“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?