Book Review: Hearing Homer’s Song by Robert Kanigel

“The first paradox about the Iliad is that it is a text which is not a text, i.e. it comes out of a tradition of oral performance and oral delivery.”

Barbara Graziosi’s above description—noted on the occasion of Anthony Verity’s OUP Iliad translation, for which she provided notes and an introduction—is accepted as common knowledge now. In the Anglo-sphere at least, this is largely due to the research of Milman Parry. I say “largely” because scholars don’t work in isolation. Parry is credited because he avoided the confirmation bias trap that tripped up generations of previous scholars (and continues to), disrupted ingrained thought patterns, and put scholarly pieces together in a new way.

His life and research are the subject of Robert Kanigel’s forthcoming Hearing Homer’s Song: The Brief Life and Big Idea of Milman Parry (Knopf, April 13), which I received from NetGalley for review. The book is part biography of Parry, part historiography of Homeric studies and Parry’s place in it. For non-experts, Kanigel provides an overview of the Homeric question, the linguistic theories Parry drew on in his research, and the scholarly conversations of the early 20th century that Parry stepped into.

Kanigel follows Parry’s early life in Oakland, CA, his troubled marriage, travels to Paris for his studies and the Balkans for his research, and sudden, violent death at 32 under provocative circumstances. Even if you are not a student of Homer, Parry makes a compelling figure for his paradoxes and tensions—intellectually brilliant but seemingly emotionally stunted, creative and broad-minded in his work but seemingly rigid in his personal relationships.

The book’s central question, “What drove Parry,” invites deeper thought about what it takes to create new knowledge. Unable to find institutional support for his studies in the US, Parry traveled to Paris, finally finding mentors to sponsor his PhD at the Sorbonne. The scholars who oversaw Parry’s dissertation defense found in his research not holes but large doors through which ensuing scholars could walk. We might think of “gaps in an argument” as somehow negative, but it’s what great scholarship ideally enables: a new way of thinking about a topic that inspires generations of future scholars.

This ultimately is the gift of Parry’s research: not perfect knowledge but opportunities for exploration. If I were to describe it as punctuation, Parry’s research was a colon to be followed by lines and lines of elaboration and refutation.

Students, academics, and anyone genuinely engaged in the creation of knowledge may especially find this both an interesting and slightly frustrating book. It felt like a delicious appetizer that left me wanting more.

Who are some public figures from the past that you would like to read biographies of?

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Hearing Homer’s Song by Robert Kanigel

  1. What a beautifully written review (not that that surprises me) – and also, this blew my mind: “The scholars who oversaw Parry’s dissertation defense found in his research not holes but large doors through which ensuing scholars could walk. ” Academic research seems like it has to be so absolute, even while leaving things to be explored and built upon. But I like this idea that what seem like problematic holes are actually a good thing for future scholars. Thanks for giving me something to think about when it comes to research and what sources really can mean.

    As for your question, there are so many fascinating people I wish I could read more about! One of the most recent I came across is Nellie Bly – as far as I know, there is no definitive biography on her.

    1. Thank you so much, Alysa! The doors analogy is from the book (I hope that was clear!), and I loved it too. Kanigel kept returning to this idea of research as opening new perspectives. As someone who is constantly researching and learning, it’s comforting to remember not only that the learning process is ongoing but that is entirely the point: to keep searching. 🙂
      And Nellie Bly surely is a fascinating figure!

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