Joseph Heller

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 101

Catch-22 has been more popular with younger readers than older ones. What accounts for its appeal to youth?

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Does Joseph Heller’s unrealistic approach to war in Catch-22 make war seem less or more horrific?

Catch-22 has been said to be less about war than about America’s conformist society. In what ways is this true?

Compare the treatment of death in Catch-22 to that in another Heller novel.

What is Something Happened saying about family life?

Compare the style and themes of Catch-22 to Closing Time. Is the sequel equal to its predecessor or inferior as a work of literature?

Other literary forms

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 176

Joseph Heller’s first published piece was a short story in Story Magazine (1945), and in the late 1940’s, he placed several other stories with Esquire and The Atlantic Monthly. Heller’s enthusiasm for the theater accounts for the topic of his master’s thesis at Columbia University, “The Pulitzer Prize Plays: 1917-1935,” and he wrote three plays that deal directly or indirectly with the material he used in Catch-22. We Bombed in New Haven, a two-act play, was first produced by the Yale School of Drama Repertory Theater in 1967. It later reached Broadway and was published in 1968. Catch-22: A Dramatization (1971) was first produced at the John Drew Theater in East Hampton, Long Island, where Heller spent his summers. Clevinger’s Trial, a dramatization of chapter 8 of Catch-22, was produced in London in 1974. Only We Bombed in New Haven enjoyed a modicum of critical and commercial success. Heller also contributed to a number of motion-picture and television scripts, the best known of which is Sex and the Single Girl (1964), for which he received his only screen credit.

Achievements

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Joseph Heller’s reputation rests largely on his first novel, Catch-22, the publication of which vaulted him into the front ranks of postwar American novelists. Critics hailed it as “the great representative document of our era” and “probably the finest novel published since World War II.” The expression “Catch-22” quickly entered the American lexicon. More than eight million copies of the novel have been printed, and it has been translated into more than a dozen languages. In 1970, Mike Nichols’s film adaptation of Heller’s tale sparked renewed interest in the novel itself and launched it onto the best-seller lists.

Catch-22 was one of the most widely read and discussed novels of the 1960’s and early 1970’s; its blend of humor and horror struck a responsive chord, particularly with the young, during the upheavals of the Vietnam era. The critic Josh Greenfield, writing in 1968, claimed that it had “all but become the chapbook of the sixties.” Within the context of Vietnam, the novel seemed to be less about World War II than about that Asian war over which Americans were so furiously divided. Catch-22, then, remains the classic fictional statement of the antiwar sentiments of its time.

Although some have compared Catch-22 to Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948), James Jones’s The Thin Red Line (1962), and other essentially naturalistic war tales written by Heller’s contemporaries, its conception of war in basically absurdist terms and its crazy-quilt structure suggest affinities rather with such works as Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). Heller’s fiction is frequently described as “black comedy.” In the tradition of Nathanael West, Günter Grass, Ralph Ellison, and Thomas Pynchon, Heller stretches reality to the point of distortion.

In his novels, as well as in his plays, Heller displays a worldview that shares much with twentieth century existentialist thought: The world is meaningless, it simply exists; humankind by its very nature seeks meaning; the relationship between humanity and its world is thus absurd; when a person recognizes these facts, he or she experiences what Jean-Paul Sartre termed the “nausea” of modern existence. In all of his work, Heller argues for “massive resistance” to routine, regimentation, and authority in whatever form. He affirms, no matter how much that affirmation may be qualified by pain and defeat, the sanctity of the individual. He writes not so much about the life of a soldier (as in Catch-22), the life of a businessman (as in Something Happened), or the life of a would-be politician (as in Good as Gold) as about the threats posed to individual identity by the institutions of modern life.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 461

Aldridge, John W. The American Novel and the Way We Live Now. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. Aldridge’s overview of American fiction after World War II gives Heller’s work high marks, praising his skeptical view of modern society and the imaginative qualities of his novels.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.” New York: Chelsea House, 2001. A collection of critical assessments.

Bruccoli, Matthew J., and Park Buker. Joseph Heller. Pittburgh: Oak Knoll Books, 2002. A bibliography of Heller’s works and criticism.

Craig, David M. Tilting at Mortality: Narrative Strategies in Joseph Heller’s Fiction. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997. An examination of the ethical dimensions of Heller’s work, linking his distinctive stylistic features to his preoccupation with questions of death, meaning, and identity.

Dougherty, D. C. “Nemeses and McGuffins: Paranoia as Focal Metaphor in Stanley Elkin, Joseph Heller, and Thomas Pynchon.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 15, no. 2 (1995): 70-79. Reflects on the methods and motives of using paranoia as a governing metaphor in modern fiction.

Friedman, John, and Judith Ruderman. “Joseph Heller and the ‘Real’ King David.” Judaism 36, no. 3 (1987): 296-302. Explores Heller’s relationship to his Jewishness and its representation in God Knows.

Klinkowitz, Jerome. The American 1960’s: Imaginative Acts in a Decade of Change. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1990. This analysis of American fiction in political terms suggests that Heller’s Catch-22 introduces a distinctively new kind of politics, that of withdrawal from impossible situations, and that in this sense the novel is one of the truly original works of its time.

LeClair, Thomas. “Joseph Heller, Something Happened, and the Art of Excess.” Studies in American Fiction 9 (Autumn, 1981): 245-260. This essay focuses on Heller’s second novel, defending its repetitive quality as a stylistic device, necessary to the portrayal of the dullness and mediocrity of the life of its protagonist and the other characters.

Potts, Stephen W. From Here to Absurdity: The Moral Battlefields of Joseph Heller. 2d ed. San Bernardino, Calif.: The Borgo Press, 1995. This insightful and accessible overview of Heller’s novels and plays emphasizes the continuities throughout Heller’s writings, despite the various genres within which he has worked. As a moralist and political cynic, Heller creates characters whose personal crises drive them either to confront or to conform to governing orthodoxy.

Saurian, Adam J. Conversations with Joseph Heller. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993.

Seed, David. The Fiction of Joseph Heller. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989.

Woodson, Jon. A Study of Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22”: Going Around Twice. New York: P. Lang, 2001. Uses the New Criticism and mythological criticism that Heller was familiar with to argue that Catch-22 is in essence a retelling of the epic of Gilgamesh in much the same way that James Joyce’s Ulysses was a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey.

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Critical Essays