The Unlikely Legacy of Milman Parry

Robert Kanigel at Lit Hub:

Milman Parry was arguably the most important American classical scholar of the 20th century, by one reckoning “the Darwin of Homeric Studies.” At age 26, this young man from California stepped into the world of Continental philologists and overturned some of their most deeply cherished notions of ancient literature. Homer, Parry showed, was no “writer” at all. The Iliad and the Odyssey were not “written,” but had been composed orally, drawing on traditional ways that went back centuries.

Generations of high school and college students can recall descriptive flourishes of Odysseus, as “much-enduring,” or “the man of many schemes”; or of the goddess Athena as “bright-eyed”; or of “swift-footed Achilles.” Parry showed that these “ornamental epithets” were not odd little explosions of creativity. Nor, in their repetition, were they failures of the imagination. Nor were they random. They were the oral poet’s way to fill out lines of verse and thus keep the great river of words flowing. They were the product of long tradition, and many voices.

more here.