(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Joseph Campbell 1904-1987

American nonfiction writer, essayist, critic, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Campbell's career through 1999. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 69.

Recognized as a leading modern authority on mythology and folklore, Campbell is best known for writing The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), a comparative study of hero myths from numerous cultures. Often noted for their extensive reproductions of primitive art and breadth of scholarship, Campbell's works have been credited with popularizing the study of myth.

Biographical Information

Campbell was born on March 26, 1904, in New York City. Campbell developed an interest in Native American mythology and history after seeing Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show at Madison Square Garden as a child. He attended Dartmouth College from 1921 to 1922 before transferring to Columbia University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1925 and a master's in medieval literature in 1927. During the next two years Campbell studied French and German medieval literature in Paris and Munich while working towards a doctorate, an endeavor that he abandoned after being informed that mythology was an unsuitable topic for his thesis. Campbell returned to the United States in the early 1930s and, unemployed, spent most of his time reading at a cabin in Woodstock, New York. In 1934, Campbell joined the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College in New York, where he taught comparative mythology and literature until his retirement in 1972. He died on October 30, 1987.

Major Works

In 1944, Campbell collaborated with Henry Morton Robinson on A Skeleton Key to “Finnegans Wake,” which explicates the structure, themes, and difficult passages of James Joyce's last novel. In Campbell's first major work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he argues that most heroes undergo a similar series of adventures: separation from the everyday world, initiation into a mystery or greater state of awareness through trials and ordeals, and a triumphant return in which the gifts of this experience are bestowed upon humanity. Using extensive quotations from epic literature and folktales from around the world, Campbell demonstrates numerous parallels between the aspirations and experiences of folk heroes from various cultures. His next major work, The Masks of God (1959-68), is a four-volume survey of mythological traditions. In the first volume, Primitive Mythology, he discusses the origins of mythology in prehistoric agricultural and hunting societies from archeological and psychological perspectives. Oriental Mythology charts the development of Eastern mythology in the religions of Egypt, India, China, and Japan, while Occidental Mythology focuses on classical Greco-Roman mythology, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The last volume, Creative Mythology, examines the use of mythology in Western art and literature from the twelfth century to the present. Campbell's other books include The Flight of the Wild Gander (1969), a collection of essays focusing on the biological origins of myth; Myths to Live By (1972), which is based on lectures Campbell delivered between 1958 and 1971; and The Mythic Image (1974), a lavishly illustrated volume examining artistic representations of myth.

Critical Reception

The Hero with a Thousand Faces is regarded as one of Campbell's most popular works. Although his comparativist approach has been attacked for neglecting important distinctions between cultures, the study has been recognized as an important and influential analysis of myth because of its insightful explication of common elements in hero myths. Campbell attained widespread posthumous popularity for his interviews with Bill Moyers, which were aired as the PBS television series “Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth” in 1988. The series explored the relevance of myth to modern life and served as the basis for the best-seller The Power of Myth (1988). In 1989, Brendan Gill launched a controversial attack charging that Campbell, in contrast to his public persona, harbored racist and anti-Semitic views. Gill's claims have been supported by some who knew and worked with Campbell, and commentators continue to debate the validity of his scholarly methods, occasionally finding factual discrepancies and poorly supported arguments in his works. Nevertheless, Campbell's reputation as an eminent teacher and authority on myth remains largely unaffected.