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Widener Collection Documents Culture

120-year-old Tradition Records Epics, Music

By Richard L. Callan

Stashed along with Widener's dusty tomes is a unique collection of literature which contains few written words--the Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature.

Through the 3500 aluminum disks and about 22.500 texts, which document the epic poetry of Yugoslavia, Albania and Bosnia, it is possible to piece together the origins of the earliest oral literature which survives today--the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer.

The collection, compiled by Professor of Slavic Literature Emeritus Albert B. Lord '34 and his teacher, Milman Parry, is the result of the pair's interviews with native storytellers over a period of 40 years beginning when Lord was an undergraduate.

Parry chose the western Balkans for study because he saw a clear analogy between the oral literature of that region and the epics of Homer, which were passed down through word of mouth.

Sitting in his office surrounded by pictures of the native singers and a guale, a lute. Lord explains how the recordings were made. "We would go to a village, find the coffeehouse or tavern and ask the tavern-keeper who sings there," Lord recalls. "We would talk with the singers and gradually introduce the recording equipment," he adds.

Lord has published several collections of text with the Harvard University Press which he said are unedited. "Some of the transcripts we have from Yugoslavia show change from 11-syllable to 10-syllable lines," he said.

Other items include a collection of Greek shadow puppets and slides from Greek shadow plays, or Karagiosis and a recording of the Indian Geser epic.

Lord emphasizes that this is a research collection. "The main purpose of it is to determine precisely the way in which oral traditional epic was transmitted," he said, adding that it is a research tool which has not been extensively used by scholars.

"Linguists ought to be interested, and historians as well," he says.

Lord emphasized that the oral tradition is different from singing already composed songs, since the singer had to compose as he performed. "Singers are not learning the sort of composition with performance any longer," said Lord, who said he does not like the term "improvisation."

Lord also uses an IBM PC to put texts on disk, where he hopes to publish more from the collection and search for key words.

Lord said the epics varied in length, including one 13,000 lines long. He said the epics were often passed not from father to son, but from uncle to nephew, because "often fathers disapprove of sons," he says.

Jonathan F. McKeage, a graduate student and assistant curator of the collection, says that the collection is unmatched for its depth in that it is the only known example of a complete oral tradition being recorded. Scholars are gaining interest in the field because of its usefulness in finding the origins of other works which have their roots in the oral tradition. "The field is reaching full maturity only now," he says, adding, "parts of the Bible also conform to the oral pattern."

"In Homer's day, the Iliad and the Odyssey were known as poesis, which means history in poetic or pleasing form. It was the only form of history they had then," McKeage says.

He added that it seems to be a purely Western tradition. The Chinese, for example, separated the poetry from history very early and no Chinese epic poetry is known to exist.

Earlier contributors to the collection were Professors Child and Kittridge, who worked on English poetic fragments and oral traditions of other cultures. There has been a tradition of 120 years of a continuous research in oral literature at Harvard.

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