Hearing Homer’s Song: The Brief Life and Big Idea of Milman Parry
By Robert Kanigel.
Knopf, 2021.
Hardcover, 336 pages, $28.95.

Reviewed by J. L. Wall.

It can be difficult to escape the image of Homer as blind bard and near-inventor of human literature. Just glance at the introductions to the major translations of the Iliad and Odyssey over the last few decades: each, ambivalently, takes on the question of authorship, what has long been called “The Homeric Question.”

It is really a series of questions: Who was Homer—where and when did he live? Could he write? (Was he even aware of writing?) Do the Iliad and Odyssey share an author—do these works even have authors, or were they built piecemeal? When did these poems first take the forms in which we know them today, and how? 

These are old questions—very old. By the time the written history of Greece comes into focus, during Athens’ fifth-century golden age, many took for granted that the poems had been the works of a single author’s genius, one not so different from the poets and playwrights of their own era—though there were, always, dissenters.

Beginning in the 19th century with the rise of modern Classical philology, answers tended to fall into two camps: the Unitarians and the Analysts. The former, as their name indicates, insisted on the unity of the texts, though with room for internecine debate: perhaps there were two authors for the two epics, rather than just one; perhaps the famously dull catalog of ships in Book 2 of the Iliad was the later interpolation of a lesser hand?

The Analysts, on the other hand, saw a patchwork of texts, stitched together across centuries. Think of them as the literary front of the nineteenth century’s scientific approaches: the development of historical geology and paleontology; Darwinian evolution; the Documentary Hypothesis and historicist biblical scholarship. Like the Documentarians, the Analysts proposed a series of editors and redactors, culminating with the text as we know it, from the sixth-century reign of Peisistratos in Athens.

Milman Parry first stepped into this breach as an undergraduate and then a Master’s candidate at the University of California, in the 1920s—though, his son would later insist, there was no evidence that at this time he was even aware of the detailed debates over Homeric authorship. That might have been the trick. Parry, though you have likely never heard of him, ultimately became the most influential Classical—and perhaps literary—scholar of the twentieth-century precisely because he was able to side-step the Homeric Question altogether.

It simply does not matter whether Homer existed as a single person, Parry showed. The Unitarians had insisted the Analysts did away not just with Homer but with the very dignity and genius of the poems themselves. But even without Homer, Parry insisted, the epics were works of genius—just of a very different sort than we were used to imagining: the genius not of the individual, but of what Parry called the “race”—meaning something like the “tradition,” “society,” or “culture.”

Robert Kanigel accomplishes a difficult task: he makes Parry’s detailed philological work exciting as a narrative. But Parry himself remains a lacuna. That’s not Kanigel’s fault: this seems to have been true even for those who knew him in his brief life. Parry died at age thirty-three; his children had only limited memories of him. His research assistant, Albert Lord, whose 1960 book Singer of Tales helped publicize and develop Parry’s insights into Homeric epics and oral poetry, did not know Parry long.

Parry’s death itself is oblique: he was alone in a Los Angeles hotel room with his wife, Marian, when a revolver that had been in his suitcase went off, killing him. The police determined it was an accidental discharge; his daughter believed Marian killed him. Others have speculated about suicide. The fact of his death, the most certain thing about his biography, can become a gravity well. But Kanigel resists it admirably: it is random, an anti-climax, unrelated to his work and discovery.

Two things stand out about Parry’s discovery. First, one of the most important insights into Classical literature came not only from a wandering, underemployed academic, but from an insight that first struck him in the summer of 1923, which he spent reading Homer. That these works must have been “not a matter of individual creation, but a popular tradition, evolved by centuries of poets and audiences, which the composer of heroic verse might follow without thought of plagiarism, indeed, without knowledge that such a thing existed,” as Parry wrote in the Master’s thesis he submitted at the end of that year, was the insight of a twenty-one year old student who had grown madly, rapturously obsessed with the text of these two poems. To put it another way, in Parry’s life, scholarship served love of the text—not the other way around.

His initial insight, on a technical level, was simple: he found that traditional epics were formulaic, predictably repeating certain words and phrases. He did not mean this negatively, but as a neutral fact. In particular, he focused on what he called “ornamental epithets”—the adjectival phrases that, for many, are a defining feature of Homeric style: “Gray-eyed Athena,” “swift-footed Achilles,” “Hector, breaker of horses,” the “fast,” “hollow,” “swift,” “curved,” “black,” and “hollow” Greek ships, and so on. We hear these epithets even in moments when they seem out of place: why do we care that the ships are swift when they’ve been beached for a decade? Or, in the Iliad’s closing lines, that Hector was a skilled horse trainer? Epithets are puzzling because, as Parry put it, they demonstrate “indifference to the story.” To his ear, that produced “a permanent, unchanging sense of strength and beauty.”

Epithets, he saw, were a key component of oral composition. To be an oral poet was to be a “writer” who could not delete, edit, or go back. The singer could only go forward, almost borne along by the tale’s constant narrative beat. The role of the epithet was to steady this motion: filling the line not as a lesser talent’s crutch but as a way to move to the next, to allow the story to continue. Specific epithets would appear in “prescribed position and order” in order to fulfill the needs of a strict and regular dactylic hexameter.

But Parry did not just want to observe this quality. As he would discover when he continued his research with assistantships at Harvard and as a doctoral student at the Sorbonne, he was not the first to note the traditional and formulaic qualities of Homeric verse. His own genius came from his desire to understand these on their own terms, to see what they might tell us about art, creativity, and genius in the ancient world.

Parry had also taken—and taken to—coursework in anthropology. The field, still new at the time, was also alien to Classics departments. Parry saw the Iliad and Odyssey not as expressions of individual artistic genius, but of a society’s—a tradition’s—genius. To properly understand the formulaic patterns of Homeric verse, to properly hear the beauty in its epithets, one needed to understand the social function of poetry in that culture. And that culture was not the literate world of the Athenian Golden Age but something much earlier and more distant from our own.

Today, we are apt to think of poetry—even Homer—as words on a page. Parry thought of it as words in society. His own genius lay in the ability to understand how they fit into a broader social practice of creativity.

The second thing that stands out about Parry’s discovery is how close it was to a near-miss. Parry had developed his core insight into Homeric poetry before he turned twenty-two. He spent the rest of his life looking for evidence that would enable him to prove it, to persuade his colleagues, as he put it in his Master’s thesis, that “modern critics must change their attitudes if they would understand the epics as their original audiences understood them.”

By 1928, writes Kanigel, Parry had shown that “the Odyssey and the Iliad were the product of traditional cultures working, somehow, in traditional ways.” But he had not yet shown (as his advisor at the Sorbonne, the eminent linguist Antoine Meillet, noted) “that this traditional style was probably the work of oral poets.” That is to say, he needed to demonstrate that someone could recite, extemporaneously, a poem roughly the length of one book of the Homeric epics—and to see the social function of such poetry, not merely to speculate about it.

So, in two trips across 1933 and 1935, Parry went to the Balkans, where he intended to seek out and record folk poets called guslars, after the instrument—the gusle—they played as they sang of legendary heroes. The gusle itself creates a music that’s strange to the American ear, the eerie product of a horsehair bow played across its one string.

Guslars and their songs had once been prominent throughout what was then Yugoslavia, but by the time Parry arrived, their presence had largely receded as modernity encroached; their presence was rare outside the mountainous region on the border between Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina. In the guslars, Parry found poets who could compose epic verse orally, spontaneously, as part of a living tradition of legend stocked with folk heroes and villains, telling the stories of the place where the audience now sat.

Chief among these was Avdo Mededovic, whom Albert Lord would later identify as the figure Parry had searched for, “a singer of tales who could produce songs as long as the Iliad and the Odyssey.” The longest of these, “Osmanbey and Pavicevic’s Luka,” took weeks of two daily two-hour sessions to record. Its recording is 13,331 lines. Another, “The Wedding of Smailagic Meho,” is 12,323 lines. The Odyssey is only 12,109.

Avdo did not title his songs, nor did he memorize them. He was an illiterate and impoverished farmer who had sung for extra money since he was a boy. His works were enlargements and embellishments. Many began with his (literate) friend Hifzo, a butcher, reading brief works from a published songbook. Avdo would then begin, expanding and layering the tale until it took hours, sometimes days, to finish.

This sounds, of course, like individual genius. And so it is—but not quite of the sort that we, literate moderns, associate with creative work.  The way Avdo composed his songs was not that of the blind John Milton dictating Paradise Lost. Avdo, like Parry’s Homer, was (as Kanigel helpfully summarizes the problem) “unliterary.” “The literary critic,” he writes, “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.”

It might be better to think of Avdo not as the author of the stories he sang, but as their performer. He no more imagined the characters, the plots, or even the language than Laurence Olivier did Shakespeare’s. Just as Olivier’s genius lay in the expression and fulfillment of a longer tradition, so too did Avdo’s—and the Iliad’s and Odyssey’s: the best arrangement of lines, phrases, characters, and stories that others had first imagined.

In September 1935, Parry returned from Yugoslavia, field notes and recordings in tow. He would never have the chance to review them, let alone write up the research. Drawn by her mother’s financial distress, Marian departed for California sometime around November 12. She wrote, asking for him; he seems to have left Harvard shortly after November 18. On December 3, he died: the pistol he had carried with him fired a bullet into his heart.

And this is where the myth of Milman Parry begins to overtake the discoveries he made. Against the official account of an accident while unpacking, others have speculated suicide (despair, perhaps, over still lacking a permanent position at Harvard), or homicide (marital distress, rumored infidelities). Not even Kanigel is immune to a bit of speculative detective work: he favors the homicide thesis.

There is irony here: the transmission of Parry’s insights ultimately come to us not through the work of an individual academic—as they would, had he lived—but as elements in a kind of intellectual tradition. The labor fell to Albert Lord, Parry’s research assistant. In his own account, Lord suffered a breakdown in the period after Parry’s death and spent the next eight years working at the Charleston Navy Yard. Then he returned to academic life and extended Parry’s research, continuing to study contemporary Yugoslav bards. Those were the subject of his first publications. The Singer of Tales—Lord’s book-length study of the research he and Parry conducted over 1934 and 1935—was published in 1960. A quarter century had passed and “Parry,” as he comes down to us, was filtered through the mind of a man who had once been his deputy but, now, was a senior academic in his own right.

Parry argued—gave us the permission and evidence to say—that the question of individual authorship does not matter for Homeric poetry, at least not in the way that contemporary authorship does. But in part because of its brevity, Parry’s own biography has become bound up in that insight. His life story matters to his discovery: the course of his life brought him there. Yet, throughout it all, who Milman Parry was as a person remains just out of our grasp. In its own way, this limitation is a small piece of evidence for the beauty of Homeric poetry: we don’t need the person or personality to see it. Parry’s life work, in its way, testifies to that as well.

J. L. Wall’s poetry and essays have appeared in First Things, Modern Age, Arc Digital, Kenyon Review Online, and America. On Twitter, he’s @jl_wall.

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