In honor of National Novel Writing Month:
Joseph Heller is best known for his novel Catch-22, a satiric work whose title has become an idiom referring to a situation in which one cannot escape contradictory rules. Heller’s novel followed the absurd antics of Army Air Corps Captain John Yossarian, who tries to get out of the military by pretending he is crazy. The army doctor, however, explains: “There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind.”
While Heller’s best known works are not focused on particularly Jewish themes, there is an unquestionable Jewish influence in his work.
Born on May 1, 1923, and raised in Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY. Heller was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. A few years after high school, he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps, where his primary service was on the Italian Front. He went on to study English at the University of Southern California and New York University. He then received an M.A. from Columbia University and spent a year as a Fulbright Scholar at Oxford. In addition to his writing, he taught at Penn State University and Yale and then worked for Time Magazine and later in advertising.
Heller’s two most distinctively Jewish works were Good as Gold (1979) and God Knows (1984). The protagonist of the first is a Jewish man who is offered the opportunity to be the country’s first Jewish Secretary of State. The second is a literary retelling of the life of King David (told as a deathbed memoir).
Joseph Heller died in his Long Island home on December 12, 1999.
Note: This Treat is an extremely abbreviated summary of Joseph Heller’s life.