Milman Parry

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Milman Parry (1902 -December 31935) was a scholar of epic poetry.

He studied at the University of California, Berkeley (B.A. and M.A.) and at the Sorbonne (Ph.D.). A student of the linguist Antoine Meillet at the Sorbonne, Parry revolutionized Homeric studies. In his dissertations, which were published in French in the 1920s, he demonstrated that the Homeric style is characterized by the extensive use of fixed expressions, or 'formulas', adapted for expressing a given idea under the same metrical conditions. Meillet introduced him to Matija Murko, who had worked on oral epic traditions in Bosnia and had made phonograph recordings of some performances.

Between 1933 and 1935 Parry, at the time Associate Professor at Harvard University, made two trips to Yugoslavia, where he studied and recorded oral traditional poetry in Serbo-Croat with the help of his assistant Albert Lord. They worked in Bosnia where literacy was lowest and the oral tradition was, in the term used by Parry and Lord, "purest".

In his American publications of the 1930s Parry introduced the hypothesis (first suggested to him by Meillet and amply demonstrated in his own fieldwork) that the formulaic structure of Homeric epic is to be explained as a characteristic feature of oral composition (the so-called Oral Formulaic Hypothesis). Parry's work vindicated the ancient tradition that the Iliad and Odyssey were the work of an oral poet. It was continued by Albert Lord, most notably in The Singer of Tales (1960). Though the book does not present his argument specifically, the assumed thesis is supported through in-depth content analysis of various singers (performers of the oral tradition or composition process) and interviews of the same singers. Interestingly, Parry moves against structural traditions declaring the original text is the purest form of the text (a la Walter Benjamin); rather, Parry asks us to understand that "the truth of the matter is that our concept of 'the original,' of 'the song,' simply makes no sense in oral tradition" (Lord, 2000, p. 101). It could be said that this part of the Parry argument is a first move in the study of composition toward poststructuralist and postmodern criticism.

Parry's collected papers were published posthumously: The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry, edited by Adam Parry, his son (Oxford University Press, 1971). The Milman Parry collection of records and transcriptions of South Slavic heroic poetry is now in the Widener Library of Harvard University.

He died in Los Angeles from an accidental gun-shot (A. Parry, Making of Homeric Verse xli).

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Milman Parry

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