How a Bold Young American Changed the Way Scholars Think About Homer
Robert Kanigel on the Unlikely Legacy of Milman Parry
Milman Parry was arguably the most important American classical scholar of the 20th century, by one reckoning “the Darwin of Homeric Studies.” At age 26, this young man from California stepped into the world of Continental philologists and overturned some of their most deeply cherished notions of ancient literature. Homer, Parry showed, was no “writer” at all. The Iliad and the Odyssey were not “written,” but had been composed orally, drawing on traditional ways that went back centuries.
Generations of high school and college students can recall descriptive flourishes of Odysseus, as “much-enduring,” or “the man of many schemes”; or of the goddess Athena as “bright-eyed”; or of “swift-footed Achilles.” Parry showed that these “ornamental epithets” were not odd little explosions of creativity. Nor, in their repetition, were they failures of the imagination. Nor were they random. They were the oral poet’s way to fill out lines of verse and thus keep the great river of words flowing. They were the product of long tradition, and many voices. Parry wrote of the fifth-century BCE Greek sculptor Phidias that his work was not his alone but shot through with “the spirit of a whole race”; much the same, he said, applied to the Homeric epics.
Homer, of course, was no trifling asterisk of classical studies but stood at the very roots of Western civilization, his epic poems filled with stories of the warrior Achilles and the goddess Athena and the other gods and heroes enshrined on every ancient Greek potsherd, represented in paintings, sculpture, and literature for 3,000 years, inspiring Shelley and Keats, Shakespeare and James Joyce. After Parry, just how Homer had come into the world and become embedded in the memory of humankind came to be seen in a new way.
As Walter Ong summed up the case in his groundbreaking 1982 book, Orality and Literacy,
The Iliad and the Odyssey have been commonly regarded from antiquity to the present as the most exemplary, the truest and the most inspired secular poems in the western heritage. To account for their received excellence, each age has been inclined to interpret them as doing better what it conceived its [own] poets to be doing or aiming at.
That is, they tended to be seen like the poems of one’s own age, whatever it was, only better. But no, said Parry, Homer was different, and not just from the literature of our own time, or from Victorian literature, or from that of the Middle Ages, but even from almost all other ancient Greek literature. A rough, ill-formed thought might place the Odyssey and, say, Aeschylus’s three-part tragedy, the Oresteia, under the same broad heading—ancient “classics,” revered literary products of Greece, stalwarts of the Western literary tradition.
But Parry showed they were different animals altogether, because Aeschylus wrote, as you and I write, while the Odyssey was something else entirely, percolating up from oral performance over the centuries, shaped by its own, maddeningly “unliterary” rules: The literary critic sees repetition, stereotype, and cliché as unwelcome or worse. But for on-the-fly oral composition they were virtually essential, characteristic of it, understood and expected by audience and performer alike. For Parry they were the clue to how the epic poems had been made.
In time, Parry’s ideas came to constitute their own orthodoxy, with scholars questioning them as they would anything else, placing them under relentless scrutiny. And yet in all the years since—it is now nearly a century since Parry first asserted them—they have become one of the cornerstones on which Homeric studies stand. And extended into new realms, they have altered understanding of other early cultures as well—not just in the West but in Asia, Africa, and around the world; and not just in past centuries but our own. Parry’s ideas have forced us to rethink the role of books and print generally. The Yugoslav singers, like those of ancient Greece, could not read or write. Milman Parry helped us to imagine, understand, and respect another species of human creativity.
“The effects of oral states of consciousness,” Walter Ong has written, “are bizarre to the literate mind.”
I come to Milman Parry from outside the world of classical studies. While for a dozen years in the early 2000s I held a faculty position at a university, MIT, most of my working life has been spent outside academia altogether, as an independent writer. In the early years, I wrote articles, essays, and reviews for magazines and newspapers. Then, beginning in the 1980s, books—about mentor relationships among elite scientists, about tourism in Nice, about an Indian mathematical genius. A servant to my enthusiasms, I never much restricted myself by subject. In 2007, the object of my fascination became a tiny island community off the far west coast of Ireland, known as the Great Blasket, inhabited by a few hundred Irish-speaking fishermen, visited by scholars, writers, and linguists from all over Europe.
One of these scholars was an Englishman, George Thomson, who first arrived on the island in 1923 and took a lively interest in it for the rest of his life. Professionally, he was a classicist, a student of Greek lyric poetry, of Aeschylus, of Homer. For most of his life he was professor of Greek at the University of Birmingham. Through his books, correspondence, and personal story I found him a warming and inspiring figure. Such were his sensibilities, and such were mine, that I could not confine my interest to his place in the Irish story; I became intrigued by whatever intrigued him.
Soon I was reading his translation of the Oresteia, from which I came away thrilled by the astonishing transformation wrought by Athena in the third play, where vengeance metamorphoses into something like justice. From Aeschylus, then, it was on to the Odyssey and the Iliad through the lustrous and lucid Robert Fagles translations; these were my first forays into Homer since junior high school. Ultimately, I was caught up in Thomson’s ideas about the Homeric Question, the fertile, endlessly fascinating, centuries-old debate about who Homer was, when and where he’d lived, and what it meant, if anything, to attribute to him the authorship of the ancient epics. And the Homeric Question, in turn, led me to Milman Parry.
Milman Parry helped us to imagine, understand, and respect another species of human creativity.
As one over-neat formulation of his achievement put it, Parry “never solved the Homeric Question; he demonstrated that it was irrelevant.” Jettisoning contradictions in Homer that to his mind weren’t contradictions at all, he opened the world of classical scholarship to new notions of literary creation.
And he did so in a peculiarly single-minded way that made for its own, charmingly geekish story: In the decade after first asserting his ideas, Parry enriched his original insights with such deep analysis of the hexametric line in which the epics were written, such abundance of detail, such obsessive regard for closing off alternative explanations, that, in a scholarly world riven by fractious debate, few could doubt their truth, leaving others to pick at the periphery of his big idea. Classicists today refer to “before Parry” and “after Parry.” They speak not of Parry’s “theory,” or “argument,” but of his “discovery.” This isn’t quite true, but it is true enough, many of his demonstrations and proofs seemingly airtight.
Over the years much attention has been paid to Parry’s ideas; less to the progression of his thought set against the times and places in which he lived, or the sensibilities and personal history of Parry himself. This book is a story of intellectual discovery rooted in a field, classical studies, often relegated in the popular imagination to the outlands of the irrelevant and the obscure. But success in any field, however recondite, is always a story of humans at work, in all their hope and glory, and in the face of all their foibles and excesses. Homer and ancient Greece stand near the center of this book; but nearer still is Mr. Parry himself. Our story plays out in the times and places in which he lived—across just a dozen years in the 1920s and 1930s, in California, in Paris, at Harvard, and on the Balkan peninsula, where Parry went to test his ideas on a living tradition.
Hearing Homer’s Song is the story of Mrs. Parry, too—Marian Thanhouser Parry, who was with him at the University of California at Berkeley at the time of his earliest insights, and with him, too, at the moment of his death. Their marriage was conventional and distant, at best, but inexorably looms large in this book.
To anyone moved to reflect on the nature of human genius or, less grandly, of intellectual work at its highest and best, it is hard not to wonder about the turns of Parry’s personal story. From where do great ideas emerge? What are the conditions of domestic life, of home and family, marriage and children, that nourish or discourage them? Parry could seem to have come out of nowhere. The son of an only intermittently successful druggist, he was the first in his family to attend college. At Cal, he studied Greek. His most important papers, in their precision, detail, and recourse to statistical evidence, bear the stigmata of science. But he was a romantic, too, alive with wanderlust.
Success in any field, however recondite, is always a story of humans at work, in all their hope and glory.
In Yugoslavia, it would be said of him, he loved “to visit the local pashas and exchange amenities, to ply his gouslars with wine and listen to their lies.” He was enchanted by T. E. Lawrence and his Arabian exploits. He entertained his children with whimsical stories of Mickey Mouse and Winnie-the-Pooh. His daughter told of being brought up to believe “that Great Literature, Good Taste, and Harvard were the most important things in life”—only to immediately correct herself: “No, the first thing was to always try to be a hero.”
Parry’s stature did not arise all at once but gradually grew after his death. Before 1935, he’d begun to get attention from classicists and linguists, enough to earn him a faculty appointment at Harvard. But in fact it was Albert Lord, saddled with all those aluminum discs in 1935, who would further establish Parry’s reputation and fix him in the mind of the scholarly world. Save for their brief time in Yugoslavia, the two never really worked together; they could scarcely be said to have truly “collaborated.”
Yet Lord would take on the mantle of Parry’s legacy, first in his own doctoral thesis and then in a highly successful 1960 book. And along the way, quite independently, he’d take Parry’s ideas in directions his master might scarcely have imagined, vastly enlarging their range of application. By the time Lord died in 1991 the two of them would be linked almost as one, “Parry and Lord” as enshrined in its respective corner of the intellectual world as Watson and Crick, discoverers of the structure of DNA, were in theirs.
Parry was dead but, thanks in large part to Lord—one could hardly contend otherwise—he lived on.
Excerpted from Hearing Homer’s Song: The Brief Life and Big Idea of Milman Parry. Used with the permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Copyright © 2021 by Robert Kanigel.