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Joseph Heller




Heller has introduced so many characters, tried to deliver so many knockout blows, and written in such a variety of styles that the reader becomes a little dizzy.

Granville Hicks in Saturday Review, 1961

Below its hilarity, so wild that it hurts, Catch-22 is the strongest repudiation of our civilization, in fiction, to come out of World War II. That the horror and the hypocrisy, the greed and the complacency, the endless cunning and the endless stupidity which now go to constitute what we term Christianity are dealt with here in absolutes, does not lessen the truth of its repudiation.... [T]his novel is not merely the best American novel to come out of World War II, it is the best American novel that has come out of anywhere in years.

Nelson Algren in The Nation, 1961


Like all great war fiction, Catch-22 is about more than the conflict it depicts; very few pieces of contemporary literature have illustrated so profoundly that the enemy is within. The villains are not the Germans or the Japanese,... they are the power brokers who gain from the war.... Catch-22 darkens appreciably in tone to accommodate Yossarian's decreasing sense of humor: the comedy becomes less farcical, more hysterical; the intricate chronology straightens out; tragedy becomes human rather than statistical. In other words, Catch-22 is one of those rare novels that discovers its final form as it proceeds, as Yossarian discovers what he must do in light of where he is.... Catch-22 does not come full circle but rises to another plane; we are wiser about our zany and tragic world, and certainly sorrier.

Robert M. Scotto, Three Contemporary Novelists, 1977


Catch-22's comedy, fantastically inventive, controlled, patterned and structured even when it seems all wild improvisation and top-that-one-if-you-can surrealism, is one long, bludgeoning attack on the hero, or what little was left of him in the tradition of twentieth-century fiction before Heller's demented fliers came along.

Heller does not try to dissolve the Achilles dilemma (to live a long, undistinguished, tame life or a hot, glorious, heroic and therefore short one) in a way that so much of the literature of anti-heroism does. He does not say, "Nonsense. It's a false and artificial choice. Everyone knows there are others." On the contrary, Heller's nuthouse comedy and grotesque tragedy are dedicated to the Falstaffian proposition that it's better to be a live coward than a dead hero.

Melvin Seiden, in The Nation, 1961


Ostensibly a black farce about an American bomber squadron stationed on an island in the Mediterranean towards the end of the Second World War, [Catch-22] is, in fact, a surrealist Iliad, with a lunatic High Command instead of gods, and a coward for hero.... Epic in form, the book is episodic in structure. Each chapter carries a single character a step nearer madness or death or both, and a step, too, into legend. The action takes place well above the level of reality. On leave or in action the characters behave with a fine disregard for the laws of probability. Yet... within its own terms the book is wholly consistent, creating legend out of the wildest farce and the most painful realism, constructing its own system of probability.

Julian Mitchell in Spectator, 1962


One reason Catch-22, both as novel and phrase, seemed such a penetrating expose of the sixties was that, still in the fifties, it picked up all the paradoxes of affluence, success, media hype, empire-building....

The military for Heller serves the function of any large, impersonal organization, not unlike Kesey's Cuckoo's Nest. [Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, 1962]. Cathcart sets production quotas; the Chaplain, until he rebels, offers faith in whatever the boss decides; Milo assures the stockholders that profits will be maximized; the generals, Dreedle and Peckem, skim off the benefits in the form of perks; Korn vies with Cathcart, each jockeying for power and promotion to general. In the middle range, just below decision-making, are the officers who fly the missions; and well below them... are the enlisted men, those already left behind by the corporate system. Once again, this is a 1950s vision, the manifestation of what James Burnham warned about in the "managerial revolution" and what William Whyte described in The Organization Man [1956].

Frederick R. Karl, American Fictions, 1983

[Catch-22 Contents]


We wish to thank the following educators who helped us focus our Book Notes series to meet student needs and critiqued our manuscripts to provide quality materials.

Sandra Dunn, English Teacher
Hempstead High School, Hempstead, New York

Lawrence J. Epstein, Associate Professor of English
Suffolk County Community College, Selden, New York

Leonard Gardner, Lecturer, English Department
State University of New York at Stony Brook

Beverly A. Haley, Member, Advisory Committee
National Council of Teachers of English Student Guide Series
Fort Morgan, Colorado

Elaine C. Johnson, English Teacher
Tamalpais Union High School District
Mill Valley, California

Marvin J. LaHood, Professor of English
State University of New York College at Buffalo

Robert Lecker, Associate Professor of English
McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

David E. Manly, Professor of Educational Studies
State University of New York College at Geneseo

Bruce Miller, Associate Professor of Education
State University of New York at Buffalo

Frank O'Hare, Professor of English and Director of Writing
Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio

Faith Z. Schullstrom, Member of Executive Committee
National Council of Teachers of English
Director of Curriculum and Instruction
Guilderland Central School District, New York

Mattie C. Williams, Director, Bureau of Language Arts
Chicago Public Schools, Chicago, Illinois

[Catch-22 Contents]



Algren, Nelson. "The Catch." The Nation, 193 (Nov. 4, 1961), 357-8. An early review of Catch-22.

Flippo, Chet. "Checking in with Joseph Heller." Rolling Stone, no. 341 (April 16, 1981), 51-52, 57, 59, 60. Concerns the inspiration for and influence of Catch-22.

Hicks, Granville. "Medals for Madness." Saturday Review, 44 (Oct. 14, 1961), 32. An early review of Catch-22.

Karl, Frederick R. American Fictions 1940-1980: A Comprehensive History and Critical Evaluation. New York: Harper & Row, 1983. A reevaluation of American fiction since World War II, with extensive comments on Catch-22.

Kazin, Alfred. An American Procession. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984. History and criticism of American literature.

Keegan, Brenda M. Joseph Heller: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978. Thorough, annotated list of writing by and about Heller and his works through 1974.

Kiley, Frederick, and Walter McDonald, eds. A 'Catch-22' Casebook. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1973. Fifty reviews, articles, and interviews; a bibliography; and seventy-two discussion questions.

Nagel, James A., ed. Critical Essays on Catch-22. Encino and Belmont, Calif.: Dickenson Publishing, 1974. Twenty articles and a list of contemporary novels for further reading.

Potts, Stephen W. From Here to Absurdity: The Moral Battlefields of Joseph Heller. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo, 1982.

Scotto, Robert M. "Introduction," Part III. Three Contemporary Novelists, ed. Robert M. Scotto (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1977), xxii-xxviii. An essay analyzing Catch-22 and Something Happened.

Seiden, Melvin. "The Hero and His War." The Nation, 193 (Nov. 18, 1961), 408-12. An early review of Catch-22.


    We Bombed in New Haven (1968) An antiwar play.

    Catch-22: A Dramatization (1971) Parts of the novel in play form with emphasis on the trial scenes.

    Something Happened (1974) Satire on the suburban businessman and American culture.

    Good as Gold (1979) Satire on American presidential politics.

    God Knows (1984) The biblical story of King David with many humorous anachronisms to point up themes.

    No Laughing Matter A memoir of Heller's illness. In progress 1984-85 with Speed Vogel as coauthor.


ECC [Catch-22 Contents] []

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