Joseph Heller

Joseph Heller

Infobox Writer
name = Joseph Heller

caption = Joseph Heller, Miami Bookfair International, 1986
birthdate = birth date|mf=yes|1923|5|1"Joseph Heller." "UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography". 2003 ed. pg. 870]
birthplace = Brooklyn, New York
deathdate = death date and age|mf=yes|1999|12|12|1923|5|1
deathplace = Long Island, New York
occupation = Novelist, Short story writer, Playwright
genre = Satire, Black Comedy
movement =
notableworks = "Catch-22"
influences = Louis-Ferdinand Céline
influenced = Robert Altman, Kurt Vonnegut
footnotes =

Joseph Heller (May 1, 1923 – December 12, 1999) was an American satirical novelist, short story writer and playwright. He wrote the influential novel "Catch-22" about American servicemen during World War II. It was this work whose title became the term commonly used to express absurdity in choice and frustration with bureaucratic insanity.

Heller is widely regarded as one of the best post-World War II satirists. Although he is remembered mostly for "Catch-22", his other works center on the lives of various members of the middle class and remain exemplars of modern satire.

Early years

Joseph Heller was born in Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York, the son of poor Jewish parents from Russia. Heller's father was a bakery truck driver. Also Heller's father died in 1927.citation|title=Joseph Heller: Literary giant|url=|date=December 14, 1999|publisher=BBC|accessdate=2007-08-30] Even as a child, he loved to write; at the age of eleven, he wrote a story about the Russian invasion of Finland. The New York Daily News promptly rejected it.citation|last=Plimpton|first=George|newspaper=The Paris Review|format=PDF|url=|accessdate=2007-08-30|title=Joseph Heller|work=The Art of Fiction No, 51|date=Winter 1974|issue=60] After graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1941,cite web|title=Abraham Lincoln High School|url=|publisher=New York City Schools|accessdate=2007-08-30] Heller spent the next year working as a blacksmith's apprentice, a messenger boy, and a filing clerk.citation|title=Joseph Heller: Literary giant|url=|date=December 14, 1999|publisher=BBC|accessdate=2007-08-30] In 1942, at age 19, he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps. Two years later he was sent to Italy, where he flew 60 combat missions as a B-25 bombardier.citation|title=Heller's legacy will be 'Catch-22' ideas|publisher=CNN|url=|date=December 13, 1999|accessdate=2007-08-30] Heller later remembered the war as "fun in the beginning...You got the feeling that there was something glorious about it." On his return home he "felt like a hero....People think it quite remarkable that I was in combat in an airplane and I flew sixty missions even though I tell them that the missions were largely milk runs."citation|last=Mallory|first=Carole|title=The Joe and Kurt Shoe|newspaper= |date=May 1992|url=|accessdate=2007-08-30]

After the war, Heller studied English at the University of Southern California and NYU on the G.I. Bill.citation|last=Kisor|first=Henry|title=Soaring satirist|newspaper=Chicago Sun-Times|date=December 14, 1999|url=|accessdate=2007-08-30] In 1949, he received his M.A. in English from Columbia University.cite web|title=C250 Celebrates Columbians Ahead of Their Time: Joseph Heller|url=|accessdate=2007-08-30|publisher=Columbia University] Following his graduation, he spent a year as a Fulbright scholar at St. Catherine's College in Oxford University.citation|title=Joseph Heller: Literary giant|url=|date=December 14, 1999|publisher=BBC|accessdate=2007-08-30] After returning home, he taught composition at Penn State University for two years, then briefly worked for Time, Inc., before taking a job as a copywriter at a small advertising agency, where he worked alongside future novelist Mary Higgins Clark. [cite book | last = Clark | first = Mary Higgins |authorlink=Mary Higgins Clark | title = Kitchen Privileges: A Memoir | publisher = Simon and Schuster | date = 2002 | pages = 48-49, 53 | id = ] At home, Heller would write. He was first published in 1948, when "The Atlantic" ran one of his short stories. That first story nearly won the "Atlantic First."



While sitting at home one morning in 1953, Heller thought of a hook, "It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, Someone fell madly in love with him." Within the next day, he began to envision the story that could result from this beginning, and invented the characters and the plot, as well as the tone and form that the story would eventually take. Within a week, he had finished the first chapter and sent it to his agent. He did not do any more writing for the next year, as he planned the rest of the story. The initial chapter was published in 1955 as "Catch-18", in Issue 7 of "New World Writing."

Although he originally did not intend the story to be longer than a novelette, Heller was able to add enough substance to the plot that he felt it could become his first novel. When he was one-third done with the work, his agent, Candida Donadio, began submitting the novel to several publishers. Heller was not particularly attached to the work, and decided that he would not finish it if publishers were not interested. The work was never rejected, and was soon purchased by Simon and Schuster, who gave him US $750 and promised him an additional $750 when the full manuscript was delivered. Heller missed his deadline by four to five years, but, after eight years of thought, delivered the novel to his publisher.

The finished novel describes the wartime experiences of Army Air Corps Captain John Yossarian. Yossarian devises multiple strategies to avoid combat missions, but the military bureaucracy is always able to find a way to make him stay.citation|publisher=CNN|url=|accessdate=2007-08-30|title=1999 Year in Review: Joseph Heller|date=December 1999] As Heller observed, "Everyone in my book accuses everyone else of being crazy. Frankly, I think the whole society is nuts -- and the question is: What does a sane man do in an insane society?" Heller has also commented that "peace on earth would mean the end of civilisation as we know it" -- perhaps further food for thought when reading "Catch-22", in which the concept and circumstances of war are so overwhelming and fundamental.

Just before publication, the novel's title was changed to "Catch-22" to avoid confusion with Leon Uris's new novel, "Mila 18".citation|last=Aldridge|first=John W.|title=The Loony Horror of it All - 'Catch-22' Turns 25|newspaper=The New York Times|date=October 26, 1986|page=Section 7, Page 3, Column 1|url=|accessdate=2007-08-30] The novel was published in hardback in 1961 to mixed reviews, with the Chicago Sun-Times calling it "the best American novel in years", while other critics deride it as "disorganized, unreadable, and crass".Citation|last=Shenker|first=Israel|title=Joseph Heller Draws Dead Bead on the Politics of Gloom|newspaper=The New York Times|date=September 10, 1968|url=|accessdate=2007-08-30] It sold only 30,000 copies in the United States hardback in its first year of publication. (Reaction was very different in Great Britain, where, within one week of its publication, the novel reached number one on the bestseller lists.) Once it was released in paperback in October 1962, however, "Catch-22" caught the imaginations of many baby-boomers, who identified with the novel's anti-war sentiments. The book went on to sell 10 million copies in the United States. The novel's title became a buzzword for a dilemma with no easy way out. Now considered a classic, the book was listed at number 7 on Modern Library's list of the top 100 novels of the century. The United States Air Force Academy uses the novel to "help prospective officers recognize the dehumanizing aspects of bureaucracy."

The movie rights to the novel were purchased in 1962, and, combined with his royalties, made Heller a millionaire. The film, which was directed by Mike Nichols and starred Alan Arkin, Jon Voight and Orson Welles, was not released until 1970.

Other works

Shortly after "Catch-22" was published, Heller thought of an idea for his next novel, which would become "Something Happened". He did not act on this idea for two years, however. During that time period he focused on scripts, completing the final screenplay for the movie adaptation of Helen Gurley Brown's "Sex and the Single Girl", as well as a television comedy script that eventually aired as part of "McHale's Navy". He also completed a play in only six weeks, but spent a great deal of time working with the producers as it was brought to the stage.

In 1969, Heller wrote a play called "We Bombed in New Haven". The play delivered an anti-war message while discussing the Vietnam War. It was originally produced by the Repertory Company of the Yale Drama School, with Stacey Keach in the starring role. After a slight revision, it was published by Alfred Knopf and then debuted on Broadway, starring Jason Robards.citation|last=Barnes|first=Clive|title=Theater:Heller's 'We Bombed in New Haven' Opens|newspaper=The New York Times|date=October 17, 1968|url=|accessdate=2007-08-30]

Heller's follow-up novel, "Something Happened" was finally published in 1974. Although critics were enthusiastic about the book, book buyers were not.Heller wrote an additional four novels, each of which took him several years to complete. One of his later novels, "Closing Time," revisited many of the characters who had been featured in "Catch-22" as they adjusted to post-war New York. All of the novels sold respectably well, but could not duplicate the success of his debut. Told by an interviewer that he had never produced anything else as good as "Catch-22", Heller famously responded, "Who has?" [ Joseph Heller, Darkly Surreal Novelist, Dies at 76] , by Richard Severo and Herbert Mitgang. Obituary printed in the "New York Times" on December 14, 1999; accessed May 12, 2008.]

Work process

Heller did not begin work on a story until he had envisioned both a first and last line. The first sentence usually appeared to him "independent of any conscious preparation". In most cases, the sentence did not inspire a second sentence. At times, he would be able to write several pages before giving up on that hook. Usually, within an hour or so of receiving his inspiration, Heller would have mapped out a basic plot and characters for the story. When he was ready to begin 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 maintained that he did not "have a philosophy of life, or a need to organize its progression. My books are not constructed to 'say anything.'" Only when he was almost one-third finished with the novel would he gain a clear vision of what it should be about. At that point, with the idea solidified, he would rewrite all that he had finished and then continue to the end of the story.citation|publisher=Australian Broadcasting Corporation|last=Koval|first=Ramona|title=Joseph Heller - Closing Time|date=1998|url=|accessdate=2007-08-30] The finished version of the novel would often not begin or end with the sentences he had originally envisioned, although he usually tried to include the original opening sentence somewhere in the text.


On Sunday, December 13, 1981, Heller was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a debilitating syndrome that was to leave him temporarily paralyzed. He was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit of Mount Sinai Medical Hospital the same day harv|Heller|1986|pp=23-34, and remained there, bedridden, until his condition had improved enough to permit his transfer to the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine, which occurred on January 26, 1982 harv|Heller|1986|pp=170-174. His illness and recovery are recounted at great length in the autobiographical "No Laughing Matter" harv|Heller|1986, which contains alternating chapters by Heller and his good friend Speed Vogel. The book reveals the assistance and companionship Heller received during this period from a laundry list of his prominent friends—Mel Brooks, Mario Puzo, Dustin Hoffman and George Mandel among them.

Heller eventually made a substantial recovery. In 1984, while in the process of divorcing his wife of 35 years, he met Valerie Humphries, the nurse who had helped him to recover, and later married her.

Later years

Heller returned to St. Catherine's as a visiting Fellow, for a term, in 1991 and was appointed an Honorary Fellow of the college. [ [ Catz People] ] In 1998, he released a memoir, "Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here," in which he relived his childhood as the son of a deliveryman and offered some details about the inspirations for "Catch-22".

He died of a heart attack at his home in December 1999, shortly after the completion of his final novel, "Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man".Fact|date=August 2007 On hearing of Heller's death, his friend Kurt Vonnegut said, "Oh, God, how terrible. This is a calamity for American letters."

"Catch-22" Controversies

In April 1998, Lewis Pollock wrote to "The Sunday Times" for clarification as to "the amazing similarity of characters, personality traits, eccentricities, physical descriptions, personnel injuries and incidents" in "Catch-22" and a novel published in England in 1951. The book that spawned the request was written by Louis Falstein and titled "The Sky is a Lonely Place" in Britain and "Face of a Hero" in the United States. Falstein's novel was available two years before Heller wrote the first chapter of "Catch-22" (1953) while he was a student at Oxford. "The Times" stated: "Both have central characters who are using their wits to escape the aerial carnage; both are haunted by an omnipresent injured airman, invisible inside a white body cast". Stating he had never read Falstein's novel, or heard of him, [ [] (link broken)] Heller said: "My book came out in 1961 [;] I find it funny that nobody else has noticed any similarities, including Falstein himself, who died just last year"("The Washington Post", April 27, 1998).


hort stories

* "" (2003)
* "Three Short Stories Of Utter Annoyance"


* "No Laughing Matter" (1986)
* "Now And Then" (1998).


* "Catch-22" (1961)
* "Something Happened" (1974)
* "Good as Gold" (1979)
* "God Knows" (1984)
* "Picture This" (1988)
* "Closing Time" (1994)
* "Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man (2000)


* "We Bombed in New Haven" (1967)
* "Catch 22" (1971)
* "Clevinger's Trial" (1973)


* "Sex and the Single Girl" (1964)
* "Casino Royale" (1967) (uncredited)
* "Dirty Dingus Magee" (1970)



*cite book |title=No Laughing Matter |last=Heller |first=Joseph |authorlink= Joseph Heller |coauthors=Vogel, Speed |year=1986 |publisher=G. P. Putnam's Sons |location=New York |isbn=0-399-13086-1

External links

* [] transcript of conversation with Ramona Koval, ABC Radio National, recorded 1998 and rebroadcast on The Book Show, June 9, 2008
* [ A Joseph Heller Archive at the University at South Carolina's Thomas Cooper Library]
* [ 1984 and 1986 audio interview with Joseph Heller by Don Swaim of CBS Radio, RealAudio at Wired for]
* [ Joseph Heller's Penn State University historical marker]
* [ "The Paris Review" interview]
*IBList |type=author|id=334|name=Joseph Heller
* [ New York Times Obituary for Joseph Heller]

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