappointed in the sterility of the Greek and Roman courses. Although her professors were linguistically highly proficient, she felt they failed to see the bigger picture concerning what the ancient writers were saying. After several months of studying the grammar of the ancient Greek texts, Hamilton left Leipzig with her sister to attend the University of Munich. Her sister writes of the effect her admission to Munich had on the formerly all male bastion. "Her admission to the University was a cause of such excitement among the students that a kind, elderly professor offered to see her through it on her first day." All sorts of suggestions were floated on how to avoid contamination with the sole woman on the campus. "Finally, it came to a chair up on the lecturer's platform, where nobody could be contaminated by contact with her." Of course, this had the effect of making poor Hamilton even more conspicuous. She wrote that the head of the University used to look at her and shake his head sadly, while muttering about the "woman question."

Nevertheless, Hamilton liked being at Munich and enjoyed the notoriety. She felt that the professors there were much more interesting and kinder to her. She stated that one "treated me as if he actually liked having me there!" She might have stayed at Munich and earned her Ph.D. if two events had not happened. First, her father lost his money. At the same time, the dean of Bryn Mawr College, Miss M. Carey Thomas, offered her a position as headmistress of the Bryn Mawr Preparatory School in Baltimore, Maryland.


Frightened but Frightening

When Hamilton arrived at the school in the autumn of 1896 at the age of 29, she was the first headmistress. Previously, a secreatry who reported to the dean at Bryn Mawr College had run the school. Not only had she no experience at running the only college preparatory school in the area, but she was a northerner and was faced with parents who did not necessarily believe that young women needed a real education. Hamilton remembered: "I was very young and very ignorant when I first came to Baltimore and, I may say, very, very, frightened. I remember vividly saying to myself as I traveled down here, 'If I were put in charge of running this train, I could hardly know less how to do it than I know how to run the Bryn Mawr School."'

If she were frightened, the impression she gave her children was terrifying. She was a remote eminence, but exacting and demanding. In spite of this, many remember her fondly. She instilled in them a love of learning and an ability to persevere, which she found in ancient Greek literature. Hamilton said, "Nothing effortless was among the good things the early Greeks wanted. A wise and witty writer has said that the spirit of American education today is if at first you don't succeed, try something else. That spirit has never invaded our school." She also believed in the importance of the individual rather than of the aggregate.

Hamilton was headmistress of this school of approximately 400 students until 1922. She loved teaching, but too rarely had the opportunity. She apparently was an excellent teacher, able to inspire students with her love of learning. The fondest memories of her students revolve around her courses. One suggested Hamilton's classes were the highlight of her intellectual life. Another aspect of Hamilton's tenure was that she was highly religious and frequently quoted scriptural passages to her students. Finally, after 26 years, she was tired of her work and decided that it was time to retire. So it reads in her official biography by Doris Fielding Reid. However, a New York Times article of March 22, 1922, states that President Thon of Bryn Mawr College denied reports that she forced Hamilton to retire.


Bullied Into Writing

Hamilton's retirement led to a whole new career. She acquired a retreat at Sea Wall, Mt. Desert Island, Maine, where she would spend summers for 40 years with the future author of her official biography, her friend and former student, Doris Fielding Reid. Hamilton loved the outdoors and the wildness of Sea Wall's ocean and mountains. In the autumn of 1924, Hamilton moved into Reid's New York apartment for the winter and for all the subsequent 20 winters. Visitors were frequently entertained there. At one such meeting, a friend asked her to talk about the ancient Greek writers of tragedy Aeschylus, Hamilton's favorite, Sophocles and Euripides. Thereafter, the group met regularly, and Hamilton held court. After one such meeting, Rosamond Gilder, the editor of Theatre Arts Monthly, suggested she write about Greek tragedies for her magazine. At first, Hamilton refused, but finally prodded beyond endurance, she wrote an article and sent it off. After being published with high praise, she sent off several more articles. She was told, "You are that unusual combination, a gifted talker and a gifted writer. To be a gifted talker can be fatal to a writer."

The articles she wrote for Theatre Arts Monthly were remade into a book, The Greek Way, published in 1930, when she was 63 years old. Two years later, she published The Roman Way. Both books showed the relationship of ancient life to the present and are considered classics in their own right. When asked why she started writing books at an age when most people thought only of retirement, she said, "I was bullied into it."

Besides continuing to write articles, she also wrote further books, including The Prophets of Israel (W.W. Norton, 1936), Three Greek Plays (W.W. Norton, 1937), The Great Age of Greek Literature (W.W. Norton, 1942), Mythology (Little, Brown and Company, 1943), Witness to the Truth: Christ and His Interpreters (W.W. Norton, 1948), Spokesmen for God: the Great Teachers of the Old Testament (W.W. Norton, 1949), The Echo of Greece (W.W. Norton, 1957), The Age of Heroes: An Introduction to Greek Mythology (McClelland, 1957), The Collected Dialogues of Plato (Princeton University Press, 1961), and The Ever-Present Past (W.W. Norton), published posthumously in 1964.


Determined to Survive

While spending winters in Washington, D.C., from 1943 to 1963, Hamilton met many litterati, including novelist Isak Dinesen, historian Arnold Toynbee, and poets Robert Frost and Ezra Pound. In 1955, she was elected a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and in 1957 became member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1957, at the age of 90, Hamilton was invited to Athens where she was given the Gold Cross of the Legion of Benefaction by King Paul of Greece, and made an honorary citizen of Athens. In 1958, she was awarded the Constance Lindsay Skinner Award for literature. Between 1949 and 1962, Hamilton was awarded honorary doctorates by the University of Rochester (1949), the University of Pennsylvania (1953), Yale University (1959), and Goucher College (1962).

Near the end of her life, she suffered a stroke from which her doctor said she would never recover. He told Reid, "You must face the fact that Miss Hamilton will never walk again and never talk again." At that instant, Hamilton opened her eyes and said "Pooh!" She recovered. She spent the following summer at Sea Wall in Maine, where she celebrated her 95th birthday. A week before she died, Hamilton decided to try to finish a book on the Greek philosopher, Plato. She passed away peacefully on May 31, 1963, in Washington, D.C.


Reid, Doris Fielding, Edith Hamilton: An Intimate Portrait, W.W. Norton and Co., 1967.


Browning, Benita, "Edith Hamilton," Department of History at IPFW, http://www.ipfw.edu (November 8, 2001).

"Edith Hamilton," Distinguished Women of Past and Present, http://www.distinguishedwomen.com (November 8, 2001).