Joseph Heller

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 come to mean an absurd or contradictory choice. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1972.

In World War II Heller served as a bombardier in a B-25 Mitchell. His reconstructed military files, obtained from the National Personnel Records Center, are noteworthy for the correspondence from individuals (including the novelist himself), seeking Heller’s military records.

File 1, File 2, File 3, File 4.

Joseph Heller was born on May 1, 1923, in Coney Island in Brooklyn. As child, he loved to write; as a teenager, his story about the Soviet invasion of Finland was rejected by the New York Daily News. After graduating from high school Heller spent the next year working as a blacksmith’s apprentice, a messenger boy, and a filing clerk.

In 1942, at 19, Heller joined the U.S. Army Air Corps. Two years later he was sent to the Italian Front, where he flew 60 missions with the 488th Bombardment Squadron, 340th Bomb Group. His decorations include the Air Medal (11 oak leaf clusters), American Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, and the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal.

After the war, using the GI Bill Heller studied English at USC and NYU. He received his M.A. in English from Columbia University. He was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford, then taught composition at Penn State. Two years later he worked briefly for Time Inc. and at a small advertising agency. At home, Heller wrote. His first published story was Castle in the Snow, in The Atlantic in 1948.

In 1953 Heller wrote the first lines of what became Catch-22. Within a week he sent the first chapter to his agent. For the next year he did not write but worked out the story. The first chapter was published in 1955 in New World Writing.

Originally intended as a novelette, Heller further developed the plot and characters, and Simon and Schuster bought the first draft of Catch-22 for $750, promising an identical sum for the final manuscript. Five years later Heller completed the novel, which relates the wartime experiences of  Captain John Yossarian, who devises multiple strategies to avoid combat missions, which are handily defeated by military regulations and red tape. 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?”

Just before publication in 1961, the title Catch-18 was changed to Catch-22 to avoid mistaking it with Leon Uris’ recently published Mila 18. In its first year Catch-22 sold 30,000 hardback copies in the U.S, where it received mixed reviews. The Chicago Sun-Times called it “the best American novel in years;” other critics derided it as disorganized, unreadable, and crass. The Nation raved “the best novel to come out in years.” From the New York Herald Tribune, “A wild, moving, shocking, hilarious, raging, exhilarating, giant roller-coaster of a book. The New York Times cited the books  “dazzling performance that will outrage nearly as many readers as it delights.”

On the other hand, The New Yorker opined the novel “doesn’t even seem to be written; instead, it gives the impression of having been shouted onto paper…what remains is a debris of sour jokes.” A second review from the New York Times stated the novel was “repetitive and monotonous. Or one can say that it is too short because none of its many interesting characters and actions is given enough play to become a controlling interest.”

In the UK, within one week of its publication  Catch 22 ranked topped the bestseller lists and eventually gained a cult following, especially among teenagers and college students. In 1962, after appearing on the Today show Heller went out drinking with the host, John Chancellor, who handed him stickers that Chancellor had privately printed reading “YOSSARIAN LIVES.”  Chancellor also secretly put them on the walls of the corridors and executive bathrooms in the NBC building

In the years after its 1962 release in paperback Catch-22 caught the attention of baby boomers, who identified with its anti-war sentiments. The book went on to sell 10 million copies in the U.S., and the phrase “Catch 22” became a popular phrase in English and other languages for a dilemma with no easy way out. Considered a classic, the Air Force Academy uses the novel to “help prospective officers recognize the dehumanizing aspects of bureaucracy.”

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

As with the book, the movie reviews were mixed. Vincent Canby of The New York Times praised the film as “the most moving, the most intelligent, the most humane—oh, to hell with it!—it’s the best American film I’ve seen this year.” Time Magazine said director Mike Nichols nurtured “…the book’s cold rage. In the jokes that matter, the film is as hard as a diamond, cold to the touch and brilliant to the eye….it will be a memorable horror comedy of war, with the accent on horror.” Yet Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times called the film “a disappointment, and not simply because it fails to do justice to the Heller novel. It recites speeches and passages from the novel, but doesn’t explain them or make them part of its style…” The Chicago Tribune’s critic felt the movie “spends too much time accommodating a huge cast.” It should have focused on “Yossarian’s combat, with the catch into his head where it belongs.”

The Los Angeles Times noted “Catch-22 is awfully good, and also a disappointment. Chilly brilliant at its best but flawed at last by its detachment and by its failure to catch fire and give off heat. Its fury is cold and intellectual and cannot reach us or involve us at gut level.” LIFE offered that by restructuring the novel as a single hallucinatory flashback, it failed to translate what made the novel a generational success.

When asked about playing Yossarian, Alan Arkin said, “Oh, I don’t want to talk about Catch-22. I’m not happy with my work as Yossarian, I’ll tell you that. That picture almost took down the whole studio. And something of that magnitude, it rubs off on everybody. For four or five years after that, everything I did just tanked. Even when I would get scripts that I thought were imaginative, that could be good, they’d end up getting the wrong director and he’d make a mess of it. I suffered terribly.”

In April 1998, the British screenwriter Lewis Pollock wrote to The Sunday Times regarding similarities between Catch-22 and The Sky is a Lonely Place, written by Louis Falstein in 1951, two years before Heller wrote the first chapter of Catch-22.  Commenting dryly, Heller noted, “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.”

After Catch-22 was published Heller focused on writing movie scripts, completing the final screenplay for the movie adaptation of Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl, as well as a television episode of McHale’s Navy.

In 1967, Heller wrote the anti-war play We Bombed in New Haven. Off Broadway it starred Stacy Keach. After a slight revision, it debuted on Broadway, starring Jason Robards.

Heller’s follow-up novel, Something Happened, was published in 1974. Critics were enthusiastic, and the hardcover and paperback editions reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list. Heller wrote five more novels, each taking several years to complete. All of the novels sold well, but could not duplicate the success of Catch-22. Told by an interviewer that he had never produced anything else as good, Heller famously replied, “Who has?”

After Catch-22, Heller resumed a part-time career as an adjunct professor of creative writing at Yale and the University of Pennsylvania. In the 1970s, he taught creative writing at CCNY.

In a 1974 Heller mailed a three-page typed letter to James Nagler, an English professor at Northeastern University, which compared his  own war experience with that of Yossarian.

“How did I feel about the war when I was in it? Much differently than Yossarian felt and much differently than I felt when I wrote the novel … In truth I enjoyed it and so did just about everyone else I served with, in training and even in combat.

“I was young, it was adventurous, there was much hoopla and glamour; in addition, and this too is hard to get across to college students today, for me and for most others, going into the army resulted immediately in a vast improvement in my standard of living.”

Heller stated he made $65 or $75 a month while in the Army Air Corps – more than the $60 he received as a filing clerk – “and all food, lodging, clothing and medical expenses paid. There was the prospect of travel and a general feeling of a more exciting and eventful period ahead … more freedom than I enjoyed in the long years afterwards.”

Elsewhere, he recalled 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,” i.e., routine flights with minimal risk.

On Sunday, December 13, 1981, Heller was diagnosed with Guillain–Barré syndrome, which left him temporarily paralyzed. His illness and recovery are recounted in the autobiographical No Laughing Matter, which describes the assistance and companionship Heller received from a number of his prominent friends—Mel Brooks, Mario Puzo, Dustin Hoffman and George Mandel among them. Heller eventually made a substantial recovery. In 1987 he married Valerie Humphries, formerly one of his nurses.

Heller returned to Oxford as a visiting Fellow in 1991, and was appointed an Honorary Fellow of the college. In 1998 he released a memoir, Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here, in which he recalled his childhood and offered some details about the inspirations for Catch-22.

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


Top photo, Toronto Public Library


The Imperial War Museum

The Atlantic (Castle of Snow)

Goodreads  The Real Men Behind Catch 22

Movie trailer/Catch 22

The Independent: Alan Arkin was brilliant, difficult, spiritual and mysterious.

Video interview, 1994, Joseph Heller/Bill Moyers, Part 1, Part 2