The Darwin of the Classics

May 3, 2021   •   By Tim Riley

Hearing Homer’s Song: The Brief Life and Big Idea of Milman Parry

Robert Kanigel

HOMER’S ILIAD AND ODYSSEY, the founding “documents” of Western literature, have a long and cantankerous history as “texts.” Scholars have long argued over their authorship, whether a man called Homer actually composed the stories or else transcribed or dictated a long-standing oral tradition. Most agree that the stories compiled in these poems found written form around the eighth or seventh century BCE after circulating for several centuries following the Trojan War, which both epics chronicle.

Milman Parry, a Classics scholar at Harvard who was born in 1902, is one of the cornerstone theorists of “Homer” as a shorthand marker for a larger oral tradition. Homer and his forebears, Parry argued, were not “writers” in the modern sense, and they did not memorize and repeat long passages of verse. Instead, they spun plots in outline form and improvised their way through stories, changing words spontaneously with each performance. Few of them would have written much down, since they carried this story tradition with them between their ears. Because ancient Greek relied on pitch for many of its meanings, this made the verse closer to song than what we now call poetry. Parry showed how this oral tradition curated a feast of stories that sustained a wide general audience with its ideas about heroes and their trials. His work made him the “Darwin of the Classics,” as his ideas became widely accepted and prompted a revolution in thinking about how Homer’s stories circulated and survived.

In his elegant biography of Parry, Hearing Homer’s Song, Robert Kanigel tells this complicated story to the general reader with inspired calm. To Kanigel, Parry confronted classical scholarship’s “failure to see the difference between written and oral verse,” which formed “the greatest single obstacle to our understanding of Homer.” In his 1928 doctoral thesis The Traditional Epithet in Homer, Parry reframed these “texts,” forcing scholars to rethink many of their received ideas about “written” literature. As Kanigel observes,

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.

Parry’s new framework, Kanigel writes, helps us understand how, for example, the work of fifth-century BCE Greek sculptor Phidias “was not his alone but shot through with ‘the spirit of a whole race.’” Parry claims the same applies to the Homeric epics. “We have no way of knowing,” Kanigel writes, “whether the Greek bards used written memory aids or at what date the Homeric poems were set down in writing.” Parry’s work opens up new questions, new threads of inquiry, making the Homeric story infinitely richer than before.

Hearing Homer’s Song traces Parry’s childhood growing up near Oakland, California, the son of a pharmacist father, through his undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley, his marriage at age 21 to Marian Thanhouser, his doctoral studies at Harvard, and the drafting of his thesis under the direction of the finest scholars at the Sorbonne in Paris. Spurred by intellectual fervor, his journey travels its own epic path. Crushed when he was turned down by Victor Bérard, then a leading expert on the Odyssey whom James Joyce admired, Parry rallied to work with Maurice Croiset and Aimé Puech. His thesis, written in French, made noise in specialist circles but didn’t secure an English translation until 1971.

His early renown led to an appointment at Harvard, where his students remember him as exacting and preoccupied. By then, he had two small children. Between 1933 and 1935, he conducted sabbatical field work by performing a comparative analysis of how Bosnian song techniques resembled ancient Greek methods. “His theory of epic composition, together with the supporting field work,” the scholar Harry Levin wrote in 1937, “must stand among the few humanistic researches of our day that have gained the sort of recognition accorded to a scientific discovery.” By the next generation, through the effort of Albert Lord, Parry’s work had come to dominate classical studies: Lord’s Singer of Tales, published in 1960, brought Parry bedrock status in the emerging scholarship on oral cultures.

“The effects of oral states of consciousness,” Walter Ong wrote in his 1982 book Orality and Literacy, “are bizarre to the literate mind.” Parry theorized that, if he could find a find a culture where bards still practiced an oral tradition, singing songs as long as Homer’s (over 12,000 lines), he could prove the links between Homeric verse and Bosnian song that scholars had long been puzzling over. In his approach, Parry worked a different field with some of the same purpose Alan Lomax did in the American South during this same period, collecting a rural folk tradition in order to catalog the vast body of American song. The Muslim Slavs of Bosnia, where Parry focused his recording, were called “guslars,” and played a single-string instrument called the “gusle.”

To help in his field research, Parry — working with Lord, who was then his graduate student — brought along some of the same bulky portable recording gear used by Leoš Janáček and Béla Bartók to record singers. He chanced upon one Avdo Međedović, whose songs “Osmanbey and Pavičević Luka” and “The Wedding of Smailagić Meho,” each at over 12,000 lines, convinced Parry he had found his contemporary analogue to a Homeric bard. (The thousands of heavy shellacs Parry brought back from Europe have been digitized for the Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature at Harvard Library, so you can hear the same otherworldly songs Parry did.) His pioneering fieldwork cemented Parry’s theory in much the same way that Darwin’s studies of Galápagos finches crystallized his theory of evolution.

Parry’s sudden death in a California hotel room on December 3, 1935, stunned the academic world. In town to visit relatives, he was unpacking in his hotel room when the gun he had carried in Europe suddenly went off, killing him at age 33 and leaving behind a mystery as bottomless as his subject. Police ruled it an accident, but at least one of his children blamed his parents’ broken marriage, calling the death murder and pointing the finger at his own mother. “So maybe it was an accident,” Kanigel writes. “But if not, that Marian killed Milman Parry seems far more likely than that he killed himself.” The traumatized Lord took another 25 years to publish The Singer of Tales, which brought Parry’s ideas wide renown.

In our era of mass information, with one-touch access to vast archives, we forget that, in ancient times, hearing a song once meant you might never hear it again. The writer’s goal was to make a story stick through hooks and familiar tropes. That made it easier to remember, since your village might only get a visit from a bard every few years. These traveling bards all sang different collections of songs, and they sang them differently each time, so they needed some recognizable contours to make them sturdy. Some people can hold several verses of poetry in their minds for long stretches, but many more can hold numerous verses sung to the same repetitive melodies.

The details behind Parry’s ideas illuminate the larger structure. “People, places, and things appearing in the Iliad and the Odyssey are often linked to epithets,” Kanigel explains, the better to pierce and lodge in listeners’ imaginations. For example, Kanigel explains the method of “parataxis,” or arranging side by side, which “relies little on subordinate clauses, qualifiers, and grammatical niceties. It just piles up, its effects cumulative.” In longer sentences, as Parry quoted his mentor Croiset, “the successive ideas join on to one another in the order that they occur to the mind” — an effect, Kanigel writes, that springs from “the natural play of sung or spoken word as it tumbles forth.”

Parry’s now widely adopted theories have implications for many fields, including linguistic inquiries into the origin of languages (many consider Slavic accents echoes of ancient pitches) and the musicologist’s treatment of “texts” that thrive in unwritten form, such as the blues and much of gospel and folk, as our modern recording era witnessed oral culture spread worldwide across radio airwaves throughout the 20th century. Where does the poetry reside — in a spontaneously improved John Coltrane sax solo or in its transcription? Parry’s work shows how much we still need to accommodate oral practices in our scholarly research, and how we should probably stop thinking so strictly in false binaries like “written” versus “oral.”

Parry’s life story has enough quotidian quirks, and such a crashing, inexplicable finale, that he looms above his own work like a ghost. Kanigel draws on a vast array of primary sources, including people who worked with Lord, family members, and the research performed for a previous, unpublished biography by Pamela Newhouse. Parry’s life story is the story of an idea, the Western Idea writ (or sung) large, and Kanigel traces how a devoted, obscure scholar who died in a hotel room at 33 managed to transform our understanding of written and oral traditions. As Horace Engdahl, the secretary of the Swedish Academy, observed at the Nobel Prize ceremony for modern bard Bob Dylan: “If people in the literary world groan, one must remind them that the gods don’t write, they dance and they sing.”


Tim Riley’s latest book is What Goes On: The Beatles, Their Music, and Their Time (2019), co-written with Walter Everett, from Oxford University Press. It’s the first college textbook on the music of the Beatles. See for details.