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Catch-22 | Study Guide

Joseph Heller

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Catch-22 | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Catch-22 was conceived in a single morning in 1953 and written over the next eight years. Although it got off to a slow start and won no awards, Catch-22 is now widely considered one of the greatest works of literature of the 20th century.

Drawing from his own experiences as a bombardier in World War II, Joseph Heller intended Catch-22 to show the meaninglessness and absurdity of war. To many Americans whose visions of war were infused with ideas of glory and heroism, Catch-22's stark and brutal—and often ridiculous—depictions of war came as quite a shock.

1. Catch-11? ... Catch-14? ... Catch-18? ... Catch-26?

Joseph Heller intended to title his novel Catch-18. However, a war novel called Mila 18 had been published earlier that year, and the editor didn't want there to be any confusion between the books. Together they considered a few possibilities: Catch-11 was thrown out because there already was a popular movie called Ocean's 11. Catch-14 was considered an "unfunny number," and Catch-26 just didn't feel right. "I've got it!" Heller's editor finally exclaimed. "It's Catch-22! It's funnier than 18."

2. Heller based Catch-22 closely on his own combat experiences.

Heller flew 60 combat missions as a bombardier in World War II. He was stationed on Corsica, an island off the coast of Italy. Some scenes in Catch-22 bear close resemblance to Heller's real-life combat experiences. Yossarian, the protagonist of Catch-22, was stationed on Pianosa, an island also off the coast of Italy.

3. Heller developed the book's basic plot and characters in 90 minutes.

The first two sentences of Catch-22 suddenly came to Joseph Heller one morning when he was lying in bed. Over the next hour and a half, many of the details of his now-famous novel "began to evolve clearly in [his] mind." He said of his creative process: "I feel that these ideas are floating around in the air and they pick me to settle upon." He wrote the first chapter that morning at work.

4. But it took him eight years to finish writing it.

Heller worked on Catch-22 intermittently throughout the 1950s while he kept his day job as an advertising copywriter. His writing was so sporadic that he didn't even begin the second chapter until year two. Even so, he managed to publish several short stories during that time in magazines, including Esquire, The Atlantic Monthly, and Cosmopolitan.

5. Heller's big break came with the publication of an excerpt of the novel.

Heller's literary agent had sent the manuscript to an anthology called New World Writing. The editor loved it and published an excerpt of the novel in the April 1955 issue alongside another writer called Jean-Louis, a pen name for famed author Jack Kerouac. Kerouac's piece was part of the novel On the Road.

6. Joseph Heller was a smart aleck as a kid.

Heller grew up in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, New York. His father died when he was only five years old, and he was raised by his mother. Joseph became known for being a smart aleck and for the practical jokes he liked to play on his friends. His mother would tell him, "Joey, you got a twisted brain." That "twisted brain" certainly helped him to write Catch-22.

7. Catch-22 was not an instant success.

Readers either loved it or hated it. Catch-22 received some early positive reviews, including one by the novelist Nelson Algren, who called it "the best American novel to come out of World War II." But it also received some very poor reviews, including one in The New York Times Book Review, which said that the book had "much passion, comic and fervent, but it gasps for want of craft and sensibility."

8. Yossarian became a symbol of the 1960s anti-war movement.

Some college students wore army jackets with "Yossarian" name tags in protest of the Vietnam War. Some adorned their cars with bumper stickers that read "Yossarian Lives." Joseph Heller toured college campuses in the 1960s, speaking out against the war.

9. Joseph Heller's subsequent novels were far less successful.

After Catch-22, Joseph Heller wrote several more novels, plays, and memoirs. He even brought back Yossarian, as well as several other characters from Catch-22, in his 1994 novel Closing Time. Although his other novels were well-regarded, none achieved the high level of critical acclaim that Catch-22 received. When an interviewer said that Heller had not written anything else as good as Catch-22, Heller shot back, "Who has?"

10. Heller suffered from Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare neurological disease.

At age 63 in 1986, Heller noticed that he had trouble swallowing and getting dressed. It turned out that he had an extremely rare and life-threatening neurological disease. After months of treatment and rehabilitation, he recovered and lived another 13 years. He even married one of the nurses who had helped him.

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