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Edith Hamilton: A Mythical Hoosier

Although she never wrote down to her readers, Fort Wayne's classicist wrote for what would today be called a “popular” audience.

Edith Hamilton in Greece.

Photo: file photo

At age 90, classical scholar and bestselling author Edith Hamilton traveled to Greece, where she was made an honorary citizen.

Generations of school children and adults have been introduced to the civilization and myths of classical Greece by reading books written by Edith Hamilton. Her Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes (1942), The Greek Way (1930), and The Roman Way (1932) are still being reprinted and enjoyed by those who rank among the millions of her readers. Few of these readers, however, know that this famous classicist grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, just one member of a remarkable family.

Allen and Emerine Hamilton were pillars of the Fort Wayne community throughout much of the nineteenth century—active in the Presbyterian church and in many charities. After her husband’s death, Emerine continued to live in their mansion, called The Homestead, and became an advocate of temperance and women’s suffrage.

With the addition of houses for their two sons and their families, three generations of Hamiltons lived as part of a three-block estate within the city. Son Montgomery and his wife Gertrude raised their four daughters and their son to be both educated and productive members of society—the girls, unusual for the time, were educated in the classical tradition more common to boys’ schooling. They were schooled almost entirely at home until late in their teens, mostly by their father, who taught them languages and encouraged them to read widely in the family library.

Under her father’s tutelage, oldest daughter Edith (1867-1963) learned Latin, Greek, French, and German. At age 17, she left home for Miss Porter’s School in Connecticut, a school where many daughters of the wealthy and influential were “finished.” Edith, however, like her younger sister Alice (who would go on to become the first female professor at Harvard and a pioneer in industrial health and medicine), wanted a college education. She graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 1894, studied abroad for a time, and then returned to the U.S. in 1896 to become the headmistress of the Bryn Mawr Preparatory School in Baltimore.

Edith Hamilton presided over the Bryn Mawr School for twenty-six years. It was after her retirement that her second career as an author began. When The New York Times reviewed her Mythology in 1942, the reviewer praised her “orderly and lucid mind”; her “warm sympathy for her material”; and a writing style that put the reader on “surprisingly friendly terms” with the ancient stories (NYT, May 24, 1942). Hamilton believed that the culture and the literature of classical Greece could speak to the modern world; she wrote for what would today be called a “popular” audience, although she never wrote “down” to her readers.

Edith Hamilton continued her writing career for the next two decades. She was made an honorary citizen of Greece in 1957; she published her last book in 1961 and died two years later. Hamilton’s unusual childhood and young adulthood in Fort Wayne served her well – her writings still speak to 21st-century readers and bring alive the world of classical Greece.

A Moment of Indiana History is a production of WFIU Public Radio in partnership with the Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations. Research support comes from Indiana Magazine of History published by the Indiana University Department of History.

Sources: “The Hamiltons of Fort Wayne,” in Barbara Sicherman, Alice Hamilton: A Life in Letters (Cambridge, Mass., 1984); Mina J. Carson, “Agnes Hamilton of Fort Wayne: The Education of a Christian Settlement Worker,” Indiana Magazine of History 80 (March 1984), 1-34.

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