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University Libraries - The Joseph Heller Archive

The Joseph Heller Archive

Collection Description

Joseph Heller

Joseph Heller, ca. 1954

The Joseph Heller Archive brings to the University of South Carolina's Thomas Cooper Library the comprehensive record of Mr. Heller's literary career over a period of more than thirty years. Its contents range in date from the mid-1960s, with early drafts for his novel Something Happened and his play We Bombed in New Haven, to the 1990s, with his final revisions for his most recent novel Closing Time.

Mr. Heller preserved extensive files from all stages of a book's composition, and the Archive totals over 300 separate file folders and over 150,000 pages of notes, outlines, research, drafts, edited typescripts, proofs, correspondence, and reviews. The Archive documents the crafting of six major books in extraordinary detail, showing the creative interaction between one of America's most distinguished contemporary novelists and the publishing process.  In the years following the acquisition of the Archive, Heller's sister, Sylvia Gurion and most notably, his wife, Valerie Heller, have continued to add material to the collection.

Highlights of the Joseph Heller Archive include:

  • the very first handwritten 100-page draft for Heller's Something Happened
  • manuscript and edited typescript from Heller's dramatization ofCatch-22
  • five early screen collaborations dating from the 1950s
  • file boxes of the distinctive index cards that Heller used to plot his novel God Forbid, later retitled God Knows, and other books
  • detailed records on late proof changes to Heller's No Laughing Matter, with his own notes from telephone conversations with his editor and his two-page outline for finishing the book
  • research files on the artist Rembrandt and other figures gathered in preparation for Heller's novel Poetics, later renamed Picture This
  • Heller's correspondence with fellow-veterans as he drafted hisUntitled Novel [Yossarian], revised as Closing Time

For each book, the Archive contains many hundreds of pages charting Heller's creative process stage by stage through to publication. The Archive will provide a uniquely rich resource both for scholarly research on Joseph Heller's work and for introducing students to the world of writing and publishing at the highest level.



Joseph Heller

Joseph Heller himself has recounted the story of his early life in his latest book Now and Then (1998). He was born in Brooklyn in 1923 and grew up on Coney Island. At the outbreak of World War II, he worked first in a navy yard and then enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces, training at bases in South Carolina before flying sixty missions as bombardier in B-25s in North Africa and Italy.

After the War he went through college and graduate study at the University of Southern California, New York University (B.A. 1948), Columbia (M.A. 1949), and Oxford (Fulbright Scholar, 1949-50). During this time he began to publish short fiction. Two years of teaching composition at Penn State followed, till in 1952 he returned to New York as a writer in advertising and promotions for TimeLook, and McCall's. Hunched at hisTime desk one morning in 1953, Heller wrote out longhand the first section of "Catch 18," the start of his war novel Catch-22 (1961). The extraordinary and sustained impact of that novel, both with critics and readers, was only the beginning of a literary career that now encompasses eight major books as well as stage plays, screenplays, short stories, articles, and reviews.

Heller's long-mulled second novel, Something Happened (1974), switched attention to the anxieties and competition of civilian management.Good as Gold (1979) has a double target: not only does it follow a hustling English professor into the world of presidential public relations, but it is also searchingly concerned with the ex-professor's identity as a Jewish-American and his relations with his extensive family. God Knows(1984) carries that theme daringly into the Old Testament itself, reimagining the deathbed autobiography of King David in Heller's distinctive mingling of the philosophical, the satiric and the absurd.

In the early 1980s, Heller became first paralyzed and then seriously weakened by a deadly nerve disease, Guillain-Barre Syndrome; with his friend Speed Vogal, he interpreted this experience and his recovery in the collaborative work No Laughing Matter (1986). Heller's next (anti-)novel, Picture This (1988), juxtaposes great figures from Western culture (Plato, Rembrandt) with twentieth-century America to exploit the recurrent clashes between genius and power. His novel, Closing Time (1994), comes full circle by reuniting the wartime heroes of his first book — Yossarian, Milo Minderbinder, and the others — in New York fifty years later. Closing Time received wide critical acclaim: according to one reviewer, it showed "a national treasure at work," and it brought renewed recognition of Mr. Heller's place as one of the greatest and most distinctive of twentieth-century Anerican novelists. His posthumously-published novella Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man (2000) provided critics with further opportunity for appreciative retrospective comment.

Mr. Heller's literary achievement brought numerous awards, including the University of South Carolina's Thomas Cooper Medal in 1996. Mr. Heller died on December 12, 1999.


A Checklist of Writings

The * symbol indicates that the Joseph Heller Archive contains significant material on this particular work.

Catch-22, Simon & Schuster, 1961.

— novel; chapter 1 ("Catch 18") in New World Writing No.7, 1955; additional chapters in Playboy, 1969, 1987.

(contrib.), "World Full of Great Cities," in Nelson Algren's Own Book of Lonesome Monsters, Lancer, 1960.

We Bombed in New Haven, Knopf, 1968.

— two-act play first produced Yale, 1967; Broadway, 1968.

Catch-22: A Dramatization, Samuel French, 1971.

— one-act play first produced East Hampton, 1971.

Clevinger's Trial, Samuel French, 1973.

— play first produced London, 1974.

Something Happened, Knopf, 1974.

— novel; excerpt in Esquire, 1966.

Good as Gold, Simon & Schuster, 1979.

— novel.

God Knows, Knopf, 1984.

— novel; winner of Prix Interallie and Priz Medicis Etranger, both 1985.

No Laughing Matter, Putnam, 1986.

— autobiography (with Speed Vogal)

Picture This, Putnam, 1988.

— novel.

Closing Time, Simon & Schuster, 1994.

— novel.

Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here, Knopf/Random House, 1998.

— autobiography.

Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man, Simon & Schuster, 2000.

Catch As Catch Can, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli and Park Bucker, Simon & Schuster, 2002

In addition, Mr. Heller has contributed short stories, reviews, and articles to many periodicals, including StoryAtlantic MonthlyNew Republic,NationSmartEsquire, and Cosmopolitan. His screenplays have included Sex and the Single Girl (Warner Brothers, 1964), Casino Royale (Columbia Pictures, 1967), and Dirty Dingus Magee (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1970).