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Joseph Heller

By Kurt Vonnegut

There has been thought-provoking news from geneticists in the Science Section of The New York Times recently: about why fruit flies and human beings are the way they are.

My genetically gifted friend Joseph Heller, the son of a Coney Island truck driver who died when Joe was five, flew sixty missions as a bombardier during World War Two. He was a lieutenant, dropping high explosives on military and strategic targets rather than civilians. He went on from those sixty nightmares to earn a Phi Beta Kappa key and a BA in English at NYU. He died of a heart attack at his home in East Hampton last December twelfth, thus missing the thrill of a brand new millennium. He would have been seventy-seven on the first of May this year.

You might want to speak his name on May Day—look up at the sky and say, “Hi, Joe.” I loved him, as grumpy as he often was. And he sure loved food. I never knew anybody who loved well-prepared food as much as Joe did. And he loved serious music as much as he loved well-prepared food.

Just out of curiosity: How many people here are entitled to wear a Phi Beta Kappa key?

Joe went on to get an MA at Columbia, and then did further graduate work at the Papacy of the English language, which is Oxford. With an education like that, it is no darn wonder how come Joe wrote so good.

That’s a joke. He was born to be a writer. By his own account, that is all he ever wanted to be. He and I taught at City College, the poor person’s Harvard out on Convent Avenue, about twenty-five years ago. One day he said to me in a corridor out there, “If it wasn’t for the war, I would be in the dry cleaning business now.” But he still would have been a writer too, when he could find the time. And his finest novel, in fact, is Something Happened, which is about the absurdity and tragedy of one man’s life in peacetime.

Joe’s first wife, Shirley, to whom he was still married back then, said after reading Something Happened, “I had no idea Joe was so unhappy.”

Unhappy he was, although I, like so many others, including Mel Brooks and Mario Puzo, found him a rewarding companion, so damn intelligent and humane. He had come to the same unhappy conclusion reached by Albert Camus, it seemed to me: that life was necessarily absurd. Like it or lump it. Joseph Heller lumped it.

Dry cleaning or not, war or not, to be a writer was in his DNA. God knows how it got there. Nature versus nurture? He had no memories of his father, and he was raised by his widowed mother and his older brother Lee, fourteen years his senior, neither an artist of any sort—and by Coney Island, and by Abraham Lincoln High School, where they say he was quite the comedian. And he was raised, too, by Western Culture and the United States of America.

I can think of only two twentieth-century writers who coined words which now appear in ordinary American dictionaries. The great Czech writer Karel Capek gave us “robot.” The great American writer Joseph Heller gave us “catch-22” defined in my Merriam Webster’s Collegiate as “a problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem.” In the novel, you will remember, the anti-hero Yossarian wants to be excused from risking his life on any more missions—on the grounds that he is crazy. But his request is denied, because anybody who doesn’t want to risk his life on missions is obviously in the best of mental health. Catch-22.

The original title of the book, incidentally was Catch-18. It was changed because Leon Uris then had a best-selling novel entitled Mila-18. I would call that a lucky break. What a lousy book Catch-18 would have been.

Joe and I were at a party a while back which was given by a multibillionaire. “Joe,” I said, “how does it make you feel to know that our host, only yesterday, probably made more money than Catch-22, one of the most popular novels of the century, has earned world-wide?” That book has sold ten million copies in the United States alone. He replied that he had something our host could never have. Anybody here want to guess what it was?

“The knowledge that I’ve got enough,” said Joe.

Somebody else asked him if he was afraid of dying. He replied that he had never had a root canal job, but knew several people who had, and had somehow gotten through them OK. He said he thought he could get through one, too, if he had to. What an analogy!

When I speak of the greatness of two of Joe’s books, or of anybody else’s books, I do so not only in response to the clarity and effectiveness of their language, but to the courage it took for their authors to express truths about the human situation which we would be wise to acknowledge, but truths which are surely nothing to cheer about. For example: A person fighting in even the most just of wars is not ennobled thereby, but is doomed to performing tasks which are cruelly absurd, tragically ridiculous.


That Catch-22 did not become a runaway best seller at once might be because most readers were used to tales of noble derring-do in battles against the forces of pure evil during World War Two. So it took them a while to recognize and appreciate the sad and dark beauty of the truth Joe told.

I nominated him for membership in this organization, and he was a shoo-in, of course—although he was then the author of many stories and plays, and parts of movies, but only one book. And one book took him eight years to fine-tune to his own satisfaction. He would subsequently write five more, the first of those, Something Happened, taking him thirteen years! This was a Phi Beta Kappa?

His election was to him an utter non-event. Like the late Duke Ellington, and no doubt, several others, Joe never came to any of our gatherings, never nominated or voted for new members, and may never have responded to our correspondence. I was never able to get an answer from him about why he behaved that way. So I can only give you my best guess: that to award apparent rank to an artist, to make him or her a major or colonel or general over the other artists, so to speak, was to Joe, and here’s that word again, absurd.

In any case, we should not be offended. Joe was mistrustful of all institutions, and of governments in particular, since they so often created hierarchies which gave tremendous power over the rest of us third-rate human beings. I told him that we at the Academy, being artists, were by definition an aggregation of mice. But he did not seem to hear me.

His virulent prejudice against institutions was almost certainly not in his DNA. It was a creation of nurture rather than nature, inspired by what he saw and heard and read about third-rate people in powerful institutions during his fairly long life, which is regrettably over now.

Reviewers have called some of his books “hilarious,” and I myself have found them so. But the only way he or any other writer can make a reader laugh out loud is to surprise that reader with a bit of nonsense or silliness in the midst of a dreadful situation.

He faced highly probable death sixty times as a bombardier. He did it again in 1986. In a piece of bad luck as random as a German antiaircraft shell hitting his plane would have been. A rare neurological disease known as Guillain-Barré syndrome did its best to kill him. He was almost completely paralyzed and on life support. He and his closest friend Speed Vogel would later collaborate on a book about his miraculous recovery, No Laughing Matter. And there was a Hollywood ending to that ordeal, which lasted many months, one heck of a lot longer than a root canal job. Joe married Valerie Humphries, a nurse who had helped so much through the worst of it.

When Joe finally died, when Joe really died, I wrote this letter to his widow: “Dearest Valerie, so merry, so full of life, what a good wife you were and are, and always will be. Find here my love and pity.”

I thank you for your attention.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 4, 2000.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters