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The Classicist Who Killed Homer

The Western tradition has never been more appealingly portrayed than in Rembrandt’s 1653 painting “Aristotle with a Bust of Homer.” Whether you stand in front of it at the Metropolitan Museum or look at it online, the painting turns you into a link in a chain that goes back three thousand years. Here you are in the twenty-first century, contemplating a painting made in Amsterdam in the seventeenth century, which portrays a philosopher who lived in Athens in the fourth century B.C., looking at a poet thought to have lived in the eighth century B.C. Tradition abolishes time, making us all contemporaries.

Yet the painting hints that Homer doesn’t quite belong in the same dimension of reality occupied by you, Aristotle, and Rembrandt. Aristotle is portrayed realistically in the dress of Rembrandt’s time—sumptuous white shirt, simple black apron, and broad-brimmed hat. (It wasn’t until the twentieth century that art historians determined that the figure was Aristotle; earlier identifications included a contemporary of Rembrandt’s, the writer Pieter Cornelisz Hooft.) In other words, Aristotle is a human being like us, albeit an extraordinary one. Homer, however, is a white marble bust—a work of art within a work of art.

It’s a reminder that, even for Aristotle, Homer was more a legend than a man. In his Poetics, the philosopher credits the poet with inventing epic, drama, and comedy. “It is Homer who has chiefly taught other poets the art of telling lies skillfully,” he writes with evident ambivalence. Herodotus, known as the first historian, saw Homer, along with the poet Hesiod, as having invented Greek mythology, calling them the first to “give the gods their epithets, to allot them their several offices and occupations, and describe their forms.”

When it comes to things like when and where Homer lived, however, the earliest sources are already unreliable. According to tradition, the poet was blind and was born on the island of Chios, where a guild of rhapsodes—reciters of epic poetry—later became known as the Homeridae, “children of Homer,” and claimed to be his direct descendants. But there is no evidence for any of these assertions, and some ancient biographies of Homer are obviously fanciful.

Herodotus writes that Homer lived “four hundred years before my time,” which would put him in the ninth century B.C., but adds that this is “my own opinion,” with no real proof behind it. Other ancient sources give dates from 1100 to 800 B.C., placing Homer in what historians now call Greece’s Dark Ages, when the kingdoms we read about in the Iliad had collapsed and city-states like Athens and Sparta had not yet arisen. This was long before the development of the literate, urban civilization we think of as “ancient Greece.” There are no written records of this period, a fact that suggests the Greeks of Homer’s time were illiterate. Ultimately, the only evidence that such a person as Homer ever lived is the existence of the Iliad and the Odyssey themselves. Surely someone had to have written them, and, as far back as we can see, that person was called Homer.

But in the nineteenth century classicists began to subject the Iliad and the Odyssey to the same kind of critical analysis that was casting new light on the historical origins of the Bible. Tradition held that the five books of Moses were written by their namesake, but research was suggesting that they were a composite of several sources stitched together long after the time they were ostensibly written. A similar debate—known as the Homeric Question—roiled classical scholarship. Were the Iliad and the Odyssey really written by a historical individual named Homer, or were they composites of shorter poems by various people, woven together to form the epics we know? So-called “unitarians” argued that only a single author, with a powerfully imaginative mind, could have produced such monumental poems. “Analysts,” on the other hand, worked on separating the epics into their supposed original components by closely scrutinizing the language and the narrative.

Among those who waded into the debate was William Gladstone, the four-time Prime Minister of Britain, who published his three-volume “Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age” in 1858, during a brief stint out of office. Gladstone believed that the Homeric Question had been conclusively settled in favor of the traditional, unitarian view. The poems, he wrote, were “genuine gifts not only of a remote antiquity but of a designing mind.” And Homer, “to whom that mind belonged, has been justly declared by the verdict of all ages to be the patriarch of poets.” As it turned out, the verdict was premature.

We may not know when Homer was born, but we can say for certain that he ceased to exist in the early nineteen-thirties, when a young Harvard professor named Milman Parry published two papers, in the journal Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, with the seemingly innocuous title “Studies in the Epic Technique of Oral Verse-Making.” Parry’s thesis was simple but momentous: “It is my own view, as those who have read my studies on Homeric style know, that the nature of Homeric poetry can be grasped only when one has seen that it is composed in a diction which is oral, and so formulaic, and so traditional.” In other words, the Iliad and the Odyssey weren’t written by Homer, because they weren’t written at all. They were products of an oral tradition, performed by generations of anonymous Greek bards who gradually shaped them into the epics we know today. Earlier scholars had advanced this as a hypothesis, but it was Parry who demonstrated it beyond a reasonable doubt.

When he published his landmark papers, Parry was just thirty years old. Born in Oakland, California, where his father ran an unsuccessful drugstore, he visited Greece only once, for two months. But, as Robert Kanigel shows in the new biography “Hearing Homer’s Song” (Knopf), Parry, as an undergraduate at Berkeley, had been seized by Homer, in much the same way that the deities in the Iliad seize their favorite humans. In that era of American public education, even someone from Parry’s background could master Latin in high school and Greek in college, where the language “became his deep and abiding love,” his sister later recalled. “I think it was the sheer beauty and grandeur of spoken Greek—and the great delight the Greeks found in simply being alive—that attracted him.”

Parry’s career as a classicist lasted about fifteen years, from the first Greek courses he took until his sudden death, in 1935, at the age of thirty-three. He published no books and only a few papers. His most important research, undertaken in the last years of his life, involved travelling to remote areas of Yugoslavia to make recordings of local singers, whose improvised songs offered clues about how the Homeric epics might have been performed millennia earlier. These recordings revolutionized the understanding of oral literature, but when Parry died no one had yet listened to them; they were just a pile of thirty-five hundred aluminum disks sitting in a Harvard storage room.

The significance of Parry’s work might never have become widely known if it weren’t for another scholar, Albert Lord, who accompanied Parry to Yugoslavia as a research assistant. Lord devoted the rest of his life to preserving and building on his teacher’s research, above all in his classic book on oral poetry, “The Singer of Tales” (1960). As Kanigel writes, for classicists, Parry and Lord are as indivisible as Watson and Crick, the scientists who discovered the structure of DNA.

Parry was an unlikely candidate for the task of abolishing Homer, who had been revered as the West’s first great poet for almost three thousand years. But, as great as Parry’s accomplishment was, it’s not obvious that biography is the best genre for taking stock of it. Because he died almost a century ago, there is no one alive for Kanigel to interview, no new sources to unearth. To compensate, he leans on descriptions of the places Parry lived—Oakland at the turn of the century, or Paris in the nineteen-twenties, when he studied for his doctorate at the Sorbonne. Kanigel also devotes much attention to Parry’s marriage, helped by an interview that his widow, Marian, recorded in 1981. The only revelation here, though, is that the Parrys weren’t very close; they married only because Marian got pregnant, when she was twenty-four and Milman twenty-one. “That’s the beginning of the baby and the end of me,” she remembered him saying. They had a son and a daughter.

The Parrys’ marriage is primarily of interest because of the manner of Milman’s death. Late in 1935, he took a sudden leave of absence from Harvard to go to California, where Marian was helping her mother deal with a financial crisis. After spending time in the Bay Area, the Parrys headed south to visit Milman’s sister, in San Diego. They were staying overnight in a hotel in downtown Los Angeles when Milman, rummaging through his suitcase, discharged a loaded pistol he had packed, shooting himself in the heart.

Naturally, such a shocking death provoked rumor and conjecture about suicide or murder, which Kanigel duly reviews. But nothing in Milman’s life suggested that he was suicidal or that Marian had a motive for killing him. The policemen called to the scene didn’t hesitate to declare the death accidental, and the Parrys’ children later wrote that, given “Milman Parry’s character and the specific circumstances of his death,” an accident was the only reasonable explanation.

Certainly Parry doesn’t seem to have been the kind of man to inspire murderous passions. One of his Harvard colleagues recalled, “He had no enemies so far as I know and few friends. Not that he rejected friendship; he did not need it. He had had his idea and he had deliberately prepared himself to follow it up, and this was his life.” It is Parry’s consuming idea that is the real subject of “Hearing Homer’s Song.”

Even in antiquity, there were some clues that the authorship of the Iliad and the Odyssey might be a complicated affair. The Greek historian Plutarch, who lived in the first century A.D., wrote that the epics owed their existence as complete poems to Lycurgus, an early ruler of Sparta, who encountered them during his travels in Asia Minor:

When he saw that the political and disciplinary lessons contained in them were worthy of no less serious attention than the incentives to pleasure and license which they supplied, he eagerly copied and compiled them in order to take them home with him. For these epics already had a certain faint reputation among the Greeks, and a few were in possession of certain portions of them, as the poems were carried here and there by chance; but Lycurgus was the very first to make them really known.

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