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Joseph Heller’s Preface to the 1994 Edition of Catch-22
In 1961, The New York Times was a newspaper with eight columns. And on November 11 of that year, one day after the official publication date of Catch-22, the page with the book review carried an unusual advertisement that ran from top to bottom and was five columns wide. To the eye the effect was stupendous. The book review that day, of a work by somebody else, was squeezed aside to the fold of the page, as were the crossword puzzle and all else. The ad had this caption: WHAT’s THE CATCH? And displayed at the top in silhouette was the comic cartoon of a uniformed figure in flight, glancing off to the side at some unspecified danger with an expression of panic.
It was an announcement ad for Catch-22. Interwoven with the text were mentions of praise from twenty-one individuals and groups of some public standing, most connected to literature and the publishing world, who had received the novel before publication and had already reviewed it or commented about it favorably.
Within days after publication, there was a review in The Nation by Nelson Algren (a client of my own literary agent, who had urged him to read it), who wrote of Catch-22 that it “was the best novel to come out of anywhere in years”. And there was a review by Studs Terkel in a Chicago daily newspaper that recommended it about as highly.
So much attention to the work at publication was in large part the result of the industrious zeal and appreciation of my literary agent, Candida Donadio, and my editor, Robert Gottlieb, and I embrace the opportunity afforded now to dedicate this new edition to both of them, as colleagues and allies with talents that were of immeasurable value.
The work was not reviewed in the Times on publication. However, it was reviewed in the Herald Tribune by Maurice Dolbier, and Mr. Dolbier said of it: “A wild, moving, shocking, hilarious, raging, exhilarating, giant roller-coaster of a book.”
That the reviewer for the Herald Tribune came to review at all this war novel by someone unknown was almost entirely the product of coincidence. S. J. Perelman, much better known and the subject of an interview by Mr. Dolbier, was publishing his own book at just about that time. His publisher was Simon & Schuster, mine too, and the editor in charge of his work there was also the same, Bob Gottlieb. In answer to a question put to him by Dolbier about his own reading, Mr. Perelman replied that he was very much engrossed in a novel pressed upon him by his editor, a novel called Catch-22. Returning to his office, Mr. Dolbier later confessed to me, he found the book already in a pile with others he had decided he would not have time to study as prospects to write about. Had it not been for Gottlieb, there would have been no Perelman, and had it not been for Perelman, there would have been no review by Dolbier.
And had it not been for Dolbier, there might not have been the Times. Two weeks afterward, and probably only because of Mr. Dolbier, the book was described with approbation in the daily Times by the reviewer Orville Prescott, who predicted it would not be forgotten by those who could take it and called it: “A dazzling performance that will outrage nearly as many readers as it delights.”
The rest, one might say is history, but it is a history easily misconstrued. The novel won no prizes and was not on any bestseller list.
And, as Mr. Prescott foresaw, for just about every good report, there seemed to appear one that was negative. Looking back at this novel after twenty-five years, John Aldridge, to my mind the most perceptive and persistent commentator of American literature over the decades, lauded Robert Brustein for his superbly intelligent review in The New Republic, which contained “essential arguments that much of the later criticism has done little to improve on”, and Mr. Aldridge recognised that many in the early audience of Catch-22 “liked the book for just the reasons that caused others to hate it”.
The disparagements were frequently venomous. In the Sunday Times, in a notice in back so slender that the only people seeing it were those awaiting it, the reviewer (a novelist who also by chance was a client of my own agent, Candida) decided that the “novel gasps for want of craft and sensibility”, “is repetitious and monotonous”, “fails”, “is an emotional hodgepodge”, and was no novel; and in the esteemed The New Yorker, the reviewer, a staff writer who normally writes about jazz, compared the book unfavorably with a novel of similar setting by Mitchell Goodman and decided that Catch-22 “doesn’t even seem to have been written; instead, it gives the impression of having been shouted onto paper”, “what remains is a debris of sour jokes”, and that in the end Heller “wallows in his own laughter and finally drowns in it”. (I am tempted now to drown in laughter as I jot this down.)
I do not recall that the novel was included in the several hundred books in the Christmas roundup of recommended reading of the Times that year or in the several hundred others picked out in the spring for summer reading.
But in late summer of 1962, Raymond Walters, on the bestseller page of the Sunday Times, which then carried regularly the column “In and Out of Books”, reported that the underground book New Yorkers seemed to be talking about most was Catch-22. (The novel probably was more heavily advertised than any other that year, but it was still underground.) Not that much later, Newsweek carried a story to the same effect in a space more than a page wide. And late that same summer, I was invited to my first television interview. The program was the Today show, then a variety show as much as anything else. The interim host was John Chancellor. Mr. Chancellor had recently returned from his newsman’s post in the Kremlin, and he had agreed to accept the position on condition that he interview only those people he himself chose to.
After the show, in a bar close by the studio in which I found myself drinking martinis at an earlier hour than ever in my life, he 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.
Then came September and the paperback edition and with it, finally, an expansion in popular appeal that seemed to take the publishers, Dell, by surprise, despite elaborate promotion and distribution strategies. It seemed for a while that the people there could not fully bring themselves to believe the sales figures and that they would never catch up.
Paperback publishers print in the hundreds of thousands. For this, after an initial release of 300,000 copies, they went back to press five more times between September and the end of the year, twice each in October and December, and by the end of 1963, there were eleven printings. In England, under the auspices of the enterprising young editor, there Tom Maschler, it was that way from the start. Bestseller lists were new and rudimentary then, but Catch-22 was quickly at the head of them.
For me the history of Catch-22 begins back in 1953, when I started writing it. In 1953, I was employed as a copywriter at a small advertising agency in New York, after two years as an instructor in English composition at Pennsylvania State University, which was then a college. Early on, in anxious need of an approving opinion, I sent the opening chapter off to the literary agents I had managed to obtain after publishing a few short stories in magazines, in Esquire and The Atlantic. The agents were not impressed, but a young assistant there, Ms. Candida Donadio, was, and she secured permission to submit that chapter to a few publications that regularly published excerpts from “novels in progress”.
In 1955 the chapter appeared in a paperback quarterly, New World Writing (an anthology that also contained, under a pseudonym, an extract from another novel in progress—Jack Kerouac’s On the Road). There came complimentary letters of interest from a few editors at established book publishers, and I was encouraged to continue with a work I now saw realistically was going to take me a good many years longer than I at first had guessed.
In 1957, when I had about 270 pages in typescript, I was employed at Time magazine, writing advertising-sales presentations by day when not furtively putting thoughts down on paper for my work on the novel at home that evening. And Candida Donadio was establishing herself as a pre-eminent agent in her own right, with a list of American authors as clients as impressive as any. We agreed it made sense to submit the partial manuscript to some publishers, mainly to obtain a practical idea of the potential for publication of the novel we both thought so much of. She was drawn toward a new young editor she knew of at Simon & Schuster, one she thought might prove more receptive to innovation than most. His name was Robert Gottlieb, and she was right.
While Gottlieb busied himself with those pages, I, with a four-week summer vacation from bountiful Time magazine, began rewriting them. Gottlieb and I met for lunch, mainly for him to gauge my temperament and ascertain how amenable I would be as an author to work with. After I listened to him allude with tact to certain broad suggestions he thought he eventually might be compelled to make, I handed him my new pages with the boastful response that I had already taken care of nearly all of them.
He surprised me with concern that I might take exception to working with someone so young—he was twenty-six, I think, and I was thirty-four. I was more greatly surprised to learn from him later that both he and his closest colleague at Simon & Schuster, Nina Bourne, were intimidated at first by an air of suspicion I projected that I did not know I even possessed. I have not been suspicious of him since, and I doubt very much that Gottlieb, who went on to become the head of Alfred A. Knopf and then the editor of The New Yorker magazine, has ever again been intimidated by anybody.
And what I still remember most agreeably about him is that he did not ask for an outline or once seek for even a hint of where this one-third of a novel he’d seen was going to go. The contract I received called for an advance of fifteen hundred dollars, half on signing, which I did not need, and the remainder on completion and acceptance.
Probably, I was his first novelist, but not his first to be published; other authors with completed manuscripts came to him in the three more years I needed to finish mine. Probably, I was Candida’s earliest client too. Both were as delighted as I was with the eventual success of Catch-22, and the three of us have been reveling in our recollections of the experience ever since.
On February 28, 1962, the journalist Richard Starnes published a column of unrestrained praise in his newspaper, The New York World-Telegram, that opened with these words: “Yossarian will, I think, live a very long time.”
His tribute was unexpected, because Mr. Starnes was a newspaperman in the hard-boiled mode whose customary beat was local politics, and the World-Telegram was widely regarded as generally conservative.
To this day I am grateful to Mr. Starnes for his unqualified and unsolicited approval and bless him for the accuracy of his prediction. Yossarian has indeed lived a long time. Mr. Starnes has passed on. Many people mentioned in that first advertisement have died, and most of the rest of us are on the way.
But Yossarian is alive when the novel ends. Because of the motion picture, even close readers of the novel have a final, lasting image of him at sea, paddling toward freedom in a yellow inflated lifeboat. In the book he doesn’t get that far; but he is not captured and he isn’t dead. At the end of the successor volume I’ve just completed, Closing Time (that fleeing cartoon figure is again on the book jacket of the American edition, but wearing a businessman’s chapeau and moving with a cane), he is again still alive, more than forty years older but definitely still there. “Everyone has got to go,” his physician friend in that novel reminds him with emphasis. “Everyone!” But should I ever write another sequel, he would still be around at the end.
Sooner or later, I must concede, Yossarian, now seventy, will have to pass away too. But it won’t be by my hand.
JOSEPH HELLER, 1994
East Hampton, New York
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