Biography of Joseph Heller

Joseph Heller, born on May 1, 1923, grew up in Brooklyn, New York. From an early age, he aspired to be a writer. During World War II, he served in the U.S. Air Force as a bombardier in Italy and flew 60 missions. These experiences later became the basis for his first novel, Catch-22. When he was discharged from the Air Force in 1945, he pursued a degree in English at New York University. Heller earned an M.A. from Columbia University in 1949 and studied at the University of Oxford as a Fulbright Scholar for the next two years. He became a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University (1950-1952) and instructed the feminist playwright Wendy Wasserstein. His later jobs included working as an advertising copywriter for Time (1952-1956) and Look (1956-1958) as well as a promotion manager for McCall's (1958-1961).

In 1961, Heller published Catch-22, which tells the story of Captain Joseph Yossarian and his attempt to avoid serving in World War II by feigning insanity. Yossarian’s plan is thwarted by the doctor's argument that if he were truly mad then he would endanger his life and seek to fight more missions. On the other hand, if he were sane, he would be capable of following orders, in which case he would be sent to fight more missions. Thus the phrase "catch-22" has come to mean something like "a proviso that trips one up no matter which way one turns." The novel was an immediate success despite a very acrid review by the New Yorker. A popular film adaptation of the novel was produced in 1970.

As a member of the Beat Generation and the post-World War II era, Heller developed a very satirical approach towards institutions, particularly the national government and the military. He was deeply cynical of war, which was best exemplified by the "black humor" of Catch-22, and he explored the difficulties of Jewish experience in postwar America.

Despite the immense initial success of Catch-22 and its cultlike following, Heller became neither a literary star nor a prolific writer. His next work, a play titled We Bombed New Haven (1968), had many of the same themes as Catch-22 but failed on Broadway. His subsequent novels were also not very successful. Something Happened (1974) describes the life of a fast-track corporate executive and his fears and dreams. Tan Bueno Como Oro, or Good as Gold (1979), recounts the life of a middle-aged English professor, Dr. Bruce Gold, and his encounter with White House politics. It satirizes leading politicians such as Henry Kissinger and delves into the Jewish experience in contemporary America. God Knows (1984) is a hilarious, ribald modern account of King David's life and serves as an allegory for a Jewish person's life in an often antagonistic world.

In 1986, Heller developed the neurological disease Guillain-Barre syndrome. After his recovery, he wrote the novel No Laughing Matter with Speed Vogel. This novel is an optimistic, autobiographical account of his personal battle against this illness. Another novel, Picture This (1988), describes the painting of a bust of the philosopher Aristotle by the artist Rembrandt. As Rembrandt paints, the bust comes to life, and this episode initiates a highly creative work recounting the past 2,500 years of Western civilization. Heller's last novel, Closing Time (1994), is a sequel to Catch-22 that updates the lives of the characters from Heller's first novel. It was nowhere near as successful as its predecessor. Heller's final book, Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here (1998), is a touching memoir recalling his boyhood experiences growing up on Coney Island during the 1920s and 1930s. Joseph Heller died in his home on December 12, 1999, of a heart attack. Heller is survived by his wife Valerie.

Study Guides on Works by Joseph Heller

In the preface to his new edition, Joseph Heller recalls when he originally submitted Catch-22 to various magazines, including The Atlantic and The New Yorker. He describes how the novel was dismissed, not even making the New York Times bestseller...