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‘Catch-22’ at Brandeis: Library celebrates the 50th anniversary

Published: October 17, 2011
Section: Features


In 1961, Joseph Heller published an anti-war novel that both provided America with a satirical way of looking at war and even a new-catch phrase. That novel—“Catch-22”—has since sold more than 10 million copies and has become an icon of the anti-war movement. Brandeis has the original hand-written manuscript of this influential novel.

 In honor of the 50th anniversary of the novel’s publication, the Archives and Special Collections Department at Brandeis has created an entire exhibit displaying the manuscript, planning materials, revisions, and letters of praise and even criticism of the novel. The exhibit was put together by Katherine Morley, a first-year anthropology graduate student at Brandeis.

Brandeis received the first portion of the Joseph Heller collection in 1964. Two additional gifts were sent to Brandeis in subsequent years. Along with the material for “Catch-22,” Brandeis’ Joseph Heller collection also includes Heller’s manuscripts for the television show “McHale’s Navy” and his play “We Bombed in New Haven.”

When asked in an interview why he chose to give away “Catch-22” in general, Heller joked to the interviewer that it was for a tax break. The university, however, can only speculate as to why Heller decided to donate the manuscript to Brandeis in particular. According to Sarah Shoemaker, the director for university archives at Brandeis, Heller had formally presented the manuscript in October 1964 to Leo Jaffe, who was both a member of the Brandeis board of fellows and president of Columbia Pictures. Meanwhile, Columbia Pictures held the film rights to “Catch-22” until 1969. The film was actually made by Paramount Pictures in 1970, and Leo Jaffe’s son, Stanley Jaffe, was by then the president of Paramount. It’s speculation of course, but it is a clue as to why Heller might have chosen Brandeis.

One of the most interesting aspects to the “Catch-22” exhibit is that it shows every inch of planning and revision that went into the creation of the novel. Heller had written the original manuscript in long-hand on yellow legal-pad. His editing process involved literally cutting and pasting pages of the draft together, as well as cross-outs and rewrites throughout the manuscript. Furthermore, the amount of planning that took place even before Heller began writing the novel is also visible to the viewer. Heller had created index cards as well as an entire chart, which contains the names of the characters along the top of the chart, the chronology of the novel along one side, and the chronology of World War II along the other side.

While Shoemaker expressed that the chart is interesting because it shows how deliberately chaotic “Catch-22” was meant to be, she also felt that the amount of visible editing is an important feature to the “Catch-22” manuscript.

“Great novels don’t emerge fully formed from your brain,” Shoemaker said. “This takes a lot of work—writing and re-writing—which is why this collection is useful for students in particular to see what kind of editorial process is really involved in a novel.”

A unique feature of the novel is that it coined the widely-used phrase “Catch-22,” rather than the other way around. Interestingly, “Catch-22” was not the original title intended for the novel. Heller had originally planned on calling the novel “Catch-18” but Leon Uris’ novel “Mila-18” was just about to debut and Heller did not want any confusion. Brandeis’ Joseph Heller collection also includes Heller’s correspondence with his editor, Robert Gottlieb, about this matter as they tried to come up with a new number.

“We could all be going around saying Catch-18 rather than Catch-22,” Shoemaker joked.

With “Catch-22,” Heller was able to capture a psychological phenomenon that people had previously had difficulty describing. A medical researcher from the Palo Alto Medical Research Foundation in California even sent Heller a letter claiming that he and his colleagues had been working on a psychological theory known as “the double bind.” In the letter, the medical researcher explained that the catch in “Catch-22” exemplified this double-bind situation and inquired as to how Heller had individually arrived at this psychological phenomenon.

As Morley put together the exhibit she had to decide how to display effectively the manuscript and planning materials, as well as the correspondences—such as the one from the medical center.

“It was really interesting because I hadn’t read the novel, so I came at it from a collections-based standpoint,” Morley explained.

Before Morley had the chance to read “Catch-22,” she explored it in an academic light. She researched Heller’s experience in the war to see how it had influenced the novel. She read through the fan letters, learned about the novel’s impact on American society and analyzed the planning materials. After Morley was able to read the novel, she felt more familiarized with the plot and characters.

Morley even watched the film version of “Catch-22” in order to visualize the book better. Although the film hadn’t done well, Morley felt that it still added a lot to the experience since it enabled her to picture details, such as World War II air crafts, better. Morley therefore decided to use more pictures in the exhibit as well.

One cannot read “Catch-22” without noticing Heller’s satirical approach to war. He does not make Yossarian, the protagonist, out to be a heroic soldier. Instead, he highlights Yossarian’s absurd behavior and his desire to stop flying missions. Yossarian’s comical experiences throughout the novel manage to make him more relatable.

“I think he resonates with my sense of humor,” Morley said while discussing Heller’s satirical approach. “To quote a fan letter from someone who had served in World War II, [Heller] made the war understandable. [War is] such a bizarre situation, comedy is sometimes the only way you can effectively talk about it.”

The “Catch-22” exhibit is currently accessible in the Goldfarb Library and it will be available through next semester. Interested students will be able to see the extensive amount of planning and revision that went into the creation of the novel, as well as Heller’s correspondences with other famous authors such as John Steinbeck.

As Heller revised “Catch-22,” he cut and pasted portions of the novel with actual scissors and tape. With modern technology, cut and paste has become automatic, and it is therefore difficult to see how much work goes into writing a novel today. The fact that Brandeis has this manuscript—written in long-hand on yellow legal pad, cut and pasted—will help Brandeis students appreciate the process involved in creating a best-selling novel.

What’s the Catch? “Catch-22” takes place during World War II. The protagonist, Yossarian, is a bombardier who has to fly a certain number of missions. If a soldier continuously flies missions without concern for his safety, he can be declared insane and he can therefore be grounded. But there is a catch. In order to be declared insane, all the soldier would have to do is ask. But if he knows to ask, then it means he is not insane and he must continue flying missions. This catch was called Catch-22.