Joseph Heller

On this date in 1923, Joseph Heller was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., to Lena and Isaac Heller, working-class Jewish parents. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force and flew 60 missions as a bombardier in North Africa and Italy. After WW II, Heller graduated from New York University with a B.A. in 1948, earned his M.A. at Columbia in 1949, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford in 1949-50. After teaching composition for two years at Penn State University and writing copy for an ad agency, he started writing fiction.

His masterpiece, Catch-22, was published in 1961, to be followed by seven major books, including Something Happened (1974), Good as Gold (1979), which explored his Jewish-American roots, and Now and Then (1998). God Knows is an absurdist deathbed autobiography of King David. He was married to Shirley Held from 1945-81 before divorcing. They had two children, Erica (born 1952) and Theodore (born 1956). He was married to Valerie Humphries from 1987-99.

Heller was paralyzed for a time by Guillain-Barré syndrome. He recovered and co-wrote No Laughing Matter (1986) about his experiences. According to Barbara Gelb ("Catching Joseph Heller," March 4, 1979, New York Times), Heller was not bar-mitzvahed at 13. Gelb wrote, "Lena Heller was no more religiously inclined than her husband had been. But she was insecure about her nonconformity, and attempted to conceal it."

In Conversations With Joseph Heller (1993, ed. Adam Sorkin), the agnostic Heller said: "I realize that even if I received convincing physical evidence that there is a God and a heaven and hell, it wouldn't affect me one bit. I think the experience of life is more important than the experience of eternity. Life is short. Eternity never runs out."

He died of a heart attack at his home on Long Island in 1999, shortly after completion of his final novel, Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man.

"Good God, how much reverence can you have for a Supreme Being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth-decay in His divine system of creation?"

—Heller's protagonist Yossarian in "Catch-22"

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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