Joseph Heller, who embodied masculinity in American postwar literature, for better and for worse, chronicled a major shift in American Jewish identity
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?”
An artist’s impressions of the “Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women” exhibit at Yeshiva University Museum