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Joseph Heller established himself as a major satirist in the field of twentieth-century American fiction. A new phrase was added to the American lexicon from the title of his first novel Catch-22 (1961). The term ”catch-22” has become accepted in Webster’s New World Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary and denotes a bureaucratic paradox, having the effect of entrapping the subject. Throughout his almost forty years as a novelist, Heller used humor and satire to give expression to the horrors of war and to a distrust of bureaucracy and government that reached its peak during the Vietnam War. His fiction radically altered a whole generation of readers’ perceptions of America.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
To War and Back
Joseph Heller was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Russian-Jewish immigrants on May 1, 1923. He had a secular upbringing, his mother being more concerned with social issues than religious observance. His father died when Heller was five. He grew up in Coney island, a neighborhood whose beach boardwalk and carnival atmosphere were to reappear in much of his later work. At the age of thirteen, he briefly held a job as a Western Union messenger boy, an experience he drew on for his 1962 story ”World Full of Great Cities.” In his teens he tried his hand at writing short stories while holding brief jobs as a file clerk in a casualty insurance company, a blacksmith’s helper in a naval yard, and a shipping file clerk.
In 1942, at the height of World War II, Heller joined the U.S. Army Air Corps and from May 1944 to mid-1945 was stationed on Corsica, a large Mediterranean island located off the southern coast of France. He flew about sixty combat missions as a bombardier, earning the Air Medal and rising to the rank of lieutenant. The thirty-seventh mission over Avignon, which he flew, proved to be one of the most dangerous of the war and was later written into Catch-22 in the descriptions of Snowden’s death.
On his discharge from the Air Corps Heller married Shirley Held, enrolled at the University of Southern California under the G.I. Bill, and subsequently transferred to New York University. New York remained Heller’s preferred location, partly because of the brisk tempo of life and partly because—as he wisecracked at a press conference—the people are so unfriendly. Heller’s first published work was ”I Don’t Love You Any More,” an account of a returned soldier, which came out in the servicemen’s issue of Story in 1945. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1948 and the next year earned an MA degree at Columbia University, where his professors included Lionel Trilling. In 1949 he received a Fulbright scholarship to St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, a university to which he would return much later in life, in 1991, as a Christensen Visiting Fellow.
On his return to the United States from Oxford, Heller accepted a post as an instructor in English at Pennsylvania State University. Finding the place and the teaching uncongenial, Heller left in 1952 to write advertising copy for Time. In 1956 he moved on to Look magazine before serving as promotion manager at McCall’s from 1958 to 1961. All of this commercial experience would eventually feed directly into his second novel, Something Happened (1974), a tale of a corporate man and his inability to find happiness despite his success.
Writing an Anti-War Masterpiece
The opening chapter of Catch-18, as Heller’s classic was originally called, was published in New World Writing in 1955. The chapter was then extensively revised and shortened, and Heller worked at the novel through the rest of the decade. Built upon the hearty mistrust of authority engendered by his own war experiences, the novel centers on the character of John Yossarian and his encounters with the terror, heartbreak, bureaucracy, and especially the absurdity of war. Its title, which has become one of twentieth-century America’s most deeply-rooted figures of speech, refers to a (fictional) bureaucratic trick to keep pilots flying dangerous war missions. One cannot fly missions if one is insane, so the “catch” goes, but not wanting to fly missions is itself proof of sanity. With this deft piece of circular logic, Heller sets the tone for the absurdity—and poignant hopelessness—of the story to follow.
Despite its current status as a classic, and despite an elaborate promotional campaign, Catch-22 was slow to sell at first. Some reviewers were openly hostile. For example, Whitney Balliett in The New Yorker complained that the book gives the impression of having been ”shouted onto paper.” One of the problems faced by Heller was the reviewers’ lack of preparedness for the unorthodox experimentalism of the work. Heller attacks not only the institutionalized authority of the military but also the conventions of novelistic realism.
The commercial success of Catch-22 had enabled Heller to leave his job at McCall’s, and, having always been interested in the theater, Heller embarked on his first stage production in 1966. On a visit to Yale, Heller mentioned the idea of a dramatic adaptation of the ideas in Catch-22 to Robert Brustein, dean of the Yale Drama School. Brustein was enthusiastic and helped secure Heller a temporary appointment at Yale. In doing so, Brustein had transformed the drama school into an important location for the theater of protest against the Vietnam War.
Heller’s play We Bombed in New Haven (1967) was first produced at Yale and is a work that constantly disrupts the theatrical illusion with, for example, the curtain half-rising as if in error to reveal the actors still getting ready for the production. In the play Heller achieves the dislocation of language from reality by having a character declare, ”There is no war taking place,” only to have his words interrupted by an explosion. We Bombed in New Haven includes many allusions to other wars, but the common consciousness of the Vietnam War was paramount in 1967. Heller’s anti-Vietnam War stance came out in more direct ways as well. In interviews he gave in the late 1960s Heller repeatedly expressed his conviction that the Cold War had induced the beliefs that communism must be stopped and that American youth would have to die in a war long after any rationale for such beliefs had disappeared. When he contributed to a 1967 collection of statements, Authors Take Sides on Vietnam, he was absolutely forthright in his condemnation: ”I am against the military intervention of the US in Vietnam. It was a ghastly choice, and thousands die each month because of it.”
Branching Out as a Novelist
Heller’s second novel, Something Happened (1974), was originally planned to have a much stronger continuity with Catch-22 than the finished novel displayed. The novel, about business executive Bob Slocum in the doldrums of a midlife crisis, was originally flavored by the protagonist’s wartime memories. Instead the novel focuses on corporate culture, which is depicted as largely benign, unlike the military culture portrayed in Catch-22. Whereas Yossarian in Catch-22 resisted authoritarian culture, Slocum’s insecurity attracts him to the structure corporate culture provides.
In his next novel, Good as Gold (1979), Heller returns to the Coney Island of his childhood, and the Jewish-American culture that characterized it. Heller set out to produce a tongue-in-cheek account of the ”Jewish Experience in America” and paints a comic but unflattering portrait of the antagonisms running through the Gold family. Heller’s fourth novel, God Knows (1984), is based on the biblical story of David. Although the book immediately became a bestseller, many of the reviews were hostile, drawing comparisons with the comic monologue ”The Two Thousand-Year-Old Man,” by Heller’s longtime friend, Mel Brooks. Despite its departure from Heller’s usual preference for contemporary subjects, this novel bears a close thematic relevance to his other works through the related issues of authority and justice, as played out in the father-son relationship. One of the central problems in God Knows—a problem explored in Catch-22 as well as Good as Gold—lies in David’s relation to his two symbolic fathers, Saul and God. The position of fathers in the Jewish tradition, no matter what the era, is absolutely central and bound up with questions of religion and assimilation.
A Brush with Death
In December 1981, while in the middle of writing God Knows, Heller was suddenly afflicted with a serious disease that attacks the nervous system, Guillain-Barre Syndrome, which for a time paralyzed him completely. He later published an account of his ordeal in No Laughing Matter (1986), describing the worst stage of his illness as a figurative descent into hell. Cowritten by his friend Speed Vogel, No Laughing Matter has three supporting storylines: the comedy of Mel Brooks’s interference with the hospital authorities, the drawn-out legal wrangling of Heller’s divorce, which was going on at the time, and the growing love between himself and his nurse, Valerie Humphries, whom he married a year after the book was published.
After his recovery Heller experienced a surge in productivity. He finished God Knows, wrote his portions of No Laughing Matter, and started his next novel, Picture This (1988), a story steeped in history and art. Using Rembrandt’s painting Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer as a focal point, the novel is set in two time periods: the painter’s Netherlands of the seventeenth century CE, and the ancient philosopher’s Athens of the fifth century BCE. By using contemporary terms like “gulag” out of context, Heller encourages the reader to compare historical periods to twentieth-century history, especially Nazism and the Cold War.
Heller’s last novel, Closing Time (1994), was publicized as the long-awaited sequel to Catch-22 and focuses on the characters’ childhood New York memories. In this sense Closing Time becomes partly autobiographical; there is even a minor character called Joey Heller. His last book was Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here (1998), a memoir. Heller died of a heart attack at his home in New York on December 12, 1999, at the age of seventy-six.
Works in Literary Context
On all levels Catch-22 questions the conventions of the American war novel. By incorporating elements from the twentieth century’s classic war stories, but with a twist, the novel upends the genre while carving out a place for itself. It includes a farcical reprise of the lake journey to freedom in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms (1929), when Orr rows to Sweden. James Jones, author of From Here to Eternity (1951), used the army to represent the stratifications of American society, while Heller uses it to demonstrate the paranoia of the McCarthy era. Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948) includes a diverse group of men, from the Irishman to the homosexual to the man with a PhD; Catch-22 includes a similarly diverse mix of characters, but satirizes it. With the character of Milo, who is engaged in mysterious international trade, Heller anticipated the treatment of World War II in later novels like Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), where warfare is presented as a screen erected to conceal the real commercial processes taking place.
Works in Critical Context
As is the case with many novelists whose first efforts are hugely successful, Catch-22 was both a blessing and a curse. It ensured that everything Heller wrote from then on would be taken seriously, but also that his later novels would be compared, perhaps unfairly, to his blockbuster. Critics wrote thoughtfully—and generally favorably— about all of his subsequent novels, but none of the later novels came close to capturing the imagination of the public the way Catch-22 did.
At the time of its publication in 1961, Heller’s antiwar novel met with modest sales and lukewarm reviews. But by the middle of its first decade it became a favored text of the counterculture. Catch-22 ”came when we still cherished nice notions about WW II,” Eliot Fremont-Smith recalled in the Village Voice. ”Demolishing these, it released an irreverence that had, until then, dared not speak its name.” With more than ten million copies in print at the end of the twentieth century, Catch-22 has become generally regarded as one of the most important novels of the postwar era. The title itself has become part of the language, and its hero Yossarian, according to Jack Schnedler of the Newark Star-Ledger, ”has become the fictional talisman to an entire generation.”
Reviewers also noted the relevance of the World War II novel for the Vietnam generation. ”There seems no denying that though Heller’s macabre farce was written about a rarefied part of the raging war of the forties during the silent fifties,” Josh Greenfeld wrote in a New York Times Book Review article, ”it has all but become the chapbook of the sixties.” Joseph Epstein likewise summarized in The Washington Post Book World: Catch-22 ”was a well-aimed bomb.”
- Keegan, Brenda M. Joseph Heller: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978.
- Potts, Stephen W. From Here to Absurdity: The Moral Battlefields of Joseph Heller. 2nd ed. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1995.
- Ruderman, Judith. Joseph Heller. New York: Continuum, 1991.
- Seed, David. The Fictions of Joseph Heller: Against the Grain. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.
- Sorkin, Adam J., ed. Conversations with Joseph Heller. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1993.
- Woolf, Cecil and John Bagguley, eds. Authors Take Sides on Vietnam: Two Questions on the War in Vietnam Answered by the Authors of Several Nations. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967.
- Epstein, Joseph. ”Joseph Heller’s Milk Train: Nothing More to Express.” The Washington Post (October 6, 1974).
- Fremont-Smith, Eliot. “Kvetch-22.” The Village Voice (March 5, 1979).
- Schnedler, Jack. The Newark Star-Ledger (October 6, 1974).
- Reilly, Charlie. ”An Interview with Joseph Heller.” Contemporary Literature (Winter 1998).
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