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.

  7. John Cowan says:

    Ya want name-dropping? Parry studied along with Henry Watson “Indiana” Jones at the Sorbonne under (among others) Antoine Meillet. H. W. Jones should not of course be confused or conflated with William “India” Jones, the founder (little though he knew it) of Indo-European studies.

    Kroeber was indeed fascinating. He was so charismatic that his students adopted not only his views but (if genetically aligned) his beard and mustache style. Le Guin writes about him somewhere, talking about all the fascinating people he brought home with him, from Indians to Europeans, seemingly all teachers of one sort or another.

  8. Kroeber and the circumstances of Milman Parry’s death figure prominently in my biography of Milman Parry to be published by Knopf in spring 2021, under the title “Hearing Homer’s Song: The Brief Life and Big Idea of Milman Parry.”

    Robert Kanigel

  9. Thanks for the heads-up!

  10. At Berkeley there’s currently a debate about whether to rename Kroeber Hall, home of the Anthropology Department, because of Kroeber’s practice of collecting Native American remains and alleged ill-treatment of Ishi. For those interested in such matters, there’s a long and thoughtful discussion (full disclosure, the author was my graduate advisor) here.

  11. Argh, that pisses me off. “The unnaming proposal rightly highlights the pain caused by limitations in Kroeber’s view of ‘culture’ and his unreflecting Euro-American discursive positionality” — this is the problem with progressive anger, it never finds a stopping point, once you’ve gotten rid of the actual slave-owners and Confederate generals, you look around for more dragons to slay. If Kroeber was a villain, then we’re all villains. Which of course we are, sinners all, and yet I have no desire to see the human race wiped out. I try to resist the conservative pushback against “cancel culture,” but sometimes my fellow progressives make it hard.

  12. David Eddyshaw says:


    I was also sorry to see Franz Boas implicitly included on the list of Bad Guys. These people are making common cause with “scientific” racists (and common-or-garden racists, for that matter), to whom Boas is a particular hate figure. Their concerns are understandable. That doesn’t make them wise or invariably right. There also seems to be a substantial amount of what can only be described as historical fantasy involved. I’ve seen a similar phenomenon in geographical, rather than historical, mode in some Americans’ attitudes to Africa.

    Andrew Garrett’s letter itself seems both sensitive and sensible.

  13. John Cowan says:

    Clearly the only thing to do is for us all to move back to some spot in East Africa near where Homo sapiens emerged, for none of us are indigenous to any other place.

  14. AJP Crown says:

    I moved to Ohlone land in 1994
    Meaning California, I suppose or Berkeley. Sometimes academics show more enthusiasm than sense but it’s the enthusiasm that drives them forward. I agree it’s a thoughtful and interesting letter.

    Berkeley is really into renaming. It recently changed Boalt Hall to Berkeley Law School, which must make its students grateful. Nobody outside Ohlone land knew what Boalt was. Sure it’s a pointless symbolic exercise and the time could be MUCH better spent doing something practical as well as radical, but I’m for changing ‘Kroeber’. I mean, why just him? I expect there are plenty of other worthies who have a link to Berkeley linguistics. I also really want to remove the names of donors that attach to new university buildings like limpet mines to boat bottoms, especially the long husband-and-wife names like John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur.

  15. David Eddyshaw says:

    I suppose the counter-argument is that without such sops to their vanity the superrich will simply sulk and refuse to help their fellows. The true solution is of course to tax them properly.

  16. AJP Crown says:

    I’d be happy to give them a statue on the front of the building instead… oh no, wait. What I object to is the names getting space in my brain for no good reason.

  17. Maybe have the statues with a button you can push to find out who the person is/was if you really want to.

  18. “Press 1 to learn how much money they gave, press 2 to learn about their crimes against humanity.”

  19. AJP Crown says:

    Works for me.

  20. AJP Crown says:

    But I still want to change the name of Oriel college to Arboreal so it’s more rewilding-friendly.

  21. David Eddyshaw says:

    Press 1 to learn how much money they gave, press 2 to learn about their crimes against humanity

    As DM says, Day saved.

  22. AJP Crown says:

    Yes. What’s the other one he says? Anyway, that too.

  23. John Cowan says:

    Ohlone land

    Well, I myself live on Lenape land, but I worked (pre-pandemic) on Dutch land, since my office was at 55 Water Street, so named because it was formerly the western edge of the East River.

    (I have just been told that my cow orkers and I will not return to an office until at least the New Year, and in any case it will be a different office yet to be determined, as $EMPLOYER has sublet their space in 55 Water. It will probably be cow orking space, possibly from Wew Ork, assuming they are still in business at that time.)

  24. AJP Crown says:

    I remember 55 Water Street (I used to work at 125 Cedar Street), largest floor area in NY with 3.5 million sq. ft (325,000 sq. m).

  25. 55 Water Street. I note the “History” section is silent about how this monstrosity got permission to be built. I don’t imagine “a superblock created from four adjoining city blocks, suppressing the western part of Front Street” came cheap, and by “cheap” I’m not referring to construction costs.

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