Joseph Campbell and Race


Two years after the death of Joseph Campbell, a colleague named Brendan Gill published a troubling account of Campbell’s personal views on race and Jews.  In the ensuing storm, others came forward to add their accounts of Campbell and bigotry, while many defenders stepped up to counter the charges.  The defenders emphasized their sense of Campbell as a man who stood for a transcendent vision of global mythology, a philosopher of myth whose intellectual legacy, in their view, did not lend aid and comfort to a racist worldview.  Due to Campbell’s posthumous fame, the controversy made a bit of a splash, and many viewed it as a sad smear on a widely admired man.

Consideration of this matter soon receded to academic backwaters, swamped into forgetfulness by a flood of appreciative Campbell fans.  For those few who learned of the charges, many felt doubtful of the accusations, but some found it difficult to dismiss all of the anecdotes.  One potential refuge has been to completely detach Campbell the public mythologist from Campbell the private person.

It seems useful to explore the question of whether the private views that became widely reported by a number of persons in 1989 can be discerned in Campbell’s professional life.  Toward this end, we can consider the logic of race that occasionally underpins his narrative logic.  We can also ponder his appreciation for a pro-race anthropologist named Carleton Coon and how this relates to Campbell’s later association with a notorious journal called Mankind Quarterly.

In 1959 Campbell published The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, the first of a series of volumes defining a global vision of “a unitary mythological science” establishing “the spiritual history of mankind” – a history extending “back for more than half a million years.”  He wrote that we must ask whether humankind might “possess any innate tendencies to respond, in strictly patterned racial ways, to certain signals flashed by his environment and his own kind.”  He deemed his enterprise to be one of peering into an immensity extending into “the racial counterpart of that psychological unconscious which has been recently been exposed…”  He drew his vision back to “the crouching cannibals of the glacial ages, lapping the brains of their neighbors” and further to “the enigmatic chalky, skeletal remains of what now would seem to have been chimpanzee-like hunter-pygmies on the open plains of the early Transvaal…”

To clarify his mysterious reference to “strictly patterned racial ways,” Campbell launched into the philological view of the ancient dispersion of the Aryan family.  He soon enthused that “the most productive, as well as philosophically mature, constellation of peoples in the history of civilization had been associated with this prodigious ethnic diffusion…”  And to his eye “it seemed that even in the Orient, the homeland of many darker races, it had been the lighter-skinned Indo-Aryans who had been given the chief impulse to the paramount cultural trend…”  This ultimately gave rise to “the gospel of Gautama Buddha” whose philosophy generated “the purified, perfected, fully flowered, and fully illuminated consciousness of man himself.”

This pro-race trajectory soon takes us to “the Germanies” where we find the cultural source of an alternative to Christian theological myth in the form of a “profoundly inspired and vigorously creative spiritual tradition…”  More steps along the way take us toward “a potentially very dangerous situation…”  Campbell now gathered various scholars, including Count Arthur de Gobineau, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, and Alfred Rosenberg.  He didn’t provide any detail on these notables, yet it seems proper to acknowledge the racial thinking that marks this journey, and the fact that he guides us up those steps to stand among this particular group of renowned philosophers.  All three of these men were infamous proponents of white racial supremacy whose ponderings set the intellectual underpinnings of Nazi racism.  Here Campbell remarks, “Clearly, mythology is no toy for children.”  This is the “Prologue” of Campbell’s intended quest.

In Chapter 1 we encounter a discussion on race.  Campbell tells us, “Between the various human races differences have been noted that suggest psychological as well as merely physiological variation” but “within the human species there is such broad variation of innate capacity from individual to individual that generalizations on a racial basis lose much of their point.”  And he concludes: “In other words, the whole question of the innate stereotypes of the species Homo sapiens is still wide open.”

Here it seems useful to visit Campbell’s personal biography.  Years after the sudden debate on Campbell’s private attitudes, in 2004 Maggie Macary noted that during the late 1920s Campbell studied at universities in France and Germany.  There he “grew to love German culture and became deeply involved with the work of German scholars” and his initial reaction to Nazism “was enthusiasm.”  Macary assures us that “Campbell ultimately came to see that Fascism, like the dreaded Communism, was no friend of the individual…”  Her implication is that Campbell became infatuated with the Nazi interest in mythology but worried about the crude political manifestations of fascism.  This brief note on personal history helps to explain Campbell’s passing reference in The Masks of God to Alfred Rosenberg.  Rosenberg was the leading theorist of the Nazi quest to craft a sense of national identity from the makings of ancient myth.  He was later executed in the course of the Nuremberg trials.

Whatever Campbell made of Nazi fascism, it is interesting that we find him later extolling a leading proponent of racialized ancient history in The Masks of God.  We encounter Carleton Coon first in a citation to a paragraph describing Neanderthal skeletons – a neutral point of description citing Coon’s 1954 book, The Story of Man.  It is not clear whether Campbell has any opinion about that book.  But Coon complained in The Story of Man about “academic debunkers and soft-peddlers who operate inside anthropology” to make it “immoral to study race, and produce book after book exposing it as a ‘myth’” – a pointed jab at Ashley Montagu’s anti-race book, Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race.  We can guess that Campbell regarded Coon as a trustworthy authority on distant antiquity, but we get no clue about his perspective on Coon the pro-race moralist.  Next we find Campbell touting Coon as a scholar with an “anthropologically practiced eye” whose word on the representation of a cave painting suggests what might well be “a scientific way” of seeing the artist in ancient days filled with his “creative urge” as he crawls into the dark.  This is also a reference to Coon’s work in The Story of Man.  Again, we are urged to trust Coon, but without having much insight about his book.

A more detailed discussion can be found in Chapter 9, where we see a long quote from The Story of Man.  It is a disquisition on hand-ax technology of circa 500,000 years ago, a glimpse of ancient humans who “were able to teach their young skills that they had learned from their fathers in most minute detail, as living Australians and Bushmen do.”  Coon concluded, “In short, human society was already a reality…”  Campbell’s interpretation is that this “speaks volumes for the force and reach of diffusion in the primitive world.”  He returns to Coon again for the insight that the most finely crafted of these hand-axes were probably sacred objects, not tools, comparable to certain items of the “Australians.”  A few more citations can be found, but this is the essence of Campbell’s usage of Coon’s research.

When Campbell revised The Masks of God for reissue in 1969, he inserted another reference to Carleton Coon.  In his new “Foreword” Campbell took pains to cite Coon on matters pertaining to “Plesianthropus” or “near man”; and he described Coon as “the leading expert on these matters” – in this case, conclusions regarding the nature of a particular set of skeletal remains that “seems to represent a rather special case, pointing, as do none of the other South African Australopithecines, forward along the evolutionary line, to ourselves.”  This comment by Campbell here drew from The Origin of Races, a book published by Coon in 1962 – Campbell cited a 1966 reprint.

Carleton Coon was indeed a leading scholar of hominid and human antiquity during that period, and it is arguable that we should not make too much of the fact that Campbell respected him as a trustworthy scholar.  But in 1961-1962 an interesting set of events took place that forever marked Coon’s legacy as a scholar.  Whatever Campbell knew of those circumstances, I suspect it is possible to tease out a glimpse of how race impacted Campbell’s thinking when we outline what happened to Coon.

An article in a 1961 issue of Anthropology News announced that at the May meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, Carleton Coon had been elected to serve as president of the organization and Alec Kelso, an anthropologist at the University of Colorado, would serve on the Executive Committee.  Coon was already deep into events that would soon overtake his presidency of the group.  A fascinating paper published by John P. Jackson in 2001 has detailed the events I describe below.

Coon had a friend named Carleton Putnam, a businessman and segregationist.  The two men were in frequent contact through 1960 as Putnam prepared a manuscript he titled Race and Reason – he solicited input from Coon, who felt sympathetic but wary of being publicly associated with the project.  Coon steered Putnam away from quoting from his correspondence and suggested that Putnam instead make use of his 1954 The Story of Man.  Putnam believed that anthropologists represented a serious threat to American society; he was eager to denounce their tendency to reject racism and their growing inclination to turn a cold shoulder on race itself.  Coon was a friendly source of good advice.

When the International Association for the Advancement of Ethnology and Eugenics was founded in 1959, Coon knew many of the founding scholars, and Putnam hurried to attend its first meeting.  The scholars of the IAAEE soon launched a quasi-official journal called Mankind Quarterly – a venue where they could argue in favor of white supremacy and against racial integration.

A few years later in 1963 Mankind Quarterly published an interesting review of Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God.   The anonymous reviewer interpreted the book through a racial lens: “This evidence is quite startling – it really means that advanced civilisations do not appear to have arisen anywhere except from a basis inspired at least by the racial strains which belong to the Caucasoid or white stock.”  The reviewer asserted that “the milieu of the white races” in “the Caucasoid world” account for the “dynamism” of the diffusion of religion and civilization.  This certainly reflects a reading of Campbell’s comments about “the lighter-skinned Indo-Aryans” as “the most productive, as well as philosophically mature, constellation of peoples in the history of civilization.”  Campbell is not accountable for the magnification of his racial model into a white supremacist brag-fest.  But did he have a responsibility to speak out, to defuse this white pride reading of his book?  This very point became a pressing question in the case of Carleton Coon.

In 1961 Carleton Putnam published Race and Reason: A Yankee View.  He wrote of the sense of oppression felt by some scholars in academia, fearful of expressing their honest opinions about race and racial equality.  He described one such academic who “is about to publish a book and he felt it more important in the long run to keep the track clear for the book than to declare his position now.”  This was probably a reference to Carleton Coon, who was then on the verge of finishing The Origin of Races.  Putnam did not quote Coon, but he soon issued a pamphlet that drew on Coon’s The Story of Man.

John Jackson notes that these and other projects by Putnam had the effect of raising concern in academic anthropology.  In November 1961 the American Anthropological Society passed a resolution condemning the campaign to justify racial inequality in American society.  In May 1962 a similar resolution was passed by the American Association of Physical Anthropologists – a resolution aimed more directly at Putnam’s Race and Reason.  Coon was then serving as president of that group.  His response to the resolution was to resign in protest.  Then in October 1962 his new book The Origin of Races appeared.

This book provided a detailed account of hominid evolution, and it suggested that Homo erectus populations slowly dispersed and became segregated into five groups in the Old World, and these five groups each gave rise to a later human racial group.  The earliest to pass the human threshold became racial Caucasoids and Mongoloids; Congoids came long later, and due to their late development into full-fledged Homo sapiens, they were comparatively early in their evolution.  This book was greeted with appreciation by Putnam and his colleagues at the International Association for the Advancement of Ethnology and Eugenics – the circle of pro-race scholars who published Mankind Quarterly.

This drew the concern of geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky.  He was not aware of the hidden ties between Coon and Putnam, but pondering The Origin of Races and its impact on public discourse regarding civil rights, Dobzhansky began to press Coon to issue a condemnation of the use of The Origin of Races by segregationists.  Coon denied that he had any such duty – and he kept silent about his ties to Putnam.  He went further.  He threatened Dobzhansky with a lawsuit for defamation and he began to press university administrators to censure his various critics.  This acrimony went on until passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  These were high profile events in anthropology, widely reported in academic literature of the time.

Several years later when Joseph Campbell decided to revise The Masks of God, he was clear about his admiration for Carleton Coon.  His new foreword cited a 1966 reprint of The Origin of Races.  This means that he knew the argument concerning the deep history of race in the book.  He could well have been mostly in the dark about the intimate details of the acrimony in the halls of anthropology, but he could hardly have missed the national debate about the role of science in social policy, with segregationists deploying Coon’s work to oppose the civil rights movement, and with academics asserting a new responsibility for scholars to speak out on such matters.

The implication of John Jackson’s research on Coon and Putnam and The Origin of Races is interesting.  During the early 1960s it was almost impossible for an academic scholar to be blatantly racist, to openly support the social agenda of racial separatism and white supremacy.  One had to be subtle; one needed the option to deny any explicit aid to white racists.  Campbell served at a liberal institution, and this standard of academic expectation must have been in full force during his tenure at Sarah Lawrence College.

Just a few years after Campbell retired, he received an interesting invitation.  He was asked by a man named Roger Pearson to serve on the board of Mankind Quarterly.  In a phone interview with Michael Shermer, Pearson said that he extended the invitation to Campbell in the hope of broadening the content of the journal.  But it still had a major focus on race and the agenda of racial rankings.  Roger Pearson also has an interesting file at the Southern Poverty Law Center as a lifelong proponent of the tenets of racial thinking, known for “promoting Nordic racial superiority.”  It isn’t clear what this meant to Campbell, but during his tenure the reputation of the journal did not improve.  A few years after Campbell died, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray published The Bell Curve, a book that advanced the cause of racial determinism and race-based intelligence rankings.  One reviewer castigated the book for its heavy reliance on authors associated with the infamous Mankind Quarterly.

This context is relevant to the various charges that came forth in 1989, initiated by Brendan Gill.  During that period at least five different colleagues came forward with anecdotes and accusations charging that Campbell held private views that were racist and anti-Semitic.  One colleague who collaborated with Campbell on a book wrote a particularly bitter letter, recalling, “In addition to anti-Semitism, I remember in particular his vexation over blacks being admitted to Sarah Lawrence[.]”

A group of other colleagues immediately responded with ringing defenses of Campbell, praising his intellectual legacy and dismissing the accusations.  But two defenders had some interesting qualifying statements.  One colleague, Roy Finch, referred to Campbell’s “romantic fascism” and also seemed to label him a “cryptofascist.”  Finch also told another reporter that Campbell admired the thinking of intellectuals who saw “Western civilization” as “threatened with the rot of decadence.”  He added that Campbell thought that the heroic virtues of the ancients might help counter that decline and “the left-wing, liberal, Jewish, Communist point of view was part of the degeneration[.]”  Another defender, Huston Smith, qualified his defense of Campbell with an enigmatic reference to “shadow”: “This does not excuse the side of Joseph Campbell that I (with Gill) consider shadow.”  In another news account Smith seemed to clarify his “shadow” comment, affirming that “he believes Campbell harbored some racial prejudice.”  But he declined to offer details.

In 1991 Coralee Grebe published a paper on the controversy in Mythlore, concluding that Campbell’s “hurtful attitudes” do not matter “because they have not survived him in his work.”  If one compares Campbell to a segregationist like Carleton Putnam, the point may seem fair.  Campbell’s writings do not openly advocate white racial supremacy, and race was not his major topic of interest.  But nor is race absent – his assumptions on race did guide his logic in notable ways.  And there is also his choice to associate with Roger Pearson and Mankind Quarterly – a matter that Grebe did not mention.  She did consider a 1990 article by Robert Segal.  The year after Grebe’s article came out, Segal published another paper in Religion that analyzed the charge of anti-Semitism and how that attitude really does show up in Campbell’s writings.  That paper has since received much notice in Campbell scholarship.

Some observers may prefer to minimize the complexities of this history, separating Campbell the private citizen from Campbell the public mythologist.  This does not match what Campbell did in his professional life.  He accepted the invitation to associate openly with Mankind Quarterly during his final years, and it is not difficult to square that Campbell with the Campbell who was remembered as a racist and anti-Semite, a “romantic fascist” with the “shadow” of “some racial prejudice” haunting his memory.  We can match the Campbell who as a young man admired aspects of Nazi culture with the older Campbell who joined Mankind Quarterly.  Whatever he thought of its well-known mission to proselytize on race, these conjunctions are readily observed.

Perhaps we can offer some modestly informed speculation as to what interested Campbell in finding common cause with the mission of Mankind Quarterly.  In Chapter 1 of The Masks of God we find him mulling over “the obvious, and sometimes very striking, physical differences of the human races” and whether this variation of form implies “psychological as well as merely physiological variation” – and he concludes “that generalizations on a racial basis lose much of their point.”  Yet the researchers who congregated in the pages of Mankind Quarterly were bent on answering this very question, interrogating racial narratives to extract cultural messages from biological form.  This led, in fact, to publication of The Bell Curve by Herrnstein and Murray in 1994, with its detailed effort to verify the tattered traditions of racial ideology.  Perhaps Campbell deemed this treatment of race a project that aligned with his own inner preferences – preferences that he could only touch on lightly in public, but which he privately suspected deserved a more enthusiastic embrace in the world.

Efforts to understand Campbell’s attitudes on race help to situate both the man and the mythologist in the 20th century as a man of his times.  In those times Campbell had a choice about race; to embrace it or reject it.  Not everyone in academia took a pro-race path.  When Carleton Coon accepted the presidency of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in 1961, Alec “Jack” Kelso joined the AAPA Executive Committee.  Kelso saw what happened with the Coon controversy and resignation.  During the same period when Joseph Campbell was writing a new foreword to The Masks of God in praise of Coon, Kelso was busy preparing an anthropology textbook.  As noted in a 1982 paper by Alice Littlefield, Leonard Lieberman, and Larry T. Reynolds, when Kelso’s textbook appeared in 1970, the book was “very critical of the race concept, yet used it.”  Kelso’s view changed in the 1975 edition.  There he wrote, “Clearly the concept of race is of negligible value in science.  The racial approach is a deceptive strategy for collecting information on human variation, and the concept of race explains nothing at all.”

Kelso added his own commentary to that 1982 paper.  He noted that many things were in flux during the decades that followed the end of World War 2.  The focus on race in physical anthropology gave way to skepticism about the nature of race, and for many anthropologists the change was not dramatic, but rather a gradual consequence of the quest to grasp how evolutionary processes shaped human variability.  Kelso could have taken the course followed by Coon.  Yet he chose otherwise.  He could have chosen to link his fortunes with a pro-race venue like Mankind Quarterly.  But he didn’t.  By the end of the 1970s, as Campbell was signing on with Mankind Quarterly, the challenge to race in anthropology had become a mostly settled matter.  In Alec Kelso’s professional world, the deceptive idea of race had died.  He chose to move on.




3 thoughts on “Joseph Campbell and Race

  1. I think I agree with dad. And I can tell you, he will be happy to hear his works are still being cited, especially in a way that seems to highlight his professional independence, courage, and integrity. Good job, old man!


    1. Very interesting, informative essay. I was researching how Joseph Campbell might have viewed the nature of tribalism to understand racial tension, and fear of “the other.” What I discovered in this essay enlightens and disturbs me regarding Campbell. Hats off to Mr Kelso.


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