Joseph Heller, born May 1st, 1923 was a satirical writer and novelist. He was born in Brooklyn, New York to a Jewish immigrant family. Heller was orphaned at the age of 5 when his father died due to some surgery complications. His dark and wise-cracking humor is said to have been a result of his childhood memories although Heller has not directly mentioned any of it in his works. Heller had aspired to become a writer even when he was little. After finishing high school in 1941, Heller worked many jobs that included being a messenger boy, clerk and even a blacksmith’s student. The next year he enrolled in the U.S Army Air Corps. After getting his share of war time, he returned home and decided to return to his normal life. Joseph Heller joined the University of Southern California and NYU to study English. He received his Master’s degree from Columbia University in 1949.
Heller started his academic career by teaching composition in Pennsylvania State University; a job which he retained from 1950 to 1952. He was also an instructor for fiction and dramatic arts at Yale. He took up a job at Time Inc. before working as a copywriter for an advertising agency. Also securing jobs at ‘Look’ and ‘McCall’ Heller embarked on a career that brought him to fame. Any spare time he had, he used it for writing. His first short story was published in 1948 by ‘The Atlantic’.
‘Catch-22’ his most successful novel was published in 1961. Its plot revolves around Yossarian and his wartime experiences. It was referred to as ‘the best American novel in years’ by the Chicago Sun times. Its initial response however was not impressive, with the novel selling only 30,000 copies in America. Its success was gradual and once the baby boomers caught its eye, the novel went on to sell more than 10 million copies in the U.S alone. It also ranked 7th on Modern Library’s list of 100 novels of the century.
Heller wrote the screenplay for ‘Sex and the Single Girl’ by Helen Gurley Brown, ‘Casino Royale’ (1967) and ‘Dirty Dingus Magee’ (1970). His plays include ‘We Bombed in New Haven’ (1969) which was based on the Vietnam War, Catch-22 (1973) and ‘Clevinger’s Trial’ (1973). His second novel was titled ‘Something Happened’ and was published in 1974. It was listed as New York’s Best-selling novels. Other novels by Heller include ‘Good as Gold’ (1979), ‘God Knows’ (1984), ‘Picture This’ (1988), ‘Closing Time’ (1994) and ‘Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man’ (2000).
Heller was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome in December 1981, an illness that made him paralyzed for some time. He described this time of his life in his autobiography ‘No Laughing Matter’ (1986). He was completely recovered by 1984. On returning to St. Catherine Heller received an honorary Fellow of the College in 1991. In 1998 he wrote a memoir named ‘Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here’, containing his life incidences and how he was inspired for Catch-22.
Joseph Heller died in East Hampton, Long Island on 12th December 1999 after completing his last novel ‘Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man’.