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War Horse

Joseph Heller, who embodied masculinity in American postwar literature, for better and for worse, chronicled a major shift in American Jewish identity

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Joseph Heller with his wife, Shirley, and son, Ted, in Paris, 1966. (Courtesy Erica Heller)

Among the most celebrated male purveyors of postwar American literature—some of them swaggering and brash, all of them obsessed with codes of masculinity—there was not a lot of firsthand experience of war. Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud didn’t fight in World War II. Saul Bellow sidestepped combat in the merchant marine. So did Ralph Ellison. Updike was too young to fight, and anyway, just try to picture that. Pynchon joined the Navy, but he did so 10 years after the screaming came across the sky. James Baldwin shipped out to Europe after the war ended. J.D. Salinger fought in the Battle of the Bulge, but he never wrote about the war. (Yes, Kurt Vonnegut survived his own side’s firebombing of Dresden and wrote about it.) Norman Mailer never shrank from a good brawl, but he saw little combat in the Philippines, and he ended his Army tenure as a cook.

Measure patriotism however you will, but Joseph Heller—2nd Lieutenant, 340th Bombardment Group, 488th Squadron, stationed on the island of Corsica—was intimately acquainted with danger. Knowing that the average life expectancy of a bombardier in heavy combat was three minutes, he could not have been faulted for asking: Why me? And his imagined interlocutor could have logically responded, as Maj. Danby does in Heller’s Catch-22: “Suppose everybody on our side felt that way?” To which Heller, like the reflexively subversive Yossarian, his kindred spirit and most enduring literary creation, would have to answer: “Then I’d certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way.”

In American letters, the term “postwar” connotes a decisive, epochal rupture; it’s a time-stamped signifier of a modern sensibility buffeted by prosperity, psychoanalytic terminology, and the heady prospect of civil and sexual liberation that broke an overstuffed century in half. But the emphasis in literary histories, especially those written about Jewish American novelists, has usually fallen on the post and not the war. Approximately 550,000 American Jews fought in World War II, and their shared sacrifice, according to historian Deborah Dash Moore, made them “agents of a shift in the legitimization of American Jewish identity.” No major novel has been written about this experience.

Jews did write postwar war novels, of course, probing and essential ones. Mailer’s social-realist The Naked and the Dead, published in 1948, shocked readers with its naughty language and insufficient moral clarity, questioning as it did the motives of good soldiers. Formally, though, it seems a holdover from the 1930s proletarian novel. Heller’s Catch-22, now celebrating its 50th anniversary, tipped the blasphemy scale on its side, treating the logic of war as an elaborate, absurdist con game. Though its specific brand of carnivalesque lunacy was tied to one Brooklyn Jew’s experience of World War II, the novel’s countercultural cachet soared a few years after publication, when the war in Vietnam sank into quagmire. For Alfred Kazin, Heller’s novel is “really about the Next War, and thus about a war which will be without limits and without meaning, a war that will end when no one is alive to fight it.” Catch-22 has become many things in the intervening half-century, including assigned reading for just about every high-school student, but its cumulative effect is still shocking.

For Tracy Daugherty, author of Just One Catch, the first full-length biography of Joseph Heller, published this year, the experience of combat is key not just to Heller’s most justifiably celebrated novel but to the comic mindset that would invent at least a few of the terms by which 20th-century America could begin to process and understand itself. Heller’s entire career—which, in Daugherty’s telling, began in the “womb” at the front of a B-25 bomber, moments before the plane took a deep and terrifying dive to avoid enemy flak—was a high-octane delivery system for complaint: He distilled a life’s worth of grievances about war, mortality, women, and religion into a hilarious and stylistically sophisticated form yet still couldn’t quite attain a seat at the table of recognized genius.

You would think that the lasting cultural import of his work would be enough to qualify Heller as a great American writer, or even a great Jewish writer, but Daugherty’s book makes clear that neither designation ever stuck. Born in 1923 to Russian immigrant parents in Yiddish-speaking Coney Island, and after attending NYU on the G.I. Bill, Heller began his literary career as an imitator, aping the terse, dialogue-based, and decidedly goyish rhythms of Hemingway, William Saroyan, and John O’Hara, whose collective convictions a mature Heller would later describe as “hard-nosed, sexist attitudes … embodying … implicit assessments of materialism, wealth, Babbitry, and ideals of masculinity and male decency that I … accepted as irreducibly pure.” The New Yorker rejected his early stories, telling him to write from his own experience. He took the magazine’s advice, but it never published his work.

Just One Catch unfolds as a kind of tragicomedy about a genuinely admired, widely read author who ached to be called extraordinary. Even Heller’s obnoxious bad behavior, which included rampant infidelity, arrogance, and a devilish insistence on taking the best portion of food on the table for himself, seems fairly run-of-the-mill behavior for a mid-century male novelist. A man of insatiable appetites, Heller wanted to write Great Books, but more than that—in an age of monumental literary hubris, just before postmodernism arrived to loosen the threads of historical continuity—he wanted to write outsize, indispensable books. Later in life, he would self-deprecatingly temper this disappointment, in terms that seem inarguable. He never wrote anything as good as Catch again, but as he astutely boasted to one interviewer: “Who has?”

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I read Catch 22 and 2 of his other books. They didn’t come close to Catch 22 and IMHO if he hadn’t written Catch 22 first they would never have been published. He was essentially a one book author

yehuda says:

this article is in need of some serious tightening. lord.

John from StL says:

While not mentioned, his book on his experiences with Guillain Barre (No Laughing Matter) is also worth reading.

Mitchell A. Levin says:

I was surprised that you did not include Herman Wouk in your list of post-War Jewish novelists. Wouk served on two minesweepers in the South Pacific during World War II; service that produced “The Caine Mutiny.” This work transcends the war novel genre and is an excellent text for a course of organizational development and/or human behavior. Wouk has had a long and distinguished career in which he has let his writing speak for him as opposed to relying on some sort of celebrity persona in the manner of Norman Mailer, for example. In addition to this, Wouk is an observant Jew whom one could not imagine “taking the best portion of food on the table for himself” let alone thinking that being “a man of insatiable appetites” was the requisite behavior for a male novelist. All of Wouk’s books are not great and a couple were real disappointments but he wrote some fiction and non-fiction that will stand the test of time. On balance, his body of work combined with his behavior as a person put him in a class of under-appreciated literary treasures.

I, too, am surprised that Herman Wouk doesn’t get a mention. War and Remembrance is a classic in the WW2 literature genre.

Jacob.Arnon says:

Joseph Heller may have been a Jew, but he wasn’t a Jewish novelist.

There is nothing Jewish about Catch 22. It’s hero Yossarian is described as an “Assyrian” whatever that meant to Heller.

Even the war in the novel is not exactly WW2. Jews are not even mentioned in the book.

Had they been mentioned and Heller must have known this Yossarian’s anti-war stance would have been seen as cowardice.

A Jew refusing to fight to save the lives of Jews? What kind of Jew is that?

Tablet has a way of minimizing everything really Jewish while making large claims for what is an isn’t Jewish.

Shalom Freedman says:

This was an outstanding informative article. I have never ‘gotten’ Joseph Heller and from this article I better understand what there might have been to ‘get’.
A minor correction. Salinger’s great story ‘For Esme- With Love and Squalor’ does give in a condensed and most aesthetically powerful way his sense of his own war experience.

M. Burgh says:

Salinger’s “A Beautiful Day For Bananafish,” is the devastating portrait of a post-war marriage gone bad. Wouk is too schmaltzy – a voluminous but ultimately 2nd class writer, the nice yin to Uris’s rude yang (also 2nd class). Heller’s work is so far above these other writers as to cast a dark shadow over them.

Jews are indeed mentioned in Catch-22. Clevinger is told that he will be found guilt because “they don’t like Jews. But I’m not Jewish.”

There are many problematic messages with Catch-22. First of those is his black/white view on war.

I think it comes down to identification. Heller never truly felt that American, and opposed wars. He didn’t when it came to Israel.

Most Jews today do not have that distance towards America, which is a direct result of anti-Semitism down on it’s lowest levels ever.

The fact that the author praises the book is likely to the fact that the author is stuck in the same mold as Heller was. (One clue is the author’s use of racial slurs like ‘goyishe’).

Heller’s dismissal of Hemingway et al, who was a greater novelist than he was, was based on a not insignificant part of his race. Which in turn makes Heller look like a very small, bigoted man.

A mind is a such a terrible thing to waste.

Heller to me represents a grieving, unsoothe-able conscience, someone uncomfortable with heroic tales, cheering bands and simplistic platitudes. His work doesn’t make pleasant reading for me, marginal humor not withstanding. Heller seemed to be honest enough not to accept any simple palliatives. He wasn’t sure, it seems, what model of living to follow, but was adamantly sure of many models not to follow and that insecurity obviously distressed him greatly. His wartime experiences seem to have brought home to him intolerable moral and social ambiguities. Others sought to glorify what was billed as the great War Against Fascism (with that great super-fascist ally Stalin)or as a great, unalloyed expression of American virtue and power. Heller brooded about dead or maimed Italian civilians and the traumatic scarring of combatants, especially the American soldiers he got to know. He wrote about that war and war in general as a surrealistic experience drawing from his concrete experience. Heller, like others, could not bring himself to idealize, no Tristan myths to romanticize about. Heller should properly be characterized in the time-honored tradition as Israelish (struggling with God, the notions about God),though the term is not yet recognized in English, rather than Jewish (praising God, Hallelujah, in the comfortable, comforting manner, dumping our sorrows on the Divine). We have come of age, we seek total realism, and it is discomforting. Mystics seek comfort in the ineffable, in knowing and accepting the limits of the human intellect. Anti-mystics such as Heller could never accept that to their grief. B’shalom.

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War Horse

Joseph Heller, who embodied masculinity in American postwar literature, for better and for worse, chronicled a major shift in American Jewish identity