The first general catalogue of the New Rochelle Public Library was published in 1897; in it there were but four books listed on the subject of native Americans. Within a few years that collection grew to include many of the reports of the Bureau of American Ethnology whose mission was to organize anthropological research of indigenous cultures. One young reader of these massive reports was a neighborhood boy named Joseph Campbell, who lived just nearby the library, then situated at the corner of Pintard Avenue and Main Street. Young Campbell’s intellectual fascination for the native peoples of North America launched his career as a writer, professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College, and author of path-breaking studies in comparative mythology and religion. His most famous and enduring work is The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) first issued by the Bollingen Foundation, which published the collected works of psychiatrist Carl Jung in English translation.
Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) was also co-author of A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (1944), the earliest thematic interpretation of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which came out in book form in 1939. Finnegans Wake (aka “the Wake” for avid fans of Joyce) is likely one of the most difficult and perplexing reading experiences one might ever encounter. That’s putting it mildly, for Campbell introduced Joyce’s masterwork as a “monstrous enigma,” a strange book that is a “compound of fable, symphony, and nightmare.” Unraveling the multiple meanings twisted into each word of the Wake demands unusual dedication to the art of reading. As a scholar of world mythology Campbell arrived early at a fortuitous position for illuminating the riddles, teasing out the obscurities, and formulating tactics to explicate the inexplicable in Joyce’s fantastic apotheosis of word craft. Campbell and Robinson’s Skeleton Key has provided much-needed leverage to jiggle out a bit of foggy clarity from what has been deemed “the terminal book.”
However, reading the Wake is also a lot of fun – much more fun than Wordle or the Saturday crossword puzzle, as exciting as translating Shakespeare from Esperanto to Volapuk, and certainly more enriching than, say, golf. Though one may need to consult encyclopedias and vast libraries for help, the single prerequisite to the study of the Wake is not the Skeleton Key, but rather Joyce’s earlier novel Ulysses (1922), one hundred years old this year. Ulysses is the quintessential modernist novel, widely appreciated for the endearing humanity of its protagonist, Leopold Bloom. The time frame of the novel is a single day: June 16, 1904, and hence we have Bloomsday, a secular holiday devoted to the art of reading. Both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are challenging, to be sure; and Joseph Campbell leapfrogged over the former to excavate the multiple layers of meaning in the latter, a step that began to focus his investigation of world mythologies.
In fact, Campbell borrowed a word – monomyth – that Joyce invented in the Wake, this to describe the hero’s journey as a model of story-telling and myth-making. Just as the physicist Murray Gell-Mann plucked the word quarks from the Wake to label a subatomic particle that is the constituent ingredient of protons and neutrons (putting Joycean spin on the matter), so too Campbell deployed monomyth to explain a narrative motif universal in myths and stories across many cultures. Not surprisingly, Campbell found Finnegans Wake to be a treasury of myth whose intricacies, with some study, serve to develop and improve our abilities in reading and writing. Focusing here on the Wake is not to abandon our celebration of Ulysses, but to suggest that Joseph Campbell, in his wide-ranging studies of psychology and comparative mythology, has helped develop our abilities to enrich the understanding of life and the problems of the world from the experience of reading books. It is tempting to believe that Campbell would have appreciated these literary slogans:
Reading is experience for the imagination.
Literature is equipment for living (Kenneth Burke).
What we read governs how we think.
A poem is a machine made of words (William Carlos Williams).
Great writers demand great libraries.
There are no good readers, only good re-readers
Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to
read them at all (Thoreau).
Joseph Campbell well knew what the best books are, and he gave us a skeleton key to unlock one of the greatest. If you have yet to read Ulysses or Finnegans Wake, June 16th is the perfect time to begin. These masterworks continue to fascinate because they lead us deep into worlds of story throughout the entire universe of books.
June 16, 2022 / David Rose / NRPL Archive