That’s Some Catch, That Catch-22

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.

                            Yossarian

My project provides an Analysis of Catch-22 that centralizes around the narrative’s themes of Absurdity and Corruption and the way in which Heller utilizes the characterization of Milo Minderbinder and Colonel Cathcart specifically to express his reinvention of the war novel.
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One thought on “That’s Some Catch, That Catch-22

  1. Matt,

    This is a well-written collection of analytical pieces. My main constructive criticism would be to look at the structure of the website organization. As it is, the sections on “Analysis of Catch-22” and “Absurdity and Corruption” seem like they could be combined and reorganized into one section of writing, and then the two shorter pieces could be introduced as further examples of how the absurdity of war and corruption is presented in the novel.

    As for the analysis, I think you are right on. It is interesting that this book gained so much cultural importance in its time–like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” or “The Clansmen”–books that went beyond the realm of literature to thoroughly influence, for good or ill, the shape of culture. You write:

    “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.”

    and…

    “The anti-establishment ideas presented in Yossarian’s struggle against the absurd horrors of war and also the corrupt military bureaucracy that enforces them would become the framework for the anti-war protests of the counterculture because of the relevance and validity of its satirical critique.”

    As a satire of the absurdity and corruption of war, the novel seems to have shifted the way an entire society viewed war–or at least it crystalized a prevailed view. Like Stowe, Heller wrote a lot of other work, and much of it is of high quality, but it was overshadowed by the success of one book. In this case, it makes sense why one work becomes representative of an entire author’s work, unlike other cases where one work doesn’t or can’t cover a whole author–I am thinking Twain and “Huck Finn.”

    The question I am left with, then, is whether Heller is important to American literature beyond the cultural, which is undoubtedly important. Is there an aesthetic or other formal literary importance and how would this discussion change our understanding of his work?

    Thanks for your project. I now want to read something by Heller other than “Catch-22,” which I have read before. Now I want to see what else he did. It also reminds me of my love for the TV show M*A*S*H, which was influenced by the book and which would be a TV show that I would argue should be studied as a key aspect of American culture.

    Best,

    Tracy

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