May 1

This Day in History

Literary

May 1, 1923:

Joseph Heller is born

Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22, is born this day in 1923 near Coney Island in Brooklyn. His father, a Russian immigrant who drove a bakery delivery truck, died when Heller was five. Heller attended Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn and worked as a filing clerk and blacksmith's assistant before enlisting in the Army. He trained as a bombardier and flew 60 combat missions near the end of World War II. While in the military, he ran across an apparent paradox in Army regulations. A pilot could be grounded if found insane, but if the pilot requested to be grounded because of insanity, the Army considered him perfectly sane for wanting to avoid danger-and wouldn't ground him. This paradox defined his first novel, the satirical masterpiece Catch-22 (1961).

After the war, Heller attended college on the GI Bill, earning a master's degree from Columbia and studying at Oxford for a year on a Fulbright scholarship. During the next decade, he taught English at Penn State, wrote advertising copy for Time and Look magazines, and later worked as a promotions manager at McCall's. He wrote Catch 22 in his spare time, over the course of eight years. The book wasn't an overnight success, but it became increasingly popular as the anti-war protest movements of the 1960s caught fire. Catch-22 became known as the first great protest novel after World War II.

Heller's subsequent six novels, including Something Happened (1974), Good as Gold (1979), God Knows (1984), and Closing Time (1994), never achieved the popularity of Catch 22. Meanwhile, in 1982, Heller's marriage ended, and he was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a potentially fatal muscular disease. He spent a year in the hospital and recuperating at home. At the end of the year, he married his nurse.

Joseph Heller died of a heart attack in December 1999. His last novel, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man was published posthumously in 2000.

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