Joseph Heller

Summary

Joseph Heller (May 1, 1923 – December 12, 1999) was an American author of novels, short stories, plays and screenplays. His best-known work is the 1961 novel Catch-22, a satire on war and bureaucracy, whose title has become synonymous with every absurd, contradictory or impossible choice.

Heller was born on 1 May 1923 on Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York, the son of poor Jewish parents, Lena and Isaac Donald Heller, Even as a child, he enjoyed writing. As a teenager, he wrote a story about the Russian invasion of Finland and sent it to the New York Daily News, which rejected it. After graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1941, Heller spent the next year working as an apprentice blacksmith, messenger and filing clerk.

In 1942, at the age of 19, he enlisted in the US Army Air Corps. After two years of training, he was part of the mission that fought on the Italian front, where he flew 60 flights as a B-25 bomber. He was assigned to the 488th Bombardment Squadron, 340th Bomb Group, 12th Air Force. Looking back on the experience, Heller considered that he viewed war as “fun at first… You had the feeling there was something glorious about it.” After his safe return to the United States. “he felt like a hero. People think it”s very remarkable that I belonged to the crew of a bomber and that I flew sixty missions, even though I stressed to them that the missions were largely routine flights.”

After the war, Heller studied English at the University of Southern California and then at New York University through the Veterans Scholarship Program, graduating from the latter institution in 1948. In 1949 he received his master”s degree in English from Columbia University. After graduating from Columbia, he spent a year as a Fulbright Scholarship recipient at St. Catherine”s College, Oxford before teaching essay at Pennsylvania State University for two years (1950-52). He then worked briefly at Time Inc. magazine before taking a job as a copywriter for a small advertising agency, where he worked with future novelist Mary Higgins Clark. In his spare time, Heller wrote. His work was first published in 1948, when The Atlantic magazine published one of his short stories. The story almost won an honorary first-person award presented by The Atlantic”s First magazine.

He was married to Shirley Held from 1945 to 1981 and they had two children, Erika (born 1952) and Theodore (born 1956).

Catch-22

While sitting at home one morning in 1953, Heller thought about the lines: “It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the priest, Mesa the next day, he began to envision the story that could come out of that line, inventing the characters, the plot, and the tone the story would eventually take. Within a week, he had finished the first chapter and sent it to his agent. He put off any further writing for the rest of the year and throughout the following year as he set up the structure of the story. The original chapter was published in 1955 as “Catch-18” in Issue 7 of New World Writing.

Although the original goal was for the story to be no more than a novel, Heller was able to add enough content to the plot that he felt it could become his first novel. When he had written a third of the novel, his agent, Candida Donadio, sent it to publishers. Heller was not particularly attached to the project and decided that he would not complete it unless publishers were interested. The work was soon purchased by Simon & Schuster, who paid him US$750 and promised him an additional $750 when the complete manuscript was delivered. Heller did not meet the agreed-upon deadline by four to five years, but, after eight years of contemplation and writing, he delivered the novel to his publisher.

The complete novel describes the military service of John Yossarian, a Captain in the Army Air Corps, during World War II. Yossarian constantly devises tricks to avoid participating in his unit”s dangerous missions, but the Army”s bureaucratic system always gets the better of him. As Heller observed, “Everyone in my book accuses everyone else of being irrational. Frankly, I think the whole society is irrational – and the question is: What is a rational person doing in an irrational society?”

Shortly before publication, the title of the novel was changed to Catch-22 to avoid confusion with Leon Uris” new novel, Mila 18. The novel was published in hardcover in 1961 to mixed reviews, with the Chicago Sun-Times calling it “the best American novel in years,” while other critics derided it as “disorganized, unreadable and silly.” It sold only 30,000 hardcover copies in the United States in its first year of publication. The reaction was very different in the UK where, within a week of its publication, the novel was number one on the bestseller lists. However, after its release in paperback in October 1962, Catch-22 captured the imagination of many baby boomers, who identified with the anti-war sentiments of the novel. The book sold 10 million copies in the United States. The novel”s title became a standard term in English and other languages for a dilemma with no easy way out. Now considered a classic, the book was ranked number 7 on the Modern Library”s list of the 100 best novels of the century. The United States Air Force Academy uses the novel to “help officer candidates recognize the soul-crushing aspects of bureaucracy.”

The film rights to the novel were purchased in 1962 and, combined with his share of the book sales, made Heller a millionaire. The film, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Alan Arkin, John Voight and Orson Welles, was not released until 1970

In April 1998, Louis Pollock wrote a clarifying article in The Sunday Times about “the striking similarity of characters, personality traits, eccentricities, physical descriptions, personal injuries and incidents” between Catch-22 and a novel published in England in 1951. The resulting book was written by Louis Falstein and titled The Sky Is a Lonely Place in Britain and Face of a Hero in the United States. Flastein”s novel was available two years before Heller wrote the first chapter of Catch-22 (1953). The Times stated: “Both have central characters who use their brains to escape from air missions ? Both are haunted by an omnipresent wounded airman who is bedridden in a patient bed in a full-length plaster cast.” Stating that he had never read Falstein”s novel, nor had he heard of him, Heller said: “My book was published in 1961 It seems funny to me that no one else has noticed any similarities, including Falstein himself, who died only last year.”

Other projects

Other works by Heller are examples of contemporary satire focusing on the lives of middle-class people.

Shortly after Catch-22 was published, Heller came up with an idea for his next novel, which ended up being Something Happened, but he didn”t start working on it for two years. In the meantime, he focused on screenplays, completing the final script for the film adaptation of Helen Gurley Brown”s novel Sex and the Single Girl, as well as a television comedy script that eventually aired as part of the television series McHale”s Navy.

In 1967, Heller wrote a play called We Bombed in New Haven. He completed the play in just six weeks, but spent a lot of time working with producers in bringing it to the stage.

Heller”s next novel, Something Happened, was finally published in 1974. Critics were enthusiastic about the book, and its hardcover and paperback editions reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list. Heller wrote five other novels, each of which took him several years to complete. One of them, Closing Time, returns to many of the characters in Catch-22 and how they adapted to postwar New York. All of the novels sold reasonably well, but they could not duplicate the success of his first novel. Faced with a statement from a reporter that he had never produced anything else as good as Catch-22, Heller responded famously: “And who has?”

Mode of slavery

Heller didn”t start working on a story until he had visualized the first and last lines. His first sentence usually appeared “independent of any conscious preparation.” In most cases, the sentence did not inspire a follow-up. At times, he would write several pages before abandoning the particular idea. Usually, within an hour or so of his initial inspiration, Heller would have sketched out a basic plot and characters for the story. When he was ready to start writing, he would focus on one paragraph at a time until he had three or four handwritten pages, which he would then spend several hours reworking.

Heller argued that he did not “have a philosophy of life or a need to plan its outcome. My books are not made to say anything.” Only when he was nearly a third of the way through the novel did he get a clear idea of what his central idea should be. At that point, with the idea developed, he would rewrite what he had in his draft and then continue to the end of the story. The finished version of the novel often did not begin or end with the sentences he had originally envisioned, though he usually tried to include the original first sentence somewhere in the text.

After the publication of Catch-22, Heller pursued a part-time academic career as an assistant professor of creative writing at Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania. In the 1970s, Heller taught creative writing as an honorary doctorate at City College of New York.

On Sunday, 13 December 1981, Heller was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a neurological disease that was to leave him temporarily paralysed. He was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit of the Mount Sinai Medical Clinic that day, and remained there, bedridden, until his condition had improved sufficiently to allow his transfer to the Rask Medical Rehabilitation Institute on January 26, 1982. His illness and recovery are described at length in his autobiographical work No Laughing Matter, which contains alternating chapters written by Heller and his good friend Speed Vogel. The book reveals the help and companionship Heller received during this period from several prominent friends – including Mel Brooks, Mario Puzo, Dustin Hoffman and George Mandel.

Heller managed to recover. In 1987, he married Valerie Humphries, one of his nurses.

Heller returned to St. Catherine”s College as a visiting doctoral student for the 1991 academic year and was appointed an Honorary Fellow of the College. In 1998, he published a memoir, Now and then: From Coney Island to Here, in which he revisited his childhood as the son of a porter and revealed details about his inspirations for Catch-22.

Heller was an agnostic.

He died of a heart attack at his home in East Hampton, Long Island, in December 1999, shortly after completing his last novel, Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man. On hearing of Heller”s death, his friend Kurt Vonnegut said: “Oh, my God, how terrible. This is a calamity for American literature.”

Sources

  1. Τζόζεφ Χέλερ
  2. Joseph Heller