BMCR 2021.11.27

Hearing Homer’s song: the brief life and big idea of Milman Parry

, Hearing Homer's song: the brief life and big idea of Milman Parry. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2021. Pp. 336. ISBN 9780525520948 $28.95.

[Reviewer’s disclosure: I was lucky enough to have known Albert Lord well in his last decade, talked with him at length about Parry and oral-traditional poetry, spent much time with him in the Parry Collection, and learned, as a result of his prodding, to read Southslavic epic in the original. I also heard reminiscences of Adam Parry via Geoffrey Kirk.]

We each think we comprehend Milman Parry’s motivation and achievement, but perhaps only a complete outsider to the field like Robert Kanigel, free of the passionate intensity that has long characterized Homeric studies, could have understood Parry’s discovery so well and explained it with such clarity for the benefit of both scholars and the wider public. Let us recall Parry’s own summary of his accomplishment, written shortly before his early and tragic death in 1935:

‘The more I understand the Southslavic poetry and the nature of the unity of the oral poem, the clearer it seems to me that the Iliad and the Odyssey are very exactly, as we have them, each one of them the rounded and finished work of a single singer, though whether they are the work of one singer I do not yet know. I even figure to myself, just now, the moment when the author of the Odyssey sat and dictated his song, while another, with writing materials, wrote it down verse by verse, even in the way that our singers sit in the immobility of their thought, watching the motion of Nikola’s hand across the empty page.’[1]

Using methods closer to those of science than art, but always in a quest to comprehend the beauty of Homeric poetry, Parry proved that the Iliad and Odyssey depend on rich traditions of oral performance reaching back into prehistory. However, he was sure that a ‘single singer’ did create each epic, but not as Vergil wrote the Aeneid. Instead, he showed that, across the world, literature existed before literacy, but followed different rules, ‘the established limits of form to which the play of genius must confine itself’ (68), and that we have these epics much as their poets dictated them.

After a riveting opening that interweaves the biography’s main strands, underlining Parry’s creativity and romanticism (Lawrence of Arabia was one of his heroes), Kanigel begins not with him but with Lord, explaining the greatness of Lord’s contribution and why he did not publish The Singer of Tales until 1960.[2] He then leads us, with fascinating detail and mounting excitement, through Parry’s modest origins in Oakland, education at Berkeley, marriage to the minor heiress Marian Thanhouser Parry, stellar achievements in Paris and Yugoslavia, with his discovery of Avdo Međedović, the ‘Yugoslav Homer’,[3] and meteoric academic career at Iowa and Harvard. Along the way he lets us vividly reimagine, for instance, his soutenance de thèse in the venerable Salle Liard at the Sorbonne, with Parry, his success assured, squirming when the great linguists Antoine Meillet and Joseph Vendryès ask him questions he cannot answer (125–30). The story ends with his sudden death by accidental gunshot in the Palms Hotel, Los Angeles, with only Mrs. Parry present.

Kanigel has uncovered and deftly deployed remarkably rich sources about his subject, who was keener to solve the Homeric Question than to reveal his ‘carefully concealed inner life’ (167). Since Mrs. Parry’s lengthy testimony supplies much of the available information, it is all the more startling that Kanigel, who gives her the most sympathetic treatment possible, suggests, to my consternation (this idea never crossed my mind, and was never mentioned by Kirk or Lord), that she murdered him. One does not expect the biography of a classicist to become a gripping whodunit, but this one does. Mrs. Parry’s reminiscences of him always turn into an indictment (245–7). Until she died, his daughter Marian remained ‘all but certain’ that her mother had killed her father (5), since Parry well knew how to handle firearms safely (43, 246). His son Adam, who was younger, was less certain, but both agreed that he had no propensity or motive for suicide: for Parry was amazingly well treated by Harvard (241–2), adored his children and was adored by them (209), and had every reason to live (236). Parry’s suicide is a canard.

One smudge blurs the clarity and accuracy of Kanigel’s portrait: he finds Parry lacking in emotion. The emotion is there, if one knows where to seek it. When Parry cycled alone round Greece in the summer of 1925, his sole visit, and kept notes of what he saw, Kanigel wishes he would reveal more of how he felt, of ‘what moved him’ there (167). In Athens, Parry wrote:

‘[T]his little place is so filled with names and stories, every little lump of rock, every creek … has some story, some piece of life, some intelligent incident connected with it.’ (90–1)

In Sparta, after a ‘sleepless guesting of bedbug, flea and louse’:

‘“You slept well?”, gesturingly asks the hostess, of Spartan fierceness and a browbeaten youngmother daughter.

‘“Most well,” for complaint is beyond my knowledge of Romaic [i.e. Modern Greek].

‘Then something expecting no answer.

‘So, “No.”

‘Proudly, “At other hotels you know,” and full gestures of removing single vermin after single vermin between thumb and forefinger.’ (167)

There is humour here, and keen observation of humanity (‘browbeaten youngmother daughter’). Later that morning:

‘A mile from the rocked river and I come to the acropolis of Sparta. It is not bad in this cool dawn, having drunk the last of the watermelon, […] to go over the ground with the Guide Bleu. A little temple in porous stone, early. I see a few square stone blocks. Then go on up the hill, all planted in silvered green olives, with dry wheat stubble beneath where a shepherd guards his blackfaced tinkling herd.’ (167–8)

Kanigel comments:

‘Bits of this are charming. But mostly, it’s tedious, certainly in this unedited form, for it goes on and on—up one hill or rocky slope and down the next, a low mound of olives and wheat, a steep hill of red shale—but missing a human face, certainly Milman’s’. (168)

But Milman is the observer. Each word is deeply felt; every virago ‘of Spartan fierceness’, every tree and rock, has meaning for him. He is in the world of Homer, inventing and accumulating ornamental epithets, the ‘rocked river’, ‘silvered green olives’ and ‘blackfaced tinkling herd’ (μελανώπιδα κωδωνεῦντα), which even in English scans as half a hexameter. Any philhellene who has hiked around Greece will see, hear, and smell that flock, and recognize the emotion as if reading Longus or Kazantzakis. That same profound love of Homer permeates Parry’s publications, for those who can appreciate their significance and solidity; that same enthusiasm for a life that was ‘holy, and sweet, and wondrous’ shone through his unorthodox teaching and touched his students for the rest of their lives (142–4).

Much of the book concerns the Parrys’ difficult marriage. To judge by the evidence presented, which mostly derives from Mrs. Parry and is seen through her eyes, the case that she murdered her husband seems even stronger than Kanigel suggests. The pair were coupled only by shared enthusiasms for hiking, creative writing, anthropology (which gave invaluable inspiration to Parry’s fieldwork in Bosnia and his methods there), good looks, and sex (46–51). The future Mrs. Parry had fantasized about marrying a younger man (45–6) and took the lead with Milman (50). She had dropped out of Wisconsin and then was obliged by her pregnancy, which he regarded as a disaster (51), to drop out of Berkeley. They had a shotgun wedding, shared in little save their children, and grew apart rather than together; her mother was a constant presence. When Parry decided to become a college professor, his wife remarked that ‘anybody can do that’ (73). He adapted as readily to the traditional society of Muslim Bosnia as to the cafés of Paris (his favorite was La Rotonde near Montparnasse, which is still there); Mrs. Parry was happiest in Des Moines (139–40). He was old-fashioned, self-reliant, and patriarchal, expecting traditional gender-roles in the household, where he was an excellent handiman (140, 194). She was so over-protected by her mother, stuck indoors while the latter socialized or campaigned for women’s suffrage, that she grew up to consider herself ‘weak, sick, and dependent’ (46). So she stayed home and cared for the children, often bored and depressed (116–20), telling them that, when he was out of the house, Parry was seeing other women. Kanigel supplies no evidence for her claim (82, 197, 246); was it an excuse for hating a husband who was in fact faithful? Nor did Parry share the toxic anti-Semitism of many colleagues at Harvard. He told his wife that he did not take her to faculty parties, which he too disliked, to protect her from it; her resentment of this ‘protection’ does not prove him false (163–5, 197). She never understood his work, since, as she ‘ruefully’ recalled, she never asked him about it (69); yet he explained it clearly to their young daughter (3). She could not share his ‘interest in intellectual things’ (119), enthusiasm for Harvard, talent for languages, or love of ‘the sheer beauty and grandeur of spoken Greek—and the great delight the Greeks found in simply being alive’, as his big sister Addison, who understood him best, put it (56); Mrs. Parry was jealous of her (37, 118).

Mrs. Parry saved Parry’s career by financing their time in Europe, where she would be able to afford domestic servants (75). She expected in requital that she would finally be able to complete her degree upon their return from Yugoslavia. Parry found it ‘inappropriate’ that an assistant professor at Harvard be married to an undergraduate at Radcliffe, but ‘agreed without any hesitation at all’ that she should continue her education (303 n. 246). When in mid-semester Mrs. Parry summoned him to California to rescue her mother from a crisis, Parry obtained leave from teaching and obliged. Both reconnected with friends and family there. But she seems to have decided that, if she could not enrol at Radcliffe, she would return to Berkeley, ‘the dream of my heart’ (136–7, 246). The Palms was to have been almost their last stop on the way back to Harvard, a place she loathed. Soon after Parry’s death, Mrs. Parry gave Harvard his books and archive and, ‘with remarkable efficiency, decamped’ to Berkeley, whence she graduated the following year (5). Her daughter forever recalled her mother’s ‘terrible rages, where she would have no memory of having been in that state’ (82, 246).[4] Did one of these kill Milman Parry?


[1] M. Parry in A. Parry, ed., The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 451. Nikola Vujnović was Parry’s indispensable amanuensis.

[2] But Lord was not the first to publicize Parry’s significance: C. M. Bowra reacted generously to Parry’s critique (ibid. 326 n. 3) by wholeheartedly adopting his approach in his Heroic Poetry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952).

[3] But Međedović and Homer were not the kind of oral poets that Parry thought: see †Z. Čolaković, ‘Avdo Međedović’s Post-Traditional Epics and Their Relevance to Homeric Studies’, Journal of Hellenic Studies 139 (2019), 1–48.

[4] Errors are few. No gusle is strummed (p. 3); for ‘widower’ read ‘widow’ (45); for ‘25,000’ read ‘27,000’ (54); for à Homère read ad Homerum, and before ‘no personal’ insert ‘had’ (88); for hadjuk read hajduk (160); for junacke read junačke, for ‘Miĉo’ read ‘Mičo’, and for ‘pas’ and ‘pase’ read ‘paše’ (191); for ‘breached’ read ‘filled’ (217); for ‘two-story’ read ‘two-storey’ (222); for ‘article’ read ‘book’ (254); neoanalysis is misunderstood (262); for ‘Haubhold’ read ‘Haubold’ (264, 306); for ‘Phonogrammarciv’ read ‘Phonogrammarchiv’ (289); for ‘Drzavni’ read ‘Državni’ (295, 297); for ‘Perry’ read ‘Parry’ (306). A list of illustrations would be useful.