Over one hundred years ago, on March 26, 1904, Joseph John Campbell was born in White Plains, New York. Joe, as he came to be known, was the first child of a middle-class Roman Catholic couple, Charles and Josephine Campbell.
Joe’s earliest years were largely unremarkable; but then, when he was seven years old, his father took him and his younger brother, Charlie, to see Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. The evening was a high point in Joe’s life; for, although the cowboys were clearly the show’s stars, as Joe would later write, he “became fascinated, seized, obsessed, by the figure of a naked American Indian with his ear to the ground, a bow and arrow in his hand, and a look of special knowledge in his eyes.” (1)
Arthur Schopenhauer, the philosopher whose writings would later greatly influence Campbell, observed that
The experiences and illuminations of childhood and early youth become in later life the types, standards and patterns of all subsequent knowledge and experience, or as it were, the categories according to which all later things are classified—not always consciously, however. And so it is that in our childhood years the foundation is laid of our later view of the world, and there with as well of its superficiality or depth: it will be in later years unfolded and fulfilled, not essentially changed. (2)
And so it was with young Joseph Campbell. Even as he actively practiced (until well into his twenties) the faith of his forebears, he became consumed with Native American culture; and his worldview was arguably shaped by the dynamic tension between these two mythological perspectives. On the one hand, he was immersed in the rituals, symbols, and rich traditions of his Irish Catholic heritage; on the other, he was obsessed with primitive (or, as he later preferred, “primal”) people’s direct experience of what he came to describe as “the continuously created dynamic display of an absolutely transcendent, yet universally immanent, mysterium tremendum et fascinans, which is the ground at once of the whole spectacle and of oneself.” (3)
By the age of ten, Joe had read every book on American Indians in the children’s section of his local library and was admitted to the adult stacks, where he eventually read the entire multivolume Reports of the Bureau of American Ethnology. He worked on wampum belts, started his own “tribe” (named the “Lenni-Lenape” after the Delaware tribe who had originally inhabited the New York metropolitan area), and frequented the American Museum of Natural History, where he became fascinated with totem poles and masks, thus beginning a lifelong exploration of that museum’s vast collection.
After spending much of his thirteenth year recuperating from a respiratory illness, Joe briefly attended Iona, a private school in Westchester, New York, before his mother enrolled him at Canterbury, a Catholic residential school in New Milford, Connecticut. His high school years were rich and rewarding, though marked by a major tragedy: in 1919, the Campbell home was consumed by a fire that killed his grandmother and destroyed all the family’s possessions.
Joe graduated from Canterbury in 1921, and the following September entered Dartmouth College; but he was soon disillusioned with the social scene and disappointed by a lack of academic rigor, so he transferred to Columbia University, where he excelled: while specializing in medieval literature, he played in a jazz band, and became a star runner. In 1924, while on a steamship journey to Europe with his family, Joe met and befriended Jiddu Krishnamurti, the young messiah-elect of the Theosophical Society, thus beginning a friendship that would be renewed intermittently over the next five years.
After earning a B.A. from Columbia (1925) and receiving an M.A. (1927) for his work in Arthurian Studies, Joe was awarded a Proudfit Traveling Fellowship to continue his studies at the University of Paris (1927–28). Then, after he had received and rejected an offer to teach at his high school alma mater, his fellowship was renewed and he traveled to Germany to resume his studies at the University of Munich (1928–29).
It was during this period in Europe that Joe was first exposed to those modernist masters—notably, the sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, Pablo Picasso and Paul Klee, James Joyce and Thomas Mann, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung—whose art and insights would greatly influence his own work. These encounters would eventually lead him to theorize that all myths are the creative products of the human psyche, that artists are a culture’s mythmakers, and that mythologies are creative manifestations of humankind’s universal need to explain psychological, social, cosmological, and spiritual realities.
When Joe returned from Europe late in August 1929, he was at a crossroads, unable to decide what to do with his life. With the onset of the Great Depression, he found himself with no hope of obtaining a teaching job; and so he spent most of the next two years reconnecting with his family, reading, renewing old acquaintances, and writing copious entries in his journal. Then, late in 1931, after exploring and rejecting the possibility of a doctoral program or teaching job at Columbia, he decided, like countless young men before and since, to “hit the road,” to undertake a cross-country journey in which he hoped to experience “the soul of America” and, in the process, perhaps discover the purpose of his life. In January of 1932, when he was leaving Los Angeles, where he had been studying Russian in order to read War and Peace in the vernacular, he pondered his future in this journal entry:
I begin to think that I have a genius for working like an ox over totally irrelevant subjects. . . . I am filled with an excruciating sense of never having gotten anywhere—but when I sit down and try to discover where it is I want to get, I’m at a loss. . . . The thought of growing into a professor gives me the creeps. A lifetime to be spent trying to kid myself and my pupils into believing that the thing that we are looking for is in books! I don’t know where it is—but I feel just now pretty sure that it isn’t in books.—It isn’t in travel.—It isn’t in California.—It isn’t in New York. . . . Where is it? And what is it, after all?
Thus one real result of my Los Angeles stay was the elimination of Anthropology from the running. I suddenly realized that all of my primitive and American Indian excitement might easily be incorporated in a literary career.—I am convinced now that no field but that of English literature would have permitted me the almost unlimited roaming about from this to that which I have been enjoying. A science would buckle me down—and would probably yield no more important fruit than literature may yield me!—If I want to justify my existence, and continue to be obsessed with the notion that I’ve got to do something for humanity—well, teaching ought to quell that obsession—and if I can ever get around to an intelligent view of matters, intelligent criticism of contemporary values ought to be useful to the world. This gets back again to Krishna’s dictum: “The best way to help mankind is through the perfection of yourself.” (4)
His travels next carried him north to San Francisco, then back south to Pacific Grove, where he spent the better part of a year in the company of Carol and John Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed Ricketts. During this time, he wrestled with his writing, discovered the poems of Robinson Jeffers, first read Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, and wrote to some seventy colleges and universities in an unsuccessful attempt to secure employment. Finally, he was offered a teaching position at the Canterbury School. He returned to the East Coast, where he endured an unhappy year as a Canterbury housemaster, the one bright moment being when he sold his first short story (“Strictly Platonic”) to Liberty magazine. Then, in 1933, he moved to a cottage without running water on Maverick Road in Woodstock, New York, where he spent a year reading and writing. In 1934, he was offered and accepted a position in the literature department at Sarah Lawrence College, a post he would retain for thirty-eight years.
In 1938 he married one of his students, Jean Erdman, who would become a major presence in the emerging field of modern dance, first as a star dancer in Martha Graham’s fledgling troupe and later, as a dancer and choreographer of her own company.
Even as he continued his teaching career, Joe’s life continued to unfold serendipitously. In 1940, he was introduced to Swami Nikhilananda, who enlisted his help in producing a new translation of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (published in 1942). Subsequently, Nikhilananda introduced Joe to the Indologist Heinrich Zimmer, who introduced him to a member of the editorial board at the Bollingen Foundation. Bollingen, which had been founded by Paul and Mary Mellon to “develop scholarship and research in the liberal arts and sciences and other fields of cultural endeavor generally,” was embarking upon an ambitious publishing project, the Bollingen Series. Joe was invited to contribute an “Introduction and Commentary” to the first Bollingen publication, Where the Two Came to Their Father: A Navaho War Ceremonial, text and paintings recorded by Maud Oakes, given by Jeff King (Bollingen Series, I: 1943).
When Zimmer died unexpectedly in 1943 at the age of fifty-two, his widow, Christiana, and Mary Mellon asked Joe to oversee the publication of his unfinished works. Joe would eventually edit and complete four volumes from Zimmer’s posthumous papers: Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization (Bollingen Series VI: 1946), The King and the Corpse (Bollingen Series XI: 1948), Philosophies of India (Bollingen Series XXVI: 1951), and a two-volume opus, The Art of Indian Asia (Bollingen Series XXXIX: 1955).
Joe, meanwhile, followed his initial Bollingen contribution with a “Folkloristic Commentary” to Grimm’s Fairy Tales (1944); he also coauthored (with Henry Morton Robinson) A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (1944), the first major study of James Joyce’s notoriously complex novel.
His first full-length solo authorial endeavor, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Bollingen Series XVII: 1949), was published to acclaim and brought him the first of numerous awards and honors—the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Contributions to Creative Literature. In this study of the myth of the hero, Campbell posits the existence of a Monomyth (a word he borrowed from James Joyce), a universal pattern that is the essence of, and common to, heroic tales in every culture. While outlining the basic stages of this mythic cycle, he also explores common variations in the hero’s journey, which, he argues, is an operative metaphor, not only for an individual, but for a culture as well. The Hero would prove to have a major influence on generations of creative artists—from the abstract expressionists in the 1950s to contemporary filmmakers today—and would, in time, come to be acclaimed as a classic.
Joe would eventually author dozens of articles and numerous other books, including The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology (Vol. 1: 1959), Oriental Mythology (Vol. 2: 1962), Occidental Mythology (Vol. 3: 1964), and Creative Mythology (Vol. 4: 1968); The Flight of the Wild Gander: Explorations in the Mythological Dimension (1969); Myths to Live By (1972); The Mythic Image (1974); The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion (1986); and five books in his unfinished four-volume, multipart Historical Atlas of World Mythology (1983–87).
He was also a prolific editor. Over the years, he edited The Portable Arabian Nights (1952) and was general editor of the series Man and Myth (1953–54), which included major works by Maya Deren (Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, 1953), Carl Kerenyi (The Gods of the Greeks, 1954), and Alan Watts (Myth and Ritual in Christianity, 1954). He also edited The Portable Jung (1972), as well as six volumes of Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks (Bollingen Series XXX): Spirit and Nature (1954), The Mysteries (1955), Man and Time (1957), Spiritual Disciplines (1960), Man and Transformation (1964), and The Mystic Vision (1969).
But his many publications notwithstanding, it was arguably as a public speaker that Joe had his greatest popular impact. From the time of his first public lecture in 1940—a talk at the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center entitled “Sri Ramakrishna’s Message to the West”—it was apparent that he was an erudite but accessible lecturer, a gifted storyteller, and a witty raconteur. In the ensuing years, he was asked more and more often to speak at different venues on various topics. In 1956, he was invited to speak at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute; working without notes, he delivered two straight days of lectures. His talks were so well received, he was invited back annually for the next seventeen years. In the mid-1950s, he also undertook a series of public lectures at the Cooper Union in New York City; these talks drew an ever-larger, increasingly diverse audience, and soon became a regular event.
Joe first lectured at Esalen Institute in California in 1965. Each year thereafter, he returned to Big Sur to share his latest thoughts, insights, and stories. And as the years passed, he came to look forward more and more to his annual sojourns to the place he called “paradise on the Pacific Coast.” Although he retired from teaching at Sarah Lawrence in 1972 to devote himself to his writing, he continued to undertake two monthlong lecture tours each year.
In 1985, Joe was awarded the National Arts Club Gold Medal of Honor in Literature. At the award ceremony, James Hillman remarked, “No one in our century—not Freud, not Thomas Mann, not Lévi-Strauss—has so brought the mythical sense of the world and its eternal figures back into our everyday consciousness.”
Joseph Campbell died unexpectedly in 1987 after a brief struggle with cancer. In 1988, millions were introduced to his ideas by the broadcast on PBS of Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, six hours of an electrifying conversation that the two men had videotaped over the course of several years. When he died, Newsweek magazine noted that “Campbell has become one of the rarest of intellectuals in American life: a serious thinker who has been embraced by the popular culture.” (5)
In his later years, Joe was fond of recalling how Schopenhauer, in his essay “On the Apparent Intention in the Fate of the Individual,” (6) wrote of the curious feeling one can have, of there being an author somewhere writing the novel of our lives, in such a way that through events that seem to us to be chance happenings there is actually a plot unfolding of which we have no knowledge.
Looking back over Joe’s life, one cannot help but feel that it proves the truth of Schopenhauer’s observation.
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To learn what Joseph Campbell meant when he said, “Follow your bliss,” click here.