Joseph Heller (born 1923) is a popular and respected writer whose first and best-known novel, Catch-22 (1961), is considered a classic of the post-World War II era. Presenting human existence as absurd and fragmented, this irreverent, witty novel satirizes capitalism and the military bureaucracy.
Heller's tragicomic vision of modern life, found in all of his novels, focuses on the erosion of humanistic values and highlights the ways in which language obscures and confuses reality. In addition, Heller's use of anachronism reflects the disordered nature of contemporary existence. His protagonists are antiheroes who search for meaning in their lives and struggle to avoid being overwhelmed by such institutions as the military, big business, government, and religion. Catch-22 is most often interpreted as an antiwar protest novel that foreshadowed the widespread resistance to the Vietnam War that erupted in the late 1960s. While Heller's later novels have received mixed reviews, Catch-22 continues to be highly regarded as a trenchant satire of the big business of modern warfare.
Heller was born in Brooklyn, New York, to first generation Russian-Jewish immigrants. His father, a bakery-truck driver, died after a bungled operation when Heller was only five years old. Many critics believe that Heller developed the sardonic, wisecracking humor that has marked his writing style while growing up in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn. After graduating from high school in 1941, he worked briefly in an insurance office, an experience he later drew upon for the novel Something Happened (1974). In 1942, Heller enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Two years later he was sent to Corsica, where he flew sixty combat missions as a wing bombardier, earning an Air Medal and a Presidential Unit Citation. It is generally agreed that Heller's war years in the Mediterranean theater had only a minimal impact on his conception of Catch-22. Discharged from the military in 1945, Heller married Shirley Held and began his college education. He obtained a B.A. in English from New York University, an M.A. from Columbia University, and attended Oxford University as a Fulbright Scholar for a year before becoming an English instructor at Pennsylvania State University. Two years later Heller began working as an advertising copywriter, securing positions at such magazines as Time, Look, and McCall's from 1952 to 1961. The office settings of these companies also yielded material for Something Happened. During this time Heller was also writing short stories and scripts for film and television as well as working on Catch-22. Although his stories easily found publication, Heller considered them insubstantial and derivative of Ernest Hemingway's works. After the phenomenal success of Catch-22, Heller quit his job at McCall's and concentrated exclusively on writing fiction and plays. In December of 1981, he contracted Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare type of polyneuritis that afflicts the peripheral nervous system. Heller chronicled his medical problems and difficult recovery in No Laughing Matter (1986) with Speed Vogel, a friend who helped him during his illness.
Catch-22 concerns a World War II bombardier named Yossarian who believes his foolish, ambitious, mean-spirited commanding officers are more dangerous than the enemy. In order to avoid flying more missions, Yossarian retreats to a hospital with a mysterious liver complaint, sabotages his plane, and tries to get himself declared insane. Variously defined throughout the novel, "Catch-22" refers to the ways in which bureaucracies control the people who work for them. The term first appears when Yossarian asks to be declared insane. In this instance, Catch-22 demands that anyone who is insane must be excused from flying missions. The "catch" is that one must ask to be excused; anyone who does so is showing "rational fear in the face of clear and present danger," is therefore sane, and must continue to fly. In its final, most ominous form, Catch-22 declares "they have the right to do anything we can't stop them from doing." Although most critics identify Yossarian as a coward and an antihero, they also sympathize with his urgent need to protect himself from this brutal universal law. Some critics have questioned the moral status of Yossarian's actions, noting in particular that he seems to be motivated merely by self-preservation, and that the enemy he refuses to fight is led by Adolf Hitler. Others, however, contend that while Catch-22 is ostensibly a war novel, World War II and the Air Force base where most of the novel's action takes place function primarily as a microcosm that demonstrates the disintegration of language and human value in a bureaucratic state.
Heller embodies his satire of capitalism in the character of Milo Minderbinder, whose obsessive pursuit of profits causes many deaths and much suffering among his fellow soldiers. Originally a mess hall officer, Milo organizes a powerful black market syndicate capable of cornering the Egyptian cotton market and bombing the American base on Pianosa for the Germans. On the surface Milo's adventures form a straightforward, optimistic success story that some commentators have likened to the Horatio Alger tales popular at the turn of the twentieth century. The narrative line that follows Yossarian, on the other hand, is characterized by his confused, frustrated, and frightened psychological state. The juxtaposition of these two narrative threads provides a disjointed, almost schizophrenic structure that re-asserts the absurd logic depicted in Catch-22.
Structurally, Catch-22 is episodic and repetitive. The majority of the narrative is composed of a series of cyclical flashbacks of increasing detail and ominousness. The most important recurring incident is the death of a serviceman named Snowden that occurs before the opening of the story but is referred to and recounted periodically throughout the novel. In the penultimate chapter, Yossarian relives the full horror and comprehends the significance of this senseless death as it reflects the human condition and his own situation. This narrative method led many critics, particularly early reviewers, to condemn Heller's novel as formless. Norman Mailer's oft-repeated jibe: "One could take out a hundred pages anywhere from the middle of Catch-22, and not even the author could be certain they were gone" has been refuted by Heller himself, and has inspired other critics to carefully trace the chronology of ever-darkening events that provide the loose structure of this novel.
Heller poignantly and consistently satirizes language, particularly the system of euphemisms and oxymorons that passes for official speech in the United States Armed Forces. In the world of Catch-22 metaphorical language has a dangerously literal power. The death of Doc Daneeka is an example: when the plane that Doc is falsely reported to be on crashes and no one sees him parachute to safety, he is presumed dead and his living presence is insufficient to convince anyone that he is really alive. Similarly, when Yossarian rips up his girlfriend's address in rage, she disappears, never to be seen again. Marcus K. Billson III summarized this technique: "The world of [Catch-22] projects the horrific, yet all too real, power of language to divest itself from any necessity of reference, to function as an independent, totally autonomous medium with its own perfect system and logic. That such a language pretends to mirror anything but itself is a commonplace delusion Heller satirizes throughout the novel. Yet, civilization is informed by this very pretense, and Heller shows how man is tragically and comically tricked and manipulated by such an absurdity."
Heller's second novel, Something Happened, centers on Bob Slocum, a middle-aged businessman who has a large, successful company but who feels emotionally empty. Narrating in a monotone, Slocum attempts to find the source of his malaise and his belief that modern American bourgeois life has lost meaning, by probing into his past and exploring his relationships with his wife, children, and coworkers. Although critics consider Slocum a generally dislikable character, he ultimately achieves sympathy because he has so thoroughly assimilated the values of his business that he has lost his own identity. Many commentators have viewed Slocum as an Everyman, a moral cipher who exemplifies the age's declining spirit. While initial reviews of Something Happened were mixed, more recent criticism has often deemed this novel superior to and more sophisticated than Catch-22, particularly citing Heller's shift from exaggeration to suggestion. In his critical biography Joseph Heller, Robert Merrill described Something Happened as "the most convincing study we have of what it is like to participate in the struggle that is postwar America."
Good as Gold (1979) marks Heller's first fictional use of his Jewish heritage and childhood experiences in Coney Island. The protagonist of this novel, Bruce Gold, is an unfulfilled college professor who is writing a book about "the Jewish experience," but he also harbors political ambitions. Offered a high government position after giving a positive review of a book written by the president, Gold accepts, leaves his wife and children, and finds himself immersed in a farcical bureaucracy in which officials speak in a confusing, contradictory language. In this novel, Heller harshly satirizes former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a Jew who has essentially forsaken his Jewishness. As a result, the author draws an analogy between the themes of political powerlust and corruption with Jewish identity. Similarly, Gold's motives for entering politics are strictly self-aggrandizing, as he seeks financial, sexual, and social rewards. When his older brother dies, however, Gold realizes the importance of his Jewish heritage and family, and decides to leave Washington. Throughout the novel, Heller alternates the narrative between scenes of Gold's large, garrulous Jewish family and the mostly gentile milieu of Washington, employing realism to depict the former and parody to portray the latter.
Heller's next novel, God Knows (1984), is a retelling of the biblical story of King David, the psalmist of the Old Testament. A memoir in the form of a monologue by David, the text abounds with anachronistic speech, combining the Bible's lyricism with a Jewish-American dialect reminiscent of the comic routines of such humorists as Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks, and Woody Allen. In an attempt to determine the origin of his despondency near the end of his life, David ruminates on the widespread loss of faith and sense of community, the uses of art, and the seeming absence of God. In Picture This (1988), Heller utilizes Rembrandt's painting " Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer" to draw parallels between ancient Greece, seventeenth-century Holland, and contemporary America. Moving backward and forward among these eras, this novel meditates on art, money, injustice, the folly of war, and the failures of democracy. Critics questioned whether Picture This should be considered a novel, a work of history, or a political tract.
Heller's first play, We Bombed in New Haven (1967), concerns a group of actors who believe they are portraying an Air Force squadron in an unspecified modern war. The action alternates between scenes where the players act out their parts in the "script" and scenes where they converse among themselves out of "character," expressing dissatisfaction with their roles. This distancing technique, which recalls the work of Bertolt Brecht and Luigi Pirandello, alerts the audience to the play's artificiality. As in Catch-22, this drama exposes what Heller perceives as the illogic and moral bankruptcy of the United States military. Many critics have also interpreted We Bombed in New Haven as a protest against America's participation in the Vietnam War. Heller has also adapted Catch-22 for the stage, but critics generally consider this work inferior to the novel.
While Heller's place in twentieth-century letters is assured with Catch-22, he is also highly regarded for his other works, which present a comic vision of modern society with serious moral implications. A major theme throughout his writing is the conflict that occurs when individuals interact with such powerful institutions as corporations, the military, and the federal government. Heller's novels have displayed increasing pessimism over the inability of individuals to reverse society's slide toward corruption and degeneration. He renders the chaos and absurdity of contemporary existence through disjointed chronology, anachronistic and oxymoronic language, and repetition of events. In all his work, Heller emphasizes that it is necessary to identify and take responsibility for our social and personal evils and to make beneficial changes in our behavior.
A Dangerous Crossing, Southern Illinois University Press, 1973.
Aichinger, Peter, The American Soldier in Fiction, 1880-1963, Iowa State University Press, 1975.
American Novels of the Second World War, Mouton, 1969.
Authors in the News, Volume 1, Gale, 1976.
Bergonzi, Bernard, The Situation of the Novel, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970.
Bier, Jesse, The Rise and Fall of American Humor, Holt, 1968.
Bruccoli, Matthew J. and C. E. Frazer Clark, Jr., editors, Pages: The World of Books, Writers, and Writing, Gale, 1976. □
(b. 1 May 1923 in New York City; d. 12 December 1999 in East Hampton, New York), author whose 1961 novel, Catch-22, based on his own World War II experiences, reached the peak of its popularity during the Vietnam War, exposing the insanity of war and bureaucratic institutions.
Heller was born in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn. He was the son of Isaac Donald Heller, a delivery truck driver for a wholesale baker, and Lena Heller. Heller's father had two older children from a previous marriage. When Heller was five years old his father died of complications from a bleeding ulcer, and his stepbrother Lee served as a surrogate father. His mother struggled financially and took boarders into the family home. Mischievous as a youth, Heller was hardly a model student. He primarily enjoyed reading adventure stories such as the Rover Boys and Tom Swift, until about the age of ten, when a cousin introduced him to a children's version of Homer's Iliad. After reading Homer, Heller decided that he wanted to be a writer. He attended Public School 188 in Brooklyn and graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1941.
Following graduation Heller got a job as a blacksmith's helper at the Norfolk Navy Yard in Virginia, but he continued to pursue writing in his spare time. In October 1942 Heller enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force. He was sent to armorer's school and was content there until he heard a rumor that armorers were being turned into gunners, whose wartime life expectancy was extremely short. Accordingly, Heller volunteered for cadet school and became a wing bombardier in the Twelfth Air Force. He was commissioned a second lieutenant and stationed on the island of Corsica in the Mediterranean, from which he flew bombing missions over France and Italy. Heller experienced little anxiety until his thirty-seventh mission, when he witnessed several planes flown by his friends destroyed and the top turret gunner on his B-25 injured by flak. Henceforth, Heller related that he was terrified on all of his bombing runs. In June 1945 he was discharged at the rank of first lieutenant after having flown sixty missions.
Taking advantage of his GI Bill benefits, Heller studied briefly at the University of Southern California before enrolling at New York University, where he earned a Phi Beta Kappa key and graduated in 1948 with a B.A. in English. The following year he secured an M.A. in English from Columbia University. On 3 September 1945 Heller married Shirley Held; they had two children. During the 1949–1950 academic year Heller studied at Oxford University in England under a Fulbright Scholarship. After returning to the United States he accepted a position as an instructor of freshman English composition at Pennsylvania State University. For the remainder of the decade Heller left academia and worked in the magazine business, serving as an advertising writer for Time and Look and a promotion manager at McCall's.
Meanwhile, Heller continued to pursue his passion for writing, publishing short stories in Esquire, Atlantic Monthly, and Cosmopolitan. Becoming disenchanted with the short story format, Heller turned his attention to the preparation of a novel. After eight years of work Simon and Schuster published Catch-22 in 1961.
Heller originally planned to use the number 18 in his title but was dissuaded after Leon Uris published Mila 18. Based loosely upon Heller's experiences during World War II, Catch-22 tells the story of bombardier John Yossarin, who is stationed on the imaginary island of Pianosa off the Italian coast in the Tyrrhenian Sea. On a mission to Ferrera, Yossarin tries to save the life of a fatally wounded gunner, Snowden, bandaging the wrong wound as Snowden dies. In protest, Yossarin strips and sits naked in a tree, but he is still awarded a medal. Yossarin fears for his own life, recognizing that the only way to escape from further dangerous missions is to be declared crazy and therefore not be assigned to any additional missions. However, the very act of requesting to be excused from potentially deadly flights indicates a rational mind, and the individual making such a plea could not be insane. Therefore, to be excused one only has to ask, but the very request denotes sanity, and one has to keep flying. As Doc Daneeka says, "It's some catch; that catch-22."
Yossarin becomes convinced that his own officers, such as Colonel Cathcart and General Dreedle, are a greater danger to his life than the enemy Germans. To save himself Yossarin makes a deal with colonels Cathcart and Korn that he will lie for them to their superior officers. With this agreement Yossarin will be excused from flying, but his compliance will increase the number of missions for his comrades. Yossarin recognizes that he has made a pact with the devil when he is attacked and stabbed by Nately's whore, who holds Yossarin responsible when Nately is killed in action. He admires Nately's whore as someone willing to break the chain of compliance. Accordingly, Yossarin reneges on his deal with Colonels Cathcart and Korn, and, following Orr's example, he deserts, steals a lifeboat, and begins rowing for neutral Sweden.
Catch-22 was more than an antiwar novel; it questioned the conventional wisdom and assumptions of post–World War II America. Some scholars have used the "consensus" concept to describe the United States in the period from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. According to consensus values, the twin pillars of American society were anticommunism and capitalistic economic expansion. The system was sound, and sustained economic growth would extend the benefits of the system to any disadvantaged groups. There was no reason to protest actively against society, and the only real threat to the promise of American life was encroaching Communism. But Catch-22 challenged these assumptions, poking fun at the U.S. government, bureaucracy, World War II, the cold war, McCarthyism, anticommunism, suburban conformity, and capitalism. In fact, as the supreme capitalist entrepreneur, Milo Minderbender creates an international syndicate for war profiteering with the slogan "What's good for M & M Enterprises is good for the country." The ultimate irony comes when Milo bombs his own camp for the Germans because they pay their bills promptly. Scores of Americans are killed, but the mission was profitable.
In 1961 Heller was ahead of his time. Initial sales of Catch-22 were slow, and some reviewers did not know what to make of the book. For example, R. C. Stern, writing in the New York Times Book Review, termed Catch-22 an "emotional hodgepodge," and Whitney Balliett of the New Yorker complained that Heller "wallows in his own laughter, and finally drowns in it." Nevertheless, most reviews were positive. Writing in The Nation, Nelson Algren argued, "Below its hilarity, so wild that it hurts, Catch-22 is the strongest repudiation of our civilization in fiction to come out of World War II." In a review for the New Republic, Robert Brustein concluded, "Through the agency of grotesque comedy, Heller has found a way to confront the humbug, hypocrisy, cruelty, and sheer stupidity of our mass society."
Although reviews were somewhat mixed, sales of the book grew through word of mouth, and it became an underground classic with the youth counterculture. With the expansion of the Vietnam War and the growing protest of that conflict, Heller's novel became increasingly relevant, and by the early 1970s over seven million copies had been sold. In an interview with the New York Times, Heller acknowledged the role that Vietnam played in the growing popularity of his novel, proclaiming, "Because this is the war I had in mind; a war fought without military provocation, a war in which the real enemy is no longer the other side but someone allegedly on your side. The ridiculous war I felt lurking in the future when I wrote the book." Heller's sentiments were echoed by Josh Greenfield in a 1968 piece for the New York Times Book Review in which the critic asserted, "There seems no denying that though Heller's macabre farce was written about a rarefied part of the raging war of the forties during the silent fifties, it has all but become the chapbook of the sixties." In a 1999 eulogy to Heller, the novelist E. L. Doctorow observed, "When Catch-22 came out, people were saying, 'Well, World War II wasn't like this.' But when we got tangled up in Vietnam, it became a sort of text for the consciousness of that time." In 1970 the director Mike Nichols completed a film adaptation of Catch-22 with Alan Arkin in the role of Yossarin. Heller announced that he was pleased with the film, although some critics insisted that Nichols downplayed the novel's satire of capitalism.
Before Catch-22 became a best-seller, Heller had to engage in script writing and teaching to sustain himself economically. Under the pen name of Max Orange, he contributed to the television comedy series McHale's Navy, and he worked on the screenplays for Sex and the Single Girl (1965), Casino Royale (1967), and Dirty Dingus Magee (1970). In the late 1960s Heller taught fiction and dramatic writing at Yale University, while in the early 1970s he served as the distinguished visiting writer on the English department faculty at the City College of the City University of New York.
Heller's opposition to the war in Vietnam was most apparent in his two-act play, We Bombed in New Haven, which he wrote at Yale in 1968. The absurdist play was an indictment of war and a denouncement of the military's adherence to following orders. Directed by Larry Arrick and starring Stacy Keach, it was first presented by the Yale School of Drama Repertory Theatre on 4 December 1967. The play also enjoyed a brief eighty-six performance run on Broadway in 1968, under the direction of John Hersch and with Jason Robards in the lead. Heller also adapted Catch-22 into a play. It was first produced at the John Drew Theater in East Hampton, New York, in 1971.
Heller did not produce another novel until Something Happened (1974), which tells the story of disillusioned businessman James Slocum. In 1979 Heller's third novel, Good as Gold, was published. The protagonist in the novel is English professor Bruce Gold, who wants to become the first real Jewish Secretary of State, an obvious statement regarding Henry Kissinger's role as Secretary of State during the Vietnam War. God Knows, published in 1984, was an irreverent look at religion through the eyes of King David, who laments that God doesn't talk to him anymore.
In 1980, while dealing with the collapse of his marriage to Held, Heller was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a life-threatening neurological disease. He survived this brush with death after a partial and temporary paralysis, writing a book about his experience, No Laughing Matter (1986), which he coauthored with his friend Speed Vogel. During his rehabilitation Heller worked with nurse Valerie Humphries, whom he married in 1987.
Returning to writing in 1988, Heller published Picture This, using art as an entry vehicle through which to address his criticism of power, war, and mass society. In 1994 Heller surprised his readers with Closing Time, a sequel to Catch-22. An ambitious undertaking, Closing Time enjoyed decent sales and a favorable critical reaction. Even when critics complained that the author had never written another book as good as Catch-22, in reply Heller often quipped, "Who has?"
In 1999 Heller suffered a fatal heart attack at his home in East Hampton. While ignored following its publication, Heller's novel Catch-22 found resonance among those in the 1960s questioning American society and the Vietnam War. The term "Catch-22" has entered the English language, and the book has sold approximately twelve million copies.
Heller provided autobiographical information in No Laughing Matter (1986) and Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here (1998), both cowritten with Speed Vogel. For literary criticism of Heller and his work, see: Frederick Kiley and Walter McDonald, eds., A Catch-22 Casebook (1973); Brenda M. Keegan, Heller: A Reference Guide (1978); Stephen W. Potts, From Here to Absurdity: The Moral Battlefields of Joseph Heller (1982); James Nagel, ed., Critical Essays on Joseph Heller (1984); Robert Merrill, Joseph Heller (1987); and Sanford Pinsker, Understanding Joseph Heller (1991). Obituaries are in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and (London) Times (all 14 Dec. 1999).
Joseph Heller was a popular and respected writer whose first and best-known novel, Catch-22 (1961), was considered a classic piece of literature in the second half of the twentieth century.
Childhood in Brooklyn
Joseph Heller was born in Brooklyn, New York, to first generation Russian-Jewish immigrants. His father, a bakery-truck driver, died after a surgical operation when Heller was only five years old. Many critics believe that Heller developed the dark, wisecracking humor that marked his writing style while growing up near Coney Island, a famous amusement park in Brooklyn. Heller recalled little childhood influence in the literary world except for The Illiad by Homer, an eighth-century b.c.e. poet.
Education and the military
After graduating from high school in 1941, Heller worked briefly in an insurance office, and in 1942 he enlisted in the Army Air Corps after America entered World War II (1939–45; a war in which France, Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union fought against Germany, Italy, and Japan). Two years later he was sent to Corsica, an island in the Mediterranean Sea, where he flew sixty combat missions as a fighter pilot, earning an Air Medal and a Presidential Unit Citation. It is generally agreed that Heller's war years in the Mediterranean had only a minimal impact on the creation of Catch-22.
After Heller left the military in 1945, he married Shirley Held and began his college education. He obtained a bachelor's degree in English from New York University, a master's degree from Columbia University, and attended Oxford University as a Fulbright Scholar for a year before becoming an English instructor at Pennsylvania State University.
Two years later Heller began working as an advertising copywriter, securing positions at such magazines as Time, Look, and McCall's from 1952 to 1961. During this time Heller was also writing short stories and scripts for film and television, as well as working on Catch-22. After the success of Catch-22, Heller quit his job at McCall's and concentrated exclusively on writing fiction and plays.
Catch-22 concerns a World War II fighter pilot named Yossarian who believes his foolish, ambitious, mean-spirited commanding officers are more dangerous than the enemy. In order to avoid flying more missions, Yossarian retreats to a hospital with a mysterious liver complaint, wrecks his plane, and tries to get himself declared insane. Variously defined throughout the novel, "Catch-22" refers to the ways in which officials in command control the people who work for them.
"I never thought of Catch-22 as a comic novel," Heller says in the New York Times. "[But] … I wanted the reader to be amused, and … I wanted him to be ashamed that he was amused. My literary bent … is more toward the morbid [gruesome] and the tragic. Great carnage [death] is taking place and my idea was to use humor to make ridiculous the things that are irrational and very terrible."
While Heller's place in twentieth-century letters is secured with Catch-22, he is also highly regarded for his other works, which present a comic vision of modern society with serious moral connections. A major theme throughout his writing is the conflict that occurs when individuals interact with such powerful institutions as corporations, the military, and the government.
Heller's second novel, Something Happened, centers on Bob Slocum, a middle-aged businessman who has a large, successful company but feels emotionally empty. While initial reviews of Something Happened were mixed, more recent criticism has often deemed this novel superior to and more sophisticated than Catch-22.
Good as Gold (1979) marks Heller's first fictional use of his Jewish heritage and childhood experiences in Coney Island. In Picture This (1988), Heller utilizes Rembrandt's painting "Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer" to draw parallels between ancient Greece, seventeenth-century Holland, and contemporary America.
In the early 1980s Heller was stricken with a nerve disease, Guillain-Barre syndrome, that left him paralyzed for several months. Though the author became too weak to move and almost too weak to breathe on his own, he eventually regained his strength and recovered from the often fatal disorder. After completing God Knows, Heller began writing his first nonfiction book, No Laughing Matter, with Speed Vogel, a friend who helped him considerably during his illness.
Heller died of a heart attack on December 12, 1999, at his East Hampton, New York, home. After Heller's death, Simon & Schuster published Heller's final work, A Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man, a collection of memoirs and essays by one of the world's most influential writers of the twentieth century.
For More Information
Heller, Joseph. Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here. Franklin Center, PA: Franklin Library, 1998.
Heller, Joseph, and Speed Vogel. No Laughing Matter. New York: Putnam, 1986.
Ruderman, Judith. Joseph Heller. New York: Continuum, 1991.
HELLER, JOSEPH (1923–1999), U.S. novelist and dramatist. Heller was born in Brooklyn, New York, and during World War ii joined the Air Force. He attended college after the war and received a Fulbright to study at Oxford. He later worked as an advertising writer and manager for leading magazines and published short stories before turning seriously to literature. His bestselling novel Catch-22 (1961, and later made into a film) was an outstanding satire on the military mind, based on World War ii experiences. It was – and is – so popular that the phrase "catch-22" won a place in the English language. (Heller returned to the characters of Catch-22 with Closing Time ). He also wrote the play We Bombedin New Haven (1968). His memorable dark novel about business culture, Something Happened (1974), was comically offset by his satirical portrait of an American-Jewish English professor in Good as Gold (1979). God Knows (1984) is the imaginary death-bed autobiography of King David, whose voice is shrewd, world-weary, as well as flamboyant. A recovery from illness led to Heller's No Laughing Matter (with Speed Vogel, 1986). His posthumous novel, Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man (2000), a mixture of large and often biting humor, traces the struggles of Eugene Pota to find his commanding theme before his reputation diminishes. Heller's own autobiography is Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here (1998).
M.J. Bruccoli, Joseph Heller: A Descriptive Bibliography (2002); D. Craig, Tilting at Mortality: Narrative Strategies in Joseph Heller's Fiction (1997); S. Pinsker, Understanding Joseph Heller (1991); A. Sorkin, Conversations with Joseph Heller (1993).
[Lewis Fried (2nd ed.)]
Joseph Heller, 1923–99, American writer, b. Brooklyn, N.Y. Heller is best known for his first novel, Catch-22 (1961). Set in World War II, it is a darkly humorous commentary on the illogic of war and bureaucracy. The title, which refers to an inescapable double bind, has entered the language. Heller dramatized his novel in 1971 and published a sequel, Closing Time, in 1994. His other works include the play We Bombed in New Haven (1967); the novels Something Happened (1974), Good As Gold (1979), God Knows (1984), and Picture This (1989); and the memoir Now and Then (1998). From his earliest writing days to his later career, Heller also wrote short stores, many of them included in Catch as Catch Can (2003).
See memoir by his daughter, E. Heller (2011); biography by T. Daugherty (2011); studies by R. Merrill (1987) and D. Seed (1989).