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Robert Kanigel
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, MA 02139-4307)

Public Scholars
Research Programs

[Grant products]

$60,000 (approved)
$60,000 (awarded)

Grant period:
9/1/2018 – 8/31/2019

American Scholar Milman Parry (1902–1935) and the Study of Oral Tradition in Classical Literature

Research and writing leading to publication of a book-length biography of Milman Parry (1902-1935), a scholar of Classics who revolutionized the study of Homer's lliad and Odyssey.

This is the first book-length biography of Milman Parry, "the Darwin of Homeric Studies," arguably the most influential classical scholar of the twentieth century, who irretrievably overturned long entrenched notions about ancient literature. The Iliad and the Odyssey, he showed, were not "written" as we understand it today, but were products of an oral tradition going back centuries. After Parry's premature death at age 33, his young assistant, Albert Lord, helped Parry's ideas break out into broad new areas. What had begun as a way to understand the Homeric epics became a new discipline, "oral theory," that has been applied to Beowulf, the Old Testament, jazz improvisation, hip-hop, and many other ancient, medieval, and modern cultures and disciplines. When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, it was Parry's work that was invoked to explain how a songwriter could qualify for it.