On Tuesday I posted a rather difficult trivia question on my Facebook author page and other social media. The category was literature:
QUESTION: Why did Joseph Heller change the title of his famous novel from Catch-18 to Catch-22?
ANSWER: Because Leon Uris had recently released a book called Mila 18.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller has become such a foundational book in contemporary American literature that the title is actually in the dictionary! The term refers to an absurd no-win situation. For example, you can’t get a job without experience, but you can’t get experience without a job. That, my friends, is a Catch-22… a kind of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t, no easy way out scenario. Man, I hate those!
Joseph Heller was an American satirical novelist, short story writer, and playwright. He was born in 1923 to poor Jewish immigrants in New York. At age 19, he joined the US Army Air Corps. Two years later he was sent to the Italian Front, where he flew 60 combat missions as a B-25 bombadier. After the war, he studied English at the University of Southern California and NYU and then received his M.A. from Columbia University.
Following his graduation, he taught college-level composition, fiction, and dramatic writing and worked as a copywriter. (By the by, he worked alongside soon-to-be bestselling novelist Mary Higgins Clark during one of those stints.) He wrote in his spare time and his first short story was published in The Atlantic in 1948.
The initial chapter of his epic novel was first published in New World Writing as Catch-18. His agent sold the book to Simon and Schuster, which published it when the manuscript was finally submitted… nearly five years past the novelist’s deadline. These days that wouldn’t fly with most publishers, but it turned out to be a good call on the part of S&S; the book became required reading in many classrooms in the turbulent war-torn 60s and 70s and eventually sold more than 10 millions copies in the US alone. A film version of the book was released in 1970 starring Alan Arkin, Jon Voight, and Orson Welles.
Just before it was released, the title was changed to Catch-22 to avoid confusion with author Leon Uris’ Mila 18, a novel about an uprising in the Warsaw ghetto in World War II.
Catch-22 is about the wartime experiences of fictional character John Yossarian, a captain in the Army Air Corps. He is furious that thousands of strangers are trying to kill him. He biggest problem isn’t the enemy, though, it is his own army, which keeps increasing the number of missions the men must fly in order to complete their service. There is an ironic bit of bureaucratic red tape… only the insane would continue to participate in such dangerous missions, but if Yossarian files a formal complaint to the military to get out of duty, he would actually be considered sane and therefore ineligible to be relieved of duty. That probably doesn’t make a lot of sense; you need to read it for yourself to get it.
Catch-22 isn’t Heller’s only piece of stellar work; he also wrote two autobiographies, seven novels, and three plays. A previously unpublished short story, Almost Like Christmas, appears in issue 40 of The Strand magazine http://www.strandmag.com/Issue-40-of-the-Strand-with-an-unpublished-Joseph-Heller-story_p_7708.html.
I think it’s time to real this book again. Have you read it? If so, what did you think?