Joseph Heller, a popular American writer, was born on May 1, 1923. He was largely a novelist, but he also wrote short stories, plays, and autobiographies. Heller began life as the son of poor immigrants, but his writing skills made him into one of the best post-World War II satirists. His 1961 novel, Catch-22, became world renowned.
Heller was born in Brooklyn, New York, to parents Isaac and Lena Heller. It was his father's second marriage, and young Joseph, who was called Joey as a child, had a half-sister seven years older and a half-brother fourteen years older. Heller's parents were poor Russian-Jewish immigrants. Isaac, his father, drove a bakery truck. When Joseph was only five years old, his father died from surgical complications, so his half-brother became his surrogate father.
Over time young Joey gained a reputation as a clever jokester who was skillful at one-liners, often with a dark sense of humor. This would also appear later in his writings. He graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1941 and briefly worked before enlisting in the Army Air Corps after America entered World War II. Heller went to cadet school to become a bombardier and was eventually stationed in Corsica, an island in the Mediterranean Sea. He flew without fear until his 37th mission. According to Heller, "Until then, it was all play." It was when his own B-25 was hit that the Hollywood image of heroism left Heller's thoughts. During his time in the Air Corps, he flew over sixty missions and earned a Presidential Unit Citation and an Air Medal. Some of his own experiences in war show up in Catch-22, but most critics believe that Heller's experiences had only a minimal impact on the creation of his book.
After being discharged from the Army Air Corps in 1945, Heller decided to get an education. He first attended the University of California, but later transferred to New York University where he graduated in 1948 after majoring in English. Heller continued his studies at Columbia University where, in 1949, he earned a master's degree in literature. After winning a Fulbright scholarship, he was able to study at Oxford University in England. It was while Heller was receiving his education that he married Shirley Held.
Following his education in England, Heller returned to the United States and got a job at Penn State University teaching freshman writing from 1950 until 1952. From there he worked as a copywriter for Time magazine between 1952 and 1956 and Look magazine between 1956 and 1958. Heller then moved on to McCall's magazine, working as a promotion man for approximately three years. While working for the various magazines, Heller was also writing stories which would occasionally get published. During the 1950s, he wrote a story, "Catch-18," which was suggestive of his experiences during the war. It was this story that slowly began to expand over the next eight years until it eventually grew into Catch-22.