1935 6

Milman Parry (June 23, 1902 – December 3, 1935) was an Oakland-born and raised professor of classical literature, noted for recognizing the aspect of oral poetry in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. He died of a strange accidental gunshot in Los Angeles.


Milman Parry and family, c.1931 8

Milman Parry was born in Oakland 4 on June 23, 1902. In 1910, he lived with his parents, Isaac Milman Parry and Marie Alice Parry, twin sisters Mary Allison ('Alice') Parry and Mary Addison Parry, at 486 - 24th Street. Isaac was a druggist, and ran his own store at 737 Telegraph Avenue (between 23rd and 24th Streets). In 1920, the family lived at 283 - 26th Street.

Parry married Marian Thanhouser (Parry) (May 14, 1899 – August 15, 1986) in 1923, and they had two children, Marian Parry (born January 28, 1924 in California) and Adam Milman Parry (born in Paris).

Education and Career

Parry attended Grant School where he received a Youth Achievement League award (a program started by the Rotary Club) and graduated from Oakland Tech in 1919. He went on to study at UC Berkeley, where he studied Latin and first became interested in the classics, receiving his masters degree in 1924. He went to Paris where he earned a PhD at the Sorbonne. By 1930, Milman and Marian were living at Kirkland House in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Milman was teaching at Harvard.

While working his PhD, Parry demonstrated in his dissertation 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." In the 1930s, Parry traveled to the Balkans where he recorded and studied traditional songs.

In doing so, he recognized elements of oral poetry in some of the classics:

"This suggested that for a long time, well before ever having been written down, the Iliad and the Odyssey were sung and as oral poetry, would therefore have been changed or “recreated” during each performance. This realization launched Parry’s brilliant academic career and quickly brought him to an eminent position." 1

"...today his work is considered to be the turning point of Homeric Studies in the 20th century. No one who approaches the study of Homer today can ignore the contributions of Milman Parry." 1

Death, Burial and Legacy

from December 4, 1935 Nevada State Journal (fair use)In 1935, the Parrys traveled from Harvard to Los Angeles to visit Marian's mother. They had just arrived and were unpacking, when a gun in the luggage apparently became entangled with some clothing. The gun fired and a .38-caliber bullet grazed Parry's heart, killing him. Parry's body was cremated; the location of his ashes is unknown. 2

Robert Kanigel, author of Hearing Homer's Song, says that the Parry's daughter was convinced that her mother had killed Milman. 3,5

Parry's writings were published posthumously as The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry by his son, Adam, in 1971. 3

Links and References

  1. Milman Parry '19 on OaklandTech.com
  2. Milman Parry on FindAGrave.com
  3. Milman Parry on Wikipedia
  4. 1933 list of New York passengers
  5. Hearing Homer's Song: The Brief Life and Big Idea of Milman Parry, by Robert Kanigel. Knopf, 2021
  6. Parry Brilliant Scholar, Say Harvard Associates Boston Globe December 4, 1935
  7. Educator Dies of Pistol Shot Oakland Tribune December 4, 1935
  8. M. Parry and family. (1931) Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature MPC0003 at Harvard