Hearing Homer’s Song: The Brief Life and Big Idea of Milman Parry by Robert Kanigel

Until Milman Parry came along in the 1920s, Homer was considered the writer of The Iliad and The Odyssey, in the same sense as, say, Shakespeare had written his plays. Parry exploded that notion by showing that Homer’s epic poems had been composed orally, “becoming itself, in the act of singing or speaking.” Who exactly Homer was became irrelevant, since so much about the poetry relied on traditions that could not be tied to one person, unlike, say, the work of Virgil.

Robert Kanigel has turned Parry’s life into a remarkable epic of its own, from Parry’s humble beginnings as a druggist’s son to his academic prowess at Harvard, to his travels through Yugoslavia, to his mysterious death, by a gunshot wound in a Los Angeles hotel room in 1935, when he was just 33. Never has the world of dactylic hexameter been made to sound so dramatic.