May 01, 1823 - December 12, 1999
Joseph Heller was a popular American satirical writer, most famous for his novel Catch-22 - the book whose name is now used to refer to a no-win choice or an absurd situation where a positive outcome is simply impossible.
Joseph Heller – Catch-22
Joseph Heller was born in Brooklyn, New York, to the family of poor Russian-Jewish immigrants Lena and Isaac Heller. Heller's talent showed at a very early age.
As a teenager, he wrote his first story, about the Winter war between the Soviet Union and Finland. The story was rejected by the New York Daily News, but this did not discourage the boy from writing.
After graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1941, Heller tried himself in a number of jobs, including a blacksmith's apprentice, a messenger boy, and a clerk, but then joined the US Air Force and was sent to Italy. There he flew 60 combat missions as a bombardier in a B-25 bomber - a very large number by the standards of World War II, when the average number of successful missions flown ("successful" meaning the bomber came back to base and did not crash or was shot down) for an airman was only 19! Later, he would say that the missions were mostly "milk runs" – without any serious opposition from the Luftwaffe.
When the war ended, Heller enrolled into the University of Southern California and later Columbia University, receiving M.A. in English and starting a career of an educator at Pennsylvania State University and Yale.
In 1945 he married Shirley Held, who gave him two children; the couple lived together for almost 40 years but divorced in 1984. Several years later Heller, then 64, married Valerie Humphries, who stayed with him until his death.
Heller continued to write, and in 1948 The Atlantic magazine accepted a short story of his. But his moment of glory came much later, in 1953, when he wrote the first chapter of the future classic novel "Catch-22", then known under a tentative name of "Catch-18" (later changed to avoid confusion with another book that used a similar name). The chapter was published in 1955 in the New World Writing magazine and became a moderate hit in US and a huge bestseller in the UK. Next chapters followed much later – Heller had been planning to write a novelette, but then saw that the story had enough substance to grow into something much bigger, so he expanded the plot considerably and finished the book within eight (!) years.
Heller had a very unusual approach to writing. He would take a single line that accidentally came to his head, and use it as the beginning of a story, adding characters and developing the story as he went. Only after about one-third he would get a clear picture of the plot. He often said that his books were not meant to say anything, just show a picture.
The title of the novel, telling a story of an airman unsuccessfully trying to game the system and avoid combat missions, quickly became a buzzword and now denotes a no-win, absurd situation. In 1998 the writer was basically accused of plagiarism because Catch-22 had marked similarities with another war story, but the author of the latter never had any issues with Heller's book, and the general consensus was that the similarities were a logical effect of the same setting – World War II and air combat.
In 1974 he published a follow-up novel, Something Happened, which was an immediate success and reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list. And in 1982, after a long struggle with a debilitating disease, he wrote the autobiographical No Laughing Matter - with the help of his friends, including many A-list celebrities.
Heller died of a heart attack in his home on Long Island, New York, on December 12, 1999.
"Joseph Heller". UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2003.
Loveday, Veronica (December 1, 2010), Joseph Heller, History Reference Center.
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