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            On
May 1, 1923, Joseph Heller was born on Coney Island to Isaac and Lena Heller,
two Jewish immigrants from Russia (Daugherty). Born into a family living in a
small apartment, Heller went on to write numerous books including his most
notable novel, Catch-22. His experiences shaped his own style of writing and
influence those of future satirical writers. Heller’s dark and wise humor was
shaped by his own life and was one of the defining factors in his form of
satire.

            Heller
lived on the upper floor in a small building on West Thirty-first Street with his
parents, his half-brother, Lee, and his half-sister, Sylvia (Daugherty). However,
his life drastically changed as his father died from surgery to treat a stomach
ulcer when Heller was just five years old (Nichols). After Isaac Heller’s
death, the Heller family began to struggle with poverty as Lena did not speak English
well and Lee, only 14 years old, became a surrogate father of the family
(Nichols). Lee’s self-contradiction after a long day’s work intrigued Joseph
and become an early introduction to his own satirical nature (Daugherty).

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            In
1930, Heller entered first grade and was a “bundle of anxiety” (Daugherty) that
constantly checked his own physical features. From a young age, Heller’s
writing and imagination were praised by teachers and only continued to improve
as he aged. In 1942, Heller graduated as an honors student from Abraham Lincoln
High School and take a job at an insurance firm (Nichols). However, he soon
left his job to enlist in the Army Air Forces in 1942 (Daugherty). Two years after
enlisting, Heller was sent to Corsica where he flew sixty bombing missions as a
second lieutenant between May and October 1944. After flying sixty missions,
Heller left Corsica for Naples on January 3, 1945 and was then shipped back to
the States on January 28 (Daugherty). The experiences that Heller had during
this period led him to write Catch-22,
a satirical novel about Captain John Yossarian’s time in the Army Air Forces.

After his time in
the military, Heller applied to and enrolled in the University of Southern
California in 1945 (Daugherty). In the same year, Heller married Shirley Held,
with whom he had two children, Erica Jill and Theodore Michael, with (Nichols).

and published his first short stories in The
Atlantic Monthly and Esquire After
transferring to New York University in 1946 and learning from Maurice Baudin,
Heller became convinced that he could be a professional writer (Daugherty). After
receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree in and being named to the Phi Beta Kappa
honor society in 1948, Heller continued to progress and earn his master’s
degree in American literature at Columbia University (Nichols).

After working as a
teacher and advertising manager, Heller began working on Catch-22, then titled Catch-18,
in 1953. Heller sent his twenty-page handwritten manuscript to his first agent,
Elizabeth McKee, and her team; the agents were not impressed and “found the
writing incomprehensible” (Daugherty). After changing the title to Catch-22 to avoid confusion with Mila-18 by Leon Uris and working with a
new agent, Robert Gottlieb, Heller was finally able to publish his manuscript
in 1961 (Daugherty). Catch-22 did not
achieve immediate success after publication, however it was enough to allow him
to quit his job and pursue full-time writing (Nichols).

As stated by Jean
Kennard, Catch-22 was not simply a
fictitious, satirical novel about World War II, but rather “Heller’s vision of
the horrifying absurdity of service life in World War II,” (Kennard). Catch-22 reflected the existentialist
view that Heller gained from his own time in the military. Heller’s use of
experimental techniques allowed him to “dramatize” human conditions rather than
solely describe them (Kennard). The black humor that characterizes Heller’s
specific style of writing was influenced by the “iconoclastic humor of
midcentury Jewish comics” to previous existentialist and absurdist writers such
as Franz Kafka and Albert Camus (Bailey).

After writing Catch-22, Heller continued to write and
teach, however none of his later novels came close to the popularity of Catch-22. The 1980s also proved to be a
difficult time for Heller as he and his wife separated in 1981 and he was
diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome on December 13th the same
year (Nichols). Heller was left temporarily paralyzed, but eventually made a
substantial recovery (Vogel). While in treatment, Heller consistently flirted
with Valerie Humphries, the nurse helping him recover, and in 1984, he divorced
his wife, Shirley, to marry Valerie (Daugherty).

On December 12,
1999, Joseph Heller died from a heart attack at his East Hampton home. Although
Heller is most commonly known for his addition of Catch-22 to American literature, he has also left behind his contribution
to the English language and his legacy for future generations of writers. As
stated by Charlie Reilly, “with ‘Catch-22’ itself, he Heller added a phrase
to the language,” (Reilly). Heller’s work and specific writing style of dark
humor and satire has influenced both past writers and will continue to
influence future writers. After a successful writing career, Heller knew how
substantial his work had become and stated: “When I read something saying I’ve
not done anything as good as Catch-22,
I’m tempted to reply, ‘Who has?'” (Heller).

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