Columbians Ahead of Their Time
Joseph Heller

Joseph Heller

"People go to fight wars because they don't understand the seriousness of what they're doing."

Joseph Heller (1923–99)
MA 1949

Joseph Heller is best known as the author of Catch-22, a celebrated antiwar novel that made an enduring contribution to popular parlance. The darkly comic novel, which centers on the antihero Yossarian, draws upon Heller's own experience as a bomber pilot in World War II to provide a satiric look at war, bureaucracy, and the maddening logic—or lack thereof—of both. It received mixed reviews upon publication in 1961, but soared in popularity in the late 1960s and early 1970s as its themes found a receptive audience in the Vietnam War era. Critical acclaim grew as well, and for his use of irony and black humor Heller was often grouped with the authors Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, and Philip Roth. In the novel's text, the original catch-22 "specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind," Heller wrote. "Orr would be crazy to fly more missions. . . . but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to." Today, says the New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (2002), a catch-22 is "any absurd arrangement that puts a person in a double bind."

The Brooklyn-born Heller graduated high school in 1941 and enlisted in the Army Air Force within a year after the United States entered World War II. He was eventually trained as a bombardier, and in 1944 was sent to Corsica, where he flew sixty missions. After the war Heller attended New York University on the GI bill and then got a master's degree in English from Columbia. He went on to Oxford as a Fulbright scholar, and held various jobs before publishing a few short stories in Esquire and the Atlantic Monthly. One of these stories provided the seed for Catch-22. Heller wrote five additional novels, including Something Happened (1974), Good As Gold (1979), and Closing Time (1994), a sequel to Catch-22, as well as short stories, plays, screenplays, and the 1998 memoir Now and Then.

Read more about Heller in the Columbia Encyclopedia.

Listen to a 1975 reading at New York's 92nd Street Y.

Australian radio provides this 1998 interview transcript.

Heller's papers are at the University of South Carolina.

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