Bill Moyers Angrily Defends Joseph Campbell Against Charges That His Wisdom Was Only a Myth

updated 11/27/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/27/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

To the estimated 30 million viewers mesmerized by Bill Moyers's 1988 PBS series Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, the star seemed a sage and charismatic figure. Campbell's handsome face belied his 80-plus years, and his gentle, scholarly demeanor and skillful storytelling gave him an aura of spirituality. "He was a person of magic," filmmaker George Lucas, a longtime fan, once said. Moyers certainly appeared to be under his spell as Campbell invoked folk heroes of various cultures to illuminate the universality of the human spirit. All of them, Campbell argued, from Christ to John Lennon, were pursuing the same essential quest for a purpose in life. Campbell even coined a catchy little phrase for it: "Follow your bliss."

The moment the show aired, a tie-in book, engineered by Doubleday editor Jacqueline Onassis, soared onto the paperback best-seller list and is still there. Some of Campbell's 14 other books, including his 1949 classic The Hero with a Thousand Faces, began selling briskly. Unfortunately, Campbell—who had taught in relative obscurity at Sarah Lawrence College for 38 years—did not live to enjoy his fame: He died at 83 of heart failure, seven months before the PBS series aired. But if death denied Campbell the unexpected pleasures of a place in the sun, it also spared him from a recent attack on his character that has shocked his fans and sparked a lively debate.

Campbell's attacker is Brendan Gill, the crusty, aristocratic New Yorker writer. In a September article in the New York Review of Books, Gill, 75, accused Campbell of being a racist and a reactionary and denounced Campbell's call to "follow your bliss" as a slogan "sanctioning selfishness on a colossal scale—a scale that has become deplorably familiar to us in the Reagan and post-Reagan years."

Why did Gill wait until a year after the PBS show to attack a man who cannot defend himself? He says he is writing a book about people he has known in New York City, including Mary McCarthy and Dorothy Parker. Gill decided to do a chapter on Campbell, whom he had often run into at the exclusive Century club, because "posthumously he has become famous, was wielding quite a lot of influence thanks to the power of television, and I just thought it would be an appropriate time to raise the question, 'What did we really get here?' " he says. "I thought Bill Moyers had been snookered into accepting the word of a man he thought was some superior guru when indeed he was not. He was giving a message that was pap in my mind and little better than the message of Norman Vincent Peale."

Moyers was so outraged by Gill's article that he agreed to a debate televised by the local PBS affiliate on Oct. 24. "Brendan is describing a man I didn't know," Moyers said at that time.

Gill himself will cite only two examples of Campbell's racial prejudice, both secondhand. "When the astronauts landed on the moon," Gill wrote in the Review, "Joe made the repellent jest to a member of my family, who was a student of his... that the moon would be a good place to put the Jews." Gill also said he had heard of a classroom incident in which Campbell was talking about man's predatory nature and a student brought up the Holocaust. Campbell reportedly replied, "That's your problem." Though both instances suggest anti-Semitism, Gill claims that, in his experience, Campbell's prejudices "were across the board."

Following Gill's attack, more than 100 letters poured into the Review. Most correspondents insisted they had never heard Campbell utter a bigoted word, but "a strong minority," says co-editor Robert Silvers, supported Gill's view. Carol Wallace Orr, director of the University of Tennessee Press, who once worked with Campbell, wrote, "In addition to anti-Semitism, I remember in particular his vexation over blacks being admitted to Sarah Lawrence. That Joe Campbell has become a public hero is astonishing."

Conversations with Campbell's former students and colleagues reveal a similar split. "I'm Jewish, and he told everyone I was his best student," says former student and close friend Madeline Nold, who is writing a book about Campbell. Yet Arnold Krupat, who teaches literature at Sarah Lawrence and is Jewish, recalls being offended when, at a faculty party 20 years ago, Campbell told him, "Oh, yeah, I can always spot a Jew." Other Sarah Lawrence alumni remember Campbell more for his general stiff-backed social conservatism than for his views on race. He barred from his classroom anyone who participated in a 1969 student protest, and when Allan Gurganus, author of the current best-seller Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, petitioned to get into one of his courses in 1970, Campbell said Gurganus would have to cut his shoulder-length hair. Appalled that Campbell would be so insensitive to the mythology of long hair at that time, Gurganus "just walked away," he says.

Whatever the merits of Gill's case, retired professor of philosophy and religion Huston Smith, 70, who once taught with Campbell, offers the most common response to its timing. Yes, says Huston, he believes Campbell harbored some racial prejudice. But he will not elaborate. "He's no longer living. I don't think we need to probe those closets anymore," Huston says. "Those things did not come out in the series, so why drag them out now?"

—Andrea Chambers, Maria Speidel in New York City

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