Who is the Edith Hamilton of the 21st century?
Last November, Donna Zuckerberg wrote an article in the TLS about Edith Hamilton, author of The Greek Way (1930) and The Roman Way (1932), two popular books that inspired millions of readers, among them Robert F. Kennedy, to appreciate Greek and Roman culture. Edith Hamilton was out-of-date when I studied classics in the late 20th century: a professor warned us against Hamilton’s sentimental translations of Greek tragedies. “Perhaps he was jealous,” a friend later suggested.
But at the (low-paying) posh schools where I taught Latin for a few years after finishing grad school, I sometimes let my students sit and read bits of The Roman Way (there were old copies in the classroom) after the rigorous exams that jangled their nerves. They enjoyed The Roman Way, and what’s more, they understood it. And that is the point, isn’t it?
And so I was wondering as I mused on Edith Hamilton, Who are the popularizers of classics today? I came up with three names.
1. Mary Beard, a classicist, professor at Cambridge, critic, and the author of several best-selling books, including Women & Power: A Manifesto and SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, is a celebrity. She is the classics editor of the TLS, a star of a BBC documentary on Pompeii and a series on Rome, author of the popular blog “A Don’s Life” at the TLS, and a reviewer at the New York Review of Books, the LRB, and the TLS.
Her books are well-written, intelligent, and clear. She is known for asking questions about accepted versions of Roman history. She is also often interviewed about politics and controversial issues on TV and the radio in the UK. And she manages to be both popular and scholarly: that is a feat! Is she the 21st-century British Edith Hamilton (only she gets respect)?
2. Bryan Doerries is the founder of Theater of War and the co-founder of Outside the Wire, two groups that give dramatic readings of plays for soldiers, prisoners, and health professionals. He also translates Greek tragedies.
I admired Doerries’s All That You’ve Seen Here Is God, a collection of his “versions” of four tragedies: Sophocles’ Ajax, Philoctetes, The Women of Traxis, and Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound.
Doerries explains that he is not interested in literal translation, though he starts with the Greek text. He writes that he is trying “to build a bridge between the ancient and contemporary worlds.”
He writes, “Tragedy is an ancient military technology, a form of storytelling that evokes powerful emotions in order to erode stigmas, elicit empathy, generate dialogue, and stir citizens to action. When you plug a tragedy into a community that is ready to receive it, the story does what it was designed to do. Like the ancient Athenian audience in the Theater of Dionysus, the war-hardened Marines who gathered [at one of Doerries’s productions] knew the plays, not as representations of war and its aftermath, but as lived experience.”
His translations are spare and accessible, and the traumas of the heroes are vivid and moving to the military audiences. What a brilliant approach! I wrote a longer piece about his book here. He has also written The Theater of War: What Ancient Tragedies Can Teach Us Today– on my TBR.
And so he is a 21st-century Edith Hamilton!
3 Emily Wilson, a professor of classics at the University of Pennsylvania, was the first woman to translate Homer’s Odyssey into English. She is the author of several other books, among them The Greatest Empire: A life of Seneca and Translations of four tragedies of Euripides, in The Greek Plays, Modern Library: Bacchae, Helen, Electra and Trojan Women.
Wilson was the subject of a profile in The New York Times Magazine last fall after the publication of her translation of the Odyssey. And isn’t that unprecedented? Amazon was sold out of Wilson’s Odyssey after the profile was published. I know, because I tried to buy it.
So is she a new Edith Hamilton?
Naturally, there are many, many brilliant classicists, but few manage to be both popular and scholarly. Do let me know any of your favorites. Or if there are celeb popularizers/translators in other languages–French, Russian, German, Italian, you name it!–let me know.