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Joseph Heller


Joseph Heller's Catch-22 appeared in October 1961. By 1970 when a major film version was released, even people who had never read the book knew that "Catch-22" meant a no-win situation created by contradictory demands or bureaucratic red tape. Twelve years after that, the phrase had for some time been appearing in English language dictionaries, and the author was applying it to his own life to mean a situation bizarre enough to have come from the novel. He had been struck by a form of paralysis called Guillain-Barre syndrome in 1981. Most victims eventually recover, but that didn't reassure Heller at the time. One day he was a healthy man; two days later he lay paralyzed in an intensive care ward where people kept dying.

"I know it sounds like Catch-22," he later remarked. Able by then to dress himself, he added, "I've been lucky most of my life. When I was a bombardier in World War II, I thought it was safe. I flew sixty missions, and I think we only lost two planes in my squad.... I was lucky there. I may be lucky with this illness."

Heller's luck began with a birthplace many children would envy- the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, New York. He was born May 1, 1923, to Russian immigrants Lena and Isaac Heller. Like many families during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Hellers had little money, especially after Isaac Heller died when Joey (as he was called) was five. "There was almost no conversation about it that I can remember," he told an interviewer. He went on to explain that his father's death may nevertheless account for his books' being "very pessimistic, very black, very morbid. Death is always present as a climactic event that never happens to the protagonist but affects him profoundly." As a boy Heller enjoyed going to the beach, reading, and writing. "I wanted to be a famous writer when I was ten," he says. "I enjoyed Tom Swift and the Rover Boys tremendously, but the first work that made a real impression on me was a prose version of the Iliad given to me by an older cousin." His novel Catch-22 was later compared with the Iliad. Its unheroic hero, the bombardier Yossarian, is a sort of reluctant Achilles, and its military commanders act like insane gods.

After graduating from high school in 1941, Heller worked at the Norfolk Navy Yard as a blacksmith's helper. At that time the United States and other countries were nervously watching as Adolf Hitler's Germany grew in strength. Western powers held back, hoping to avoid a war as devastating as World War I (1914-1918). American neutrality ended after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. The United States joined with Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union to form the Allied side in World War II. American industry geared up to produce astonishing quantities of war materiel. Patriotism and enlistments soared.

Heller, too, enlisted, in October 1942. Like Yossarian in Catch-22, he joined the Army Air Force and entered cadet school. After training he was sent to Corsica (an island in the Mediterranean) as a combat bombardier for missions over Italy. At first he thought it was fun, but by his 37th mission, he says, "I wanted out." He was discharged as a lieutenant after sixty missions. Yossarian, too, wants to quit long before mission sixty.

The war ended in 1945 with victory for the Allies. New tensions appeared, however, in what came to be called the Cold War period- a time of international hostility that stopped short of actual fighting or "hot" war. At first, Western powers again stood back as an aggressive leader- their former ally, Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union- extended Communist influence into eastern Europe and parts of east Asia. The Soviet Union also tested its first atomic bomb. In late 1948, Chinese Communists began to drive out of China the Nationalist forces the United States supported. In 1950, the North Korean army- with the help of the Soviet Union- attacked South Korea. The United States and other members of the United Nations saw this action as too much to ignore. When the Soviets were absent, the U.N. Security Council authorized defense of South Korea. Coming less than five years after an American atomic bomb had ended World War II, the Korean clash was the first limited modern war- one in which the combatants would accept a "no-win" ending rather than risk thermonuclear war.

Before World War II, Heller had sold two short stories. After the war, instead of continuing to submit stories, he decided to complete his education. With the help of the G.I. bill, he attended the University of Southern California and New York University, graduating in 1948. Next he earned a master's degree in English at Columbia University, and studied under a Fulbright scholarship at Oxford University in England. He later claimed to have poured his entire love and knowledge of literature into Catch-22- a claim you will understand as you notice the novel's many allusions to other works. Heller taught freshman composition from 1950 to 1952 at Pennsylvania State University, but disliked the academic life. He left to work in the 1950s as an advertising writer for Time and Look magazines. From 1958 to 1961 he was the promotion manager at McCall's magazine.

Meanwhile his own war novel had been developing in his imagination. He actually began writing Catch-22 in 1954. At first it bothered him that he wrote so slowly- three legal-size pages a night- but he finally accepted it as his way of working. Later he joked that he took so long in order that his novel wouldn't be compared with the highly acclaimed, realistic novels of Mailer and Jones. It took him seven years to create his own kind of war novel. Departing from pure realism, he aimed for a book that would make people laugh, and then look back in horror at what had amused them. He wanted to focus less, he says, on World War II, than "on the Cold War and the Korean War. The effect they had on the domestic political climate was frightening."

Heller acknowledges being influenced by the novels of the French writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine, especially Guignol's Band (1944)- an almost plotless book in which a man who tries to reenlist in the army is rejected. He has a pension from his first enlistment, and some bureaucrat has decided that anybody on a pension is disabled, and therefore unfit. This type of bureaucratic irony appealed to Heller. His Air Force experience provided him with technical details, and he found additional sources for Catch-22 in the World War II experiences of friends, the competitive atmosphere of the business world, and events of the Cold War period- a time when fear of Communism so infected the American people that Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin was able to ruin careers by accusing people- without giving substantial evidence- of selling government secrets to the Soviet Union.

Catch-22 aroused mixed reactions when it was published in 1961. John Pine of Library Journal, for example, recommended the "tedious" book only to libraries with large fiction collections. Novelist Nelson Algren, on the other hand, wrote that it was "the best American novel that has come out of anywhere in years." In England, Catch-22 hit the best-seller list the first week after being published in 1962. Sales rose in the United States in response. By the mid-1960s, Newsweek magazine was reporting "The Heller Cult," and college students were wearing Army field jackets with Yossarian name tags. Students related the novel not so much to World War II or the Korean Conflict as to the Vietnam War then beginning to escalate. Seeing the war as profitable only to the industrial and military "Establishment," they opposed American involvement in Vietnam and adopted bumper stickers reading "Better Yossarian than Rotarian" (a club for "Establishment" businessmen).

During the 1960s, Heller taught fiction and dramatic writing at Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania. He also wrote for a television comedy series and worked on screenplays for three motion pictures. His own anguish over the Vietnam War surfaced in his play We Bombed in New Haven, which opened in December 1967, in New Haven, Connecticut, and was later performed on Broadway and in Berlin and London.

Heller downplays the influence of Catch-22 in relation to Vietnam. "I don't for a second believe that a novel influences behavior in a significant way," he has said. "I know that a lot of people in Vietnam carried around copies, but I don't think it influenced their actions. It just confirmed their opinion that: 'This is crazy! I don't know why we're here. And we'd better watch our superior officers because they can be as dangerous to us as the people out there.'"

Popular and critical attention to Catch-22 continued through the 1960s and 1970s. When a motion picture version was released in 1970, the excitement showed that Heller and his novel had become a cultural phenomenon. Newsweek ran a three-page article; Look had four pages; Life titled its spread "The Frantic Filming of a Crazy Classic." Most reviewers felt that the film failed to capture the essence of the novel- a novel setting a new standard for war novels by its inventive language, bizarre comedy, and use of a war setting to satirize society at large.

Heller's style differed markedly from earlier World War II novels. They used realistic language and centered either on combat (for example, Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead, 1948) or on military life itself (James Jones, From Here to Eternity, 1951). Catch-22, however, had important links with some other widely read war novels. Novels as varied as American writer Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage (1895), the Czechoslovak writer Jaroslav Hasek's The Good Soldier Schweik (1920-23), and the German writer Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) had already demonstrated that war reduces the individual soldier to nothing. Hasek's novel also features a hero whose antics make war seem absurd.

But Heller added to these themes by manipulating the war setting and language itself to depict society as dark and twisted. Some novels since Catch-22 have paralleled Heller's attitudes and techniques. Tim O'Brien's Vietnam War novel, Going After Cacciato (1979), mixes realistic and bizarre scenes, and the main character (like Yossarian) attempts to escape the war. Thomas Pynchon's V. (1963) yo-yos back and forth from one scene to another, one time to another, and one character to another. Pynchon uses black humor to attack the values of technological America in the 1950s; he also demonstrates how language can be manipulated to prevent, instead of help, communication.

By the 1970s, then, Heller was so firmly established as a major American novelist that he served as Distinguished Visiting Writer in the English department of City College, City University of New York. Since the appearance of Catch-22 in 1961, he has written three more novels- Something Happened (1974), Good as Gold (1979), and God Knows (1984).

Though Heller was hardly idle between 1961 and 1974, he is sometimes questioned about the long time between novels. He smiles and says that it's because he so much enjoys eating, talking, and daydreaming by the pool. Although his novels depict worlds in which values are disintegrating, Heller is happy about his own life. "Just about everything I've ever dreamed about has come true," he says. "All I've ever wanted was to be able to spend my days writing."


ECC [Catch-22 Contents] []
© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
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