Joseph Heller 1923-1999
American novelist, playwright, and autobiographer.
The following entry presents criticism of Heller's works from 1990 through 2000.
Heller is remembered as a popular and respected writer whose first and best-known novel, Catch-22 (1961), is considered a classic of the post-World War II era. Heller's tragicomic vision of modern life, found in all of his novels, focused on the erosion of humanistic values and the ways in which language obscures and confuses reality. In addition, Heller's use of anachronism reflected the disordered nature of contemporary existence. His protagonists are antiheroes who search for meaning in their lives and struggle to avoid being overwhelmed by such institutions as the military, big business, government, and religion.
Heller was born May 1, 1923, in Brooklyn, New York, to first-generation Russian-Jewish immigrants. His father, a bakery truck driver, died after a bungled operation when Heller was only five years old. Many critics believe that Heller developed the sardonic, wisecracking humor that marked his writing style while growing up in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn. After graduating from high school in 1941, he worked briefly in an insurance office, an experience he later drew upon for the novel Something Happened (1974). In 1942 Heller enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Two years later he was sent to Corsica, where he flew sixty combat missions as a wing bombardier, earning an Air Medal and a Presidential Unit Citation. Discharged from the military in 1945, Heller married Shirley Held and began his college education. He obtained a B.A. in English from New York University and an M.A. from Columbia University. He then attended Oxford University as a Fulbright Scholar for a year before becoming an English instructor at Pennsylvania State University. Two years later Heller began working as an advertising copywriter, securing positions at such magazines as Time, Look, and McCall's from 1952 to 1961. The office settings of these companies also yielded material for Something Happened. During this time Heller was writing short stories and scripts for film and television as well as working on Catch-22. Although his stories easily found publication, Heller considered them insubstantial and derivative of Ernest Hemingway's works. After the phenomenal success of Catch-22, Heller quit his job at McCall's and concentrated exclusively on writing fiction and plays. In December of 1981 he contracted Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare type of polyneuritis that afflicts the peripheral nervous system. Heller chronicled his medical problems and difficult recovery in No Laughing Matter (1986) with Speed Vogel, a friend who helped him during his illness. He died of a heart attack in 1999.
Catch-22 concerns a World War II bombardier named Yossarian who believes his foolish, ambitious, mean-spirited commanding officers are more dangerous than the enemy. In order to avoid flying more missions, Yossarian retreats to a hospital with a mysterious liver complaint, sabotages his plane, and tries to get himself declared insane. Variously defined throughout the novel, the term “Catch-22” refers to the ways in which bureaucracies control the people who work for them. Many critics contend that while Catch-22 is ostensibly a war novel, World War II and the Air Force base where most of the novel's action takes place function primarily as a microcosm that demonstrates the disintegration of language and human value in a bureaucratic state. Catch-22 enjoyed enormous success during the Vietnam War, when many soldiers strongly identified with Yossarian's plight. Heller's second novel, Something Happened, centers on Bob Slocum, a middle-aged businessman who has a large, successful company but who feels emotionally empty. Narrating in a drab, spiritless tone, Slocum attempts to find the source of his malaise and his belief that modern American bourgeois life has lost meaning, by probing into his past and exploring his relationships with his wife, children, and coworkers. Although critics consider Slocum a generally unlikable character, he ultimately achieves sympathy because he has so thoroughly assimilated the values of his business that he has lost his own identity. Good as Gold (1979) marks Heller's first fictional use of his Jewish heritage and childhood experiences in Coney Island. The protagonist of this novel, Bruce Gold, is an unfulfilled college professor who is writing a book about “the Jewish experience,” but he also harbors political ambitions. Offered a high government position after giving a positive review of a book written by the president, Gold accepts, leaves his wife and children, and finds himself immersed in a farcical bureaucracy in which officials speak in a confusing, contradictory language. In this novel Heller harshly satirized former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as a Jew who has essentially forsaken his Jewishness. In so doing, the author draws an analogy between the themes of political lust for power and Jewish identity. Similarly, Gold's motives for entering politics are strictly self-aggrandizing, as he seeks financial, sexual, and social rewards. Throughout the novel, Heller alternates the narrative between scenes of Gold's large, garrulous Jewish family and the mostly gentile milieu of Washington, employing realism to depict the former and parody to portray the latter. Heller's next novel, God Knows (1984), is a retelling of the biblical story of King David, the psalmist of the Old Testament. A memoir in the form of a monologue by David, the text abounds with anachronistic speech, combining the Bible's lyricism with a Jewish-American dialect reminiscent of the comic routines of such humorists as Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks, and Woody Allen. In an attempt to determine the origin of his despondency near the end of his life, David ruminates on the widespread loss of faith and sense of community, the uses of art, and the seeming absence of God. In Picture This (1988) Heller used Rembrandt's painting Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer to draw parallels between ancient Greece, seventeenth-century Holland, and contemporary America. Moving backward and forward among these eras, this novel meditates on art, money, injustice, the folly of war, and the failures of democracy. Many critics questioned whether Picture This should be considered a novel, a work of history, or a political tract. No Laughing Matter, written with his friend Speed Vogel, is a work that can be loosely termed nonfiction concerning Heller's experiences suffering from Guillain-Barre syndrome. With Heller's chapters interspersed between Vogel's, the book resembles an often humorous and deadpan dialogue between friends who experience Heller's illness in very different ways. Closing Time (1994), considered a sequel to Catch-22, revisits characters from that novel, including some who appeared only peripherally or in discussion; the tone of Closing Time, however, unlike that of Catch-22, is uniformly absurdist rather than a mix of absurdism and realism. Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here (1998) is an autobiographical account of Heller's childhood and young adulthood in and around Coney Island. A more extended self-examination than any of the autobiographical passages in his novels, Now and Then serves to fill in the gaps and explain Heller's lifelong sardonic world view. At his death Heller left a finished novel, Portrait of the Artist, as an Old Man (2000), about a writer attempting to maintain his talents and abilities in the face of rapidly encroaching age and death.
While Heller's place in twentieth-century letters is assured with Catch-22, he is also highly regarded for his other works, which present a comic vision of modern society with serious moral implications. A major theme throughout his writing is the conflict that occurs when individuals interact with such powerful institutions as corporations, the military, and the federal government. Over the course of his career, Heller's novels displayed increasing pessimism over the inability of individuals to reverse society's slide toward corruption and degeneration. Heller repeatedly rendered the chaos and absurdity of contemporary existence through disjointed chronology, anachronistic and oxymoronic language, and repetition of events while emphasizing the necessity of identifying and accepting responsibility social and personal evils and, as individuals, adopting beneficial behavioral changes. Some critics claim that Heller's later work pales in comparison with Catch-22 and Something Happened, but others maintain that his canon viewed as a whole displays his continued evolution as a writer.
Catch-22 (novel) 1961
We Bombed in New Haven (drama) 1967
Catch-22 (drama) 1971
Clevinger's Trial (drama) 1973
Something Happened (novel) 1974
Good as Gold (novel) 1979
God Knows (novel) 1984
No Laughing Matter (autobiography) 1986
Picture This (novel) 1988
Closing Time: A Novel (novel) 1994
Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here (autobiography) 1998
Portrait of the Artist, as an Old Man (novel) 2000
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SOURCE: Toman, Marshall. “The Political Satire in Joseph Heller's Good as Gold.” Studies in Contemporary Satire 17 (1990): 6-14.
[In the following essay, Toman examines Heller's satirical treatment of the American neoconservative political program in Good as Gold.]
Stephen W. Potts says of Joseph Heller's Good as Gold that “this satire shoots very wide, as with birdshot, aiming broadly at politics as an institution rather than at particular practices of the near past or the present.”1 The criticism itself shoots wide, for neoconservative thought as it developed in the United States through the 1960s and 70s is the specific target. In The Neoconservatives, Peter Steinfels identifies important principles, at least four of which are objects of Heller's satire: (1) “neoconservatives refuse to put responsibility for the present situation heavily on the shoulders of governing elites”; (2) they view government as “the victim of ‘overload.’ Attempting too much, it has naturally failed”; (3) they tend to feel that, since incessant, impossible demands upon the government doom it to repeated failure and consequent loss of authority, “the authority of government should be shielded by dispersing responsibility for this failure as much as possible”; and (4) they espouse “the theory of unanticipated consequences.”2...
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SOURCE: Pratt, John Clark. “Yossarian's Legacy: Catch-22 and the Vietnam War.” In Fourteen Landing Zones: Approaches to Vietnam War Literature, edited by Philip K. Jason, pp. 88-110. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991.
[In the following essay, Pratt explores parallels between Catch-22 and the experience of fighting in the Vietnam War.]
At the outset, I must confess to some unintentional skullduggery. When going to Vietnam in the summer of 1969, I took with me a copy of Catch-22. From what I knew then about the war, I suspected that reviewing the plight of Yossarian from time to time might provide some continued reassurance that my world at war would not really be any more insane than Joseph Heller's.
I could not know, of course, that the colonel seated next to me throughout that long, ominous flight would comment on my choice of fiction and provide me with some early material for my novel, The Laotian Fragments. In Fragments, Major Bill Blake also reads Catch-22 on the flight over, and when the colonel asks about the book (obviously not having heard of it), Blake tells him only that it is “a novel about World War II.” Returning for his second tour, the colonel observes, “That was a real war … not like this one” (9). Later, Blake signs many of his official memos “Love, Yossarian.”
Naturally, those of us...
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SOURCE: Craig, David M. “From Avignon to Catch-22.” War, Literature, and the Arts 6, no. 2 (fall-winter 1994): 27-54.
[In the following essay, Craig discusses the influence of Heller's World War II experience as a pilot over Avignon on the writing of Catch-22.]
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Joseph Heller's experiences as a bombardier over Avignon during World War II were catalytic to his career as a writer. In the experiences over Avignon, Catch-22 begins. These experiences did not spark Heller's desire to be an author, for that had burned unabated since childhood.1 Nor did the reaction the Avignon experiences occasioned occur quickly, regularly, or consciously. Rather, Avignon provided in highly compressed from Heller's essential subject—human mortality—and Avignon engaged his imagination in a way that this subject could eventually be given expression. No Catch-22 reader is likely to forget the result, the Snowden death scene over Avignon or the secret of Snowden's entrails: “Man was matter … Drop him out a window and he'll fall. Set fire to him and he'll burn. Bury him and he'll rot like other kinds of garbage” (429-430). While the evidence for the importance of Avignon is unmistakable, many pieces of the story are unknown or missing today. Heller's public accounts of these experiences come long...
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SOURCE: Murtaugh, Daniel M. Review of Closing Time, by Joseph Heller. Commonweal 122, no. 4 (24 February 1995): 57-58.
[In the following review, Murtaugh finds Closing Time to be ultimately disappointing in its “central organizing idea.”]
In Joseph Heller's two best novels, Catch-22 and Something Happened, the narrative circles obsessively around a repressed memory that it is the stories' business finally to confront. We feel the tremors of its eventual eruption in each book even as the narrator frantically distracts us with slapstick improvisation. In his newest novel, Closing Time, Heller brings back the (anti-) hero of Catch 22, John Yossarian, and once again something horrific is building beneath his life and those of his generation and their century as they all draw to a close.
But this time it is not a brute fact lodged in memory, the something that draws its power simply from having happened. It is instead something that is going to happen—we're going to die—and it draws its power from—well—how we feel about that. The problem is that we may not all feel the same way about our approaching death, as we cannot fail to do about Howie Snowden bleeding to death on the floor of the bomber in Catch 22. We cannot really imagine our death. On the other hand, try as we might, we cannot help imagining Snowden. It comes down to a...
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SOURCE: Heller, Joseph, and Charlie Reilly. “An Interview with Joseph Heller.” Contemporary Literature 39, no. 4 (winter 1998): 507-22.
[In the following interview, which took place on October 24, 1996, Heller discusses his themes, influences, and techniques for writing his novels.]
Despite the fact that he has also composed two memoirs (No Laughing Matter  and Now and Then ) and a drama (We Bombed in New Haven ), Joseph Heller's reputation rests, in general, upon his six novels, and in particular upon the first of those six, Catch-22 (1961). Although Catch-22 remains his most celebrated work, each of Heller's novels was written and has been received as a work of literary fiction, and each has been praised in that special context. His rich humor, high satire, and relentless experimentation have earned him professorships (at Oxford, Yale, and Penn, to name a few), honors, and literally millions of readers during his four and one-half decades of writing.
Though laced with humor, Heller's novels are fiercely critical of his times. As is often the case with satire, again and again his works involve a startling confrontation with the reader. The world of Heller's fiction is an eerily insane one—perhaps an eerily sane one—filled with preposterous characters mired in outrageous circumstances. But long before each novel's end, the...
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SOURCE: Nagel, James. “The Early Composition History of Catch-22.” In Biographies of Books: The Compositional Histories of Notable American Writings, edited by James Barbour and Tom Quirk, pp. 262-90. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996.
[In the following essay, Nagel explores Heller's writing process for Catch-22, finding the early draft manuscripts rich with implications for the final published version of the novel.]
In 1978, the Wilson Quarterly conducted a survey of professors of American literature to determine the most important novels published after World War II. To be sure, the result was a most impressive list, but Joseph Heller's Catch-22 was ranked first.1 Its position in this survey indicates the esteem and seriousness with which literary scholars have come to regard Heller's first novel since it appeared in October 1961. Only two months later, on December 7, 1961, Heller took obvious pleasure in writing to the dean of the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Notre Dame that “Catch-22 is already being discussed in literature courses at Harvard, Brown, and two universities here in New York City.”2 Since Heller had taught for two years in the Department of English at Pennsylvania State University, he was fully conversant with the academy, with both its genuine intellectual stimulation and its professional...
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SOURCE: Glass, Charles. “Shy Raconteur.” New Statesman (20 March 1998): 54.
[In the following review, Glass finds Now and Then lacking as autobiography.]
Now and Then is a detailed guide to subway travel and cheap food in 1930s Coney Island, New York. It begins in Coney Island, lingers in Coney Island and, somehow, ends in Coney Island. Its title could have been No Escape from Coney Island or—because the author also wrote Catch-22—Catch a Life in Here if You Can. Or, as writer of that other masterpiece, Something Happened, Joseph Heller might have called this Nothing Happened. Nothing much does.
You can almost hear the rocking chair creaking on the front porch as Old Joe Heller recalls, to anyone who will listen, the childhood of Little Joey Heller. He grew up with his widowed mother, his half-brother and half-sister in “four rooms, looking out on West 31st Street near Surf Avenue”, near Coney's giant amusement parks.
He knew where to find the best hot dogs and ice cream, but no one told him his brother and sister had a different mother. She had died in Russia before his father emigrated. When he learnt this from a toast at the wedding of his brother, Lee, “I felt victimised, disgraced. My response to rage then, as it chiefly is still, was to break off speaking to the person offending me.”
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SOURCE: Review of Portrait of the Artist, as an Old Man, by Joseph Heller. Publishers Weekly 247, no. 22 (29 May 2000): 52.
[In the following review, the anonymous critic finds Portrait of the Artist, as an Old Man lacking in profundity but worth reading for the insight it provides into Heller's reaction to his own aging.]
This slim posthumous novel [Portrait of the Artist, as an Old Man], playing blithely with the idea of an elderly novelist in search of a subject, is the last thing the author of Catch-22 left us. Although not a profound leave-taking, it is nonetheless a pleasant reminder of the author's great charm and fluency. Eugene Pota, Heller's alter ego here, rifles the back corners of his mind for a new novel that will restore to him some of the luster that shone from his earlier efforts. In the beginning he tries to do something with Tom Sawyer, first with a postmodernist Tom on Wall Street, then as a character determined to run down the secrets of success for an American writer. But Pota discovers, in his wry researches into the lives of Tom's own creator, Jack London, Bret Harte, Ambrose Bierce, Herman Melville, Henry James and many others, that a combination of prosperity and cheerfulness are profoundly elusive for an author. This segues into a speech Heller himself used to make about the many afflictions, particularly alcoholism, of noted American writers. Pota...
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SOURCE: McLaughlin, Robert L. Review of Portrait of the Artist, as an Old Man, by Joseph Heller. Review of Contemporary Fiction 20, no. 3 (fall 2000): 144-45.
[In the following review, McLaughlin considers Portrait of the Artist, as an Old Man a bittersweet and satisfying final work.]
Joseph Heller's posthumous Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man is a more fitting and satisfying final work than either his ill-considered Catch-22 sequel, Closing Time, or his been-there-done-that memoir, Now and Then. Seemingly autobiographical, the novel focuses on Eugene Pota, an aging writer who has never been able to match the success of his first big novel and who is desperately trying to find an idea for a final masterpiece. This situation allows for meditations on the effects of old age, a dissection of writer's block, an examination of the despair that has historically beset writers near the ends of their lives, and the presentation of scraps of Pota's aborted attempts at that final novel, some of which are so funny, one wishes they went on longer. Heller, through Pota, wrestles here in a thought-provoking way with the challenges of creation: he can find nothing to write about in his own experiences that won't repeat his earlier books, yet he can't summon the energy to do the research necessary to write outside of his experiences; he is also paralyzed by the...
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Keegan, Brenda M. Joseph Heller: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978, 152 p.
Craig, David M. Tilting at Morality: Narrative Strategies in Joseph Heller’s Fiction. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1997, 330 p.
Green, Daniel. “A World Worth Laughing at: Catch-22 and the Humor of Black Humor.” Studies in the Novel 27 (summer 1995): 186–96.
Hitchens, Christopher. Review of by Joseph Heller. Nation 270, no. 1 (3 January 2000): 6-8.
Kiley, Frederick T., and Walter McDonald. A Catch-22 Casebook. New York: Crowell, 1973, 403 p.
Selection of representative criticism including early reviews and analyses of form, structure, theme, and the relationship of Catch-22 to Absurdist literature.
Moore, Michael. “Pathological Communication Patterns in Heller’s Catch-22.” Etc. 52 (winter 1995–1996): 431-39.
Nagel, James. Critical Essays on Catch-22. Encino, Calif.: Dickenson Pub. Co., 1974, 179 p.
———. Critical Essays on Joseph Heller. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984, 253 p.
Anthology of criticism including essays by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Clive Barnes, and John W. Aldridge.
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