Today in Literary History – May 1, 1923 -“Catch-22” author Joseph Heller is born

The American novelist Joseph Heller, best known for his anti-war satire Catch-22, was born on May 1, 1923 in Brooklyn, New Nork.

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His parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia and he grew up in relative poverty. He joined the US Army Air Corps in 1942 as America was entering World War II.

He was eventually deployed to the Italian Front where he flew 60 combat missions as a bombardier on B-25 bombers. This experience would lead to his masterpiece, Catch-22, about an American bomber pilot in Italy during the war desperately trying to be grounded, only to be  stymied at every step by impenetrable bureaucracy.

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After the war Heller studied English on the GI Bill and wound up writing ad copy for an advertising agency, and settled down to a suburban life as a husband and father. He continued writing short stories in his spare time, however, many of which were published to some success.

The first chapter of what would become Catch-22 was published as a short story in the journal New World Writing in 1955 as “Catch-18.”

Heller received a $750 advance from Simon and Schuster to complete the novel but missed repeated deadlines.

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The novel wasn’t published until 1961. By the time of its paperback release in 1962 it had garnered positive word of mouth among younger readers concerned about America’s growing involvement in Vietnam and it became a bestseller. It also went to Number One on the bestseller lists in Britain.

(The title had been changed from “Catch-18” to Catch-22 at the last minute because the bestselling author Leon Iris had just published Mila 18 and Simon and Schuster wanted to avoid confusion.)

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The “Catch-22” in the novel is a clause that says that if you are mentally ill you don’t have to fly the dangerous bombing missions, but if you ask not to fly the missions on grounds of mental illness you are sane enough to appreciate the danger and therefore still have to fly. This conundrum brought the term “Catch-22” into popular use in the English language to describe any bureaucratic double-bind.

“Everyone in my book accuses everyone else of being crazy,” Heller later said. “Frankly, I think the whole society is nuts – and the question is: What does a sane man do in an insane society?”

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Heller wrote six more novels before his death in 1999, including Something Happened, Good as Gold, and Closing Time, a sequel to Catch-22 which follows some of the main characters in post-war New York. Many of his novels were bestsellers but he never again reached the critical and commercial success of his first book.

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