Hearing Homer’s Song: The Brief Life and Big Idea of Milman Parry 
by Robert Kanigel.
Knopf, 320 pp., £28.95, April, 978 0 525 52094 8
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King Alexander ​ of Yugoslavia was assassinated in Marseille on 9 October 1934, alongside Louis Barthou, the French foreign minister. When the news reached Dubrovnik, the bells rang ‘all morning long’ according to a ten-year-old American girl staying in the city. ‘Everybody spoke in an undertone except the roosters and my brother.’ The children’s mother hung an academic gown in the window as a makeshift flag of mourning. Their father, Milman Parry, a young classicist at Harvard, was in Goražde, 120 miles from Dubrovnik. He had come to Yugoslavia to record local folk singers as evidence to support his theory that ‘the Iliad and the Odyssey are composed in a traditional style, and are composed orally.’ There were rumours that the king’s assassin was Italian, and Parry’s car had Italian plates. He and his assistants – Albert Lord, who had recently graduated from Harvard, and Nikola Vujnović, a young Bosnian stonemason and singer – set off for Dubrovnik as fast as they could. Police officers escorted them through Sarajevo. They kept their heads down for a few weeks, but resumed work in November, even though singing was banned during the mourning period for the king. By the time Parry sailed for the US the following autumn, he had hundreds of hours of recordings on more than 3500 aluminium discs, as well as eight hundred notebooks of transcribed songs – raw materials for a lifetime of research. But three months after returning to America he was dead from a gunshot wound in a Los Angeles hotel room.

Milman Parry was born in Oakland, California, on 23 June 1902. His father was variously a prosthetics fitter, a nurse and a pharmacist who devised his own hair tonic and dandruff remedy. When a masked gunman tried to hold up the drugstore where he worked he threw the cash register at the robber, chased him into the street and had him arrested. Milman’s mother died of stomach cancer in 1918, the year before he enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, four miles away from the Parrys’ house.

He began taking Ancient Greek classes in his first year – an hour a day, every day – and soon switched his major from pre-law to Greek. In 1922 he met Marian Thanhouser in the classics library. She was three years older than him but had started at Berkeley late because of illness. She grew up in Milwaukee, where her maternal grandfather owned a department store (Robert Kanigel describes him as ‘a force in the local Jewish community and a major philanthropist’). Her mother thought the Californian climate would help Marian recover from Spanish flu – and also wanted to enrol at the university herself. Marian’s mother got her degree; Marian did not. A year after meeting Parry, she was pregnant. They got married in San Francisco on 11 May 1923 and hitchhiked to Carmel for their honeymoon.

Back at Berkeley in the autumn, Parry began his MA thesis on the Iliad and the Odyssey. ‘A Comparative Study of Diction as One of the Elements of Style in Early Greek Epic Poetry’ was submitted in December but not published until 1971, when Parry’s son, Adam, brought out his collected papers as The Making of Homeric Verse. Sterling Dow – the Harvard classicist who among other things deduced that Linear B was an early form of Greek, and whose notebooks are an important source for Kanigel’s new biography of Parry – read the thesis in the library at Berkeley in 1964. He was amazed to find that ‘the great discovery is there – firm, detailed, bold.’

Throughout the long 19th century (the origins of the argument go back much further) the so-called Homeric Question – who wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey, and when – was fought over by two competing schools of thought, analysts and unitarians. According to the analysts, the Homeric poems were patchworks of disparate scraps of verse composed by diverse poets over several centuries and compiled by later editors; the unitarians clung to the notion that (as the joke goes) even if Homer didn’t compose the Iliad and the Odyssey, another poet of the same name did. The analysts outnumbered the unitarians, though that may have been in part because the analytical view provided more fertile ground for study.

Parry didn’t answer the Homeric Question so much as dispense with it:

Just as the story of the Fall of Troy … and the other Greek epic legends were not themselves the original fictions of certain authors, but creations of a whole people passed through one generation to another and gladly given to anyone who wished to tell them, so the style in which they were to be told was not a matter of individual creation, but a popular tradition, evolved by centuries of poets and audiences.

The evidence he adduced was entirely internal, drawn not from archaeology, history or papyrology, but from the words and the verse form of the poems themselves:

There is no other poetry in the world as smooth and rapid as this epic poetry, in which the ideas of the particular passage seem fitted so perfectly, and yet so compactly, to the hexameter framework. And this smoothness is due, of course, to the use of a traditional diction which for centuries had experimented for words and phrases which would most perfectly fit the framework of the verse, and it is especially due to the use of ornamental words which eliminated even more completely any discrepancies in the pattern.

The illiterate performers who recited or sang epic poems in Ancient Greece did not learn them by rote. (Boris Johnson’s botched renditions of the Iliad are a double failure: failing to learn it by rote and trying to learn it in the first place.) Rather, a poet would improvise his song using formulaic words and phrases. Every performance was in some sense a new composition, but also a seamless continuation of the tradition.

Parry focused, by way of example, on the ‘ornamental adjectives’ or epithets used to describe Athena. She is variously ‘Pallas Athena’, ‘grey-eyed Athena’, ‘the goddess grey-eyed Athena’ and so on according to the demands of grammar and metre: as Parry points out, ‘Homer had to hand a particular word for each of ten metrical exigencies that might arise.’ These didn’t always conform to logic. Ships are described as ‘hollow’, ‘swift’, ‘black’, ‘well-decked’, ‘seafaring’, ‘trim’, ‘many-tholed’, ‘curved’, ‘huge’, ‘famed’, ‘well-built’, ‘many-benched’, ‘vermilion-cheeked’, ‘prowed’ or ‘straight-horned’, according to where they appear in the line of verse rather than where, or if, they appear on the ‘wine dark’, ‘grey’ or ‘loud-roaring’ sea: the Greeks’ ‘swift’ and ‘seafaring’ ships are beached throughout the Iliad. ‘Early rose-fingered dawn’ is mentioned so often in Homer for much the same reason a blues singer might tell you he ‘woke up this morning’: in part to buy time while composing the next line. (As it happens, Parry corresponded with John and Alan Lomax, who travelled around the American South recording folk musicians.) ‘The singer of tales,’ Parry later wrote, ‘has no pen and ink to let him slowly work out a novel way of recounting novel actions, but must make up his tale without pausing, in the speed of his singing.’ Formulae made this possible. This fundamental aspect of Homer’s verse, Parry insisted, doesn’t diminish the poetry. Far from it: ‘The first impression which this use of ornamental words makes on the reader is one of utter loveliness.’

In the introduction to his father’s collected papers, Adam Parry acknowledges that ‘each of the specific tenets that make up Parry’s view of Homer had been held by some former scholar … Parry’s achievement was to see the connection between these disparate contentions and observations.’ In 1962 Walter Ong argued that ‘Parry’s special type of interest in Homer was made possible by the fact that he lived when the typographical era was breaking up.’ Adam Parry was unconvinced by this, but the arrival of ‘an age of secondary orality’, as Ong put it, ‘the orality of telephones, radio and television, which depends on writing and print for its existence’, must have made it easier to imagine, however imperfectly, the ‘primary oral cultures’ that existed (and in places still exist) before the invention of writing. The newsreels that reported the assassination of King Alexander are worlds away from the Iliad and the Odyssey, and would have been scripted, but they still used formulaic phrases – ‘a hail of lead’, ‘this foul deed’ – to tell, out loud, different versions of the same story, of a voyage across the Mediterranean and the violent death of a king.

It probably isn’t a coincidence, either, that Parry’s insight came the year after The Waste LandJacob’s Room and Ulysses were published. ‘Epic poetry differs diametrically from modern poetry,’ he argued in his MA thesis, ‘which lays so great a value on individuality and uniqueness of style.’ But poets we now describe as not ‘modern’ but ‘modernist’ were at the same time reacting against Romantic notions of ‘individuality’. ‘The poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past,’ T.S. Eliot wrote in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, published in the Egoist in 1919. ‘The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.’ There’s no direct evidence that Parry read the essay – even if he was later said by one of his students to have relished Eliot’s poetry – but four years later he was arguing that formulaic diction ‘has been to a great extent the means of submerging the poet’s consciousness in that of his race’.

His use of the term ‘race’ is striking – and discomfiting – but Parry seems to have been largely oblivious to the nationalist currents of the 1930s, or the ways in which the idea of a poetic tradition could be politically exploited. In Ismail Kadare’s novel The File on H, loosely based on Parry and Lord’s adventures in Yugoslavia and published in Albanian in 1981, the two foreigners are mistaken for spies, and a Serbian monk worries what their researches might mean for the future status of Kosovo. The Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić, while on the run from the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, is said to have frequented a nationalist bar in Belgrade where he told the epic singers they were ‘the greatest treasure of the Serbian people’ and even performed once himself. But that isn’t the kind of ‘submerging’ Parry had in mind.

In January 1924, a month after he submitted his MA thesis, the Parrys’ first child was born. She was named Marian, after her mother, but known as ‘Wux’. Milman had a badly paid teaching job at Berkeley but couldn’t get funding for a PhD; Marian suspected it was because high-ups in the classics department disapproved of their having lived together before they were married. She had inherited some money when her father died, which wasn’t enough to cover the costs of studying in the US, but might be sufficient if they went to Europe. Once Milman had his doctorate from a European university and a teaching post somewhere back home, Marian would be able to complete her BA. At least, that was the plan.

They arrived in Paris in the autumn of 1924, after spending the summer – and too much of Marian’s money – in Dieppe. For most of the next few years Marian was stuck at home with the children (Adam, officially named Milman, was born in February 1928) while Milman was in the Fifth Arrondissement doing his research, or learning French, or enjoying everything else that Paris in the 1920s had to offer. In the summer of 1925 he went to Greece by himself; Marian’s mother and grandmother were visiting, and they took her and the baby to Switzerland. He wrote to his father that he’d visited Athens, ‘thence by bicycle to Megara’, Corinth, Mycenae, Argos, ‘a bunch of other little places in between whose names are found in Homer’, as well as Sparta (‘where the bed was full of lice which drove me to sleeping on the walls of the ruins of Mistra’), Lefkas and Ithaca. Returning to Paris in the autumn, he enrolled at the Sorbonne in November 1925 and completed his PhD thesis (in French) three years later.

‘L’Épithète traditionelle dans Homère’ was an elaboration and consolidation of his MA thesis, underpinning the ‘bold’ idea with 19th-century German scholarship and exhaustive analysis, complete with extensive tables, of the ornamental epithets in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Parry may have taken the argument too far: as Bernard Knox put it in 1990, ‘it is the fate of most new and valuable insights to be enthusiastically developed beyond the limits of certainty, or even of probability,’ and ‘extravagant claims for the predominance of formula in Homeric poetry have now been generally discounted … there is nevertheless general agreement that Parry was right in one thing: Homer’s unique style does show clearly that he was heir to a long tradition of oral poetry.’

In September 1928 Parry took up a teaching job in Des Moines, Iowa. Marian was quite happy to be back in the Midwest, though not so happy when Milman went to New York over Christmas to give a paper to the American Philological Association. ‘I was left then in the snow and ice with a can opener,’ she later remembered, ‘so I wouldn’t starve. You know, if I couldn’t get out.’ Milman sent her a telegram from New York to say he’d accepted a job offer from Harvard. The months in Iowa were ‘about the low point of our marriage’ but things didn’t improve much once they got to Cambridge. The pervasive snobbery and antisemitism made Harvard life unpleasant for Marian, and Milman was no help. He threw himself into his work.

Where​ his research in Paris had focused on the traditional nature of Homeric verse, at Harvard Parry turned his attention to its oral character. But he found himself, as he later put it, ‘in the position of speaking about the nature of oral style almost purely on the basis of a logical reasoning from the characteristics of Homeric style’. To make it more than a circular argument, he needed to study a living oral tradition. At the Sorbonne he had encountered Matija Murko of Prague University, who was in Paris to deliver the lectures that would later be collected as La Poésie populaire épique en Yougoslavie au début du vingtième siècle. It was through Murko’s writings that Parry came to settle on ‘the heroic poems of the South Slavs’ as a subject. ‘I am just now studying Serbian,’ he wrote to his sister in April 1931, ‘so that I can read Serbian epic poetry: then in two years or so I shall apply for a Guggenheim fellowship and spend a year in Jugoslavia to find the explanation of the Iliad and the Odyssey.’ In March 1933 he directed the Harvard Classical Club’s production of Sophocles’ Philoctetes. Elliott Carter wrote the incidental music. The title role was taken by Robert Fitzgerald, who would go on to translate both Homer and Sophocles into English. (He remembered Parry sitting at the back of the hall, ‘laughing at the abominable acting’.) Three months later, the Parrys sailed for Yugoslavia, arriving in early July.

Dubrovnik was a ‘lovely vacation place when not too hot’, Marian wrote in a letter home. Milman had language lessons every morning. His teacher was Ilija Kutuzov, a Russian émigré who, like Parry, had a PhD from the Sorbonne. Presumably they communicated largely in French: Parry’s grasp of Serbo-Croat was by all accounts fairly shaky. One evening Kutuzov took Parry to a kafana, or bar, to listen to a guslar perform. The gusle, like the Albanian lahuta, is a single-stringed instrument held between the knees and played with a bow. The body is made of wood with a skin membrane (like a drum), and the string from sixty entwined horsehairs. The neck often finishes in a scroll carved in the form of a horse’s head. The bow is horsehair too. The instrument has a narrow range, tuned to the same pitch as the guslar’s voice.

The performer Parry heard that night was the stonemason Nikola Vujnović. Returning to the bar, Parry got to know Vujnović, buying him drinks, asking who had taught him (his uncle Vlaho, who lived next door and used to sing while making his shoes). On one especially rowdy Saturday, Vujnović gave up part way through the tale of Prince Marko’s bloody triumph over the bandit Musa, and Parry asked him to write the rest of it down. The next time Vujnović sang ‘Marko and Musa’, Parry asked Kutuzov to make a note of any variations from the typed-up earlier version. But there were so many ‘he could scribble only a small part of them,’ according to Parry, and soon gave up. Even Vujnović was surprised at how different the two renditions were. But for Parry it was the first piece of living confirmation that he was right about the way the Homeric epics had been composed.

Nikola Vujnović playing the gusle in Dubrovnik in 1933. Photo © Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature

Nikola Vujnović playing the gusle in Dubrovnik in 1933. Photo © Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature

In early August, halfway through his trip, Parry went to Belgrade to buy sound-recording equipment and returned with a wax-cylinder Parlograph dictating machine. When he played the cylinders back, however, he found that the singers’ voices couldn’t be distinguished over the sound of their instruments. Instead, as Parry and his assistants travelled around the villages of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the work of recording the songs fell to Kutuzov, who took dictation from the guslari with pencil and paper. (At times Parry bears a more than passing resemblance to Michael Redgrave’s character at the beginning of The Lady Vanishes, ‘putting on record for the benefit of mankind one of the last folk dances of Central Europe’.) Parry returned to Harvard in September with less material than he would have liked, but a better sense of what he would need on a second expedition: more time, more equipment, more people and more money.

The money came from the American Council of Learned Societies: $11,000 (the equivalent of $200,000 today, Kanigel reckons) to pay for a fifteen-month expedition. The people included Vujnović, Lord and some local typists whose names are not recorded. The equipment to be shipped from the US included Parry’s car, a Cyrillic typewriter and a bespoke recording apparatus manufactured by Sound Specialties Inc of Waterbury, Connecticut. It had two turntables and a toggle for switching instantaneously between them. Even though each 78 rpm aluminium disc would last only a few minutes, the twin decks meant that Parry and his team could record continuously without losing any lines or having to ask the guslar to stop while they changed discs.

This would seem to confirm Ong’s view that Parry had his insight in part because he was living through a period of technological transition. The rise of sound recording in the early 20th century is analogous to the shift from orality to literacy around the time that the Iliad and the Odyssey were first written down (the development of the printing press in 15th-century Europe is another such moment). But it also points to a shortcoming in the Parry-Lord hypothesis. As Emily Wilson put it in 2018, ‘there is still a very wide range of opinion about how, exactly, the words of many generations of illiterate and semi-literate bards turned into the written texts of Homer that we have.’

Kutuzov didn’t accompany Parry on his second tour of Yugoslavia, but with the help of Lord and Vujnović, his 1932 Ford and his Sound Specialties recording equipment, he was able to gather the huge quantity of material now in the Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature at Harvard. There were occasional setbacks – the death of King Alexander, heavy snows in January 1935 – that left him kicking his heels in Dubrovnik, making up stories for his children in which Mickey Mouse thwarted Winnie the Pooh’s plans for world domination (he got that one wrong). But for the rest of the time, Parry, Lord and Vujnović toured the villages of Bosnia and Herzegovina, interviewing and recording the guslari they met there. Some sang tales from legend; others told of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Without Vujnović it would have been impossible: ‘While Parry may be the boss,’ Slavica Ranković wrote in 2012, ‘it is Nikola who holds the authority and the singer’s confidence.’

In June 1935 they met Avdo Međedović, ‘our Yugoslav Homer’, a farmer in his sixties living near Bijelo Polje, a town in north-eastern Montenegro. He told Vujnović his life story – his nine years in the army brought to an end by a bullet to his left arm; his marriage at the age of 29 to a woman he’d never met; his career as a butcher ruined by his son’s gambling debts; his son disappearing to join the army – and he played the gusle and sang nine songs over the course of six weeks. ‘He sat cross-legged on the bench,’ Lord wrote a few years later, ‘sawing the gusle, swaying in rhythm with the music. He sang very fast, sometimes deserting the melody, and while the bow went lightly back and forth over the string, he recited the verses at top speed. A crowd gathered.’ One of Međedović’s epics was as long as the Odyssey. Another was his version of a song he’d heard only once, performed by a guslar called Mumin Vlahovljak, while Parry’s team was recording it in Bijelo Polje. Lord again:

Avdo was asked his opinion of it and whether he could now sing it himself. He replied that it was a good song and that Mumin had sung it well, but that he thought that he might sing it better. The song was a long one of several thousand lines. Avdo began and as he sang, the song lengthened, the ornamentation and richness accumulated, and the human touches of character, touches that distinguished Avdo from other singers, imparted a depth of feeling that had been missing in Mumin’s version.

But Međedović’s genius shouldn’t be mistaken as evidence to support the unitarian view of Homer. ‘Avdo had other models in addition to Mumin’s song,’ Lord wrote. ‘He was not re-creating out of whole cloth. His many years of experience in building themes, a technique inherited from the generation of singers before him, made possible what seemed on the surface to be an incredible feat.’ In other words, Avdo, like Homer, ‘was the tradition’.

While​ the Parrys were in Yugoslavia, Marian’s mother moved to Los Angeles, where she began living far beyond her means, possibly at the mercy of an unscrupulous fortune-hunter. Marian went out to California in November 1935, and Milman followed a few days later. (His precise movements in these final weeks are unclear.) They went from LA to San Francisco at the end of the month, then flew back to LA on their way to San Diego to visit Milman’s sister. At 2.30 p.m. on 3 December 1935, the LAPD were called to the Palms Hotel on South Alvarado Street. Milman was dead in his room with a bullet in his heart. The police interviewed Marian and decided it was an accident: there had been a loaded gun in Milman’s suitcase which went off by mistake as he was looking for a clean shirt. He was cremated without an autopsy on 5 December. Different theories have been propounded about the death. Kanigel thinks it (slightly) more likely that Marian killed him than that Milman took his own life, but sees the official verdict of accidental death as most probable. ACME Newspictures called it a ‘tragic example of professorial absentmindedness’.

A memorial service was held at Harvard on 19 December. Marian left Cambridge soon afterwards and went back to Berkeley. She and the children lived within walking distance of the university campus and in May 1936 she at last completed her BA. She went on to work as a French teacher. In 1981 she gave an interview over three days to Pamela Newhouse, a graduate student at Cornell who was thinking of writing a biography of Parry. She never did – instead, as Pamela Mensch, she has translated Herodotus, Plutarch and others – but the interview proved ‘invaluable’ to Kanigel.

Parry’s work was continued by Lord, who returned to Yugoslavia after the Second World War, managing to track down Avdo Međedović and record him again. In 1960, he published The Singer of Tales, which brought Parry’s ideas to a wider audience. Its title was taken from a book Parry had just begun when he died. Two years later, in the prologue to The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, Marshall McLuhan described his book as ‘complementary’ to Lord’s. The second edition of The Singer of Tales, published in 2000, came with a CD-Rom of some of the original audio recordings and photographs; the third edition, in 2018, dispensed with the obsolete CD but provided a (now broken) URL for the online Milton Parry Collection, where all the materials have been digitised and are freely available (at a different but easy to find web address) to anyone who’s interested.

At the same time that Lord was working on The Singer of Tales, Adam Parry was putting together his edition of his father’s collected papers. The two men fell out in the late 1960s, in an unnecessary but perhaps inevitable manifestation of a form of sibling rivalry. In an article entitled ‘Homer as Oral Poet’, published in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology in 1967, Lord attacked at length ‘a return to the subjective interpretation and appreciation of the Homeric poems’. He singled out an article on one of Penelope’s dreams in the Odyssey that had appeared in Yale Classical Studies the previous year, written by Anne Amory, Adam Parry’s wife. Amory responded in the Classical Quarterly in May 1971 with her essay ‘Homer as Artist’: ‘If all interpretation is to be damned as “subjective” in Lord’s pejorative sense, then we might as well admit that the meaning and poetry of the Homeric epics are unimportant and agree that what really matters is the counting of formulas.’ The Making of Homeric Verse appeared around the same time. In the introduction, Adam Parry wrote that his father ‘sought and attained, in his own life, something of the connection between art and living which made heroic song itself so valuable to him’. On 4 June 1971 Adam Parry and Anne Amory were killed in a motorcycle accident in France.

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