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. 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.

  26. Kroeber Hall has now had its Day of Unnaming. I wonder what his daughter would make of it.

  27. His great-grandson Gavin put in a comment in support of the name change. I think it’s wrong, or at best right for the wrong reasons. I don’t mind his name being off a building. I do mind the character assassination that is the last anyone will have heard of Kroeber.

  28. Not really. Before the controversy I didn’t know who Kroeber was. You see, I am not very interested in Native Californian anthropology. And now I know who he was and he seems to be an important and positive figure. OK, he made some mistakes and misjudgments, and someone got hurt (see Hamlet, act 2, scene 2). As the saying goes, the only person who never makes a mistake is the person who never does anything. Current unnaming fad will pass and everything will return to its proper place.

  29. Some of the unnamings are fully deserved and overdue. I don’t think bad people’s names should be on buildings. I think it’s a shame that people will think of Kroeber and Boalt as being similar, and there are people far more deserving of dishonor than Kroeber whose names are still up, even at Berkeley.

  30. I agree.

  31. …people far more deserving of dishonor…

    This assumes that the Berkeley administration has some sort of moral authority, which is very much debatable. Just like I find it incredible that a substantial number of Native Americans think that a building with Kroeber’s name on it is a slight, I also do not think that removing his name from the building by Berkeley’s administrators tarnishes Kroeber’s reputation. It’s like a mini-version of Chinese government prohibiting Sen. Rubio and Cruz travel to China. They only forgot to gift-wrap it.

  32. Not the Berkeley administration so much as everyone who has weighed in on this for the last several months, in public comments, in the press, and elsewhere. The official statement just codifies these sentiments.

  33. Herd behavior.

  34. there are people far more deserving of dishonor than Kroeber whose names are still up, even at Berkeley.

    Quick check.

    Berkeley is named after Anglo-Irish philosopher George Berkeley who owned a plantation on Rhode island and exploited black slaves.

    Cancel Berkeley!

  35. David Eddyshaw says

    The problem is not that Kroeber’s reputation will be harmed: nobody whose good opinion is worth having in the first place will think the worse of him for this.

    It is that the very cause whose in whose name this has been done is damaged by this stupidity; just as every aid project which is so poorly thought out that it does more harm than good (there are many) gives comfort to those who deny that the fortunate have any responsibility to help the unfortunate at all.

    Reducing real historical and ongoing injustice to this sort of performance art simply gives comfort to those who deny the real injustice.

  36. Exactly.

  37. PlasticPaddy says

    My own take on this is that there is a small but vocal minority in “moral force” organisations, who enjoy vilification and the expression of anger, and seize gleefully on any opportunity to unleash these negative emotions “symbolically”, on “legitimate” targets. Unfortunately members of this minority also often do not believe in the efficacy of psychiatric treatment, so are unlikely to avail of the help they need ????

  38. John Cowan says

    Arguably one of Kroeber’s mistakes, namely certifying that the Ohlone groups were “culturally extinct”, has continuing consequences.

    I like the MIT habit of numbering rather than naming buildings. My own almost-mater, CCNY, has buildings named after various worthies, but the only ones known to the Republic of Learning are George Washington Goethals, Arthur Holly Compton, David B. Steinman, Morris Raphael Cohen, and Robert Marshak, and that is stretching it.

  39. It wasn’t just Kroeber who so cavalierly wielded the word “extinct”, and it wasn’t just the Ohlone whom he wrongly wrote off that way. But the infamous bureaucrat who disinherited the Ohlone from the last land they had didn’t think they were extinct (and therefore wasn’t influenced by what Kroeber had said). He just decided that they (and quite a few other groups) didn’t need it.

  40. @John Cowan: MIT denotes virtually everything with numbers, when possible. For example, departments and classes are known preferentially by number, with the names used only to clear up occasionally confusion. (One might need to explain what math class 18.152 was, but everybody* knows 6.001—pronounced “six double oh one”—or 9.00—”nine hundred.”)

    Many of the buildings technically have names as well. As a student journalist at MIT, I sometimes found a wry humor in the attitude of major donors who (like Bill Gates, for example) had not attended the Institute, with their expectation that having their name on a building would, in a way, immortalize them. Instead, the eponyms of the academic buildings pass very rapidly out of the cultural consciousness. The core group of academic buildings (1–8 and 10) that were built for the Institute on the north side of the Charles River are collectively named after Arthur Holly Compton’s older brother Karl Taylor Compton, who was president of MIT at the time;** however, that is a piece of trivia, unknown to most people around MIT.

    The situation is different for the nonacademic buildings on campus. Dormitories and the student centers are not typically known by number, and I don’t really know why. It is probably just an idiosyncrasy of the local culture.*** That the buildings are not typically referred to by number does not mean they are known by their proper names, either, however. The old student center on the east side of the main campus is “Walker [Memorial],” but the Stratton Student Center to the west of the main entrance (Lobby 7), across Massachusetts Avenue, is just “the student center,” in spite of the large bust of Stratton that everyone walks by on the ground floor.**** Similarly, the last two dormitories built along Amherst Alley are “New House” and “Next House”—although, to be fair, if they had had interesting official names, those might have stuck instead.

    * Everybody but MBA students at the Sloan School of Management, that is. Culturally, the Sloanie graduate students are group unto themselves, not really integrated into the main MIT academic culture.

    ** All three of the Compton brothers became university presidents. Karl and Arthur have a sizeable lunar crater named after them both.

    *** A lot of MIT culture has become, albeit with some modification, part of common computing culture, but there are certainly lots of local things that have never been exported. For example, when attending a film shown by the Lecture Series Committee, the audience reads aloud the announcements of the coming attractions—e.g., “Friday, in stereo,” even though LSC stopped actually showing the words “in stereo” on screen some time back in the 1980s. (Occasionally, when the film being shown is an older classic, a wiseacre in the audience will yell out, “No, in mono!” and get a good laugh.) The whole reading of the on-screen announcements can actually freak out newcomers or outsiders. Also, the audience does not say anything when they finally put up, “Our feature presentation,” which can also catch first-time attendees, who think they’ve just gotten the hang of the tradition.

    **** I used to know what around campus was named after each of MIT’s presidents. Compton gets the whole main group of buildings; James R. Killian got the great court renamed after him upon his death (and everybody since then really does call it “Killian Court”); Stratton has the main student center. However, some of the presidents have some really dippy things named after them. Henry Pritchett (president 1900–1907) only had the late-night snack bar in Walker Memorial, which was only open after the main cafeteria downstairs closed for the day, to his name.

  41. There’s a podcast interview with Andrew here (audio and transcript) about Kroeber and the unnaming of his erstwhile Hall. He makes thoughtful points both about the proposal itself, which he favored, and the larger issues that it distracts from.

  42. John Cowan says

    Kroeber Hall has now had its Day of Unnaming. I wonder what his daughter would make of it.

    For what it’s worth, we have a pretty good idea of that from her 1985 short story “She Unnames Them”, in which Eve removes all the names of the animals, including her own, with the exception (apparently) of Adam’s (he isn’t very interested in the question, or Eve’s views generally).

  43. Actually, I don’t think it gives us any idea, since her story is specifically (heh) about generic appellations.

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