John W. Aldridge


Michigan Quarterly Review, 1987, 26, 379

The history of Catch-22 is, in effect, also a significant chapter in the history of contemporary criticism, its steady growth in sophistication, its evolving archaeological intelligence, above all, its realization that not only is the medium of fiction the message but that the medium is a fiction capable of sending a fair number of frequently discrete but interlocking messages, always depending of course on the complexity of the imagination behind it and the sensibility of the receiver.

The truth of this last is attested to in perhaps a meretricious sort of way by the large diversity of responses Catch-22 received in the first year or two following its publication in 1961. They ranged from the idiotically uncomprehending at the lowest end of the evaluative scale to the prophetically perceptive at the highest, and in between there were the reservedly appreciative, the puzzled but enthusiastic, the ambivalent and obscurely annoyed, and more than a few that were rigid with moral outrage.

The most hysterically negative review was written by Roger H. Smith and appeared in the Winter 1963 issue of Daedalus. Mr. Smith seems to have felt personally insulted by the book and so alarmed by its potential threat to the fragile virginity of literature that he tried in every way he knew to annihilate it. In a fierce display of poorly articulated vituperation he denounced the book as being poorly articulated, utterly formless, pornographic, and immoral because it is so anti-institutional and so indiscriminate in its repudiation of just about everything right-thinking people have been brought up to believe in.

Way over at the other end of the combat zone were those who seemed to have read another book altogether and to inhabit a completely different ontological epoch. Most notable among these were Nelson Algren and Robert Brustein, the former of whom made what became perhaps the most famous pronouncement on a literary subject to be uttered since John O'Hara announced, on the front page of The New York Times Book Review back in 1950, that Hemingway was "the outstanding author since the death of Shakespeare." Algren, with far greater precision, called Catch-22 "not merely the best American novel to come out of World War II; it is the best American novel to come out of anywhere in years." Brustein, writing in the New Republic, was so superbly intelligent about the book that much of the later criticism has done little to improve on his essential argument. He saw at once, for example, that the Air Force setting in World War II is only the ostensible subject of the book and that Heller's achievement lies in his brilliant use of that setting as a metaphor or "a satirical microcosm for many of the macrocosmic idiocies" afflicting the postwar era in general. Brustein also saw and in seeing foresaw what later critics, after considerable equivocation, came to see: that the descent into phantasmagoric horror that occurs in the concluding chapters of the book is not a violation of the comic mode but a plausible vindication of it, since, as he put it, "the escape route of laughter [is] the only recourse from a malignant world."

If responses as sensitive and boldly appreciative as Brustein's were a rarity in 1961, one reason may be that most reviewers were locked into a conventional and, as shortly became evident, an outmoded assumption about what war fiction should be. They had, after all, been conditioned by the important novels of World War I and reconditioned by the second war novels of Norman Mailer, Irwin Shaw, John Horne Burns, James Jones, and others to expect that the authentic technique for treating war experience is harshly documentary realism.

In fact, many readers must have sensed that beneath the comic surfaces Heller was saying something outrageous, unforgivably outrageous, not just about the idiocy of war but about our whole way of life and the system of false values on which it is based.

It was undoubtedly this recognition that the book was something far broader in scope than a mere indictment of war - a recognition perhaps arrived at only subconsciously by most readers in 1961 - that gave it such pertinence to readers who discovered it over the next decade. For with the seemingly eternal and mindless escalation of the war in Vietnam, history had at last caught up with the book and caused it to be more and more widely recognized as a deadly accurate metaphorical portrait of the nightmarish conditions in which the country appeared to be engulfed.

The novel also indemnified the sense of universal but unspecifiable conspiracy that has become a major psychic affliction of our time, and there can be no doubt of its great influence on such productions as M*A*S*H, Dr. Strangelove, and Apocalypse Now or of its close affinities with the works of Pynchon, Gaddis, and Vonnegut. Like them Catch-22 represents a kind of comedy that depends upon the certain expectation of catastrophe and takes the form of a frenzied dance on the brink of the unspeakable.

As is the case with most original works of art, it is a novel that reminds us once again of all that we have taken for granted in our world and should not, the madness we try not to bother to notice, the deceptions and falsehoods we lack the will to try to distinguish from truth.


Roger H. Smith


Daedalus, 1963, 92, 155

Before describing the theme of Catch-22, I must make this point which I trust will not be considered trifling - that its author cannot write.

I omit illustration of how he "bangs" women in rapid succession, but lest I seem to be acting in restraint of trade, let me certify that Catch-22 contains as many four-letter words as any rival product and that women appear in it only as objects of lust, whether Wac's, nurses, officers' wives, or Italian prostitutes and countesses.

The book tells no story. It alternates serially, by means of the "advanced" technique of fragmented structure, five standard routines: I, Hospital routine, with malingering soldIers and incompetent staff; II, Combat routine, with every thing snafu, yet missions accomplished wIth negligent gallantry; III, Funny fraud routine, involving army supplies and G.I. tycoon; IV, Red tape routine, at training center and headquarters; V, Leave in Rome routine, with orgies. The last is the only one of a type unavailable to television viewers, the elder of whom must console themselves with fond memories of the penny-in-the-slot movie, "Ladies' Night in a Turkish Bath," where everyone ran around naked.

There are no characters. The puppets are gIven funny names and features, but cannot be visualized or distinguished from one another except by association with their prototypes.

In this world, of course, Texans are bores, Iowans rubes, chaplains feeble, doctors hypochondriac, and officers increasingly contemptible as they rise in rank until we reach generals, who are effete. The copying of every available stereotype, and the failure to find in the whole range of humanity anything new to draw illustrates the author's indifference to people. We can see no one because he has seen no one.

The forms of verbal wit are limited to two. The first consists of self-contradictory statement which may or may not be meaningful. This might be called the Plain Man's Paradox or Everybody's Epigram since the fact that a sally of wit has been attempted is inescapable: ". . . the games were so interesting they were foolish; "Nately had a bad start. He came from a good family"; ". . . the finest, least dedicated man in the whole world"; "And if that wasn't funny, there were lots of things that weren't even funnier; "Failure often did not come easily"; "He was a self-made man who owed his lack of success to nobody"; "He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt"; . . . "He did not hate his mother and father, even though they had both been very good to him". This last, like several others of the hundreds in the book, comes near to being a hit, but Mr. Heller, as usual, kills it by the wrong kind of "milking." He proceeds to lambaste the mother and father for snobbishness.

What gives the present enterprise its special significance is the peculiar kind of pretentiousness involved, and the dislocation in literary and moral standards encouraging this kind of pretentiousness. The appalling fact is that author, publisher, and reviewers seem unaware that the book is destructive and immoral, and are able to add to their economic and other delights in it, gratifying sensations of righteousness. There is the real "catch" in Catch-22.

Catch-22, says Olville Prescott, "will not be forgotten by those who can take it." Why should we wish to take it?

The issue here is an artistic, not a moral, one. There is in art, current notions to the contrary, such a thing as decorum, propriety, fitness - a necessary correspondence between matter and mode. No kind of matter is denied the miist, providing he finds the right mode and possesses the right skills. Swift might have been able to adapt the matter of the "soldier in white" to the mode of satire as he adapted the idea of butchering Irish babies for the English meat market in his "Modest Proposal." Swift's persona is consistent and serious, the powerful thrust of the piece deriving from his frightening obtuseness; the material, as it must be in such a risky case, is under perfect control, the intention unmistakable. Heller is not "our Swift."

Catch-22 is immoral in the way of so much contemporary fiction and drama in being inclusively, almost absent-mindedly, anti-institutional. This quality has become so pervasive that it now evades recognition. The codes of conduct subtending such institutions as marriage and family life are treated casually as if nonexistent or vestigial. Acts of adultery are presented as if it would occur to no one to object, with the betrayed partner usually the unsympathetic party - a natural concomitant of the new literary form of betrothal, not an exchange of vows but getting into bed. Indulgence emerges as a new ideal, with so cleanly a thing as sexuality consistently dirtied by association with ideas of violence, prowess, and proof of normality, and divorce from ideas of procreation or tenderness.

The question is, where is the autonomy and where are the artists? The lock-step is the lock-step, whether the march is forward or backward, Books are immoral if they condone immoral behavior in - advertently or otherthwise. Because legal censorship of seriously intended works is wrong, as most intellIgent men agree, It does not follow that moral considerations should be barred from critical discussions. If a book like Catch-22 is offensIve, we should say so. Even now aspiring, English majors at New York University must be ungirding their loins to "top" the perfomance of the distinguished alumnus. They are certainly doing so elsewhere. A considerable share of the responsibility lies with educators too tired to flght for their standards of art, taste and, morality, or too flaccid ever to have had any.

Catch-22 is immoral because it follows a fashion in spitting indiscriminately at business and the professions, at respectability, at ideals, at all visible tokens of superiority. It is a leveling book in the worst sense, leveling every thing and everyone downward. ... The only surviving values are self-preservation, satisfaction of animal appetite, and a sentimental conception of "goodness of heart." The "sane" view is live-and-let-live, as if it were as simple as that, and men had never died so that others might live.


Nelson Algren


The Nation, 1961, 193, 358.

Below it hilarity, so wild that it hurts, Catch-22 is the strongest repudiation of our civilzation, in fiction, to come out of World War II... To compare Catch-22 favorably with The Good Soldier Schweik would be an injustice, because this novel is not merely the best American novel to come out of World War II; it is the best American novel that has come out of anywhere in years.


Robert Merrill


Studies in American Fiction, 1986, 14, 139

The critical reputation of Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961) is a curiosity. The book is often praised, even celebrated, yet most critics are still puzzled by such basic matters as the structure of the novel. Friends and foes alike tend to agree that the novel is hilarious but also that it is repetitious and essentially formless. Norman Mailer speaks for all those who share this view when he says "like yard goods, one could cut it anywhere. One could take a hundred pages from the middle of Catch-22 and not even the author could be certain they were gone." As it happens, the author is rather certain that he would notice. Heller has said that Catch-22 "is not to my mind a formless novel. If anything, it was constructed almost meticulously, and with a meticulous concern to give the appearance of a formless novel."

Reconsideration of the structure of Catch-22 might well begin with the most "obvious" example of Heller's formlessness: the utterly confusing chronology. Heller presents his story in such a way that at certain points it is literally impossible to determine the order of events. By the time Yossarian enters the hospital in chapter 1, all of the important missions have already been flown: Ferrara, Orvieto, Bologna, and Avignon.

The answer to this question is suggested by what Heller is able to include in his apparently chaotic book that would otherwise be difficult to incorporate: the oft-remarked repetitions. By creating the curiously "timeless" world of Catch-22, where the temporal relationships are so difficult to grasp that almost all readers abandon the effort, Heller fashions a fictional world in which he can introduce a great many repetitions without undue awkwardness. Most narratives could absorb anyone of Heller's repetitions; any of his recurring motifs would be easily defined, temporally speaking, against the central sequence of events. But surely the central plot line in most books would be destroyed if there were forty such motifs. According to many of Heller's critics, Catch-22 is such a book, marred, if not destroyed, by the sheer mass of its repetitions. Yet Heller makes way for his repetitions by destroying any sense of a traditional time sequence. In effect he creates a large canvas which is hospitable to repetitions no one will be tempted to place within such a conventional sequence.