Campbell, Joseph John

views updated

CAMPBELL, Joseph John

(b. 26 March 1904 in New York City; d. 30 October 1987 in Honolulu, Hawaii), mythologist, storyteller, and educator who applied the insights of depth psychology to comparative religion and popularized the approach in the 1960s.

Campbell was the oldest of three children born to Charles Campbell, a traveling salesman, and Josephine Lynch. As a boy he saw the totem poles at the Museum of Natural History and Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show at Madison Square Garden, and became intensely interested in Native American culture. Campbell was not merely curious about Native Americans; he identified with them. He liked to tell the story of a family walk on Riverside Drive during which a woman stopped and remarked, "What nice little boys!" He looked up at her seriously and said, "I have Indian blood in me." Not to be outdone, his brother added, "I have dog blood in me."

In 1921 Campbell enrolled at Dartmouth College, but a year later he transferred to Columbia University. At Columbia he studied literature, ran track, and played the saxophone in jazz bands. He earned his A.B. in 1925. In 1926 he wrote his master's thesis, A Study of the Dolorous Stroke, on Wasteland imagery in the Arthurian legends. (The Wasteland is a place or state of spiritual desolation.) Between 1927, when he earned his M.A. at Columbia, and 1929, he studied medieval French at the University of Paris and Sanskrit at the University of Munich. While in Europe he also encountered the ideas of the Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, and the novels of James Joyce and Thomas Mann.

In 1929, frustrated by the narrowness of academic curricula, Campbell rented a cabin in Woodstock, New York, and continued reading on his own. In 1934 he took a job with the literature department at Sarah Lawrence College, a position he would hold for thirty-eight years. On 5 May 1938 he married Jean Erdman, a former student and a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company. They had no children.

During his first years at Sarah Lawrence, Campbell met the Indologist Heinrich Zimmer and, after Zimmer's death, edited his unpublished writings. In 1949 he finished his classic The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In this book Campbell drew on Jung's theory of archetypes, elementary figures of the human unconscious that guide behavior. He argued that all heroic tales have the same underlying structure and that they are not idle fantasies, but useful guides to life. In his words, "The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change."

The 1960s were the hinge of Campbell's career. During that decade he completed The Masks of God (1959–1968), a four-volume compilation of his college lectures on religion. Although he made use of Jungian archetypes in this series, he also maintained that some mythological themes, such as the widespread story of the serpent and the maiden, were diffused from culture to culture. In the final volume, Creative Mythology (1968), Campbell argued that science and technology had made traditional religious systems obsolete and that modern people should construct new myths from their own experiences. Invoking the Arthurian legends, he offered his readers a choice between the Grail Quest—the life-affirming path to personal fulfillment—and dead parochial faiths leading into a spiritual Wasteland.

During the 1960s Campbell presented his ideas in a variety of forums. He lectured at the Cooper Union in New York City; at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, D.C.; and at the Esalen Institute, a New Age growth center in Big Sur, California. Also, in 1960 he became a trustee of the Bollington Foundation, a Jungian society in Switzerland. Finally, in 1969 he published The Flight of the Wild Gander, a cross-cultural study of the origin and function of myth.

Despite his individualism, Campbell was very uneasy with the culture of the 1960s. Particularly misguided, in his opinion, were communism and experimental drug use. Behind the former's promise of material happiness, he saw a new, even more oppressive kind of orthodoxy. In the latter he detected an immature attempt to skip necessary steps on the way to wisdom. When a young woman told him that her generation was able to go from childhood straight to enlightenment, he replied, "But, my dear, then all you've missed is life."

Campbell was also troubled by personal issues during the 1960s. In 1964 he lost both his brother, who suffered from alcoholism, and his friend and editor Pascal Covici. Meanwhile, his wife traveled abroad to put on her play The Coach with Six Insides. Although this separation preserved a measure of romance in the marriage, it also made both Campbell and Jean lonely. To make matters worse, Campbell continued to face criticism of his work. A negative review of Occidental Mythology (1964), the third volume of The Masks of God, occasioned a particularly unpleasant episode. In an uncharacteristically bellicose series of letters, Campbell went on the offensive, impugning the reviewer's credentials and even his intelligence.

It is to Campbell's credit that he did not play the curmudgeon or force his political views on his students. Patiently, he endured a Vietcong flag and a portrait of the Chinese leader Mao Zedong in the room above his office. His entire life was a testimony to the importance of "following one's own bliss," a phrase associated with Campbell. Still, he always recognized the benefit of collective rituals. After President John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963, he thought the United States needed "a compensatory rite to re-establish the sense of solidarity," and he was deeply moved by the president's funeral.

Campbell reached the height of his popularity in the 1970s and 1980s, in part because of the movie director George Lucas, who wanted his Star Wars saga to be a modern myth and used the blueprint in The Hero with a Thousand Faces to construct its plot. Also, Lucas's Skywalker Ranch in Nicasio, California, was the setting for some of Bill Moyers's interviews of Campbell in 1985. In 1987, the year Campbell died of cancer of the esophagus, these interviews aired on Public Television as The Power of Myth. They are available on audiocassette and videotape and in print. For many, they have served as an introduction to Campbell's ideas. Campbell is buried in Oahu Cemetery in Hawaii.

Campbell's papers are located at Pacifica Graduate Institute, Carpinteria, California. His authorized biography is Stephen and Robin Larsen, Joseph Campbell: A Fire in the Mind (1991). The best interview with Campbell is Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth (1988). A wealth of information may also be found in Phil Cousineau, The Hero's Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work (1990). Campbell's Myths to Live By (1972), a collection of his lectures from the Cooper Union, is an excellent introduction to his ideas.

Steven M. Stannish

About this article

Campbell, Joseph John

Updated About content Print Article