Who Was Milman Parry?

Matthew Wills at JStor Daily rehashes the tale of Milman Parry, who (as many Hatters doubtless know) “used textual analysis, anthropology, and field work to show that pre-literate or semi-literate peoples could, in fact, recite long poems.” I hadn’t known, however, about his mysterious demise in 1935:

But Parry’s untimely death from a gunshot wound seems to have sparked all sorts of urban legends—or what you might call oral traditions. Parry, in fact, had carried a gun in the rough terrain of Yugoslavia and took the weapon with him on a family trip to California. It evidently went off by accident while he was unpacking. That “evidently” has been the basis of much rumor since.

Classics professor Steve Reece explores the shooting and the mythology about Parry that arose in subsequent years. He’s been described as a working-class hero/chicken farmer who ran up against Harvard snobbery and killed himself in despair when he wasn’t given tenure. He was compared to Alexander the Great (also dead at thirty-three); T. E. Lawrence, who died in a senseless road accident just months before Parry; and even to Ajax, who “killed himself out of anger and dismay over not receiving the armor of Achilles.” Reece goes to the documentation to meticulously deconstruct the Parry-myths in the context of the fluidity of oral traditions. Though saturated in corporate narratives and televisual plots, we evidently still make up songs about heroes.

Reese’s article is “The Myth of Milman Parry: Ajax or Elpenor?” (Oral Tradition, 33/1 [2019]:115-142), and it’s available free in its entirety. Thanks, Bathrobe!


  1. Unfortunately it became a family tradition:
    his son Adam Parry and wife killed in crash

  2. David Marjanović says:

    Such attempts as Beye’s, however, did little to suppress the oral tradition. In 1993 there occurred a sustained and wide-ranging conversation on the University of Kentucky’s Classical Greek and Latin Discussion Group (Classics-L, an electronic “Listserv”) about the untimely and tragic deaths of scholars who worked in the field of Homeric Studies: Milman Parry, Adam Parry, Anne Amory Parry, Michael Ventris, Colin MacLeod. […]

    First, there appear in the informal conversation, as in any oral tradition, numerous factual errors: that Parry died in an auto accident (a conflation with his son Adam’s death);

  3. One man’s fake news are another man’s oral traditions.

  4. Totally irrelevant remark: Milman Parry sounds like a James Thurber character.

  5. David Eddyshaw says:
  6. ‘The Myth of Milman Parry’ inevitably drops a lot of names, including that of the professor who taught his three semesters of anthropology, A. L. Kroeber, father of Ursula K. LeGuin, coincidentally born st the time Parry was at Berkeley. We are told that anthropology at the time was unusual for a classics student. Given that both Parry and LeGuin were both unusual people, Kroeber must have been fascinating.

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