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The Brief Life and Big Idea of Milman Parry


"[Kanigel's] biography (the first) of Milman Parry, set in California, Paris, Yugoslavia, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, would translate well to the big screen (or Netflix). Although an ideal beach read for the classics scholar, the book is aimed at the layperson; Kanigel eschews jargon and in-depth technical discussion while still attempting to convey the magnitude of Parry's theory." —A. E. Stallings, The American Scholar


"One man's inspired effort to recover Homeric song, not through books and research but lived experience . . . Kanigel, a biographer of intellectual pioneers, has captured [its] excitement." —James Romm, The New York Review of Books


"Gripping . . . Kanigel 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' . . . On the personal front, Kanigel delivers a fascinating account of Parry's marriage and the mysterious circumstances around his death by gunshot . . . 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."

Publishers Weekly (starred review)


"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....As Robert Kanigel shows in the new biography Hearing Homer's Song, 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."  -- Adam Kirsch, The New Yorker


"In his biographies of figures like Frederick Winslow Taylor, Jane Jacobs, and Srinivasa Ramanujan, Robert Kanigel has proven to have an intellectual love affair with unconventional academics, especially those who come from unlikely backgrounds and offer revolutionary contributions to intellectual society...Like Kanigel's prior subjects, [Milman] Parry is a figure who looms large in a particular scholarly sphere but is basically unknown outside of it. He is thus perfectly suited to the author's skill for translating the complexity and significance of ground-breaking ideas to lay audiences. Hearing Homer's Song is no exception, proving equal parts introductory university lecture, gripping family drama, murder mystery, and travel adventure novel."-- Dorian Juric, Folklorica


"Perhaps only a complete outsider to the field like Robert Kanigel, free of the passionate intensity that has long characterized Homeric studies, could have understood Parry's discovery so well and explained it with such clarity for the benefit of both scholars and the wider public . . . Kanigel has uncovered and deftly deployed remarkably rich sources about his subject." —Richard Janko, Bryn Mawr Classical Review


"Mr. Kanigel has made a career of writing books about eccentric geniuses, such as the urbanist Jane Jacobs and the mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan . . . [He] proves the ideal synthesizer of Parry's 'brief life and big idea' . . . This compelling book gives us the argument and the enigma of [an] unfinished life." —David Mason, Wall Street Journal

"Kanigel offers the first full-scale account of Parry's short life, mysterious demise and long-lived influence...Parry imagined a form of literature at once deeply traditional and uncannily modern, created not by a single genius standing at the head of the Western canon, but rather by hundreds or, perhaps, thousands of performers in venues big and small, composing and reworking songs for their audiences. If he himself resists biography, that may be only appropriate." -- Robert Cioffi,  New York Times Book Review.


"Challenges our disciplinary approach to the history of Classics . . . A fascinating read, written in an engaging and accessible style." —Bla┼ż Zabel, The Classical Review


With penetrating insight and humanizing empathy, Kanigel recounts the labors of Parry's traveling companion, Albert Lord, as he preserves, extends, and promulgates the epoch-making discovery of his now-departed mentor. Readers see how, through Lord, Parry's breakthrough ultimately reorients not only classical studies, but also other fields studying works shaped by oral creativity . . . Scholars will appreciate the technical aspects of Parry and Lord's accomplishment as 'literary archaeologists,' but readers of all sorts will value the personal drama." —Bryce Christensen, Booklist (starred review)


"An engaging, thoroughly researched biography of a fascinating figure . . . [with] an underlying quiver of suspense . . . Kanigel has given readers a thoughtful look at a man whose theories have helped us to better understand the ancient world." —Library Journal


"A vivid chronicle of intellectual passion . . . Drawing on considerable archival sources, Kanigel recounts in thorough, engaging detail the life of Milman Parry (1902-1935), a Harvard classics professor whose investigation of Homer's works proved groundbreaking . . . As in previous books, Kanigel's skill as a biographer is on full display." —Kirkus Reviews


"In Kanigel's astute telling, Parry embraced the world in all its strangeness."  -- David Luhrssen, Shepherd Express, May 20, 2021


 "A deeply researched biography...This is a fascinating book that will leave you musing about traditions, culture, and what you may have learned that needs a fresh examination."  -- Anaraz Guard, Portland Book Review


 "Kanigel portrays Parry with sensitivity and nuance."  -- National Book Review,


"In the story of the tangled-up gun [that killed Parry in a Los Angeles hotel room] . . . Kanigel gives us Parry's brief career in miniature: It doesn't make sense, and yet it happened, and it changed the humanities forever." —Jo Livingstone, The New Republic


 "In his elegant biography of Parry, Hearing Homer's Song, Robert Kanigel tells this complicated story to the general reader with inspired calm....Parry's life story has enough quotidian quirks, and such a crashing inexplicable finale, that he looms above his own work like a ghost."  -- Tim Riley, Los Angeles Review of Books