In 1942, when he was just 19-years-old, Joseph Heller joined the US Army Air Corps. Two years later he was sent to the Italian Front, where he flew 60 combat missions as a B-25 bombardier. Heller later remembered the war as “…fun in the beginning. You got the feeling that there was something glorious about it.” Returning home, he wrote that he:
…felt like a hero. People think it quite remarkable that I was in combat in an airplane and I flew 60 missions even though I tell them that the missions were largely milk runs.
After the war, Heller studied English at the University of Southern California and then New York University on the G.I. Bill, graduating in 1948. In 1949, he received his Master’s in English from Columbia University and then spent a year as a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He then worked for Time magazine before taking a job as a copywriter at a small advertising agency.
At home, Heller wrote. His first published piece was in 1948, when The Atlantic ran one of his short stories.
In 1953, Heller sat at his typewriter and tapped out:
It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, Yossarian fell madly in love with him.
He began writing; inventing the characters, the plot, and the tone that the story would eventually take. Within a week, he had finished the first chapter and sent it to his agent. He did not do any more writing for the next year. That initial chapter was published in 1955 as Catch-18, in the journal New World Writing.
When he was partly finished with the work, his agent sent it to publishers. Heller was not particularly attached to it and decided that he would not finish it if publishers were not interested. Simon & Schuster purchased it for $750 and promised him an additional $750 when the full manuscript was delivered. Heller missed his first deadline by four years, but, after eight years, he finally delivered the full novel to his publisher.
Catch-22 is about the wartime experiences of Army Air Corps Captain John Yossarian. Yossarian devises multiple strategies to avoid combat missions, but the military bureaucracy is always able to find a way to make him stay. Heller wrote:
Everyone in my book accuses everyone else of being crazy. Frankly, I think the whole society is nuts – and the question is: What does a sane man do in an insane society?
Just before publication, the novel’s title was changed to Catch-22 to avoid confusion with Leon Uris‘ new novel, Mila 18. The novel was published in hardback in 1961 to mixed reviews. It sold only 30,000 hardback copies in the USA in its first year. But in the UK, within a week of its publication, Catch-22 was the Number One Bestseller. After it was release in paperback in 1962, Catch-22 caught on with American baby boomers, who identified with the novel’s anti-war sentiments. It sold 11 million copies in the USA, and the novel’s title became part of our lexicon, standing for a dilemma with no easy way out. Now considered a classic, the book is Number Seven on Modern Library’s list of the Top 100 novels of the 20th century. The US Air Force Academy uses the novel to “help prospective officers recognize the dehumanizing aspects of bureaucracy”.
The film rights were purchased in 1962, but the film, directed by Mike Nichols from a screenplay by Buck Henry (also in the cast) and starring Alan Arkin, right-wing nut-case Jon Voight, Bob Balaban, Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, Art Garfunkel in his acting debut, Jack Gilford, Charles Grodin, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Paula Prentiss, Martin Sheen, and Orson Welles, was not made until 1969 and released in 1970. It was Nichols’ third film, made after The Graduate (1967) and Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966).
Catch-22 was not a success at the box-office or with critics and was up against the similarly themed MASH from Robert Altman, which critics raved about and became one of the biggest films of the early 1970s.
A six-episode miniseries produced by George Clooney is currently streaming on Hulu. This Catch-22 stars Christopher Abbott, Kyle Chandler, Hugh Laurie, and Clooney. In my humble opinion, it succeeds because it has six hours to tell the story and retains much of the book’s sharp dialogue. This Catch-22 is elegantly, carefully made.
The novel and its film and television adaptations rethink what is widely understood as the patriotic-defining all-time act of heroism: the American involvement in World War II, showing it as a staging ground for timelessly American waste and inanity.