noun: a self-taught person.
He left the Ph.D. program at Columbia University for “self-imposed exile”. He studied for five years in the woods–reading 9 hours each day.
In 1933, he accepted a teaching job from his old master at Canterbury prep school, but resigned at the end of the term and went “back on the Depression.” Serendipitously, one of his short stories sold, a now long-lost piece called “Strictly Platonic.” On the $300 windfall he earned from the story he returned to Woodstock for two years of self-imposed exile, studying in depth the authors who had galvanized him in Europe: Joyce, Spengler, Mann, Freud, Jung, Frazer, and Frobenius. In spring of 1934 came a job offer from Sarah Lawrence College, which he immediately accepted. There, for the next thirty-eight years, he taught enormously popular classes in comparative literature and mythology.
Campbell: I think the most important period of my scholarship and study followed my return from Europe. I came back to the United States about two weekends before the Wall Street Crash. And there wasn’t a job in the world. I went back up to Columbia to go on with my work on the Ph.D. and told them, “This whole thing has opened out.”
“Oh, no,” they said. “You don’t follow that. You stay where you were before you went to Europe.”
Well, I just said, “To hell with it.”
My father had lost all his money but I had saved some as a student. I used to play in a jazz band and so I piled up money during a few years. And on that, you might say, I just retired to the woods. I went up to Woodstock and just read, and read, and read, and read, for five years. No job, no money. I learned then that you don’t need money to live if you’re a young man who didn’t get himself involved sooner than he should have, before he had the ability to support what his involvement might be.
So during the years of the Depression I had arranged a schedule for myself. When you don’t have a job or anyone to tell you what to do, you’ve got to fix one for yourself. I divided the day into four four-hour periods, of which I would be reading in three of the four-hour periods, and free one of them.
By getting up at eight o’clock in the morning, by nine I could sit down to read. That meant I used the first hour to prepare my own breakfast and take care of the house and put things together in whatever shack I happened to be living in at the time. Then three hours of that first four-hour period went to reading.
Then came an hour break for lunch and another three-hour unit. And then comes the optional next section. It should normally be three hours of reading and then an hour out for dinner and then three hours free and an hour getting to bed so I’m in bed by twelve.
On the other hand, if I were invited out for cocktails or something like that, then I would put the work hour in the evening and the play hour in the afternoon.
It worked very well. I would get nine hours of sheer reading done a day. And this went on for five years straight. You get a lot done in that time. When the job at Sarah Lawrence came, until I started writing. I continued that schedule over the weekends, when I was at home.
Reading what you want, and having one book lead to the next, is the way I found my discipline. I’ve suggested this to many of my students: When you find a writer who really is saying something to you, read everything that writer has written and you will get more education and depth of understanding out of that then reading a scrap here and a scrap there and elsewhere. Then go to people who influenced that writer, or those who were related to him, and your world builds together in an organic way that is really marvelous. Whereas the way these things are taught normally in college and school is a sampler of what this one wrote and that one wrote and you’re asked to be more interested in the date of the publications of Keats’s sonnets than in what’s in them.
And so with those women students at Sarah Lawrence to help me, I broke completely away from the academic approach to these subjects.
It was a grand, grand experience. I was a little nervous at times. I remember having a one dollar bill in the top drawer and knowing I would not die as long as that dollar bill was there. And so various things turned up. I spent the year before I got the job teaching at Sarah Lawrence minding a dog for some people who had built a house at Woodstock, a beautiful little house. It was a great big dog, a kind of a cross between a police dog and a Doberman pinscher, whose name was Fritz. I spent a year with this animal and I learned a lot about dogs. He fell in love with a cat down the road and I tried to condition his reflexing so that he wouldn’t go down to the cat, and, of course, he found ways to get down there.
That was one way of living life, on no money.