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Biography: Joseph Heller

“When I read something saying I’ve not done anything as good as Catch-22, I’m tempted to reply, ‘Who has?’”

Joseph Heller is one of the iconic American satirists and novelists of the twentieth century. He is perhaps best known for his first novel Catch-22, which spawned the popular expression “catch 22”, referring to a no-win situation.


Joseph Heller was born on the first of May 1923 in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. Heller’s father died when Heller was six, and the family struggled financially while Heller was growing up. He attended Coney Island’s Public School No. 188 and then graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1941.

Immediately after graduating, Heller worked for an insurance agency as a file clerk. Shortly after this, the United States entered the Second World War, and Heller changed jobs to become a blacksmith’s assistant in the Norfolk Navy Yard. The following year, Heller joined the army and became a file clerk. At the end of 1942, he joined the Air Force, enrolling in cadet school.

In 1944, Heller graduated from cadet school and was assigned to the Twelfth Air Force in Corsica. He ran sixty missions in the Mediterranean, and received awards. Heller was discharged in 1945, and enrolled in the University of Southern California. That year, he also had his first short story published, and married for the first time.

Heller switched to New York University the following year, studying English. He received a Masters from Columbia University in 1949, and in 1950 studied as a Fullbright Scholar at Oxford University.

Heller then took up a teaching post at Pennsylvania State University, leaving shortly after after to become an advertising manager for Time Magazine. He began working on Catch-22 in 1953, and worked on it for several years while continuing to work in advertising for various magazines. After Catch-22’s publication in 1961, Heller became a fulltime writer.

In 1981, Heller separated from his wife. Late that year, he was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare paralytic disease where all of the muscles of the body seize up, making movement and even swallowing impossible. He spent six months bedridden and then even longer in rehabilitation. During his illness, Heller met his second wife, who was a nurse. He married her in 1987.

After his recovery, Heller continued writing and teaching. He died of a heart attack in New York on December 12th, 1999.



  • We Bombed in New Haven (1967)
  • Catch 22 (1971)
  • Clevinger’s Trial (1973)


  • Catch-22 (1961)
  • Something Happened (1974)
  • Good as Gold (1979)
  • God Knows (1984)
  • Picture This (1988)
  • Closing Time (1994)
  • Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man (2000)

Short fiction

  • Catch As Catch Can: The Collected Stories and Other Writings (2003)
  • Three Short Stories Of Utter Annoyance


  • No Laughing Matter (1988)
  • Now And Then (1998)


Heller is most commonly identified with the contemporary literature and satire genres.