Joseph Heller Additional Biography


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Joseph Heller was born into a family consisting of Russian Jewish immigrant parents and two children from Heller’s father’s first marriage. Heller’s father died when Heller was five, and although he claims not to have known of the significance of this event, critics speculate that this early trauma colors much of Heller’s work.

Although both of Heller’s parents were Jewish, there was little religion in the Heller household. His mother required him to wear his best clothes on Sunday, but Heller neither attended services regularly nor had a Bar Mitzvah. Despite living in a neighborhood populated mainly by Jewish and Italian immigrants, Heller enjoyed a childhood relatively free of religious or ethnic conflicts. He spent many hours among crowds near the boardwalk section of Coney Island, an environment that heightened his awareness of the fine line between the real and the illusory. Although he admits that his Coney Island experiences made him cynical, Heller describes his childhood environment as idyllic.

Heller’s career as a writer began in 1945, when he returned from World War II and began submitting short stories to magazines such as Story, Esquire, and the Atlantic. Heller obtained a bachelor’s degree from New York University, then earned a master’s degree from Columbia University, and finally studied on a Fulbright scholarship at Oxford University. Like the crafty, amoral Milo Minderbinder in...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Joseph Heller is one of the most popular of those post-World War II writers whose fiction, first identified as black humor, later became known as “metafiction” (fiction that calls attention to its fictitious nature). Born and reared in Brooklyn, he attended City College of New York, where he later returned as a member of the faculty. Heller served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II and used his wartime experiences as the basis for his first novel. After the war he lived in New York City and on Long Island.

Catch-22 gave a new term to the English language and new meaning to the existentialist term “absurd” as it applies to war fiction. The novel has no narrative structure. Its chapters, each taking its name from one of the characters, do not follow in any kind of logical or temporal sequence. The characters themselves are given odd or comic names (Milo Minderbinder, Chief White Half-Oat, Major Major Major) and often act on (apparently) ridiculous views of the world. The central character, Yossarian, is determined to “live forever or die in the attempt,” and his best friend, Dunbar, continually seeks boredom, on the theory that time passes more slowly when you are bored and that a bored person therefore lives longer. Yossarian is continually frustrated, as his commanding officer uses a “catch-22” to increase the number of missions his men must fly before they can be rotated home.

Much of the distinctive quality of Catch-22 comes from its innovative combination of the comic and the horrible. While earlier writers of war fiction had occasionally included humorous incidents in their novels, none had used such outrageous humor. Heller’s characters find themselves in one ridiculous situation after another. At the same time, the more ghastly aspects of war are presented in all of their horror: A young man bleeds to death in a bomber while his friends fail to realize he is seriously wounded; a plane, buzzing a group of the pilot’s friends on a beach, is caught in a downdraft, and the propeller kills one of the men in grisly fashion.

On the strength of the success of Catch-22 Heller spent considerable time during the 1960’s doing film and television script work. His efforts included the James Bond film Casino Royale, which was uncredited, Dirty Dingus Magee, and episodes of the 1960’s television series McHale’s Navy (for which he wrote under the pen name Max Orange). He also labored over dramatic adaptations of Catch-22 that never succeeded and put considerable effort into his play We Bombed in New Haven, which takes the moral dilemmas of Catch-22 several steps further but was not a critical success.

Heller’s second novel, Something Happened, was an experiment in a very...

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(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Joseph Heller was born on May 1, 1923, in New York City, and grew up near the Coney Island amusement park. His parents, recent Russian...

(The entire section is 238 words.)


(Novels for Students)

Joseph Heller Published by Gale Cengage

Joseph Heller was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1923 and grew up in Coney Island. This oceanside town had a large population of Russian...

(The entire section is 429 words.)