On Born into a family living in a

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On Born into a family living in a

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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 51) 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 190). 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 75). 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 508). 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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