icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle


The Brief Life and Big Idea of Milman Parry


"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 Classicist Who Killed Homer," New Yorker, June 14, 2021



"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



"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, "The Darwin of the Classics," Los Angeles Review of Books, May 3, 2021



"In the story of the tangled-up gun [that killed him in a Los Angeles hotel toom]...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, "How a Young Scholar Changed Our Understanding of Homer Forever," New Republic, April 30, 2021



"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, "Kicking Homer to the Curb:  The American Scholar Who Upended the Classics," New York Times, April 29, 2021.



"Kanigel portrays Parry with sensitivity and nuance."  -- National Book Review, April 27, 2021






"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)

"Readers join the young Parry as he ventures into Balkan mountains traversed by barely passable roads, sustained by the unquenchable conviction that the songs of unlettered Balkan lyricists called guslar that he is collecting with rudimentary equipment will validate his revolutionary theory about how the ancient Greek bard forged The Iliad and The Odyssey . . . 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