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BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
Joseph Heller was born on May 1, 1923 to Russian immigrant parents living in Coney Island, which was then a predominantly Jewish enclave in New York City. His father was a bakery-truck driver who died after a botched operation when Heller was just five years old. Heller, his elder brother, and their mother had to fend for themselves. His early experiences in the Carnival-like atmosphere of Coney Island may have given him a cynical, street-wise humor that marks much of his adult writings.
On graduating from high school in 1941, he worked briefly for an insurance company and then as a blacksmithís helper in the Norfolk Navy Yard. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in October, 1942, and served out the war as a bombardier with the 488th squadron of the US Air Force, flying more than sixty missions over Italy and France. Some of these war-time experiences, characters, scenes, and events are worked into his novel Catch- 22.
Discharged as a first lieutenant in 1945, Heller married Shirley Held and settled in Manhattan. He enrolled at the University of Southern California but soon transferred to New York University and earned his Bachelorís degree in English in 1948. He earned his Master of Arts from Columbia University in 1949 and spent the academic year 1949-50 as a Fulbright Scholar at Oxford. He then taught English at Pennsylvania State University for two years while also writing short stories for magazines like Esquire and the Atlantic.
Heller took up a career as an advertising copy writer, first for Time magazine, then for Look, and later became promotion manager at McCalls. He also wrote short stories and occasionally did movie and T.V. scripts using the pseudonym Max Orange. This was the period in Hellerís career when he wrote his masterpiece Catch-22 (1961). This novel established his reputation as a writer. Hellerís other novels include Something Happened (1974) and Good as Gold (1979). The first targets the corporate world as it describes the psychological pressures faced by Bob Slocum, an American business executive. The second attacks government bureaucracy as it depicts the personal and professional problems of a Jewish Professor, Bruce Gold. Thematically similar to Catch-22, Heller has also written a two- act play entitled We Bombed in New Haven (1968). More recent works include an autobiographical account of his battle against a crippling illness, No Laughing Matter (1986). Heller is something of a literary rarity, as he has met with both critical success and popular acclaim.
Catch-22 arose out of Hellerís actual experience as a U.S. bombardier during World War II. The novel was also dramatized by Heller in a shorter three-act version which excludes the character of Orr and the episodes set in Rome. The novel has been translated into more than a dozen languages and has sold more than ten million copies worldwide. Paramount Pictures made a movie of it in 1970, starring Alan Arkin and Orson Welles, directed by Mike Nichols and scripted by Buck Henry.