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96 Years of Life and Learning

Quite unexpectedly, I bumped into an old friend recently and scarcely recognized her. Having treasured Mythology since I was 12, I thought I knew all about Edith Hamilton. To my surprise, during a research project, I found more zip in the old girl than my Greek professor even hinted at.

Born in 1867, Hamilton lived to be 96. Enlightened parents encouraged her enthusiasm for Latin at age 6 and watched her absorb the fustiest of English writers alongside Thucydides and Xenophon, whom she read via self-taught Greek.

By the time Hamilton reached puberty, the Victorian mind-set shanghaied her from home study to Miss Porter's, a prissy New England girls' academy, where she studied sampler embroidery and niceness.

Undaunted by the headmistress's unsubtle shove toward debutantehood, Hamilton struck out for Bryn Mawr, polished off two degrees in classics, and snatched a fellowship to the notoriously sexist University of Munich, where she continued to develop her mind while ignoring the taunts of misogynist professors.

On her return to the Untied States, she joined suffragists and marched in protest against the anti-female sentiment of her day. 

Heading her own preparatory school in Baltimore, Hamilton found teaching remarkably onerous. It wasn't the counseling of teenagers or grading of Latin exercises that drained her, but the constant upstream swim against male administrators who urged her to omit history lessons for her little dears and zero in on ladylike refinement.

At 50, the famed classicist retired from the fray and inaugurated a second career. As the Western world's crackerjack classical essayist, lecturer, and historian, she produced a readable, lucid account of ancient Greece's accomplishments.

From that success came a parallel book on Rome and, in 1942, her masterwork, Mythology. She followed with a deluge of translation, critical analysis, and commentary. 

Honoring the ancient concept of "nothing in excess," Hamilton spent her summers on the Maine shore, vegetating among the rocks, where she could absorb the healing sun and invigorating tides.

On her return to work in the fall, she pushed harder each year, into her early 90s, never giving in to stereotypical old-ladyhood.

In August 1957, Hamilton received the appropriate crown for a 90-year-old classical debutante. Proclaimed an honorary citizen of Athens, she stood at the base of the Acropolis and bestowed a life's love of the ancient world on her new hometown.

Before a performance of her version of Prometheus Bound, she honored the spirit of Greece with typical clarity and lyricism: "We are met tonight to see a play which has lived for 25,000 years. In those years the Greeks have been outstripped by science and technology, but never in the love of truth, never in the creation of beauty and freedom."

Five years before her death, Hamilton vowed to retire for good from the discipline of scholarship and literature. At 91, she tramped about Spain and France, then, to get her juices flowing again, returned to the lecture circuit.

Charlotte Observer
"Catawba Valley Neighbors,"
September 9, 1992

 

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Mary Ellen Snodgrass Tel/Fax: (828) 324-0155