A Fire in the Mind

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The mythologist Joseph Campbell held that one can discern elements of heroism in every person’s life. In A FIRE IN THE MIND: THE LIFE OF JOSEPH CAMPBELL, Stephen and Robin Larsen adopt this thesis and portray their subject’s life as a heroic journey. Born into an upper middle-class Irish family in the early years of the twentieth century, Campbell was the oldest of three children. All three embarked upon careers more adventuresome than that of their father, an international notions wholesaler. It was to their credit that Charles William and Josephine Campbell supported their daughter Alice’s studies in sculpture, Charles William, Jr.’s forays into acting, and Joseph’s many years of search and preparation for a career.

Campbell’s life-journey was diverse but ultimately circular. He spent his youth in urban and suburban New York, in rural Pennsylvania, at prep school in Connecticut, then at Columbia University. Like mythic heroes, Campbell searched: through formal studies at the University of Paris, then in England and Germany. More footloose were his travels in the American Southwest, California, and Alaska and his sojourn in Woodstock, New York. Still, his return to New York immediately preceded the thirty-eight-year career he would enjoy at Sarah Lawrence College, located in the city of his birth.

Five years of life without clear prospects brought Campbell toward a means of integrating the apparently diverse elements of his education and experience. This integration inspired the thesis of his most famous book, THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES. Campbell’s search for a universal mythos which transcends cultures came through his readings in Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Oswald Spengler, and J. G. Frazer. This reading allowed him to posit a universal design for living which encourages bold, independent action, a modern equivalent for the mythic achievement.

The Larsens deal hardly at all with the intense, personally directed criticism that Campbell received after his death. Instead they treat this obliquely through numerous examples which emphasize Campbell’s tolerance and respect for difference.