Homer after Parry: Tradition, Reception, and
the Timeless text
This chapter explores some of the ways in which twentieth-century classical scholars read and studied Homer. My starting point is the work of Milman Parry in the 1920s and 1930s: his essays made a lasting contribution to Homeric scholarship and had a wide influence in shaping twentieth-century perceptions of Homer.1 My main concern will be with Parry and his reception among classicists, but the issues he raised have implications well beyond the narrow confines of classics as a discipline. Parry challenged familiar notions of what constitutes a text, how meaning enters into texts, and how texts relate to other texts across time and space. Even the most superficial glance suggests that we cannot divorce him and his successors from wider movements in twentieth-century cultural and literary history: for example, the title of T. S. Eliot's essay 'Tradition and the Individual Talent' (1920) could easily be used to summarize the central concerns raised by Parry's work.2 He engaged in a systematic study of oral epic poetry in order to work out, among other things, how individual performances and performers related to the wider epic tradition within which they operated. Parry's discussion of Homeric
I am grateful to the Editors, and to those who took part in the conference on Homer
in the twentieth century, for their helpful suggestions.
1 The lasting influence of Parry's work is even more remarkable if we consider that
he died at the age of 33. His essays were collected posthumously and (where
necessary) translated from the French by his son: Parry 1971.
2 Eliot 1975a.