How a Bold Young American Changed the Way Scholars Think About Homer
Apr 29, 2021 2 mins, 50 secs
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Milman Parry helped us to imagine, understand, and respect another species of human creativity.

I come to Milman Parry from outside the world of classical studies.

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.

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.

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.

Homer and ancient Greece stand near the center of this book; but nearer still is Mr.

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.

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.

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

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