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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