cover image Hearing Homer’s Song: The Brief Life and Big Idea of Milman Parry

Hearing Homer’s Song: The Brief Life and Big Idea of Milman Parry

Robert Kanigel. Knopf, $27.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-525-52094-8

In this gripping biography, Kanigel (On an Irish Island) offers a sterling portrait of American poetry scholar Milman Parry (1902–1935) and his “big idea” that the Iliad and Odyssey were the products of generations of pre-literate “singers.” This idea drove Parry to pursue a doctorate at the Sorbonne, and while in Paris, he was advised by a fellow scholar to do field work in the Balkans. Parry did, seeking in the performances of Serbian epic singers clues about the Homeric tradition. Kanigel traces the influence of Parry’s work, which caused a fundamental change in how epic poetry was understood once Parry proved Homer’s works and written epics were “different animals altogether.” On the personal front, Kanigel delivers a fascinating account of Parry’s marriage and the mysterious circumstances around his death by gunshot shortly after his return from Yugoslavia (a handgun in his bag accidentally fired, though Kanigel also considers theories that it was suicide or that his wife shot him). Expertly weaving the personal and the academic, Kanigel movingly notes that Parry’s fixation on his theory and his inexorable work ethic drove a wedge between him and his wife. Meticulously researched and full of fascinating detail, this is a remarkable account. (Apr.)