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Joseph Heller

Joseph Heller (1923-1999) was an American writer best known for his satirical novel, Catch-22 (1961). Having flown sixty missions as a bomber pilot during WWII, Heller experienced the insanity of war up close and was left questioning the necessity of conflict. He was able to channel this doubt into his most famous work, which went on to be one of the most famous and influential works of the 20th century.

Joseph Heller's Biography

Joseph Heller was born in Brooklyn, New York, close to Coney Island. His parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants. The family struggled financially after the death of his father. After graduating high school, Heller worked as a messenger boy before volunteering for the Air Force at the outbreak of WWII. As a fighter pilot, Heller flew sixty combat missions over Europe and received the Presidential Unit Citation Medal. This firsthand experience of the war would influence his most famous novel, Catch-22. Though he was greeted as a hero, Heller often downplayed the bravery of his service and was critical of the need for war.

Joseph Heller Biography StudySmarter Heller grew up near the Coney Island carnival. Pixabay.

Taking advantage of the GI Bill, Heller studied English at the University of Southern California before transferring to New York University, where he graduated in 1948. After completing an M.A in English at Columbia University in 1949, Heller was awarded the Fulbright scholarship to Oxford University, England.

Heller taught English at Penn State for two years from 1950 to 1952 before working as an advertising copywriter for the magazines Time (1952-56) and Look (1956-1958). In his spare time, Heller started working on early drafts of what would become Catch-22. One chapter of the story appeared in the New World Writing collection in 1955 under the title Catch-18.

Heller was initially uncommitted to developing the draft into a novel. He had initially envisioned it as a novelette and abandoned the work after completing the first third. His agent presented the work to publishers who paid Heller $750 for the first third and promised another $750 for the completed draft.

The novel's title was changed from Catch-18 to Catch-22 to avoid confusion with the novel Mila 18 by Leon Uris.

When Catch-22 was released in 1961, it met mixed receptions. Some critics recognized it as a landmark of American literature, while others saw it as a chaotic mess of ideas. It was only when American humorist S.J. Perelman mentioned the book in an interview that sales started to increase. Throughout the rest of the 1960s, the book enjoyed a slow-burn success, eventually gaining cult success in the burgeoning counterculture. During the 1960s, a popular movement of mostly young people began to question societal norms surrounding race, class, and gender. The "Hippies" of the counterculture were anti-establishment and rejected the consumerism of mainstream American culture. They also protested the ongoing Vietnam War as an unjust conflict. Catch-22 became especially popular with readers of this generation for its anti-war message and Yossarian's rebellion against the establishment.

Joseph Heller Biography StudySmarter During WWII, Heller piloted a B-52 just like the flight crew in Catch-22. Pixabay.

In 1967, Heller staged an antiwar play entitled We Bombed in New Haven at the height of the Vietnam War. He spent the next few years adapting screenplays in Hollywood. His next book was published in 1974, thirteen years after Catch-22. Something Happened is a stream of consciousness narrative that follows the inner thoughts of a middle-aged businessman. It received mixed reviews upon release.

In 1981 Heller was diagnosed with a rare nerve disease called Guillain-Bare syndrome. The condition left him paralyzed for many months. Eventually, fighting his way back to health, Heller would document the slow road to recovery in his autobiography, No Laughing Matter (1986). His next novel, Closing Time (1994) saw his return to the world of Catch-22 with the sequel, set fifty years after the original. It follows Yossarian in later life as he navigates the corporate bureaucracy and the detached nature of modern life.

Shortly after completing his final work, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man (2000), Heller died of a heart attack in 1999.

The title of Heller’s most famous work, Catch-22, has become a common idiom to describe situations that are inescapable because of contradicting rules. In the novel, Yossarian attempts to escape his service on the missions by claiming he is insane and therefore unfit to fly. He asks the doctor for a mental examination to prove his insanity. The doctor explains that since Yossarian is sane enough to ask for a mental exam, he is not insane, and therefore can not be pulled from service.

Joseph Heller Catch-22 StudySmarter The circular logic of the Catch-22 is enough to drive you insane! Pixabay.

Catch-22 is an example of circular logic, or a logical paradox, which is used to describe situations where individuals feel trapped by the rules of bureaucratic systems. Popular examples of the Catch-22 trap include:

  • An entry-level job asks for five years of experience. The applicant needs the job to get experience, but without the job they can’t get the experience.
  • A person locks their keys in a car. To retrieve their keys, they need their keys to open the lock.

Short Stories by Joseph Heller

Heller wrote seven novels, three screenplays, two autobiographies, one play, and many short stories throughout his career. Here are a few of his most famous works.

"Almost like Christmas" (2016) by Joseph Heller

One of Heller's earliest works, the short story "Almost like Christmas," was not published until after his death. Based in the Jim Crow-era American South, the story explores the tensions surrounding the stabbing of a white man. The outraged townspeople cry out for revenge instead of justice. A local teacher is enlisted to convince a black man to hand himself into the police for questioning.

As with Heller's other work, "Almost like Christmas" is a bleak depiction of a corrupt system and explores the individual's struggle against general ignorance.

Catch-22 (1961) by Joseph Heller


Catch-22
is a satirical work set during WWII, as Heller's most famous work, the novel is considered a landmark of 20th-century American Literature. The story follows an American bombardier squadron flying missions over occupied Italy during WWII. The protagonist is Captain Yossarian, a classic antihero who has grown weary of the war and questions the need for such death and destruction. He attempts to escape service by claiming to be insane, only to be informed by the doctor that his acknowledgment of insanity is proof that he is in fact sane enough to keep flying!

Tragicomedies are works that combine elements of humor with tragedy. Famous examples include The Merchant of Venice (1596-99) by Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot (1953).

Throughout the novel, Heller switches between various narrators to depict the vast and absurd bureaucracy Yossarian is desperate to escape. The insanity of war and the needless rules of the military are satirized throughout, and Heller firmly asserts an antiwar message. The novel was not immediately successful upon release as the tumultuous decade the book gained a new relevance during the Vietnam War. As the antiwar movement grew, Heller's novel became a reference point for those who were critical of America's involvement in the conflict.

Heller used the book to present a frank and bleak portrayal of war. The book also contains a great deal of humor and satire as Yossarian attempts to defeat the nonsensical bureaucracy of military command. Heller combined his own experiences with sharp commentary on war to produce the finest tragicomic novels of the 20th century.

Closing Time (1994)

This sequel to Catch-22 is set 50 years after the events of the original novel. An elderly Yossarian looks back at his post-war life 50 years later. Feeling increasingly detached from the hustle of New York City, he spends most of his time looking back at his failures and triumphs. The novel serves as Heller's mediation on the themes of aging and decline as he presents the once young and healthy characters from Catch-22 as old men trying to navigate life in America during the latter half of the 20th century.

Some of the characters from Catch-22 reappear in Yossarian's life as they reminisce about the war and prepare for death. Stylistically, Closing Time shares many characteristics with its predecessor. Heller employs satire and absurdity to portray characters struggling to exist in a nonsensical system.

Joseph Heller Quotes

Heller's works are renowned for his ability to mix humor and paradox with serious commentary. As well as pointing out the absurdity of war, Heller questions the need for conflict. Here are some quotes from the works of Joseph Heller.

"The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likeable. In three days no one could stand him," - Catch-22 (Ch. 1)

A classic example of one of the many examples of contradictory logic in Catch-22. Much of the novel's humor derives from the everyday paradoxes Yossarian must face. In many cases, Yossarian finds himself surrounded by characters who are able to accept the insanity of the war.

"You know, that might be the answer – to act boastfully about something we ought to be ashamed of. That’s a trick that never seems to fail.” - Catch-22 (Ch. 13)

One of the underlining themes of Catch-22 is the manipulation of patriotism. Yossarian sees his commanders use a sense of patriotism to quell his criticisms. While many characters openly lie or contradict themselves, Yossarian seems to be the only one who notices.

"For war there is always enough. It's peace that's expensive." - Closing Time (Ch. 17)

Heller's antiwar sentiments reoccured through his works. In Closing Time many of the main characters are veterans of WWII. As they approach the end of their lives, they question the need for war.

Joseph Heller - Key Takeaways

  • Joseph Heller was an American author, his most famous work is Catch-22.
  • He flew sixty combat missions during WWII and used his experience to write Catch-22.
  • The novel's title has entered the lexicon to describe situations involving circular logic and contradicting rules.
  • Heller remained an outspoken critic of war throughout his life.
  • Catch-22 is considered one of the most important satirical novels of the 20 century.

Frequently Asked Questions about Joseph Heller

Joseph Heller is an American author. He wrote several novels, short stories, and screenplays. 

Joseph Heller is best known for his satirical antiwar novel, Catch-22 (1961).

Joseph Heller wrote seven novels, three screenplays, two autobiographies, one play, and many short stories. 

Joseph Heller died of a heart attack at the age of 76. 

Joseph Heller served as a fighter pilot during WWII. He did not attempt to escape his wartime service. However, the lead character of his most successful work, Catch-22, does try to escape service by pretending to be insane. 

Final Joseph Heller Quiz

Question

Joseph Heller's most famous work is _________. 

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Answer

Catch-22

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Question

Joseph Heller served as a fighter pilot during which war? 

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Answer

WWII

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Question

During early drafts, Catch-22 was titled ________.

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Answer

Catch-18

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Question

In 1949, Heller received the Fulbright Scholarship to study at which prestigious university? 

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Answer

Oxford

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Question

Heller was initially uncommitted to completing the first draft of Catch-22

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Answer

True

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Question

On its release, Catch-22 was immediately successful and received unanimous critical acclaim. 

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Answer

False

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Question

The lead character in Catch-22 is called _______. 

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Answer

Yossarian

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Which genre best describes Catch-22

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Answer

Satire

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Question

Heller's follow-up to Catch-22 is titled __________. 

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Answer

Closing Time

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Question

Joseph Heller was a vocal supporter of America's involvement in foreign wars. 

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Answer

False

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Which war does Catch-22 take place during?

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Answer

WWII

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Question

The lead character in Catch-22 is ________.

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Answer

Yossarian 

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Question

Who wrote Catch-22?

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Answer

Joseph Heller

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Question

In the novel, the term Catch-22 refers to a ____________. 

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Answer

A military rule. 

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Question

The Catch-22, which inhibits Yossarian's plan to escape service is an example of a __________

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Answer

Paradox.

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In Catch-22, Heller depicts the large, complex military system as a _________. 

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Bureaucracy

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Question

Heller uses the Milo Minderbinder character to represent which economic system? 

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Answer

Capitialism 

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Question

Catch-22 is a pro-war novel. 

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Answer

False

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Question

Yossarian is an example of a/an _________.

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Answer

Antihero

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Question

During the 1960s, Catch-22 became important for which movement? 

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Answer

The anti-war movement

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