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 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 departments of Time, Look, and McCall’s magazines successively. In 1954, he began writing, at night and during odd hours, the manuscript that would be published eight years later as Catch-22. Almost forty years old when Catch-22 finally appeared, Heller ironically referred to himself as an “aging prodigy.”
Heller abandoned his successful advertising career during the 1960’s and returned to teaching. His position as distinguished professor of English at the City University of New York (CUNY) afforded him both the salary to support his family and the free time to devote to his writing. In these years, he began work on a second novel, wrote several motion-picture and television scripts (usually adaptations of the work of others and often using a pseudonym), and completed his first play, We Bombed in New Haven.
Something Happened, Heller’s second novel, took thirteen years to complete before appearing in 1974. Never fully at ease with academic life, Heller resigned his chair at CUNY in 1975, and in 1979 he published his third novel, Good as Gold. Although he occasionally lectured on the college circuit and served as writer-in-residence at both Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania, Heller was basically a reclusive writer, uncomfortable at literary gatherings and suspicious of the trappings of literary success. His life and work seemed guided by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s dictum that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
In December, 1981, Heller was...
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diagnosed as having Guillain Barré syndrome, a sometimes fatal condition involving progressive paralysis. He was hospitalized for several months but eventually recovered. The experience resulted in a book,No Laughing Matter (1986), written with his friend Speed Vogel, describing Heller’s condition and its resolution; the illness also led to his second marriage, to one of his nurses, Valerie Humphries, in 1987.
God Knows returns to the irreverence and defiance of logic that characterized Catch-22. Its narrator, the biblical King David, speaks in modern jargon and in his extended version of his life and career displays knowledge of events long after his own time. Picture This is a protracted meditation on the ironies of history and of human life, focusing on the Netherlands of Rembrandt’s time and the Athens of Aristotle.
In 1994, more than thirty years after the release of Catch-22, Heller published Closing Time, a sequel to Catch-22. Set in the late 1980’s, this novel revisits both the characters from Heller’s first novel and the experiences of Heller’s generation of New York Jews, for whom World War II was a formative experience. In Closing Time, both groups come face-to-face with their own mortality and the fate of a world governed by flawed human institutions.
Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here (1998) is an autobiographical account of Heller’s life from his boyhood days in Coney Island through the period following the publication of Catch-22. Devotees of Catch-22 may be disappointed to find that Heller spends only part of a chapter on his wartime experience, while much of the early sections of the memoir chart the geography of Coney Island in elaborate detail. Heller would make his home in East Hampton, Long Island, New York. He died there on December 12, 1999.