by David E. Bynum
Poetry and storytelling began so long ago in prehistoric time that no one can scientifically even guess how or when they originated. But one thing is certain. Our biological ancestors did not cease to be a mere species of animal and become mankind until the capacity for rhythmic language and narration had evolved in them. In myth the world over, these mental powers are said to be god-given and divine. They are at the very least indispensable to any practical definition of humanity.
For many millenia the only instrument of rhythmic words and narrative known in any part of the world was the tongue men were born with, not the stylus or the pen, for writing was not invented until too late in human evolution for it to reveal anything about the origin of speech. So for long ages the only way any knowledge could survive from one generation to another was through oral tradition. Rhythmical speech was the world's first great medium of communication for complex ideas, and there were certainly media men of astonishing skill long before anyone on earth knew how to write.
In North America the scientific study of oral traditions began at Harvard College 140 years ago. For nearly a century and a half, Harvard College has been collecting oral traditions and disseminating knowledge about them to anyone who could use that knowledge to good purpose. Three men of the Harvard faculty launched this brilliant movement in American intellectual life. They were Francis James Child, George Lyman Kittredge, and Milman Parry. The following pages are about those three men, their ideas, and their continuing impact on the life of our own time.
More than any literate men before them, Professors Child, Kittredge, and Parry saw the protean shapes of pre-literate speech at work in the earliest creations of thought and literature. Where others saw only the figures of written or printed words on paper, they had a vision of voices out of the past sounding those words in the ancient rhythms of oral tradition.