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Joseph Campbell, Angela Gregory, and a Future Awaiting All of Us

Angela Gregory as a young artist

The art of letter writing has been significantly threatened since e-mails and text messages brought about faster and more efficient ways to communicate with words. Once human relationships depended heavily on written correspondence. This form of communication required a certain commitment. Many of us familiar with letter writing still bear a callous on at least one finger, where the pen had worked its way into our flesh after hours of continuous friction. 

Joseph Campbell was a man of letters. His written correspondence is of note, not only because of the brilliant ideas and conversations he shared with others, but also thanks to the wide-ranging field of distinguished individuals he corresponded with. Campbell’s Correspondence is a rich volume worth the time of anyone interested in Campbell, mythology, history, or the vast numbers of significant figures he shared letters with. 

While Campbell traded communiques with a number of artists, one of the most significant to him was Angela Gregory. Near the end of his life, Campbell told Gregory that she “had become, in truth, my child, the golden daughter of my whole life’s quest” (Correspondence, 26). The two met while they were both living in Paris, studying at the Sorbonne. Nancy L. Penrose details the initial encounters between the two in her book, A Dream and a Chisel, as well as the experiences and conversations they shared during the season their lives intersected. Gregory would play a role not only in Campbell’s appreciation of art, but also in his mythological and spiritual journey.

She was instrumental in reconnecting Campbell with Jiddu Krishnamurti, an encounter that was also often referenced in their correspondence and would be influential in Campbell’s burgeoning interests in all things Eastern. In one exchange, he would confide to Gregory that at that point in his life “Krishna more than anyone I know, is like the person I have wanted to be” (Correspondence, 8).

While a great deal of historical context, information, and influence can be found in Campbell’s correspondence, perhaps the most meaningful aspect of his letters is how they function as a key to unlock the deeper chambers of his humanity – a factor that sometimes gets overlooked when discussing his ideas. In a letter written to Gregory in 1928, Campbell says, “Please don’t be afraid to write me long letters when you want to” (Correspondence, 9). The vulnerability and self-revealing found in such a turn of words tells us a great deal about Campbell and what he valued. He recognized the deep importance of the expression of others. That recognition would be one factor that would motivate him to explore the mythological narratives of people all over the world – some of whom  shared his own ethnic and cultural background, but most of whom did not. Campbell did not want to just “speak” through his own writing. He also wanted to “listen” by consuming the words of others, a discipline he spent a great amount of his time practicing. 

While we can delight in the beautiful vulnerability of the small details we find in Campbell’s letters, we also become privy to moments just as human but less celebrated – moments where life seems to be impeding the journey that Campbell set out on. But perhaps, even in these, we can find ourselves relating to Campbell on a deeper level. In 1932, Campbell wrote Gregory, expressing discouragement and regret over a season in his life that he felt had not offered the fruit he believed it would. He expresses disappointment in his failure to become successful penning magazine short stories. He expresses disappointment in what he believed he would achieve through studying the work of Krishnamurti. 

Finally, he states disappointment over the disconnect he senses between the academic pursuits he has been working so hard at and the application of those pursuits in his own life. “Two years plunging after the objective facts of scholarship and the realization that these twinkling objective facts hadn’t had the least bearing on the conduct of my own life!....I wish I could lose myself sometimes in this clear blue sky or in this blue sea or in these green hills so that everything might be gone except whatever intoxications there may be in the present moment,” Campbell states (Correspondence, 21).


Ironically, in moments such as these, when I have lost myself in my own journey, I take Campbell’s writings along with me to those intoxicating green hills and stare up into that blue sky. Campbell had no way of seeing what his future would hold in those early days corresponding with Angela Gregory. But then of course, neither do we. May all the joys and unexpected encounters with wonder be waiting for us in the future, just as they were for him. 


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