Joseph Campbell

A college teacher of literature, Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) was an editor and popularizer of comparative mythology. He created comprehensive theories of mythology that synthesized the discoveries of modern science, psychology, art history, and literature and used modern media, including television, to popularize his subject.

Joseph Campbell was born March 26, 1904, in New York City, the son of Charles William Campbell, a hosiery importer and wholesaler, and Josephine Lynch. He was raised Roman Catholic. He traced his lifelong fascination with mythology to his having seen Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show as a child and to trips with his brother and sister to the Museum of Natural History. At age nine he and his family moved to New Rochelle, New York, next to the public library, where he read exhaustively about Native American cultures and precociously educated himself.

He attended Dartmouth College in 1921-1922, then transferred to Columbia University and switched from science to the humanities. His Master's thesis (1927) compared the Arthurian legends with Native American myths. He read medieval French literature at the University of Paris in 1927-1928 and studied Sanskrit and Indo-European philosophy at the University of Munich in 1928-1929. While abroad he discovered modern art, literature, and psychology. He dropped his doctoral studies to work on integrating modern discoveries in archaeology, anthropology, art history, psychology, and literature into a comprehensive theory of the origins, functions, and meanings of world mythological themes.

For five years during the Great Depression of the 1930s Campbell lived a bohemian life between Woodstock, New York, and Carmel, California; sailed up the Alaskan coast; and read German philosophy. In 1934 he joined the faculty of literature at Sarah Lawrence College. By all accounts a charismatic teacher, he remained at Sarah Lawrence until he retired as professor emeritus in 1972. In 1938 he married Jean Erdman, a dancer in the Martha Graham dance troupe who later became a choreographer and founded a troupe of her own. They lived in Greenwich Village, New York City, and Honolulu, Hawaii.

Campbell's publishing and editing career started to flourish with A Skeleton Key to Finnegan's Wake (1944), a guide to the symbolic labyrinth of James Joyce's novel. Written in collaboration with Henry Morton Robinson (best-selling author of The Cardinal), it became a critical success.

After the death of his teacher and friend Heinrich Zimmer in 1943, Campbell edited Zimmer's collected works (1946-1955) and six volumes of the Jungian Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks (1954-1968) in the Bollingen Series, where his first solo work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), also appeared. Hero was a phenomenal popular success and won Campbell the National Arts and Literature grant (1949), but generated mixed reviews. It and successive projects revealed Campbell to be a complicated academic maverick, at once learned, romantic, and mystical, who wrote graceful, intelligible prose. An enormously gifted comparativist and popularizer, he bridged scholarly, scientific, and aesthetic disciplines with enthusiasm and with an intentional disregard for particular historical and local contexts of myths and rituals that rankled many specialist academics and scientists. With a broad brush he mixed the whole vast, esoteric, scholarly, and scientific apparatus of late 19th-and early 20th-century culture with modern literary and pictorial techniques of free association and taught an ambitious doctrine of underlying similarities and unities in world myth.

In his grand plan for the study and comprehension of all mythology, he oscillated idiosyncratically between being an energetic modernist and a scientific and political reactionary. He proposed an elaborate theory of the "monomyth" of the hero as the integrating structure of consciousness by which human beings organize personal psychic life and society in relation to the cosmos. He lamented the absence of viable mythologies and religions in the contemporary world and proposed in their place a planetary mythology, a gender-neutral ideal of individualist hero, and the practice of Buddhist compassion. He popularized the hypothesis of a pre-patriarchal goddess religion, but viewed it as an archetypal anachronism. He believed, however, in the therapeutic value of the wisdom of myth for modern individuals.

His works progressed as a set of variations on these and supporting hypotheses, among them a controversial theory of the geographical diffusion of major myth forms from a single fourth-millennium B.C.E. Mesopotamian source and a contention that significant differences between hunter and planter societies prefigured and determined contemporary forms of East and West. In Hero, Campbell introduced the hero "monomyth" in a poetic Jungian meditation that charmed and inspired readers (among them George Lucas, who made the Star Wars movies). The Masks of God (1959-1968), a four-volume synthesis of modern knowledge about human culture and mythology from 600,000 B.C.E. to the present, was a stylistic throwback to, and valuable updated rival of, such synthetic masterpieces as Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West and Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough. The Mythic Image (1974), a Bollingen "coffee-table book," was a Jungian literary and pictorial exploration of the theories of Masks. Campbell's last major project, Volume I of the Historical Atlas of World Mythology (1983) and Volume II, completed by editors and published posthumously (1988), consists of five slim "oversize" books of text and pictures that repeat familiar Campbellian narratives and themes in a turn-of-the-century style. The Flight of the Wild Gander (1969) is an excellent selection of Campbell's major scholarly essays.

Between his retirement in 1972 and his death in 1987, Campbell lectured and published extensively and enjoyed growing popularity. His person, subjects, methods, and message fitted a post-1960 and increasingly media-oriented America. In 1988 a six-part public television interview series, The Power of Myth, and a subsequent rash of publishing spin-offs gave Campbell immense posthumous celebrity. Former friends and assorted academics raised caveats: Campbell was formally charged with being reactionary, anti-Semetic, anti-Black, inconsistently pro-and anti-West, and ingenuously partial to Eastern spirituality. He was attacked as a guru of a self-indulgent faith of self-realization and criticized for the slogan "Follow your bliss."

Ironically, Campbell's cross-pollination of academia and media both breathed life into esoteric and dated disciplines marred by exclusions and prejudices and helped pry them open for needed scrutiny. On balance, Campbell's final interdisciplinary breakthrough, his controversial television celebrity, was a major accomplishment. Through it, his alleged prejudices responsibly masked or not in evidence, he provided the model of a creative life enthusiastically and generously lived and gave millions of television viewers an experience of genuine intellectual adventure.


Further Reading on Joseph Campbell

Robert Segal's Joseph Campbell: An Introduction (1990, Revised), a popular edition of an earlier scholarly text, presents and critiques Campbell's ideas in a piecemeal way, but compares them copiously with those of Jung, Freud, and others. The bibliography lacks the "Reviews" listing of the first edition. Campbell's own writings, especially his pre-retirement works, are the best guide to his thought. Magazine interviews in Esquire (September, 1977) and Parabola (Spring, 1976 and February, 1980) are recommended. The Brendan Gill article in the New York Review of Books (September, 1989) set off the posthumous controversies that surround Campbell's legacy. An academician's view of these controversies is in the American Scholar (Summer, 1990). Video tapes of the television series The Power of Myth are an indispensable record of Campbell's personality.


Additional Biography Sources

Larsen, Stephen., A fire in the mind: the life of Joseph Campbell, New York: Anchor Books, 1993.