The tragicomic 1961 novel that sprang from Joseph Heller’s experience as a W.W. II bombardier mystified and offended many of the publishing professionals who saw it first. But thanks to a fledgling agent, Candida Donadio, and a young editor, Robert Gottlieb, it would eventually be recognized as one of the greatest anti-war books ever written. In an adaptation from his Heller biography, Just One Catch: A Biography of Joseph Heller, Tracy Daugherty recalls the tortured eight-year genesis of Catch-22 and its ultimate triumph.
Joseph Heller crawled into the transparent womb at the front of the B-25. It was August 15, 1944. He was about to fly his second mission of the day. That morning, he and the rest of his crew had been ordered to attack enemy gun positions at Pointe des Issambres, near St. Tropez, in France, but heavy cloud formations had prevented them from dropping their bombs. According to military reports, flak cover at the target was “heavy, intense and accurate.” Just one week earlier, over Avignon, on the morning of August 8, Heller had witnessed flak bursts cripple a bomber. “I was in the leading flight,” he recalled, “and when I looked back to see how the others were doing, I saw one plane pulling up above and away from the others, a wing on fire beneath a tremendous, soaring plume of orange flame. I saw a parachute billow open, then another, then one more before the plane began spiraling downward, and that was all.” Two men died.
Now, on this follow-up mission a week later, the goal was to destroy the Avignon railroad bridges on the Rhône River. As he had done 36 times before, he slid down the narrow tunnel beneath the cockpit to the bomber’s Plexiglas nose cone. The tunnel was too small for a man wearing bulky equipment; he was forced to park his parachute in the navigator’s area behind him. Up front, in the glass bowl—the crew called it “the hot house”—he always felt vulnerable and exposed. He found his chair. He put on his intercom headset so he could talk to comrades he could no longer see in other parts of the plane. The wheels left the ground. Now he was alone, in a blur of blue.
As his squadron began its approach to the Rhône, German anti-aircraft guns let loose and flak filled the air. Hurtling through space, the man in the glass cone watched the shining metal of a damaged bomber fall. A minute later, he was steering his plane. His pilot and the co-pilot had taken their hands off the flight controls. It was time for him to drop his bombs, and so, to ensure a steady approach to the target, he commanded the plane’s movements using the automatic bombsight, steering left, steering right. For about 60 seconds, no evasive action would be possible, just a sure zeroing in.
Almost. Almost. There. He squeezed the toggle switch that released the bombs. Immediately, his pilot, Lieutenant John B. Rome, banked up, away from the target. Rome, about 20, was one of the youngest pilots in the squadron, with little combat experience. The co-pilot, fearing this green kid was about to stall the engines, seized the controls, and the plane went into a sudden steep dive, back to an altitude where it could be holed by curtains of flak. In the nose cone, Heller slammed into the ceiling of his compartment. His headset cord pulled loose from its jack and began whipping about his head. He heard nothing. He couldn’t move.
Just as quickly as it had begun its descent, the plane shot upward, away from the flak, one moment yo-yoing into the next. Now Heller was pinned to the floor, looking for a handhold, anything to grasp. The silence was horrifying. Was he the only crewman left alive? He noticed the cord to his headset lying free near his chair. He plugged himself back in and a roar of voices pierced his ears. “The bombardier doesn’t answer,” he heard someone shout. “Help him, help the bombardier.” “I’m the bombardier,” he said, “and I’m all right.” But the very act of asserting what should have been obvious made him wonder if it was true.
II. Love at First Sight
‘The novel, you know,” people whispered whenever Joseph Heller and his wife, Shirley, left a party early. From the first, Joe had made no secret of his ambitions beyond the world of advertising. In later years, he floated various stories about the origins of his first novel. “There was a terrible sameness about books being published and I almost stopped reading as well as writing,” he said on one occasion. But then something happened. He told one British journalist that “conversations with two friends … influenced me. Each of them had been wounded in the war, one of them very seriously The first one told some very funny stories about his war experiences, but the second one was unable to understand how any humour could be associated with the horror of war. They didn’t know each other and I tried to explain the first one’s point of view to the second. He recognized that traditionally there had been lots of graveyard humour, but he could not reconcile it with what he had seen of war. It was after that discussion that the opening of Catch-22 and many incidents in it came to me.”
The Czech writer Arnošt Lustig claimed that Heller had told him at a New York party for Milos Forman in the late 1960s that he couldn’t have written Catch-22 without first reading Jaroslav Hašek’s unfinished World War I satire, The Good Soldier Schweik. In Hašek’s novel, a mad state bureaucracy traps a hapless man. Among other things, he stays in a hospital for malingerers and serves as an orderly for an army chaplain.
But the most common account Heller gave of the hatching of Catch-22 varied little from what he said to The Paris Review in 1974: “I was lying in bed in my four-room apartment on the West Side when suddenly this line came to me: ‘It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, Someone fell madly in love with him.’ I didn’t have the name Yossarian. The chaplain wasn’t necessarily an army chaplain—he could have been a prison chaplain. But as soon as the opening sentence was available, the book began to evolve clearly in my mind—even most of the particulars … the tone, the form, many of the characters, including some I eventually couldn’t use. All of this took place within an hour and a half. It got me so excited that I did what the cliché says you’re supposed to do: I jumped out of bed and paced the floor.”
In all likelihood, each of these scenarios is true; they don’t contradict one another, and they probably occurred at some stage in the process of imagining the novel. But we also know from a letter to Heller in California from the editor Whit Burnett that, as early as 1946, he’d been considering a novel about “a flier facing the end of his missions.”
The morning after the opening sentence took shape, Heller “arrived at work”—at the Merrill Anderson Company—“with my pastry and container of coffee and a mind brimming with ideas, and immediately in longhand put down on a pad the first chapter of an intended novel.” The handwritten manuscript totaled about 20 pages. He titled it Catch-18. The year was 1953.
Back in his short-story-writing days, he had corresponded with an editor at The Atlantic Monthly named Elizabeth McKee. She had offered to be his first agent. With Mavis McIntosh, McKee founded her own business; in 1952, her agency consisted of McIntosh, Jean Parker Waterbury, and a woman originally hired to do girl-Friday work, Candida Donadio.
“The agents were not impressed” with Catch-18, Heller recalled in a 1994 preface to a new edition of Catch-22. In fact, they found the story incomprehensible. But Donadio was quite impressed and began sending the manuscript around. The replies were at first discouraging. But then, one day, Donadio received a phone call from Arabel Porter, the executive editor of a biannual literary anthology, New World Writing,distributed by New American Library’s Mentor Books. She raved about Heller. “Candida, this is completely wonderful, true genius,” she said. “I’m buying it.”
Candida (pronounced Can-dih-duh) Donadio, who would become Heller’s new agent, was about 24 years old, Brooklyn-born, from a family of Italian immigrants. She rarely spoke about what she implied was a grim Sicilian Catholic upbringing. Short and plump, her black hair in a tight bun, she’d fix her brown eyes on people she’d just met and startle them with some bawdy remark, delivered in an unusually deep voice. “She had more synonyms for excrement than anyone you’d ever run across,” says Cork Smith, Thomas Pynchon’s first editor. She liked to say the primary task of a literary agent was to “polish silver.” She claimed she would have loved to have been a Carmelite nun. She smoked and drank heavily, indulged heartily in Italian meals, and disliked having her picture taken. Perhaps her conflicting currents enabled her to be an intuitive appreciator (as she put it) of truly original writing. In time, her client roster came to include some of the most prominent names in American letters: John Cheever, Jessica Mitford, Philip Roth, Bruce Jay Friedman, Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, Robert Stone, Michael Herr, and Peter Matthiessen. “She really was the agent of her generation,” a young co-worker, Neil Olson, recalled. And Catch-18 started it all.
According to her boss, Victor Weybright, co-founder and editor in chief of New American Library, Arabel J. Porter was “a Bohemian Quakeress, with inspired eyes and ears which seem to see and hear all the significant manifestations of the literary, dramatic and graphic arts.” Weybright hired Porter to select content and work out royalties for New World Writing, which would “provide a friendly medium for many of the young writers who have difficulty in finding a market for their work because, in some way or another, they ‘break the rules.’ ”
In terms of cultural impact, no single issue of New World Writing was more dazzling than No. 7, published in April 1955. A subheading on the front cover said, “A New Adventure in Modern Reading.” The contents included work by Dylan Thomas, who had died in November 1953, poetry by A. Alvarez, Thom Gunn, Donald Hall, and Carlos Drummond de Andrade, prose by Heinrich Böll, and two startling, unclassifiable pieces, one titled “Jazz of the Beat Generation,” by a writer called Jean-Louis, and Catch-18, by Joseph Heller.
Heller knew how valuable the exposure was in New World Writing. He wrote to Arabel Porter, “I should like to tell you at this time that it was with great delight and pride that I received news you were interested in publishing a section of Catch-18.” In fact, it was the only section he had written so far. “And I should like to express my thanks for the recognition implicit in your decision and the encouragement I received from it.” As for Jean-Louis, this was the nom de plume of a writer named Jack Kerouac, who had long been disgusted with his treatment by publishers. He felt New World Writing had done him a great disservice while editing his piece by splitting an approximately 500-word sentence in two, according to biographer Ellis Amburn. “Jazz of the Beat Generation” was part of a larger manuscript called On the Road.
Only 10 pages long in the journal’s small print, Catch-18 introduces us to a World War II-era American soldier named Yossarian, in a military hospital “with a pain in his liver that fell just short of being jaundice. The doctors were puzzled by the fact that it wasn’t quite jaundice. If it became jaundice they could treat it. If it didn’t become jaundice and went away they could discharge him. But this just being short of jaundice all the time confused them.” Yossarian is happy to be hospitalized and excused from flying bombing missions, and has not told the doctors his liver pain has gone away. He had “made up his mind to spend the rest of the war in the hospital,” where “the food wasn’t too bad, and his meals were brought to him in bed.”
Sharing the ward with him are his buddy Dunbar, a man “working hard at increasing his life span … by cultivating boredom” (so much so that Yossarian wonders if he is dead), a Texan so likable no one can stand him, and a “soldier in white,” who is “encased from head to toe in plaster and gauze.” A slim rubber tube attached to his groin conveys his urine to a jar on the floor; another pair of tubes appear to feed him by recycling the urine. Outside, there is always the “monotonous old drone of bombers returning from a mission.”
One day, Yossarian receives a visit from a chaplain. A chaplain is something he has not seen before: Yossarian loves him “at first sight.” “He had seen reverends and rabbis, ministers and mullahs, priests and pairs of nuns. He had seen ordnance officers and quartermaster officers and post exchange officers and other spooky military anomalies. Once he had even seen a justification, but that was a long time before and then it was such a fleeting glimpse that it might easily have been an hallucination.” Yossarian speaks to the chaplain—a slapstick and meaningless dialogue. Eventually, the Texan’s friendliness drives his comrades batty. They clear out of the ward and return to duty. That’s the story.
The charm and energy of the piece, its originality, lay in its playful language: There is a “vortex of specialists” swirling through the ward; a patient has “a urologist for his urine, a lymphologist for his lymph, an endocrinologist for his endocrines, a psychologist for his psyche, a dermatologist for his derma … [and] a pathologist for his pathos.” “Catch-18”—an arbitrary phrase—is a rule requiring officers who censor enlisted men’s letters to sign their names to the pages. In the hospital, Yossarian, a low-level officer, spends his days editing letters and signing them, out of boredom and glee, “Washington Irving” or “Irving Washington.” Instead of deleting sensitive information, he declares “Death to all modifiers.” He scratches out adjectives and adverbs or, “reach[ing] a much higher plane of creativity,” attacks everything but articles. “A,” “an,” and “the” remain on the page. Everything else, he tosses. At one point, the army sends an undercover man into the ward. He poses as a patient. His job is to suss out the prankster. In the end, he catches pneumonia and is the only one left in the hospital when the others leave.
A year would pass before Heller finished drafting a second chapter of his novel. He was working for Timenow. At home and at work, the index cards piled up. Very early, Heller imagined most of the major characters in the novel and devoted cards to them, with detailed notes about their backgrounds, characteristics, and fates. He outlined each potential chapter and studiously catalogued each mission he had flown during the war, intending to use them as structural elements in the story.
Ideas rejected. Structure shuffled. Small changes: eventually, a character named Aarky was re-christened Aarfy. Bigger changes: an entrepreneurial soldier, Milo Minderbinder, “exposed” as a ruthless, moneymaking crook in an early vision of the novel, developed into a more nuanced figure, amoral rather than simply villainous. Metaphysical considerations: “Yossarian is dying, true, but he has about 35 years to live.” How thick to make the irony? “[Yossarian] really does have liver trouble. Condition is malignant & would have killed him if it had not been discovered”—a thought soon discarded. “Big Brother has been watching Yossarian,” says one card: a controlling idea that remains implicit, rather than explicit, in the final product. Heller axed a potential narrative thread in which Yossarian and Dunbar try to write a parody of a Hemingway war novel. Heller always knew that the death of the character Snowden, on the mission to Avignon, would be the novel’s central scene, and that it would be glimpsed in fragments until its full horror was finally revealed.
Also, early on, he developed the catch. In New World Writing, Catch-18 is a regulation about censoring letters. With his index cards, Joe began to shade the idea into something grand enough to support a novel thematically. One card reads, “Anyone who wants to be grounded can’t be crazy.”
III. “Funnier than Eighteen”
Robert Gottlieb was just a kid, really. And the company was his to play with.
“At that moment in the demented history of Simon & Schuster, there was no one in charge—which is often the case in publishing, but it was never acknowledged,” he later recalled. In August 1957, at about the time Candida Donadio sent Gottlieb a roughly 75-page manuscript entitled Catch-18, Jack Goodman, Simon & Schuster’s editorial director, had passed away unexpectedly. Poor health forced founder Dick Simon to retire later that year. According to Jonathan R. Eller, who has traced Catch-22’s publishing trail, six S&S executives died or moved to other firms in the mid-1950s, leaving the 26-year-old Gottlieb and Nina Bourne, a young advertising manager with whom he worked, with remarkable editorial pull.
In Turning the Pages, a history of the company, Peter Schwed notes that the personnel manager who first interviewed Gottlieb wondered “why this applicant, assuming that he had the money, didn’t seem to have the inclination to buy and use a comb.” At the end of a lengthy interview session, Goodman told Gottlieb to “go home and write me a letter telling me why you want to get into book publishing.” According to Schwed, Gottlieb “brooded about this on his way home and exploded in telling his wife about it. ‘What in heaven’s name is Goodman telling me to do? The last time I had an idiot assignment like this was in the sixth grade when the teacher made us write a paper on “What I did in my summer vacation”!’ ” The following morning, he delivered a letter to Goodman. It read, in full, “Dear Mr. Goodman: The reason I want to get into book publishing is because it never occurred to me that I could work anywhere else. Sincerely, Robert Gottlieb.” Goodman hired him on a six-month trial basis. At the end of the probationary period, Gottlieb walked into his boss’s office and told him that the six months was over and he had decided to stay.
Gottlieb’s younger colleague Michael Korda remembers a morning when “a tall young man, looking rather like one of those penniless perpetual students in Russian novels, squeezed his way into my office and sat down on the edge of my desk. He wore thick glasses with heavy black frames, and his lank, black hair was combed across his brow rather like the young Napoleon’s.” Gottlieb kept flipping his hair off his forehead with one hand; immediately, the hair resumed its old spot. His glasses were “so smeared with fingerprints … it was a wonder he could see through them.” Korda says Gottlieb’s eyes “were shrewd and intense, but with a certain kindly, humorous sparkle that I had not so far seen at S&S.”
After studying the room for a moment, Gottlieb told Korda, “You’ll never meet anybody if your back is all they see.” He pointed to the desk, which faced away from the door toward an outer window. He grasped one end of the desk and told Korda to take the other side. Together, they turned the desk around so it faced the door and the outer corridor. Gottlieb left, nodding with satisfaction. “Whatever I look at, whatever I encounter, I want it to be good—whether it’s what you’re wearing, or how the restaurant has laid the table, or what’s going on on stage, or what the president said last night, or how two people are talking to each other at a bus stop,” Gottlieb has said. “I don’t want to interfere with it or control it, exactly—I want it towork, I want it to be happy I might have been, I think, a rabbi, if I’d been at all religious.”
By February 1958, Heller had completed seven handwritten chapters of Catch-18 and typed them up into a 259-page manuscript. Donadio sent it to Gottlieb. “I … love this crazy book and very much want to do it,” Gottlieb said. Candida Donadio was delighted by his enthusiasm. Finally, someone got it! “I thought my navel would unscrew and my ass would fall off,” she often said to describe her happiness when negotiations went well with an editor. Despite the firm’s weakness at the top, Gottlieb was not completely free to publish whatever he pleased. Henry Simon, the younger brother of Dick; Justin Kaplan, an executive assistant to Henry Simon and Max Schuster; and Peter Schwed, an administrative editor, also read Joe’s manuscript and discussed it with Gottlieb. Schwed and Kaplan expressed reservations about the novel’s repetitiveness. Simon thought its view of the war was offensive, he said, and he recommended against publishing it.
Gottlieb strongly disagreed. “It is a very rare approach to the war—humor that slowly turns to horror,” he wrote in his report to the company’s editorial board. “The funny parts are wildly funny, the serious parts are excellent. The whole certainly suffers somewhat by the two attitudes, but this can be partly overcome by revisions. The central character, Yossarian, must be strengthened somewhat—his single-minded drive tosurvive is both the comic and the serious center of the story.” He conceded the book would probably not sell well, but he predicted it would be a prestigious title for S&S, “bound to find real admirers in certain literary sets.” The board deferred to him. Simon & Schuster offered Heller a standard first-book agreement: $1,500—$750 as an advance and an additional $750 upon completion of the manuscript. The contract listed 1960 as the pub date.
Right away, Gottlieb hit it off with Heller. “I suppose our convoluted, neurotic, New York Jewish minds work the same way,” he said. He detected in Joe “two great qualities,” and they appeared to exist “in such strange discord. First, there was anxiety. That, to me, is the subject of Catch-22. It must have welled up from the most profound anxiety in him. And the other part was appetite and joy.”
“I think I was [Bob’s] first writer. Not his first published writer, however, because I worked so slowly,” Heller told an interviewer in 1974. “It came so hard. I really thought it would be the only thing I ever wrote. Working on Catch, I’d become furious and despondent that I could only write a page [or so] a night. I’d say to myself, ‘Christ, I’m a mature adult with a master’s degree in English, why can’t I work faster?’ ”
The various stages of the novel, housed now in the Archives and Special Collections Department of the Brandeis University Libraries, reveal that, at one point, Joe was working with at least nine different drafts, both handwritten and typed, often cutting sections from one draft and pasting them into another, leaving blank spaces in some of the handwritten drafts for typed paragraphs to be inserted later. A typed section was no closer to being finished, in Joe’s mind, than a handwritten one; some of the typed paragraphs had been revised as many as three different times, in red ink, green ink, and pencil. Generally, the handwritten passages relished the intentional redundancy of expressions and images, which revisions tended to erase, largely by replacing proper nouns with pronouns.
He tried to temper the humor as well. Comedy came easily to Heller. He didn’t trust it. In an early passage labeled “Chapter XXIII: Dobbs,” Heller originally wrote, “Yossarian lost his guts on the mission to Avignon because Snowden lost his guts on the mission to Avignon.” Later, Joe decided the pun on “guts” lessened the horror of Snowden’s fate; he was using the gunner’s death to serve a cheap joke. He changed the passage to read, “That was the mission in which Yossarian lost his balls … because Snowden lost his guts.”
From draft to draft, most of the major changes were structural. Heller shuffled chapters, finding more effective ways to introduce the large cast of characters. “I’m a chronic fiddler,” he would observe. Left on his own, he’d “never finish anything at all.” He said, “I don’t understand the process of imagination—though I know that I am very much at its mercy. I feel that … ideas are floating around in the air and they pick me to settle upon I don’t produce them at will.”
Catch-18 had more than doubled in length by the time Gottlieb saw any of it again. The original manuscript had expanded from 7 to 16 chapters, and Heller had added a whole new section consisting of 28 more chapters. The pages were a mix of typescript and legal-size notebook paper covered in Heller’s precise and rather crabbed handwriting. Though Gottlieb recalls editing sessions with Heller as “calm,” Michael Korda remembers passing by Gottlieb’s office and seeing parts of Heller’s novel “endlessly retyped, look[ing] at every stage like a jigsaw puzzle as [Heller, Gottlieb, and Nina Bourne] labored over it, bits and pieces of it taped to every available surface in Gottlieb’s cramped office. That, I thought, is editing, and I longed to do it.”
Joe prepared a 758-page typescript from this jigsaw puzzle, deleting digressive episodes and expanding other chapters. He and Gottlieb plunged in again. Gottlieb inspected paragraphs for what he called “impoverished vocabulary,” and asked Joe to stir things up with more active language. He caught places where Joe seemed to be clearing his throat, dawdling, in Joe’s characteristic way, and not getting directly to the point.
Within the hallways of Simon & Schuster, an “aura of myth hovered around the book,” recalls Korda. It was a literary Manhattan Project. “Nobody but Gottlieb and his acolytes had read it. He had shrewdly stage-managed a sense of expectation that grew with every delay.” The occasional appearance in the office of Heller’s “Sicilian Earth Mother” agent also increased the book’s mystical status. Donadio “had a way of dismissing those she thought unimportant,” Korda says, which included just about everyone but Bob Gottlieb and Joe Heller. Eventually—though not before the 1960 deadline had passed—Joe dropped 150 pages from the manuscript. The remaining typescript, heavily line-edited, became the printer’s copy.
And then one day Heller got an urgent call from Gottlieb, who said the title Catch-18 would have to go. Leon Uris was preparing to release a novel called Mila 18, about the Nazi occupation of Poland. Uris was a well-known writer—Exodus had been a huge best-seller. Two novels with the number 18 in the title would clash in the marketplace, and Heller, the unknown, was bound to get the short end of the deal. The number had always been arbitrary, part of the joke about military rules. Still, Heller, Gottlieb, and Bourne had long thought of the book as Catch-18, and it was difficult to conceive of calling it anything else.
“We were all in despair,” Gottlieb recalled. In his office, he and Heller sat opposite each other, spitting out numbers like two spies speaking in code. They liked the sound of “Catch-11”: hard consonants followed by vowels, opening up the mouth. Ultimately, they decided it was too close to the new Frank Sinatra movie,Ocean’s Eleven. They agreed to sleep on the question of a title and try again later.
On January 29, 1961, Heller sent Gottlieb a note, bringing to bear all his adman persuasion: “The name of the book is now CATCH-14. (Forty-eight hours after you resign yourself to the change, you’ll find yourself almost preferring this new number. It has the same bland and nondescript significance of the original. It is far enough away from Uris for the book to establish an identity of its own, I believe, yet close enough to the original title to still benefit from the word of mouth publicity we have been giving it.)” Gottlieb wasn’t sold.
Candida Donadio would one day attempt to take credit for retitling the book with the name that eventually stuck. The number 22 was chosen as a substitute because October 22 was her birthday, she said. “Absolutely untrue,” Gottlieb later told Karen Hudes. “I remember it totally, because it was in the middle of the night. I remember Joe came up with some number and I said, ‘No, it’s not funny,’ which is ridiculous, because no number is intrinsically funny And then I was lying in bed worrying about it one night, and I suddenly had this revelation. And I called him the next morning and said, ‘I’ve got the perfect number. Twenty-two, it’s funnier than eighteen.’ I remember those words being spoken He said, ‘Yes, it’s great, it’s great.’ And we called Candida and told her.”
Finally, the revisions were done. The fall book season had arrived. Catch-22 was about to be launched. One day in Midtown, a young man named Sam Vaughan agreed to share a cab with another man who was traveling in roughly the same direction. In the backseat, the men fell into conversation. Vaughan said he worked as an editor at a publishing house. The other man did, too. His name was Bob Gottlieb. After a moment’s silence, Gottlieb turned to Vaughan and said, “Tell me about popular fiction. I really don’t understand it.”
IV. Yossarian Lives
Nina Bourne had worked hard on Catch-22. She saw herself as “the demented governess who believed the baby was her own.” Her conviction that the novel was a work of literary genius led her to stand up in the book’s first promotion meeting. With a tremor in her voice and tears in her eyes, she announced, “We have to print 7,500”—instead of the standard 5,000-copy first printing. No one argued. Bourne was not one to make a scene or issue demands. Since 1939 she had done her job quietly and efficiently. She said what she meant, and if she was willing to take a risk on this book, then the company would fall in behind her.
Bourne attached a quirky disclaimer to the cover of the pre-publication proofs:
A funny and tragic and tonic book that says what is on the tip of the tongue of our age to say.
If a single word, thought, or overtone in the above sentence rubs you the wrong way, blame us, not the novel.
Together with Gottlieb she wrote “crazed” cover letters to distinguished readers, hoping to elicit comments from them for possible use in advertising. She mailed pre-pub copies of the novel to James Jones, Irwin Shaw, Art Buchwald, Graham Greene, S. J. Perelman, and Evelyn Waugh, among others. To each, Bourne wrote, “This is a book I’d get a critic out of the shower to read.” The “crazed” strategy seemed to backfire when, on September 6, 1961, Evelyn Waugh wrote:
Dear Miss Bourne:
Thank you for sending me Catch-22. I am sorry that the book fascinates you so much. It has many passages quite unsuitable to a lady’s reading
You are mistaken in calling it a novel. It is a collection of sketches—often repetitious—totally without structure.
Much of the dialogue is funny. You may quote me as saying: “This exposure of corruption, cowardice and incivility of American officers will outrage all friends of your country (such as myself) and greatly comfort your enemies.”
Bourne was relieved when a telegram arrived from Art Buchwald in Paris:
PLEASE CONGRATULATE JOSEPH HELLER ON MASTERPIECE CATCH-22 STOP I THINK IT IS ONE OF THE GREATEST WARBOOKS STOP SO DO IRWIN SHAW AND JAMES JONES.
In the September 11 issue of Publishers Weekly, a full-page ad appeared with a photo of Heller—casual, confident, handsome—and a picture of the book’s cover. The copy, written by Gottlieb, read: “The growing ferment of interest in Catch-22 confirms our faith that Joseph Heller’s outrageously funny, powerful, totally original novel will be one of the major publishing events of the fall. Oct. 10. $5.95.”
That autumn, Joseph and Shirley Heller “spent many an evening running from one bookstore in New York to another, putting Heller’s novel on display when no one was looking, or moving copies of Catch-22 from under the counter of numerous Doubledays and placing it on display while burying other best-selling books,” their friend Frederick Karl recalled. Heller’s delight in holding the physical book, spotting copies of it in stores, was unbounded. Early reviews clashed—Newsweek favorable, Time tepid—but the promotional campaign succeeded. The first printing sold out in 10 days. Nina Bourne readied a second and third printing, all before Christmas.
Then came the paperback. “The success in the first few months was astonishing,” recalls Don Fine, Dell’s editor in chief. He had purchased rights to the novel from S&S’s Pocket Books for $32,500. “This was a book lovingly and carefully prepared by Bob Gottlieb. But the book did not take off in hardcover I remember when I sent the contract information to Bill Callahan [Dell’s vice president in charge of sales], he wrote to me saying, ‘What the hell is a Catch-22?’ I wrote back and said, ‘It’s a World War II novel.’ We so-called ‘packaged’ it so it could pass as a big important World War II [book] We had an aviator’s head—not very good art—for the cover instead of [Paul Bacon’s] dangling man, which was the trademark of the hardcover. It would have destroyed the paperback with that on the cover. And this was the magic of paperback publishing in those days. We didn’t have any television spots. We probably didn’t have much point-of-sale stuff. But people read it. Young people read it and war veterans read it and, goddammit, it worked!”
The Catch craze began. “Not since The Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies has a novel been taken up by such a fervid and heterogeneous claque of admirers,” Newsweek announced in October 1962. “The book obviously inspires an evangelical fervor in those who admire it It has already swept the cocktail-party circuit where Catch-22 is the hottest topic going and Joe Heller himself is the hottest catch.”
Heller appeared on NBC’s Today show with interim host John Chancellor, projecting congeniality, confidence, and an adman’s smoothness. He talked about the universality of his characters and said, “Yossarian is alive somewhere and still on the run.” After the show, “in a bar close by the studio, where I found myself drinking martinis at an earlier hour than ever in my life,” Heller said, “[Chancellor] handed me a packet of stickers he’d had printed privately. They read: YOSSARIAN LIVES. And he confided he’d been pasting these stickers secretly on the walls of the corridors and in the executive rest rooms of the NBC building.”
Eventually, similar stickers appeared on college campuses along with copies of the paperback. Professors assigned the book, using it to discuss not only literary modernism and World War II but also current American policy in Southeast Asia, which dominated the news more and more. The war that he was really dealing with turned out to be not World War II but the Vietnam War, Heller once told an interviewer.
With stunning swiftness, the term “Catch-22” slipped into daily conversations nationwide—in corporate headquarters, on military bases, on college campuses—to describe any bureaucratic paradox.
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” [Yossarian] observed.
“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed
Catch-22 … specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. [A bombardier] was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. [A bombardier] would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22.
Eventually, The American Heritage Dictionary sanctioned the term, defining a Catch-22 as a “difficult situation or problem whose seemingly alternative solutions are logically invalid.”
By April 1963, the paperback had sold 1,100,000 copies of the 1,250,000 in print. By the end of the decade, Dell had taken the book through 30 printings. In sales as well as critical acclaim, Catch-22 had broken out of its literary trappings and its East Coast box to become a perennial American classic.
“For sixteen years I have been waiting for the great anti-war book which I knew WWII must produce,” Stephen E. Ambrose, writer and historian, wrote to Heller in January 1962. “I rather doubted, however, that it would come out of America; I would have guessed Germany. I am happy to have been wrong. Thank you.”