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.
Mr. Kanigel proves the ideal synthesizer of Parry’s 'brief life and big idea.' If Milman Parry the man proves frustratingly enigmatic throughout this book, he nevertheless seems quite a character ... He met and recorded the traditional singers, or guslars, who performed their narrative poems accompanied on 'rude, raspy one-stringed gusles' ... The chapters recounting this work are Mr. Kanigel’s richest, full of character and incident ... Perhaps it was reading about Demodocus that set Parry on his course, rethinking what we mean by literature. This compelling book gives us the argument and the enigma of his unfinished life.
... 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'.