Harvard Square Library exists solely on the basis of donations. If you have benefitted from any of our materials, and/or if making Unitarian Universalist intellectual heritage materials widely available and free is a value to you, please donate whatever you can–every little bit helps: Donate
The American novelist and dramatist Joseph Heller, who was born in Brooklyn, New York, on May 1, 1923, began his writing career as the author of short stories but won immediate acclaim with Catch-22 (1961). A protest novel underscored with dark humor, Catch-22 satirizes the horrors of war and the power of modern society, especially bureaucratic institutions, to destroy the human spirit.
Catch-22 has enjoyed a steady sale since its publication. Mike Nichols’s movie version of the novel from 1970 is considered disappointing, although its good cast tried its best. Nichols emphasized the absurdity of war, and as Heller, he rejected American militarism. Orson Welles, who also was interested in filming the book, was in the role of General Dreedle. After writing Catch-22, Heller worked on several Hollywood screenplays, such as Sex and the Single Girl, Casino Royale, and Dirty Dingus Magee, and contributed to the TV show “McHale’s Navy” under the pseudonym Max Orange. In the 1960s Heller was involved with the anti-Vietnam war protest movement.
Heller’s second novel, Something Happened (1974) an expose of the capacity of the business world to crush the individual, is a pessimistic statement about the effects of prosperity on the human condition. We Bombed in New Haven, a play produced on Broadway in 1967, is a tragicomedy similar in theme and mood to Catch-22. Good as Gold (1979) involves a humorous portrayal of Jewish family life and a satire of national politics, including attacks on real people such as Henry Kissinger. God Knows (1984) is a humorous retelling and analysis of the biblical account of King David.
Heller’s works are characterized by a satirical sense of the absurd, speaking out against the military-industrial complex and those organized institutions which seem to manipulate people’s lives in the name of reason or morality. Among his later works are the novels Poetics (1987) and Picture This (1988). No Laughing Matter (1966, with Speed Vogel) is a chronicle of Heller’s recovery from Guillain-Barre syndrome.