From a biographer of Jane Jacobs and Srinivasa Ramanujan comes the first full life and work of arguably the most influential classical scholar of the twentieth century, who overturned long-entrenched notions of ancient epic poetry and enlarged the very idea of literature.
... the first full-scale account of Parry’s short life, mysterious demise and long-lived influence ... Despite his enormous influence — and an enormous archive — as a subject for biography Parry frustrates Kanigel and, frankly, me. His collected papers run to nearly 500 pages, and the recordings and transcripts he made number in the thousands. Yet his writing rarely strays from technical questions; in his interviews with singers he let his assistant do the talking. In Kanigel’s hands, we see him laughing at a Harvard student production of a Greek tragedy, complaining about bed lice and driving his muddy Ford through the back roads of the Balkans. But his inner life, the source of his scholarly drive — even what it was about the Greek epics that he loved so much — remain a mystery for reader and biographer alike ... In his work, 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.
Such a life, such a career, and such a death seem almost beyond explanation. But Kanigel shows that, curiously, Parry’s research tackled a comparable problem. In telling the story of his life—and his atrocious marriage, hitherto not much discussed—Kanigel unites it with Parry’s work to frame a single, massive question: What’s the relationship between tradition and inspiration? ... Kanigel’s biography shows that those definitions have led historical lives of their own, through a portrait of a man who best embodied Hippocrates’ old axiom: 'Life is short, and art long'.
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 that study works shaped by oral creativity—including Old English poems, medieval Spanish epics, and modern African American folk sermons. 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.