Correspondence: 1927–87, Joseph Campbell

Edited by EVANS LANSING SMITH and DENNIS PATRICK SLATTERY
Novato, Calif.: New World Library, 2019. 429 pp., cloth, $26.95.

In addition to his impressive output of mythological studies, Joseph Campbell was a prodigious letter writer, corresponding over the years not only with fellow luminaries in the field but with friends, relatives, students and, at one point, even an American president. This volume draws together a broad selection of letters ranging from the start of his academic career to its end, in the process offering up a revealing portrait of a true American original. 

As the book’s introduction states, collections of personal letters like this make for valuable reading on several levels. For one, they provide important insights into the character and thought processes of an individual, since one finds an intimacy of expression not usually encountered in more scholarly contexts. But even in scholarly terms, letters like these can shed valuable light on the intellectual context in which the individual worked. 

When I was heavily immersed in Campbell’s work back in the 1980s, I was curious, even a little confused, by his relationship with other academic thinkers in the field, since I sometimes noticed him referred to in less than complimentary terms, almost as if he wasn’t a member of their club. When I interviewed mythologist Wendy Doniger for this magazine in 1990, for example, she was vaguely disparaging of his contribution, criticizing his “universalist” approach to mythology while also claiming (inaccurately, I later realized) that he never bothered to study texts in their original languages, when in fact he did. While the letters in this volume only touch briefly on that controversy, seeing it mentioned in the context of the entire book gave me fresh insight into what may have really been the source of that problem, in part anyway—sour grapes, or professional jealousy. As a religious scholar I knew once said to me, “Few things annoy one’s colleagues in academia more than becoming popular and successful.” Needless to say, Joseph Campbell became really popular and successful.

For that reason, it was something of a pleasant revelation for me to come across a glowing letter in this volume from Mircea Eliade—the mythological thinker probably most often regarded as Campbell’s chief rival during his lifetime. I’d always been curious what Eliade thought of Campbell, since I’d never come across anything regarding his opinion of the man or his work. In the letter included in this volume, he praises the copy of The Masks of God that Campbell sent to him, saying, “Your book is very beautiful, extremely stimulating, audacious, personal, and carries new views even when you present well-known theories. . . . I have already presented the book in my Fall seminar (Psychology and History of Religions) and I am going to use it in my Winter course (Mediterranean Religions).” Clearly Eliade felt a fondness for Campbell’s work that some of colleagues didn’t share, not publicly at any rate.

There were some real surprises for me in this book. One of those was learning about Campbell’s early friendship with Jiddu Krishnamurti, whom he met on a steamboat to Europe in 1924. I was impressed by the almost devotional admiration he expressed for the teacher, since it hinted at a certain spiritual impulse in Campbell’s personality that wasn’t immediately obvious from his more intellectual writings. In a letter dated July17, 1928, when he was still in his mid-twenties, Campbell wrote: “I am thoroughly excited about the talk I had with Krishnamurti. He has helped me to select a star worth aiming at. What the star is named I don’t quite know—what it looks like I somehow feel. But Krishna is there—in the star—and he is beautiful. . . . Krishna more than anyone I know, is like the person I have wanted to be.”

Also fascinating is a set of exchanges Campbell carried on with Alan Watts, who at one point corrects him on a matter of astrological import (of all things). Having read an advance copy of the second volume of Campbell’s Masks of God: Vol. 2, Watts noticed an error in his discussion about precession of the equinoxes in relation to the doctrine of the Great Ages, for which Campbell profusely thanks him. 

On a more controversial front, Campbell came under attack after his death by some former colleagues and friends, such as New Yorker writer Brendan Gill, for being anti-Semitic. While some correspondents in this volume defend Campbell against such charges, it’s a controversy that likely won’t be settled by this book. I have to admit it reminded me of something I noticed while attending various seminars of Campbell’s back in the ’80s—his decidedly right-wing views. One only gets a hint of that in this volume, but it stands out noticeably in a 1970 letter by Campbell to President Richard Nixon, praising him for his bombing of Cambodia. Yowzer. (It’s unknown whether Nixon responded to or even read Campbell’s letter.) 

This naturally raises the question of how much we ought separate someone’s personal beliefs from their creative achievements, a problem that’s been grappled with since time immemorial. Ultimately, we all have to decide that for ourselves, but either way, this volume is sure to enhance your understanding of the man and his thinking on any number of fronts—perhaps including that one. 

Ray Grasse

Ray Grasse worked on the staff of Quest magazine during the 1990s and is author of several books, including The Waking Dream, An Infinity of Gods, and Under a Sacred Sky. His website is www.raygrasse.com.


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