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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 901

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This is the grave of Edith Hamilton.

Born in Dresden, Germany in 1867, Hamilton grew up in an elite American family who were old money, basically. Her sister became the most important industrial safety reformer of the 20th century, the great Alice Hamilton. The family educated their girls at home, thinking public schools weren’t good enough for them and not wanting to send them away to private schools like other super rich people. Like most of the women in her family, Edith was sent to Miss Porter’s Finishing School in 1884 for two years of learning to be a proper Victorian lady. She started at Bryn Mawr in 1891, a bit older than most students. She was an excellent student with a mastery of Greek and Latin. She and Alice both went to Germany in 1895 for postgraduate education and in fact Alice was the first woman to ever enroll at the University of Munich.

The next year, in 1896, Hamilton left Germany to head the Bryn Mawr School, the college’s prep school in Baltimore. She did this until 1922. By most accounts, she was very effective and introduced competitive women’s sports to the school, among other things. She also taught classics. That year, she left the school and it was only then that she became the person who is remembered today. She moved to New York in 1924 and decided to pursue her lifelong love of the classics after all these years. She started working on The Greek Way, her first book. It was published in 1930, when Hamilton was 62 years old. This book made her famous. Receiving critical acclaim and becoming a best-seller, it popularized the Greek myths for Americans, as well as providing informative essays that made connections between the leading lights of Athens and contemporary leaders. She immediately followed this with The Roman Way, published in 1932 and likewise was a huge seller. Although she did not read Hebrew, next came The Prophets of Israel in 1936, which sought to interpret the Old Testament prophets for modern readers. One thing all of these books did was emphasize that the ancients were modern people for their time, not some weird backward looking peoples of the distant past. That was the fundamental of her comparative approach, even for the Old Testament prophets. In 1942 came Mythology, which went into far greater depth on the Greek myths than did The Greek Way. She lived a long time and kept working (this she also in common with Alice). She moved to Washington D.C. in 1942, but not for retirement. She wrote Witness to the Truth: Christ and His Interpreters in 1948 and then The Echo of Greece in 1957. Yes, she was publishing books when she was 90 years old!

Hamilton was quite possibly a lesbian. In any case, she had a life companion named Doris Reid, who helped run an investment firm (itself quite unusual for a woman of the time!) and together they raised Doris’ nephew. They were known for their entertaining dinners that brought everyone from Robert Frost to John L. Lewis over. Reid would write a book on Edith after the latter’s death. In Washington, Hamilton also started working for Voice of America. In 1957, again at a mere 90, she traveled back to Greece to see her personal translation of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound performed at one of the ancient theaters. She also was presented with a medal by the nation’s king.

I will confess to not having read any of her books as I have very little interest in the ancient world. But I am sure many commenters are quite familiar with her, so have at it!

Hamilton died in 1963, at the age of 96.

Edith Hamilton is buried in Cove Cemetery, Hadlyme, Connecticut.

If you would like this series to visit other famed classicists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Sara Anderson Immerwahr is in Chebeague Island, Maine and Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve is in Charlottesville, Virginia. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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