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From the acclaimed biographer of Jane Jacobs and Srinivasa Ramanujan comes the first full life and work of arguably the most influential classical scholar of the 20th century, who overturned long-entrenched notions of ancient epic poetry and enlarged the very idea of literature.
In this literary detective story, Robert Kanigel gives us a long overdue portrait of an Oakland druggist's son who became known as the "Darwin of Homeric studies." So thoroughly did Milman Parry change our thinking about the origins of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey that scholars today refer to a "before" Parry and an "after." Kanigel describes the "before", when centuries of readers, all the way up until Parry's trailblazing work in the 1930s, assumed that the Homeric epics were "written" texts, the way we think of most literature; and the "after" that we now live in, where we take it for granted that they are the result of a long and winding oral tradition. Parry made it his life's work to develop and prove this revolutionary theory, and Kanigel brilliantly tells his remarkable story - cut short by Parry's mysterious death by gunshot wound at the age of 33.
From UC Berkeley to the Sorbonne to Harvard to Yugoslavia - where he traveled to prove his idea definitively by studying its traditional singers of heroic poetry - we follow Parry on his idiosyncratic journey, observing just how his early notions blossomed into a full-fledged theory. Kanigel gives us an intimate portrait of Parry's marriage to Marian Thanhouser and their struggles as young parents in Paris, and explores the mystery surrounding Parry's tragic death at the Palms Hotel in Los Angeles. Tracing Parry's legacy to the modern day, Kanigel explores how what began as a way to understand the Homeric epics became the new field of "oral theory," which today illuminates everything from Beowulf to jazz improvisation, from the Old Testament to hip-hop.
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Such a great biography. I've never read Homer before, heard of Milman Parry, nor am I a Classicist, yet this book is wonderful. I learned so much. No fears, this is not a dry book on an academic topic wrapped in the veneer of a "big idea". It's difficult to explain why this book is so good because it started a bit boring/confusing, but the elements begin to pile on and it just works: the biography, adventure travel in 1920s Balkans, mysterious death, a big revolutionary idea that has changed the field of literary studies, a brilliant young man and his untimely death who becomes a sort of heroic figure mirroring his subject. And Kanigel is an excellent writer, he has a knack for picking the precise word, it feels carefully done. Richard Poe is the right narrator, the text compliments him to an extent I had not noticed in earlier readings, there is a synergy here.
Why should you care about this topic? Well,we tend to have a bias towards written cultures and view oral as something less. This is why Bob Dylan was reviled for winning the Nobel (even though it is technically written) he was merely a bard, a song writer, is that really literature? Another reason is that Parry showed how self-learning, conviction and hard work can cause an academic revolution. He did nothing but learn Ancient Greek, read Homer, and write down a thesis - in his early 20s. Now he is immortal, there is BP (Before Parry) and AP (After Parry) - even if you disagree he can not be avoided, like a literary Darwin who discovered the key to understanding ancient epic literature.
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Learned yet accessible exploration of major discovery in the humanities
This book tells the story of a precocious, young scholar - unconventional for his time - who turned the world of literary studies upside. While he may have killer the romantic notion of Homer as an author in our own image, Milman Parry set academia ablaze as his theories about the oral composition of poetry - at once spontaneous invention and yet still guided by tradition - inspiring tremendous cross-disciplinary research. The book flows very well and the narration is quite good.