Joseph Heller Biography


His Life and Times

Joseph Heller was born on May 1, 1923, in the Coney Island district of Brooklyn, New York, the son of Isaac and Lena Heller. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia. Isaac, who arrived in America in 1913, was agnostic, interested in socialist politics, and a delivery truck driver for a wholesale baker. Joseph had a half-sister, Sylvia, seven years older than he, and a half-brother, Lee (originally Eli), fourteen years older and born in Russia; their mother had died.

Joseph's father died following an operation in 1929, as Joseph began his formal education at Coney Island's Public School No. 188. Lena never learned to speak English well, and the family struggled financially. After graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1941, Joseph immediately went to work as a file clerk for an insurance agency. When the United States entered World War II in December of that year, he took a job as a blacksmith's assistant in the Norfolk Navy Yard. World War II would become the key formative event in Heller's life, providing him with rich experiences in the military and, eventually, a formal education.

In 1942, as the war progressed, Heller joined the Army and worked as a file clerk. In October, he switched to the Army Air Forces, as the aviation branch was known prior to the establishment of the United States Air Force in 1947. Joseph initially intended to be a gunner on a bomber; when he was told, erroneously, that the average life span of a gunner in combat was three days, he quickly enrolled in cadet school to become an officer and bombardier.

After graduating from cadet school as a first lieutenant early in 1944, Heller was assigned to the 488th Squadron of the Twelfth Air Force in Corsica. Heller later said that, as a twenty-one-year-old officer, he initially had no serious complaints about his life in a combat unit. He enjoyed the camaraderie of his fellow airmen on the base and the pleasures of visits to the group's officer apartments in Rome, following the city's liberation in June. The bombing runs went well enough.

All that changed on Heller's thirty-seventh mission, a raid on Avignon, on the Rhone River in southeast France, the basis of a fictionalized account that is central to Catch-22. During the bombing run, a co-pilot panicked and set the B-25 into a dive, causing Heller to be pressed against the top of the bombardier's compartment. After the plane was again under control, the co-pilot called over the intercom, "Help him! Help him!" Heller replied, "Help who?" "Help the bombardier!" was the co-pilot's response. "I'm the bombardier; I'm all right," Heller answered. When he then checked the rear of the plane, however, Heller found that one of the gunners was, in fact, wounded, and Heller realized that death lay near on these flights. The young lieutenant's war was not the same after that. He did complete sixty missions in the Mediterranean and received an Air Medal as well as a Presidential Unit Citation with his honorable discharge.

Because of the GI Bill, a federal program that helped tens of thousands of veterans to pursue higher education following the war, Heller was able to enroll at the University of Southern California in 1945. He published his first short story in the prestigious Story magazine that year and was married to Shirley Held, with whom he eventually had two children, Erica Jill and Theodore Michael. The next year, he transferred to New York University.

At NYU, under the tutelage of Professor Maurice Baudin, Heller came to believe that he could be a professional writer. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1948, with the distinction of being named to the academic honor society Phi Beta Kappa. That year he also published two short stories in The Atlantic Monthly and two more in Esquire. Heller earned his Master of Arts degree in American Literature from Columbia University the next year as well as a Fulbright Scholarship to study for a year at Oxford University in England.

Following a short teaching stint at Pennsylvania State University, Heller joined the corporate world as advertising manager at Time magazine. In 1953, he began working on a novel tentatively titled Catch-18. He later changed the title to avoid confusion with Leon Uris's novel, Mila-18. Heller accepted a managerial advertising job at Look magazine in 1956 and moved to McCall's in 1958, still spending two hours a night on his novel. He later said that he once became discouraged, leaving the manuscript for a week to seek diversions, including watching television, but he was so bored that he hurried back to the book. He wondered how in the world people lived without a novel to write.

Catch-22 was published in 1961. Although he taught creative writing courses at Yale and the University of Pennsylvania, Heller became a full-time writer for most of the next decade, returning to teaching at City College of New York from 1971 to 1975.

Heller's personal life took traumatic turns in 1981 as he separated from his wife, Shirley, from whom he was divorced in 1984. In December 1981, Heller discovered that he had Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare paralytic disease. His struggle with and slow recovery from the disease is recorded in No Laughing Matter (1986) written with his friend Speed Vogel. During his rehabilitation, Heller met a nurse, Valerie Humphries, whom he married in 1987.

In addition to his fiction and memoirs, Heller wrote for the theater, television, and motion pictures. He continued his writing and teaching career until his death, of a heart attack, at his home in East Hampton, New York, on December 12, 1999. (For a detailed chronology of Heller's life, see Catch-22: Antiheroic Antinovel by Stephen W. Potts.)

Major Works and Literary Reputation

Joseph Heller was an unknown novelist on November 10, 1961, the official date of the publication of his first book, Catch-22. Within two years, the novel and the author had made a place for themselves in literary history. (The critical reception of Catch-22 is discussed in detail in the "Introduction to the Novel" section.) It was a hard act to follow. Throughout his career, Heller's work was repeatedly compared, usually unfavorably, to his first effort. Interviewers often implied that he had not written anything since Catch-22 to match that classic. On one occasion, Heller simply replied, "Who has?"

Between the publication of his first and second novels, Heller experimented with drama, his most notable play being We Bombed in New Haven, which was first produced at the Yale Repertory Theater in 1967 and ran on Broadway for eighty-six performances in the fall of 1968. As with most of Heller's work, the play opened to mixed reviews. Legendary critic Clive Barnes said that he would "call it a bad play any good playwright should be proud to have written, and any good audience fascinated to see" (New York Times, October 17, 1968). Heller toys with the meaning of reality in the play, in which a group of actors put on their own performance in which they are airmen bombing into oblivion such places as Constantinople (not Istanbul) and Minnesota. Levels of reality become confused when characters begin to be killed in the fictional bombing raids but then can no longer be found in the daily lives of the acting company. Clive Barnes was "unconvinced" by the fantasy but moved by the atmosphere of "callousness, brutality, cynical jokiness, dissent, and protest," terms that could be applied to Catch-22 and other Heller works.

Heller's second novel, Something Happened (1974), was initially panned but earned increasing critical respect over time. Novelist Kurt Vonnegut was among the first to notice this critical trend. He wrote, "There will be a molasses-like cautiousness about accepting this book as an important one. It took more than a year for Catch-22 to gather a band of enthusiasts" (The New York Times Book Review, October 6, 1974). The novel deals with the struggles of Bob Slocum, a white-collar mid-level manager in corporate America, a man who seems to have lost all hope. He is world-weary and, as the title implies, he wonders what has happened to his life.

Good as Gold (1979), Heller's third novel, caused a stir initially because of its controversial treatment of what the book calls "the Jewish Experience in America," a topic familiar to the Jewish Heller; again, the work grew in its reputation — as an outrageously comic novel. Jack Beatty found it "exuberantly funny" and recognized the central character, Bruce Gold, as an individual rather than a representative of all American Jews (New Republic, March 10, 1979). Gold exploits his Jewishness at the same time that he betrays it. He seeks fame, power, and wealth in Washington, where he hopes to be the first Jewish secretary of state, having dismissed Henry Kissinger as not really Jewish because he supported the Vietnam War and prayed with Richard Nixon. Initially condemned as anti-Semitic, the novel was soon recognized as a brilliant satire.

God Knows (1984) was less popular but has received increasing critical acclaim. An ambitious novel that many appreciate for its wildly comic premise, its narrator is the Old Testament David (of Goliath fame) whose tone has been compared to that of a stand-up comic as he rants about his idiotic son, the biblically wise Solomon. Stuart Evans of the London Times called it "a very funny, very serious, very good novel." Picture This (1987), an ambitious novel concerning Rembrandt's Holland and Aristotle's Athens, received less critical acclaim.

Closing Time (1994) is sometimes called the sequel to Catch-22, but it's really more of a novel about confused realities in which a few of the same characters appear in different contexts. Milo Minderbinder, for example, has become a billionaire international arms dealer. Sammy Singer, the fainting unnamed gunner in Catch-22, is here one of the narrators. Considering the risk of bringing back characters from a classic, the book received favorable reception.

In 1998, Heller published an anecdotal memoir, Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here, casually covering his life to that point. His final novel, Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man, was published posthumously in the spring of 2000 but was not well received. It is the story of an elderly writer, Eugene Pota (acronym for Portrait of the Artist), struggling to cap his career with one last triumph. He offers several false starts, such as a book portraying Tom Sawyer as a would-be novelist; another with Tom Sawyer as a yuppie lawyer from Yale; and a third that is a rewrite of The Iliad from the Trojans' point of view. Perhaps too true to his topic — perhaps just old and tired — Heller produced a work that critics found dreary and anticlimactic. At the end of his career, it could be said that, without Catch-22, Heller was still a noteworthy novelist. With it, he created one of the classics of the twentieth century.