The United States of America entered World War II in December 1941, immediately after a Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. naval base on the south coast of Oahu in Hawaii, near Honolulu. Most of the action in Catch-22 is based on Joseph Heller's experiences as a young officer and bombardier stationed on Corsica, an island off the west coast of Italy, with the Army Air Forces in 1944. In the novel, Yossarian's squadron is on Pianosa, a real but tiny island east of Corsica and a few miles south of Elba. As Heller points out in a prefatory note, "It is very small and obviously could not accommodate all of the actions described. Like the setting of this novel, the characters, too, are fictitious." The setting for Heller's war, however, was very real.
The reader should be aware of a few significant dates. On June 6, 1944, called "D-day," Allied forces, including the United States, entered a massive invasion of western France. The Allies were already in southern Italy, as referred to in the novel, and had captured Rome. On August 25, 1944, the Allies liberated Paris. On May 8, 1945, a few months after the end of the novel, the Allies declared victory in Europe (VE-day). So most of the novel takes place during approximately the last year of the war in Europe.
Italy had entered World War II in June 1940, on the side of Nazi Germany; the two countries formed a union known as the Axis (later joined by Japan). Benito Mussolini (Il Duce, "the leader") was head of the Italian Fascist Party and the country's dictator. His military preparations were inept, however, and King Victor Emmanuel dismissed Mussolini on July 25, 1943, aligning the official government with the Allies who were in the process of invading southern Italy. (This act of diplomacy reminds the reader of the philosophy of the old man who argues with Nately at the brothel, in Rome, in Chapter 23 of the novel.) The Allies were then opposed primarily by German troops in Italy.
Despite its setting in World War II, it is important to remember that Catch-22 was written in the 1950s. This was a decade of considerable repression in America, exemplified by a U.S. senator from Wisconsin named Joseph Raymond McCarthy. The loyalty oaths and political paranoia in the novel reflect McCarthyism. In February 1950, McCarthy accused the Department of State of employing 205 "known" Communists (later reducing the number to fifty-seven). Although the accusations were never proven, McCarthy became a national figure and the most infamous leader of a witch-hunt rivaling that of Salem in 1692. In the early 1950s, as head of the Senate subcommittee on investigations, McCarthy expanded his search for Communist influence, which contributed to what William Manchester (author of The Glory and the Dream) titled "the age of suspicion." Blacklists, which banned the accused from employment, appeared across the country. State legislatures demanded that college professors, for example, sign loyalty oaths pledging their allegiance to the United States and disavowing any association with Communism. UCLA fired 157 professors who protested that such an oath was unconstitutional; in fact, the teachers pointed out, belonging to the Communist Party was not, in itself, illegal. In the entertainment industry, numerous writers, directors, and actors were blacklisted for years, their careers ruined.
Catch-22 is set in World War II, but its tone is shaped by the events of the 1950s and an attitude toward all wars, not just that one. Looking back, Heller recognized that World War II was a relatively "popular" war for most Americans, a factor in some critical rejection of the novel. Catch-22 grew in popularity during the years of the Vietnam War, when the general population became more attuned to Yossarian's point of view.
Critical Reception of Catch-22
Initially, the critical response to Joseph Heller's first novel, published in the autumn of 1961, was mixed. Some of the most prestigious reviews were quite negative. Richard G. Stern, in The New York Times Book Review (October 22, 1961), wrote that the novel "gasps for want of craft and sensibility" and that the book was "no novel." He compared Heller to an artist who throws "all the ideas in his sketchbooks onto one canvas, relying on their charm and shock to compensate for the lack of design." The New Yorker (December 9, 1961) agreed that the book was hardly worthy of being called a novel and confidently asserted that it "doesn't even seem to have been written; instead it gives the impression of having been shouted onto paper." Even generally favorable reviews complained that the novel was too long, repetitious, and confusing. The worst was yet to come. Despite a gestation period of more than a year, Daedalus, Vol. 92 (Winter 1963) showed no mercy. For this anonymous reviewer, the novel was derivative, awkwardly fashionable, and without either story or interesting characters. "[I]ts author can not write," the critic concluded. He thought the book immoral, appalling, and completely lacking in propriety. Many of the negative reviews found fault through a failure to comprehend the very qualities that others see as the novel's strengths.
Other reviews seemed more reasonable but found plenty to dislike. John J. Murray, writing for Best Sellers, Vol. 21, No. 16 (November 15, 1961), appreciated the comic aspects of the novel but felt that the serious parts fell short. He repeated the accusation that this was not a novel at all and judged Yossarian to be "oversexed" as he was "solicitous of his pal's whore's kid sister," a dreadful misrepresentation of the story. Milton R. Bass, in the Berkshire (Mass.) Eagle (October 31, 1961), offered the odd warning that this work, albeit a piece of genius, should be kept from women and children. Shimon Wincelberg, The New Leader, Vol. 65 (May 14, 1962), appreciated many of Heller's observations, such as, "There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely so many countries can't all be worth dying for." But he thought Heller delighted too much in his own cleverness and that the characters were two-dimensional. The London Observer (June 17, 1962) agreed that the novel was too long, repetitive, and "slick"; but its reviewer thought the book was "the greatest satirical work in English since Erewhon" (by Samuel Butler, 1872).
Among the early favorable reviews was that in The Nation, Vol. 193 (November 4, 1961). Nelson Algren found the hilarity "so wild that it hurts" and believed that the novel was not only antiwar but a repudiation of all the horror, greed, complacency, ignorance, and "endless cunning" in our civilization. The New Republic, Vol. 145 (November 13, 1961), called it "one of the most bitterly funny works in the language."
Respected literary figures such as S. J. Perelman and Studs Terkel publicly praised the book. John Chancellor, host of NBC's Today show in the summer of 1962, had stickers privately printed, reading "YOSSARIAN LIVES," and posted them around Manhattan. Paul Newman, Jack Lemmon, and Anthony Quinn were among the leading actors who saw possibilities in a film version and expressed interest in playing Yossarian. (The part went to Alan Arkin in the 1970 film written by Buck Henry and directed by Mike Nichols.) Although the hardback won no prizes and was not a best seller in the United States, it did well from the beginning in England. The novel initially was a cult favorite in America, but the paperback edition (published in September 1962) set sales records. In the decades since, Catch-22 has established itself as a classic satire and antiwar novel.