Presented by Matt Callison
A Brief Background:
Joseph Heller has secured his place in the American literary tradition through his adept usage of both satire and humor to voice the terrors and absurdities of war. The indignant mistrust of bureaucracy and government expressed in his satire represents the changes occurring in American society during an era in which many became disillusioned with institutions of authority because of controversial events like the Vietnam Conflict. The deep-rooted suspicion that characterizes Catch-22 (1961), his first and most popular novel, pushes the idea that in post-modern society there is no true order or system behind the organized structures of authority.
Joseph Heller, born to Russian immigrant parents on May 1, 1923, spent his childhood in Coney Island, New York, raised in a secular household. His father died when he was only five years old and his mother cared more about social issues than religious matters. In 1942, Heller joined the US Army Air Corps as a bombardier stationed on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, during which he earned the Air Medal and rank of lieutenant for his 70+ combat missions. One of his most dangerous missions, the 73rd over Avignon, was included in Catch 22 in the description of Snowden’s death. After the end of World War II, he continued living in New York, marrying Shirley Held and attending New York University where he earned his B.A. One year later, he received his M.A. degree from Columbia University in 1949. Following a short, unsatisfying stint as a professor, the life-long New Yorker then spent most of the 1950’s writing advertising copy for magazines like Time,Look, and McCall’s. This corporate experience would later influence his works surrounding life in the modern commercial world, like Something Happened (1974) and others.
His most famous piece is Catch 22, which has sold over 10 million copies. The novel’s title has even been accepted into both Webster’s and Oxford English dictionaries because of its prominent use in popular society as a catchphrase used to describe a paradox enforced by a bureaucracy to entrap the individual by denying the only possible solution to a problem. Heller draws from his experience with war to craft a narrative that documents the experiences of Yossarian and his fellow enlisted men and the mistrust of authority that they develop as a reaction to the absurd horrors on Pianosa. Catch 22 did not receive much critical praise at the time of its publishing, and its sales were modest, but it quickly became one of the favorite texts of the rapidly growing counterculture that came to define the turbulent American 1960’s. Today, the novel is considered a classic by most for the way in which it’s satirical critique upended most American’s conventions of war and the war novel, laying the groundwork for the antiwar protest of the Vietnam Conflict that would follow.
Though he later went on to publish numerous other novels, short stories, and even plays, Heller was never able to garner the same critical praise and widespread recognition reached by the anti-war masterpiece that sparked his career as an author. Heller gained his place in the canon of the American war novel through the way in which his work questions the formal foundations of the genre set in place by those like Hemingway, Jones, and others in the first half of the 20th century by still presenting classical elements but with a post-modern, and often humorous, twist. For instance, Heller satirizes the journey across the lake to freedom in A Farewell to Arms (1929) with Orr’s rowboat escape to Sweden. Heller’s characterization of Milo and his back-door business interests set a precedent for viewing the war as a smoke screen intended to hide the pursuit economic interests that acts as a key motivating factor behind the military bureaucracy, often taking priority over the organization’s care for the safety of civilians or even their own enlisted men. Milo and the other superior officers on the island discard morals and values for their own brand of personal gain, which provides a post-modern element to the narrative. The process of systematic dehumanization of the individual by the institutions of power became a prevalent theme in an increasingly disillusioned post-modern society, giving Heller’s work a cultural significance that has assured his position as one of the most influential literary figures to emerge from World War II.