This Day In Literary History
On May 1st, 1923, the famous American writer Joseph Heller was born in Brooklyn, New York. As a young boy, he was given a children's edition of The Iliad, Homer's classic epic poem set during the Trojan War. Enthralled by the power of words, he determined to become a writer.
After graduating high school in 1941, Heller worked at various jobs, serving as everything from a blacksmith's apprentice to a filing clerk. The following year, with America now involved in World War II, Heller enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
He was sent to the Italian Front, where he flew 60 combat missions as a B-25 bombardier; When the war ended, he took advantage of the G.I. Bill and began his college education, first enrolling at the University of Southern California as an English major.
He would ultimately earn a Master's degree in English and spend a year as a Fulbright scholar at St. Catherine's College, Oxford. From there, Heller served as an English professor, teaching composition at Penn State and creative writing at Yale.
For a time, he worked as an advertising copywriter alongside future bestselling suspense novelist Mary Higgins Clark. He still determined to become a writer, and wrote at home when he wasn't working.
Joseph Heller's first short story, published in 1948, appeared in The Atlantic magazine. In 1955, he published the first chapter of what was originally intended to be a novella called Catch-18 in New World Writing magazine.
The planned work turned out to be novel length. When he was one third finished with the manuscript, Heller decided he would complete it only if he could find an interested publisher. Simon and Schuster bought the work, paying the author a $1500 advance.
He would receive half of it immediately and half when he delivered the finished manuscript. It took him five years to complete his first novel, but the wait was worth it. To avoid confusion with Leon Uris' then new novel Mila 18, Heller changed the title of his novel from Catch-18 to Catch-22.
The novel, published in 1961, would become a classic, and its title would be added to the English lexicon as a term meaning "a problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem or by a rule."
Catch-22 uses an experimental third person omniscient narrative to tell the story, describing events from different characters' points of view. The main character, Captain John Yossarian, is a U.S. Army Air Forces B-25 bombardier stationed at the Italian Front during World War II. He belongs to the fictional 256th squadron.
As Yossarian witnesses the horrors of war, he comes to fear his own commanding officers more than the enemy. The American military leadership is a monstrous, corrupt bureaucracy that operates on dangerously flawed circular logic. The "Catch-22" of the title is their sinister golden rule. Here's how it works:
Yossarian and his men must fly a certain amount of combat missions in order for their service to be considered complete. The military leadership keeps increasing the number of missions. The added stress is pushing them - especially Yossarian - to the breaking point.
Under military rules, he would be considered insane for willingly flying so many combat missions without regard to his health. Yet, it would be pointless if Yossarian were to make a formal request to be relieved of duty for reasons of severe psychological stress.
Under military rules, he would be considered sane and cleared for duty because he had the presence of mind to make that request. This is what's known as a Catch-22.
Although the novel is set during World War II and satirizes the absurdity of war, Heller actually wrote it as an indictment of McCarthyism - the U.S. government's relentless and mostly illegal persecution of suspected communists and communist sympathizers during the early years of the Cold War.
The first edition hardcover of Catch-22 received mixed reviews and sold only 30,000 copies. When it debuted in paperback, it captured the imagination of a new generation of young people who shared in its antiwar sentiments. The paperback release would sell 10,000,000 copies and bring the novel its rightful recognition as an all time classic work of literature.
In 1970, a feature film version of Catch-22 was released. Although Paramount sunk $17 million into the picture, which was directed by Mike Nichols and featured Alan Arkin as Captain Yossarian, the film was a critical and commercial failure.
Some blame its failure on the fact that it was released at the same time as another, far superior antiwar black comedy called M*A*S*H, but this writer places the blame squarely on Catch-22's awful screenplay, which butchered the novel, changing the story considerably.
It would be thirteen years before Joseph Heller published his second novel. Something Happened (1974) is even more experimental than Catch-22; it's a relentlessly bleak and blistering satire of the American dream.
Middle aged executive Bob Slocum has it all: money, a beautiful wife, three great kids, and a big house. He has achieved the American dream. Unfortunately for Bob, his American dream is a nightmare.
He no longer loves his wife and cheats on her. His children are dysfunctional. He believes that his co-workers are out to get him. He finds no meaning in life and worries that he might be going insane.
In the novel's stream of consciousness narrative, Bob recalls events in his life (in a random order) and tries to figure out when and how it all went wrong.
Heller continued to write great novels. Good as Gold (1979), a dark comedy, tells the story of Bruce Gold, a middle aged English professor who determines to become America's first Jewish Secretary of State.
His ruthless ambition costs him his marriage and alienates him from his children and family - a price he considers steep, yet doesn't mind paying considering the return on the investment.
God Knows (1984) is a scathing, bawdy parody of the Bible, narrated by none other than David, the biblical King of Israel. The novel takes the form of David's deathbed memoirs as he gives a hilariously fractured yet moving account of his life, from cocky kid to warrior hero to King - and typical Jewish father.
Heller would author two memoirs of his own, No Laughing Matter (1986), which chronicled his battle with Guillain-Barré syndrome, and Now and Then (1998), which told of his early life, including his war experiences and determination to become a writer.
In 1994, Heller published Closing Time, a sequel to Catch-22, with an elderly Captain Yossarian up to his old tricks. After the war ended, he became a wealthy, successful corporate executive while remaining fiercely liberal. Now retired, he's a dirty old man obsessed with sex - and death.
Joseph Heller died of a heart attack in 1999 at the age of 76. When legendary writer Kurt Vonnegut heard of his passing, he said, "Oh, God, how terrible. This is a calamity for American literature."
Heller's last novel, Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man, was published in 2000. It told the story of an aged writer struggling to write one last great novel, which could be his magnum opus.
Quote Of The Day
“Every writer I know has trouble writing." - Joseph Heller
Today's video features a rare recording of Joseph Heller giving a lecture at UCLA in 1970. Enjoy!