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Kicking Homer to the Curb: The American Scholar Who Upended the Classics

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The Brief Life and Big Idea of Milman Parry
By Robert Kanigel

By the time he died in a Los Angeles hotel in 1935 — at 33, fatally wounded by his own gun — the classicist Milman Parry had accomplished more than academics twice his age ever dream of. The son of an Oakland, Calif., druggist, Parry, who had earned a position at Harvard at age 27, would in the intervening years completely revolutionize the study of Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” showing that the epics had not been written, as had long been thought, but were oral — composed in the act of performance. Nearly a century after his death, he is still known as “the Darwin of Homeric Studies.” His work has had wide-ranging ramifications, ushering in an emphasis on orality that has become increasingly central to modern literary culture — from professional storytellers and TED talks to podcasts and audiobooks. In “Hearing Homer’s Song,” the biographer Robert Kanigel offers the first full-scale account of Parry’s short life, mysterious demise and long-lived influence.

Homer was already considered a “classic” in the fifth century B.C., but the poems and the identity of whoever composed them have long been a mystery. Who was Homer? How did he make his poems? Were the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” even produced by the same person? In the face of more than two millenniums of debate, Parry showed that these were the wrong questions. There was no ancient poet called “Homer,” he argued. Nor were the poems attributed to him “written” by any single individual. Rather, they were the product of a centuries-long tradition of poet-performers.

Parry’s research, which had been largely conducted in the libraries of Berkeley, Paris and Cambridge, Mass., took on a daring new dimension when he traveled for 15 months to what was then Yugoslavia, and discovered guslars — or “singers of tales,” as he would call them — practicing a still-living oral tradition. Their songs of weddings and war performed in cafes (and, later, in a traveling studio of Parry’s devising) provided living proof that his theory about the composition of the Homeric epics was, in fact, possible in practice. In the process, he created a new audio device to record long songs on aluminum disks, now housed at Harvard University. This fieldwork marked, in the estimation of many, the beginning of the discipline of “sound studies,” showing that poetry could be song and epic, a performance.

Despite his enormous influence — and an enormous archive — as a subject for biography Parry frustrates Kanigel and, frankly, me. His collected papers run to nearly 500 pages, and the recordings and transcripts he made number in the thousands. Yet his writing rarely strays from technical questions; in his interviews with singers he let his assistant do the talking. In Kanigel’s hands, we see him laughing at a Harvard student production of a Greek tragedy, complaining about bed lice and driving his muddy Ford through the back roads of the Balkans. But his inner life, the source of his scholarly drive — even what it was about the Greek epics that he loved so much — remain a mystery for reader and biographer alike. The person we see most clearly in “Hearing Homer’s Song” is Parry’s wife, Marian, who funded his doctorate and cared for their children, even as she suspected him of affairs, moved their family back and forth across the Atlantic and delayed her return to school. Through it all Parry remained stubbornly opaque to her too.

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