North American Scholar

PARRY, Milman

  • Image
  • Date of Birth (YYYY-MM-DD): 1902-06-20
  • Born City: Oakland
  • Born State/Country: CA
  • Parents: Isaac Milman, 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:

    Milman Parry revolutionized the criticism and scholarship of the Homeric texts by demonstrating that the manner of composition of these narratives was both coherent and unlike subsequent literary texts. He gave substance to the idea that these were the products of oral poets living in a preliterate age. His researches made clear that generalizations about Homer must rest on statistics and that the comparative study of similar narratives from other cultures had much to tell Homerists. He turned the subsequent study of the Iliad and Odyssey by American scholars away from content toward the mechanics of style. His approach to the poems influenced a generation of classical scholars in the United States to look at ancient literature as a historical phenomenon, as a product of a culture with all the inherent limitations and parochialisms more than or rather than the beginnings of a continuum extending into the present day.

    Parry’s antecedents were Welsh, Scotch, and English. The family were Quakers. He went through the Oakland public schools and then in 1918 entered the University of California at Berkeley, intent on finding a major field in the natural sciences. There his interest turned to classical literature. Herbert Weir Smyth (1857-1937), then a visiting professor from Harvard, was so impressed with Parry when he taught him that years later he remembered the man when it was time to make a new appointment at Harvard. Parry received the B.A. degree in the spring of 1922 and in the subsequent academic year wrote his Master of Arts thesis with the Homerist George Calhoun (1886-1942), entitled “A Comparative Study of Diction as One of the Elements of Style in Early Greek Epic Poetry.” In this study Parry has already identified the distinguishing feature of Homeric verse construction in singling out the repeated epithets, their position in the line, and their juxtapositions. He labels them “traditional," and distinguishes this use of epithets from that found in later epic poets. This work also reveals the considerable knowledge and strong interest that the young Parry had in literature and art in general. He considers the repetition of epithets principally as a matter of aesthetic interest.

    In 1924 Parry went to Paris to study at the Sorbonne. Parry’s decision was forced upon him when he was denied scholarship money for advanced study in the United States. In May 1923 he had married his college classmate, Marian Than- houser, a German Jewish woman from Milwaukee, who accompanied him to Paris along with their six-month-old daughter, Marian. In Paris Parry became father to a second child, a son named Adam Milman (1928-71), and also acquired the degree Docteur ès lettres, awarded in 1928 for two theses, or dissertations, which he wrote in the comparatively brief time of four years under the direction of Aimé Puech (1860-1940). He benefited as well from his teachers Antoine Meillet (1866-1936) and Maurice Croiset (1846-1935). French professors, by contrast, customarily took considerable time writing their theses and received the Docteurs lettres well into their academic career, as a kind of a capstone to it rather than its foundation.

    The first and more important of these dissertations, L'Epithete traditionelle, consists of a statistical analysis of repeated epithets in combination with names and a few common nouns (sea, ships, etc.). The statistics are used to demonstrate that the poet built his dactylic hexametric lines from phrases with fixed metrical shape, almost none of which overlap in meaning. These phrases then function exactly as individual words do in the normal speech act. Parry thus argued that the poet had the components of verse narrative in his memory just as ordinary persons have words, in a sense that Homeric diction functions as another language. The other dissertation, Les Formules et la métrique, demonstrated that the presence of hiatus throughout the Homeric poems reveals an accommodation by the poet to the inevitable juxtaposition of vowels when two formulaic phrases were matched. This suggested to Parry that the maintenance of the formulaic phrase system was all-important to the poet, being the building blocks of his narrative just as individual words function for the later epic poet or prose writer. The importance of these dissertations was that they created a solid theoretical basis for a belief in the unity and integrity of the Homeric poems. Homeric criticism in the previous two centuries had rested upon the belief that these poems derive from a period of illiteracy in which no poet could carry in his head anything so grand. Hence, the problem of the composition of the Iliad and Odyssey became the preoccupation of Homeric scholarship. (The introductory chapter to A.B. Lord’s Singer of Tales [Cambridge, MA, 1950] is probably a good example of the way Parry conceived of the “Homeric problem” as it lay waiting for his solution.) Parry’s work received an immediate, thorough, perceptive, and sympathetic appraisal from Pierre Chantraine in the form of a review article (RPh 3 [1929] 294-300).

    Parry then returned to his first teaching post at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, for the 1928-1929 academic year. By all accounts he found the place as uncongenial as the institution found him. After this year he was appointed to the faculty of Harvard University as an Instructor. The quality of his teaching there has been caught in a brief memoir by his student Harry Levin (1912-94) (“Portrait of an Homeric Scholar,” CJ 32 [1937] 259-66), who describes how Parry was able to make the necessarily mechanical learning of ancient languages part of a greater whole with his constant classroom allusions to literature, to the civilizations of the past, to contemporary American culture. In sum, in a field that all too frequently casts up a species of pedantic drudge he was that rarity: a cultivated, engaged man of the world.

    His immediately subsequent research was designed to show that certain “problems” in Homeric narrative would vanish if approached as aspects of a traditional style. His essay on glosses, for instance, demonstrates that the poet no longer understood the meaning of certain ornamental epithets because they were embedded in traditional, fixed phrases in which the noun carried the operative meaning. His two essays in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology were the means whereby he conveyed to the English-speaking world the results of his French dissertations. Parry enlarged his conception of formula in these pieces, developing the argument for creation by analogy that helped to extend the definition of traditional phraseology to a considerably higher percentage of the lines of the poems.

    The refinements and advances in argument in these pieces convinced Parry that the Homeric poems were the product of an oral poetic tradition, as the title of the second of these two articles indicates (“Homeric Language as Language of Oral Poetry”). Arguments for orality made the old Homeric problem finally irrelevant, since what Parry was theorizing was an entirely different way of creating and maintaining a narrative. It was not that no one had ever entertained the notions Parry was now advancing; rather, his work was the first to present a closely reasoned, statistically detailed study that tries to offer conclusive proof.

    In the absence of ancient evidence Parry decided that determining the orality of Homeric poetry could only finally be achieved by comparative study with a living oral tradition. Influenced by Mathias Murkos’s La Poésie populaire épique en yougoslavie ou début du XXe siècle (Paris, 1929) he spent the summer of 1933 in Yugoslavia investigating the local singers. The following June he embarked with his family for Yugoslavia, where he settled into Dubrovnik for the academic year 1934-1935. He was accompanied on this longer trip by his graduate assistant, Albert Bates Lord (1912-91). The two men proceeded to take from dictation and then, with the new recording technology that had become available, to record, the spontaneous performances of a number of professional singers. Parry learned Serbo-Croatian (his son, Adam, attended the local school) the better to understand the songs and to integrate himself into the community of singers. The material he collected was vast: more than 12,000 texts, some 3,500 recordings on 12-inch aluminum disks. These constitute the nucleus of the collection named after him in Harvard’s Widener Library. The immediate result of this field trip was the article “Whole Formulaic Verses in Greek and Southslavic Heroic Song.” He was gathering material for a book to be entitled Cor Huso: A Study of Southslavic Song, largely concerned with Serbo-Croatian poems. At the same time he was taking notes for a book to be entitled The Singer of Tales. Albert Bates Lord quotes the opening pages of the latter in his “Homer, Parry, and Huso” (AJA 52 [1948] 34-44), which is a memoir of this time in Parry’s life. The Singer of Tales is itself the title of Lord’s own study (the title as well of his doctoral dissertation) in which the research of his teacher and himself is brought together to advance the argument that oral poetic technique is universal and not culture-bound. In the fall of 1935 Parry returned to Harvard, where he had been promoted to Assistant Professor in 1932. On 3 December 1935, in a Los Angeles hotel room, Parry died of wounds from a gun he had in his possession. Despite the academic world’s persistent determination to see this as suicide on the theory that Parry was denied tenure at Harvard, there is no evidence that he would not have been promoted (he had just been reappointed to a second three-year term as Assistant Professor in the summer of 1935), and the physical circumstances of his death argue against suicide.

    In the posthumous publication of “About Winged Words,” an answer to his old teacher Calhoun’s arguments against the idea that ornamental epithets have no meaning for the auditor, Parry sets forth what has always been one of the more difficult of his ideas for critics of the Homeric poems. He always insisted that “[Homeric poetry] ... is filled with phrases emptier of meaning than any in Pope or Falconer.” (Collected Papers 37). After his flirtation with aesthetics in his M.A. thesis, Parry, once in France and under the influence of Marcel Jousse (1886-1961) and Meillet, was at pains to keep aesthetics out of his theorizing. He emphasized the mechanics of oral verse-making: language was a tool, ornamental epithets without semantic value, the bard or singer no more than an anonymous cog in the vast machine of oral poetic creation whose individual contribution was scarcely to be noticed. In defense of the clichés of English Augustan poetry, and, by analogy, Homer, Parry could say “... what the words lost in meaning they gained in charm of correctness” (Ibid.). However vague “charm of correctness” may be, Parry hit upon one of the most important aesthetic principles and habits of mind of that early culture, one that explains so much of ancient Greek conservatism, their tragic sense of life, their infinite capacity for irony, their obsession with stereotypes. Parry’s writings again and again demonstrate him to have anticipated what is now contemporary literary critical theory, that is, that the style of the narrative is as much the content as the so-called story line. Parry’s theme and formulae are thus in a sense Homer’s story, as his son Adam brilliantly demonstrates in “The Language of Achilles” (TAPA 87 [1956] 1-7).

    Parry had no chance to revise his theory over a lifetime of investigation and reflection. The romance of his youthful death contributed to its rapidly hardening into an orthodoxy; the theory’s adherents could be divided into those who insisted both upon the truth of Parry’s statistical analyses and the implications he outlined for them and those who accepted that Parry had conclusively demonstrated that the Homeric texts reveal a system of composition but were still investigating the nature of this system and its implications.

    His son, Adam Parry, who followed in his father’s footsteps as a promising classical scholar, also died prematurely in an accident, but left an excellent overview of his father’s contribution and limitations in the introductory chapter in Collected Papers.The chapter on formulae in Norman Austin’s Archery at the Dark of the Moon (Berkeley, 1975) offers fundamental criticisms of Parry’s use of statistics as well as of the literary critical theory upon which his work rests, arguing for a poet who consciously manipulates his language. Austin’s emphasis upon the formula in context is an important modification of Parry’s view. More recently, David Shive, in Naming Achilles (Oxford, 1987), has subjected Parry’s statistics in the Iliad to review and found them certainly in need of revision, if not fundamentally flawed. Needless to say, the definition of a formula is arguable. J.B. Hainsworth’s The Flexibility of the Homeric Formula (Oxford, 1968) is a basic rethinking of some of Parry’s assumptions (see especially chapter three, “What is a Formula?”). The early revisionists of the Parry-Lord orthodoxy get an important rejoinder from A. B. Lord in “Homer as an Oral Poet” (HSCPh 72 [1967] 1-46).

    R. H. Finnegan’s Oral Poetry: Its Nature, Significance and Social Context (Cambridge, 1977) shows the great influence Parry has had on the study of oral poetry in general since the days of H. M. (1870-1947) and N. K. (1891-1972) Chadwick, whose monumental Growth of Literature (Cambridge, 1932-1940), encyclopedic as it may be, seems nowadays very limited without the Parry perspective on orality. Nonetheless, Finnegan’s researches show that facts gathered from the field over a wide spectrum of cultures will challenge many of Parry’s assumptions, e.g., the inevitability of the bard’s illiteracy, the lack of individuality in the oral performer’s style, etc. Gregory Nagy, linguist and Homerist, whose work in oral studies proceeds from the Parry-Lord orthodoxy with ever new modifications and original insights, offers important new definitions in “Oral Poetry and the Homeric Poems: Broadening and Narrowing of Terms” (Critical Exchange 16 [1984] 32-54).

    Furthermore, orality itself as a concept and field of study owes enormously to Parry’s work; Eric Havelock (1903-88) has written extensively on the fundamental differences to be found in ancient Greek culture as the population changed from a preliterate or oral state to that of a literate mentality. His most important work, Preface to Plato (Cambridge, MA, 1963), is deeply indebted to Parry’s theories and insights. Walter Ong (1912-2003) has studied the phenomenon in a wider context, the results of which are embodied in his Orality and Literacy (London, 1982), which is underlaid with an initial conceptual framework that derives from Parry.

    Parry’s early death made little impression on the world. His work had not received its due recognition; he had not created a host of acolytes. It was only thirty- six years later that the papers of this man, so important for classicists, comparativists, linguists, and anthropologists were finally published. Nonetheless, however research into oral poetry, the Homeric texts, or orality moves away from the theories originally promulgated by Milman Parry, it is certain to be the case that scholars and critics will continue to address the questions and opinions offered so many years ago by this man while still in his youth.

  • 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;


    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 Rowan Beye