Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 933
A scholar, teacher, and writer, Joseph Campbell translated his lifelong interest in mythology into books and lectures that brought a cohesive overview to the world’s stories and legends. Campbell was the son of Charles William and Josephine (Lynch) Campbell. As a boy, Campbell became fascinated by American Indian culture after a visit to the American Museum of Natural History and a performance of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. His interest in American Indian folklore was broadened during his college years by his readings in Eastern religion and philosophy. His study would lead him to the belief that there was in fact one world mythology that manifested itself in various ways from culture to culture.
While attending Columbia University, Campbell captained the college track team as a successful half-mile runner and played the saxophone in a local jazz band. He received a graduate fellowship from the university in 1927 and went to France to begin doctoral research in the field of Arthurian romances. In Paris, he encountered for the first time the works of James Joyce and Thomas Mann, the paintings of Pablo Picasso, and the writings of psychoanalyst Carl Jung. He returned to Columbia in 1929 determined to expand his field of research to include new ideas concerning the interrelationship of art, dreams, and myths. When the university rejected his plan, he left the doctoral program and spent the next five years living on his savings in Woodstock, New York, where he read for ten to twelve hours a day. In 1934, he accepted an invitation to teach at Sarah Lawrence College, where he would remain for the next thirty-eight years as a member of the faculty.
In 1938, Campbell married his former pupil, Jean Erdman, a dancer with the Martha Graham Company. During the years that followed, he continued his teaching and coauthored two books, Where the Two Came to Their Father, with Maud Oakes and Jeff King, and A Skeleton Key to “Finnegans Wake,” with Henry Morton Robinson. He also edited several volumes of Heinrich Zimmer’s writings on Indian culture and religion.
In the mid-1940’s, Campbell began work on the book that would establish him as one of the world’s leading authorities on mythology: The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Published in 1949, the book remains a seminal work in the field of interpreting and understanding myths and legends, providing its readers with a unifying view of mythology as a manifestation of the deepest needs of the human psyche. Myth, Campbell said, “is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation.” Drawing on Jung’s work on dreams and archetypes, Campbell finds recurring images and themes throughout the world’s many cultural mythologies and posits that the stories themselves act as guideposts along the path to the realization that, in Campbell’s words, “the essence of oneself and the essence of the world: these two are one.”
Campbell continued his exploration of myths and their meaning in a four-volume work titled The Masks of God, which outlines four classifications of mythology: primitive, Oriental, Occidental, and creative. The title is a reference to Campbell’s description of mythical images as symbols that provide humankind with a means of contemplating the transcendent (that which ultimately defies description or analysis), and the books examine the forms that these symbols have taken in various eras and cultures. He also served as editor on six volumes of the Eranos Yearbooks, published between 1954 and 1969, and began a career as a speaker, appearing at seminars and in lecture halls around the world. Several of these lectures, delivered at The Great Hall of the Cooper Union Forum in New York between 1958 and 1971, were published in book form in 1972 under the title Myths to Live By.
The year 1972 also marked Campbell’s retirement from teaching. He began devoting himself entirely to his writing and speaking engagements after that time. Campbell served as the editor of The Portable Jung and explored the meaning of recurring images in the great world religions in The Mythic Image. In the early 1980’s, Campbell began The Historical Atlas of World Mythology. In The Way of the Animal Powers and The Way of Seeded Earth, the two volumes he completed before his death, Campbell charts the evolution of mythology throughout early human history. Space exploration and the possibilities for knowledge unlocked by growing scientific understanding of the workings of the universe led him to write The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, in which he suggests that contemplation of the cosmos can lead to a fuller understanding of the subtleties of one’s own inner spiritual life.
In 1988, several months after Campbell’s death from cancer, a six-hour series titled Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth appeared on American public television. Recorded over the last two years of Campbell’s life, the program consisted of edited conversations between Campbell and journalist Bill Moyers. The series sparked widespread interest in Campbell’s work, and both The Hero with a Thousand Faces and a book based on the program soon appeared on The New York Times best-seller list. The key to the series’ success—and to the influence Campbell’s work has had on audiences outside academia—is his ability to communicate ideas of substance and complexity with great clarity. His writings have inspired novelists, choreographers, and filmmakers, including director George Lucas, whose popular Star Wars films were shaped by The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell’s work continues to provide his readers with an intelligent and insightful means of utilizing the message of mythology in their own lives.
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