North American Scholar

PARRY, Milman

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  • Date of Birth (YYYY-MM-DD): 1902-06-20
  • Born City: Oakland
  • Born State/Country: CA
  • Parents: a pharmacist, & Alice Emerson P.
  • Date of Death (YYYY-MM-DD): 1935-12-03
  • Death City: Los Angeles
  • Death State/Country: CA
  • Married: Marian Thanhouser, May 1923.
  • Education:

    B.A. U. California, 1922; M.A., 1923; Doct. ès Lett. Sorbonne, 1928.

  • Professional Experience:

    Instr. Gk. Drake U., 1928-9; instr. to asst. prof. Gk. Harvard, 1929-35.

  • Dissertation:

    "L'Épithète traditionelle dans Homère: Essai sur un problème de style homérique" (Paris, 1928); "Les Formules et la métrique d'Homère" (Paris, 1928).

  • Publications:

    "The Homeric Gloss: A Study in Word Sense," TAPA 59 (1928) 233-47; "The Distinctive Character of Enjambement in Homeric Verse," TAPA 60 (1929) 200-20; "Studies in the Epic Technique of Oral Verse-Making I. Homer and the Homeric Style," HSCP 41 (1930) 73-147; "Studies in the Epic Technique of Oral Verse-Making II. The Homeric Language as the Language of Oral Poetry," HSCP 43 (1932) 1-50; "The Traditional Metaphor in Homer," CP 28 (1933) 30-43; "Whole Formulaic Verses in Greek and Southslavic Heroic Song," TAPA 64 (1933) 179-97; "The Traces of the Digamma in Ionic and Lesbian Greek," Language 10 (1934) 130-44; "About Winged Words," CP 32 (1937) 59-63; "On Typical Scenes in Homer" (rev. of W. Arendt, Die typischen Szenen bei Homer), CP 31 (1936) 357-60.Kleine Schriften: The Making of Homeric Verse. The Collected Papers of Milman Parry, ed. Adam Parry (Oxford, 1971; repr. Salem, NH, 1980).

  • Notes:

    Already in his 1923 master's thesis, "A Comparative Study of Diction as One of the Elements of Style in Early Greek Poetry," Parry had begun to identify the formulaic elements of Homeric verse. In Paris, he wrote two theses in which he laid the foundation for the theory of the oral composition and transmission of the Homeric poems, a theory which dominates the field of Homeric studies to this day, despite many objections, modifications, additions, and subtractions. In 1934-5 he and his family spent a year in Yugoslavia. Together with his graduate student, Albert Bates Lord, Parry interviewed, recorded, and took dictation from a variety of oral epic singers. This material—12,000 texts, 3,500 recordings—constitutes the nucleus of the collection named after him in Harvard's Widener Library.In the fall of 1935 Parry returned to teach at Harvard, now reappointed to the rank of assistant professor. On 3 Dec. 1935, in a Los Angeles hotel room, Parry died of wounds from a gun he had in his possession. Despite the suspicious circumstances, police ruled the death accidental.Parry made his American reputation with a condensation and rethinking of his Sorbonne dissertations in two articles in HSCP. The implications of what he was doing in comparative study were taken up and developed by Albert Bates Lord in his The Singer of Tales (1950). Parry himself had been taking notes for a book with such a working title in Yugoslavia. Within a decade after the publication of Lord's book, the Anglo-American scholarly world was more or less committed to what has been called "the Parry-Lord orthodoxy."Parry had no chance to revise his theory over a lifetime of investigation and reflection. The romance of his early death no doubt contributed to the orthodoxy. Some will argue that Parry has established absolutely through his statistics that the Homeric poems are generated and transmitted orally without benefit of writing; others argue that Parry has conclusively demonstrated that the Homeric texts reveal a system of composition, but that there is still need to investigate the nature of this system and its implications. Still others insist that Parry's statistical method is too faulty to secure the results for which he hoped. To this day, however, Parry's influence is vast and profound among Homerists. Furthermore, orality itself as a concept and field of study owes enormously to Parry's work, whether in the narrower scope of considering pre-Hellenistic Greece as so many oral societies or in the larger view of orality as an abstraction that exists within and without the context of literacy

  • Sources:

    Charles Rowan Beye, "Milman Parry," in Classical Scholarship: A Biographical Encyclopedia, ed. Ward W. Briggs & William M. Calder III (New York, 1990) 361-6; Deborah Boedeker, "Amerikanische Oral-Tradition-Forschung. Eine Einfuhrung," Colloquium Rauricum, 1, Vergangenheit in miindlicher Uberlieferung, ed. Jurgen von Ungern-Sternberg & Hansjorg Reinau (Stuttgart, 1988), 34-53; David Bynum, Four Generations of Oral Literary Studies at Harvard University, Center for the Study of Oral Literature (Cambridge, 1974); CJ 32 (1936-7) 259; Frederick M. Combellack, "Milman Parry and Homeric Artistry," Comparative Literature 11 (1959) 193-208; W. C. Greene, PAAAS1X (1936) 535-6; C. B. Gulick, W. C. Greene, J. H. Finley, Jr. Harvard University Gazette (15 Feb. 1936) 22-3; Harry Levin, "Portrait of an Homeric Scholar," C/ 32 (1936-7) 259-66; A. B. Lord, "Homer, Parry, and Huso," AJA 52 (1948) 34-44; The Making of Homeric Verse, i-lxii. Papers: Unpublished papers of Parry and the recordings made by Parry are to be found in the Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature and James A. Notopoulos Collection, Room C, Widener Library, Harvard University.

  • Author: Charles R. Beye