Joseph Heller Biography

Joseph Heller Biography

Joseph Heller is who we have to thank for the phrase "Catch-22," which is taken from his famous novel of the same name and encapsulates the experience of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Heller thought of the first sentence of Catch-22 while sitting at home one day. He finished the first chapter within a week, and the first chapter was published as “Catch-18” in an issue of New World Writing. Heller intended for the work to be a novella, but he ended up having enough material for it to become a full novel. Catch-22 received mixed reviews and did not become a success until 1962 (a year after it was first published), when it resonated deeply with young people during the Vietnam War. The book went on to sell over ten million copies in the United States alone.

Facts and Trivia

  • The title was changed from Catch-18 to Catch-22 so that the book would not be confused with another novel at the time, Mila 18.
  • The U.S. Air Force Academy still uses Catch-22 to “help prospective officers recognize the dehumanizing aspects of bureaucracy.”
  • Heller wrote No Laughing Matter about his struggle with Guillian-Barre Syndrome, a disease that causes muscle weakness and paralysis.
  • There was some controversy in 1998 over the similarities between Catch-22 and a British novel called The Sky Is a Lonely Place (published in the United States as Face of a Hero). Heller denied any previous knowledge of the author of that book or his work.
  • Catch-22 is listed as seventh on Modern Library’s list of the top one hundred novels of the twentieth century.


Joseph Heller was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. At the age of nineteen, he enlisted in the United States Army Air Force and was first trained as an armorer, later transferring to cadet school and graduating as a second lieutenant. Sent to Italy, he flew sixty missions as a bombardier. He was discharged as a first lieutenant.

After the war, Heller returned to the United States and resumed his education, attending the University of Southern California; he graduated from New York University in 1948. He married Shirley Held in 1945; they had two children. That marriage ended in divorce, and in 1987, Heller married Valerie Humphries. He received an M.A. degree from Columbia University in 1949 and spent the next year as a Fulbright scholar at Oxford University before teaching for two years at Pennsylvania State University.

Heller left the academic world in 1952 and spent the following decade working for Time and Look magazines as an editor and for McCall’s in the advertising department. During those years he sold some short fiction to Esquire and The Atlantic Monthly and began work on his first novel, Catch-22, which was published in 1961. While the novel did not receive unanimously favorable reviews, it was highly popular from its publication and retained its popularity for a long time. In the first ten years after its release, Catch-22 sold seven million copies in various...

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Heller experimented with fictional and semifictional forms throughout his career. His gift for the wildly comic and grotesque, however, found its fullest expression in his first novel, and Catch-22 remains his major claim to a place in the front rank of contemporary novelists. Catch-22 exposed the absurdities of twentieth century warfare and bureaucracy through the use of black humor, and it was an immensely influential book throughout the turbulent 1960’s.

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Joseph Heller was born in Brooklyn, New York, on May 1, 1923, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants only recently arrived in the United States. His mother then barely spoke English; his father drove a delivery truck for a bakery until, when Heller was only five years old, he died unexpectedly during a routine ulcer operation. The denial of this death in particular and the bare fact of mortality in general were to color Heller’s later life and work. The youngest of three children, Heller spent his boyhood in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, an enclave of lower-and middle-class Jewish families, in the shadow of the famed amusement park. Both his family and his teachers recognized Heller as a bright but bored student; he tinkered with writing short stories while still in high school.

In 1942, at the age of nineteen, Heller joined the U.S. Army Air Corps. He spent one of the war years flying sixty missions as a wing bombardier in a squadron of B-25’s stationed on Corsica in the Mediterranean. This proved to be the crucial year of his life; it provided him with the materials, and the bitterly sardonic attitude, out of which he forged his major work—Catch-22—as well as his three plays. Moreover, his sixty missions, many of them brutal and bloody (including the series of raids on Bologna that form the core of Catch-22), profoundly affected the attitude toward death that informs all of his work.

Demobilized in 1945, having achieved the rank of first lieutenant, Heller married fellow Brooklynite Shirley Held, with whom he had two children. Heller spent the next seven years within academe. Under the G.I. Bill, he attended college, first at the University of Southern California and then at New York University, where he received his bachelor of arts degree in 1948. Heller then traveled uptown to earn a master’s degree at Columbia University before receiving one of the first Fulbright scholarships to study at Oxford. He returned to the United States to teach English at Pennsylvania State University between 1950 and 1952.

During the remainder of the 1950’s, Heller was employed in the advertising...

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