Sunday, March 23, 2014

Classics Confidential: Popular Culture and the Democratisation of Classics

Last November I was interviewed for a second time for Classics Confidential, a site which hosts video discussions with scholars about their work.  The interview has now gone up.

This is, I think, rather interesting.  It was meant to be me talking about my research - how the Liverpool conference on Classics and Science Fiction went (brilliantly, thank you very much), and what I'm planning on doing next. And then Anastasia asked me why studying popular culture was important, and that led to me stating clearly on record what I believe the objectives of widening access to Classics should be (don't ring-fence the subject, either for socio-economic elites or for intellectual elites, but don't impose it on everyone either), and why I think pushing people away from the humanities towards sciences and business studies in some cases is failing students. These are ideas I've been talking about in conversation for a long time, but I haven't stated them publicly very often.  I suspect a number of people will not agree with me on some of these points, but I stand by what I say here.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Edith Hamilton: A blog post for International Women's Day.

"It has always seemed strange to me that in our endless discussions about education so little stress is laid on the pleasure of becoming an educated person, the enormous interest it adds to life. To be able to be caught up into the world of thought — that is to be educated." - Edith Hamilton

Until recently, I knew very little about Edith Hamilton. I had heard the the name, but was not familiar with her achievements. That changed because I was showing students Michael Cacoyannis' 1971 The Trojan Women. Though Cacoyannis takes the screenplay credit, his contribution is a few scenes, and deciding what people would actually be doing on screen. Most of the words come from Hamilton's 1937 translation Three Greek Plays (an interesting selection: Prometheus Bound, Agamememnon and Trojan Women, not necessarily what one might have thought of if asked to name three Greek plays).  So I decided to find out a little about Hamilton.

She's a fascinating character.  Born in 1867, she was introduced to Latin and Greek by her father, who home-schooled her, and went on to get Bachelor's and Master's degrees at Bryn Mawr College.  She went on to do postgraduate work in Germany, enrolling first at the University of Leipzig, and then at Munich.  This wasn't an altogether happy experience - the German professors were interested in the minutiae of grammar, whilst Hamilton was interested in the overall beauty of Greek literature (this fight between philology and classical civilization still goes on to a degree).

She returned to the US, invited to become head of Bryn Mawr School.  She taught there for twenty-six years, and then retired.  She set home with someone described in biographies as her "life partner", Doris Fielding Reid, with whom she adopted Doris' nephew. Hamilton was in her fifties, Reid in her twenties. So, clearly Hamilton was unconventional in her family arrangements, which in the 1920s was brave. Her biggest contribution to Classics came after she retired. The Greek Way was published in 1930, and was a bestseller. So were several books that followed, such as Mythologies, still apparently used in the US, and Three Greek Plays, which replaced Gilbert Murray's translations as the standard ones in use in the US.  Many people were introduced to the Classics through Hamilton's works.

Yet she's largely forgotten now.  Books such as The Greek Way are perhaps considered too populist, and her translations have been superseded by others.  I'm not convinced I have any of her books in my personal library (though there are things in there that I've forgotten about).  But I shall be trying to rectify that from now.  It's quite clear that she had a love of the ancient world that was not lost though over-familiarity.  And she believed in the value of education for its own sake, as the above quote indicates.  And I have to admire someone who stands up for that.

If you want to read more about Hamilton, there's an article by Judith Peller Hallet in Classical World 90.2-3.