Who are the Edith Hamiltons of the 21st Century?

Edith Hamilton

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 Edith Hamilton was out-of-date when I studied classics in the late 20th century: a professor warned us against Hamilton’s sentimental translations of Greek tragedies.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.

Mary Beard

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)?

Bryan Doerries

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!

Emily Wilson

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.

10 thoughts on “Who are the Edith Hamiltons of the 21st Century?

  1. As a young girl, Izzy did read Edith Hamilton and a couple of other books whose title and author escapes me, but I remember Olivia Coolidge retold the Trojan War, and these were important introductions. Izzy also has a beautiful picture book for an adolescent, the drawings recalling Wm Blake’s work.

    I love Mary Beard’s books and blog and essays; more important, Izzy who is a real classicist in her way read Beard regularly; has read three of her books. But Beard is for someone older.
    Ditto on Wilson who I read regularly in the NYRB. I’ve not read Byran Doerries’ translations, but it strikes this is for college kids or say someone in high school. It’s that 12-13 year old heart we want to reach.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, Hamilton was (is?) very important. Norton reissued The Greek Way and The Roman Way, and they are excellent intros. I had to stop myself from writing, “they’re a bit dated,” but I realize I haven’t read her translations or other books, so I shouldn’t dismiss her.

      Doerries has done very well with the military. Beard is a brilliant scholar but is also a popularizer. Emily Wilson has done a lot of work, but the Odyssey is her first book to be marketed to a popular audience. Let’s hope they can do that with her other books!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I met Mary Beard when I bought her little book about the Parthenon. Most of the material I was finding on the subject was all about those darn columns, but she told the whole story of use and abuse over the centuries. When I ordered the book from Amazon I was puzzled,, confusing her with the Mary Beard who wrote American history texts 50 years ago.

    Also, he’s a popularizer not a classicist, but I recommend Thomas Cahill’s Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea as the best introduction to the Greeks that I have found.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Nancy, how nice to have met her! Her writings really are sensible and no-nonsense. Had no idea she wasn’t the only Mary Beard!

    And thanks for the Thomas Cahill intro. If it’s your best, it’s well-written, or you wouldn’t recommend it!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Beard is an excellent commentator, as is Simon Schama. There are quite a few – Andrew Graham-Dixon is good on art, and Richard Clay is brilliant on iconoclasm and the French Revolution. We get a pretty good bunch of academics/commentators on the BBC! 😁

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Coincidentally, I’m starting to shelve my history books in my personal library (having moved house recently). I have both The Greek Way, which I read in 1980, and The Roman Way, which I haven’t yet read. I love history, but I get lost in military actions and too many dates. I want the excitement of the story, the stories of the people involved. I’m the kind of person who needs and wants people like Edith Hamilton and Mary Beard.

    Liked by 1 person

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