Thomas Heggen began a literary career, which was as promising as it was disappointingly brief, at the University of Minnesota in 1937. There Heggen (christened Orlo Thomas Heggen), born in Fort Dodge, Iowa, but reared in Oklahoma and Minnesota, served his writing apprenticeship as a reporter for the Minnesota Daily and for Ski-U-Mah, the campus humor magazine, devoting himself, according to a classmate’s report, much more to his journalistic activities than to the demands of the classroom. He nevertheless received his B.A. degree from Minnesota in 1941, and with it he traveled east to secure a job on the editorial staff of Reader’s Digest.
His initial tenure with Reader’s Digest was short-lived, for soon after Pearl Harbor he enlisted in the United States Navy, serving in World War II until October, 1945, and spending the greater part of his tour of duty in the Pacific observing and experiencing at first hand the actions and reactions to shipboard life that he began transforming into sketches and short stories.
The war over, he returned to Reader’s Digest, but again his stay was short. At the advice of his cousin Wallace Stegner, he fashioned several short stories based on his Navy experiences into a novel, which he planned to call “The Iron-Bound Bucket.” In 1946, the novel was published to universally strong reviews as Mister Roberts; it was praised for its portrait of a naval officer who fights the tedium and pointlessness of war with compassion, understanding, and a comic subversiveness drawn from Heggen’s own personality. The novel was excerpted in The Atlantic Monthly, and its author became an overnight success.
Heggen’s four-year marriage to Carol Lynn Gilmer ended the same year. With the success of the stage adaptation of Mister Roberts, which he wrote in collaboration with Joshua Logan in 1948, Heggen seemed to have embarked upon a promising career in the theater, but he never completed another work during his final tempestuous months in New York. He was found dead by drowning in the bathtub of his apartment following a barbiturate overdose on May 19, 1949, seven months before his thirtieth birthday.