War wasn’t hell for Heller

Fans of Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 may be surprised to learn that the American author actually enjoyed his military service during World War II — at least according to a letter about to be auctioned in the United States.

The 1961 novel, a powerful satire about military bureaucracy and official doublethink, features on lists of the best works of 20th-century fiction and made its author a millionaire, but the three-page-long typed letter, written in 1974, contrasts his experience with that of Catch-22‘s central character, John Yossarian.

“How did I feel about the war when I was in it?” Heller wrote in the letter to an academic preparing a collection of essays about the book. “Much differently than Yossarian felt and much differently than I felt when I wrote the novel … In truth I enjoyed it and so did just about everyone else I served with, in training and even in combat.

“I was young, it was adventurous, there was much hoopla and glamour; in addition, and this too is hard to get across to college students today, for me and for most others, going into the army resulted immediately in a vast improvement in my standard of living.”

Heller says he made $65 or $75 a month while in the US military — more than the $60 he received as a filing clerk — “and all food, lodging, clothing and medical expenses paid. There was the prospect of travel and a general feeling of a more exciting and eventful period ahead … more freedom than I enjoyed in the long years afterwards.”

The author enlisted in the US army air corps (as it was then) in 1942 at 19 and subsequently served, like Yossarian, on the Italian front, flying on 60 combat missions as a B25 bombardier.

He spent much of the 1950s writing Catch-22, having gained a contract with the publisher Simon & Schuster on the basis of the first chapter.

Rare insight

In a letter to James Nagel, then an English professor at Northeastern University in Boston, Heller explained: “I knew [the book] would be published. I knew I worked slowly. I took my time and tried to make it the best book I could possibly write on that subject at that time.”

Two of his letters to Nagel are being auctioned by the Nate D Sanders online auction house over the next fortnight — and are expected to fetch between $2?000 and $3?000.

The 1974 letter cites Heller’s inspirations: Celine, Nabokov, Faulkner and — “always present in my awareness” — TS Eliot’s The Waste Land.

In another letter, Heller states: “Yossarian isn’t Jewish and was not intended to be; on the other hand, no effort was expended to make him anything else.”

A further letter to Nagel, handwritten 10 years later in January 1984, indicates, perhaps, a certain level of exasperation: “About Catch-22 I doubt very much that I can give you any more in the way of knowledge … you undoubtedly know more about [it] than I do.”

Catch-22 was made into a film, released in 1970, starring Alan Arkin.–

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Stephen Bates
Stephen Bates works from Las Vegas, NM. Associate Professor, Hank Greenspun School of Journalism, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Stephen Bates has over 184 followers on Twitter.

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