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15 Things You Might Not Know About Catch-22

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Joseph Heller’s 1961 war comedy Catch-22 is one of the most beloved novels of the 20th century, not to mention one of the funniest. Here are a few interesting bits of information about both how Heller’s story came to be and the legacy that it left behind. 

1. HELLER SKETCHED OUT THE BOOK’S CONCEPT AND CHARACTERS IN ABOUT 90 MINUTES ... 

Heller recalled the birth of his most famous novel as if it were a classic movie scene. While lying in bed in his apartment on the West Side of Manhattan in 1953, Heller was struck with what would become the iconic opening line of the story: “It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, ‘Someone’ fell madly in love with him,” with ‘Someone’ holding the place for Heller’s protagonist’s eventual name, Yossarian. Over the course of an hour and a half, he developed the basic plot and collection of characters that he’d ultimately pour into his novel. 

2. ... AND WROTE THE FIRST CHAPTER THE FOLLOWING DAY AT WORK.

Heller was an advertising copywriter when he had the idea for the novel. He spent the workday following his creative epiphany, writing out the entire first chapter of what would become Catch-22 by hand. He submitted the chapter to New World Writing magazine by way of a literary agent, and a full year passed before he completed a second chapter.

3. HELLER WENT THROUGH FOUR NUMBERS BEFORE LANDING ON 22.

The original title of the story, as published in New World Writing, was Catch-18. Acquiescing to his publisher’s qualms about confusion with the similarly themed novel Mila 18, Heller dragged his title through a sequence of changes: Catch-11 (which was deemed too similar to the contemporary film Ocean’s 11), followed by Catch-17 (which posed the same problem with Billy Wilder’s war movie Stalag 17), and then Catch-14 (which Heller’s publisher thought just didn’t sound funny enough). Finally, the writer landed on Catch-22

4. MANY CHARACTERS WERE BASED ON HELLER’S FRIENDS. 

Heller was a veteran of World War II, and he based a number of Catch-22’s characters on his army buddies. Yossarian’s name is believed to have come from fellow Air Force soldier Francis Yohannan (who, like the character, was Assyrian). Additionally, the sociopathic Milo Minderbinder was designed with Heller’s childhood friend, Marvin “Beansy” Winkler of Coney Island, in mind. 

5. THE AUTHOR WAS ASKED FREQUENTLY ABOUT YOSSARIAN’S ETHNICITY AND RELIGION. 

The protagonist’s ethnic background has been cause for debate since the book’s publication. In Catch-22, Heller introduces Yossarian as Assyrian, despite the fact that his surname suggests otherwise. In response to readers’ curiosity, Heller amended Yossarian’s heritage in Catch-22’s 1994 sequel Closing Time. In the second book, Yossarian was declared Armenian.

However, the most common question Heller received regarding Yossarian’s background concerned his religion, as many readers sought confirmation that the character shared Heller’s Jewish faith. In 1972, Heller responded to these quandaries in a letter to Northeastern University professor James Nagel, stating, “Yossarian isn’t Jewish and was not intended to be. On the other hand, no effort was expended to make him anything else.” 

6. THAT SAID, EARLIER DRAFTS INCLUDED A GREATER JEWISH INFLUENCE. 

As Nagel writes in a section of Biographies of Books: The Compositional Histories of Notable American Writings devoted to Catch-22, “The early drafts of the novel, particularly the sketches and notecards, have a somewhat more ‘Jewish’ emphasis than does the published novel. In Judaism, ‘eighteen’ [the original titular numeric] is a significant number in that the eighteenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, ‘chai,’ means ‘living’ or ‘life.’ … Thematically, the title ‘Catch-18’ would thus contain a subtle reference to the injunction in the Torah to choose life, a principle endorsed by Yossarian at the end of the novel when he deserts.” 

7. THE BOOK WAS INITIALLY ONLY POPULAR ON THE EAST COAST.

While Catch-22 stands today as a universally appreciated political satire, it proved unsurprisingly polarizing in the heated climate of the 1960s. High school and college students, particularly those who lived on the East Coast, were early fans of the novel. As Heller told George Plimpton of The Paris Review in 1974, by 1962 sales were dwindling: “Catch-22 was not making much money. It was selling steadily (eight hundred to two thousand copies a week)—mostly by word of mouth—but it had never come close to the New York Times best-seller list.”  

8. BUT EARNED THE WRATH OF THE EAST COAST’S PREMIERE CRITICS. 

Catch-22 wasn’t universally panned, but it certainly didn’t win any popularity contests among the upper echelon of the literary criticism circuit. The original 1961 New York Times review opens: “Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, is not an entirely successful novel. It is not even a good novel. It is not even a good novel by conventional standards.”  (The reviewer did like its comedy and originality, though.)

A second review from the New York Times called the book “repetitive and monotonous,” as well as, curiously, “too short” to properly flesh out its character ensemble. Similarly, the New Yorker accused Heller’s prose of “giv[ing] the impression of having been shouted onto paper,” adding, “what remains is a debris of sour jokes.” 

9. THE AUTHOR WAS PRINCIPALLY INSPIRED BY ONE NOVEL. 

While Heller recognized a number of influences on his writing, including novelists Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Evelyn Waugh, and Vladimir Nabakov, the author once identified a single work that convinced him to write Catch-22: the dark World War I comedy The Good Soldier Švejk by Czech author Jaroslav Hašek.

10. BUT HE WAS ACCUSED OF PLAGIARIZING ANOTHER. 

Thirty-seven years after the publication of Catch-22, the book came under fire for similarities to the 1950 war novel Face of a Hero. Londoner Lewis Pollock made the connection in 1998 and contacted The Sunday Times to condemn Catch-22 as a rip-off of the obscure Louis Falstein story.

From there, the accusation gained international traction and eventually reached Heller himself. The author rejected Pollock’s claims, insisting that he had never read Face of a Hero prior to the controversy. Furthermore, his editor combated the theory by asking his interrogators why Falstein, who had only passed away in 1995, would never have broadcast any such concerns if they had borne any weight. 

Also defending Heller this time around? The New York Times. Mel Gussow wrote in the paper, “An examination of the two books leads this reader to conclude that the similarities between the two can easily be attributed to the shared wartime experiences of the authors.” 

11. A DELETED CHAPTER GAVE MAJ. MAJOR A DIFFERENT BACK STORY.

One of Heller’s more absurd characters is Major Major Major Major, cursed with his unfortunate handle and unfavorable likeness to Henry Fonda. Originally, Heller planned to delve into Major’s past in the States. He had written Major Major as a former English teacher from Vermont with a distaste for Henry James. 

12. ONE CHARACTER PROVIDES THE NAMESAKE OF A MARVEL COMICS INSTITUTION. 

The Marvel Comics superhero Isaiah Bradley undergoes a series of experiments during World War II to turn him into a “Black Captain America” at the military base Camp Cathcart, named for Catch-22’s rank-climbing soldier, Col. Chuck Cathcart.

13. CATCH-22’S ORIGINAL MANUSCRIPT LIVES AT BRANDEIS UNIVERSITY. 

After the novel was published in 1961, Heller donated his original manuscript to Brandeis University. The Massachusetts school preserves the document today, and honored the collected works of its author in 2009 on the 10-year anniversary of his death.

14.  CBS TRIED TO ADAPT THE NOVEL INTO A SITCOM 

While director Mike Nichols’ 1970 feature film adaptation of Catch-22 didn’t find huge critical or commercial success, it was hardly as big a failure as the small screen endeavor inspired by Heller’s book. In 1973, CBS produced and broadcast a Catch-22 sitcom pilot starring Richard Dreyfuss as Yossarian. The series never got a second episode. 

15. AN NBC HOST COMMITTED CATCH-22-INSPIRED VANDALISM. 

Journalist John Chancellor, known best as a host and correspondent on NBC Nightly News for 23 years, played host of NBC’s Today show between 1961 and ’62. During his tenure on the daytime program, Chancellor—a fan of Heller’s newly published novel—had personalized stickers reading “Yossarian Lives” printed, and pioneered a practical joke of placing them (discreetly) all over the hallways, offices, and bathrooms of NBC’s headquarters. He revealed his secret to Heller over a round of drinks following the author’s guest appearance on Today.

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Excerpt
The Plucky Teenage Stowaway Aboard the First American Expedition to Antarctica
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The Ohio State University Archives

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laurie Gwen Shapiro came across the name "William Gawronski" in 2013 while researching a story about Manhattan's St. Stanislaus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the U.S. In 1930, more than 500 kids from the church had held a parade in honor of Billy Gawronski, who had just returned from two years aboard the first American expedition to Antarctica, helmed by naval officer Richard E. Byrd.

The teenager had joined the expedition in a most unusual way: by stowing aboard Byrd's ships the City of New York and the Eleanor Bolling not once, not twice, but four times total. He swam across the Hudson River to sneak onto the City of New York and hitchhiked all the way to Virginia to hide on the Eleanor Bolling.

"I thought, 'Wait, what?" Shapiro tells Mental Floss.

Intrigued by Billy's persistence and pluck, Shapiro dove into the public records and newspaper archives to learn more about him. She created an Excel spreadsheet of Gawronskis all along the East Coast and began cold-calling them.

"Imagine saying, 'Did you have an ancestor that jumped in the Hudson and stowed away to the Antarctic in 1928?'" Shapiro says. She got "a lot of hang-ups."

On the 19th call, to a Gawronski in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, an elderly woman with a Polish accent answered the phone. "That boy was my husband," Gizela Gawronski told her. Billy had died in 1981, leaving behind a treasure trove of mementos, including scrapbooks, notebooks, yearbooks, and hundreds of photos.

"I have everything," Gizela told Shapiro. "I was hoping someone would find me one day."

Three days later, Shapiro was in Maine poring over Billy's papers with Gizela, tears in her eyes.

These materials became the basis of Shapiro's new book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. It's a rollicking good read full of fascinating history and bold characters that takes readers from New York to Tahiti, New Zealand to Antarctica, and back to New York again. It's brimming with the snappy energy and open-minded optimism of the Jazz Age.

Shapiro spent six weeks in Antarctica herself to get a feel for Billy's experiences. "I wanted to reach the Ross Ice barrier like Billy did," she says.

Read on for an excerpt from chapter four.

***

As night dropped on September 15, Billy jumped out of his second-floor window and onto the garden, a fall softened by potatoes and cabbage plants and proudly photographed sunflowers. You would think that the boy had learned from his previous stowaway attempt to bring more food or a change of dry clothes. Not the case.

An overnight subway crossing into Brooklyn took him to the Tebo Yacht Basin in Gowanus. He made for the location he'd written down in his notes: Third Avenue and Twenty-Third Street.

In 1928 William Todd's Tebo Yacht Basin was a resting spot— the spot—for the yachts of the Atlantic seaboard's most aristocratic and prosperous residents. The swanky yard berthed more than fifty staggering prizes of the filthy rich. Railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt kept his yacht O-We-Ra here; John Vanneck, his Amphitrite. Here was also where to find Warrior, the largest private yacht afloat, owned by the wealthiest man in America, public utilities baron Harrison Williams; yeast king (and former mayor of Cincinnati) Julian Fleischman's $625,000 twin-screw diesel yacht, the Carmago; General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan's Rene; shoe scion H. W. Hanan's Dauntless; and J. P. Morgan's Corsair III. The Tebo Yacht Basin's clubroom served fish chowder luncheons to millionaires in leather-backed mission chairs.

Todd, a great friend of Byrd's, lavished attention on his super-connected pal with more contacts than dollars. He had provided major funding for Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole, and helped the commander locate and refit two of the four Antarctic expedition ships for $285,900, done at cost. Todd loved puffy articles about him as much as the next man, and press would help extract cash from the millionaires he actively pursued as new clients; helping out a famous friend might prove cheaper than the advertisements he placed in upmarket magazines. Throughout that summer, Byrd mentioned Todd's generous support frequently.

Two weeks after the City of New York set sail, the Chelsea, the supply ship of the expedition, was still docked at the Tebo workyard and not scheduled to depart until the middle of September. Smith's Dock Company in England had built the refurbished 170-foot, 800-ton iron freighter for the British Royal Navy at the tail end of the Great War. First christened patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock, her name was changed to the Chelsea during her post–Royal Navy rumrunning days.

Not long before she was scheduled to depart, Byrd announced via a press release that he was renaming this auxiliary ship, too, after his mother, Eleanor Bolling. But the name painted on the transom was Eleanor Boling, with one l—the painter's mistake. As distressing as this was (the name was his mother's, after all), Byrd felt a redo would be too expensive and a silly use of precious funds. Reporters and PR staff were simply instructed to always spell the name with two ls.

As Billy eyed the ship in dock days after his humiliation on board the New York, he realized here was another way to get to Antarctica. The old, rusty-sided cargo ship would likely be less guarded than the flagship had been.

As September dragged on, Billy, back in Bayside, stiffened his resolve. No one would think he'd try again! On September 15, once more he swam out during the night to board a vessel bound for Antarctica.

Since his visit two weeks prior, Billy had studied his news clippings and knew that the Bolling was captained by thirty-six-year-old Gustav L. Brown, who'd been promoted weeks earlier from first mate of the New York when Byrd added the fourth ship to his fleet. Billy liked what he read. According to those who sailed under Brown's command, this tall and slender veteran of the Great War was above all genteel, and far less crotchety than the New York's Captain Melville. Captain Brown's education went only as far as high school, and while he wasn't against college, he admired honest, down-to-earth workers. Like his colleague Captain Melville, Brown had begun a seafaring life at fourteen. He seemed just the sort of man to take a liking to a teenage stowaway with big dreams.

Alas, the crew of the second ship headed to Antarctica now knew to look for stowaways. In a less dramatic repeat of what had happened in Hoboken, an Eleanor Bolling seaman ousted Billy in the earliest hours of the morning. The kid had (unimaginatively) hidden for a second time in a locker under the lower forecastle filled with mops and bolts and plumbing supplies. The sailor brought him to Captain Brown, who was well named, as he was a man with a mass of brown hair and warm brown eyes. The kind captain smiled at Billy and praised the cheeky boy's gumption—his Swedish accent still heavy even though he'd made Philadelphia his home since 1920—yet Billy was escorted off to the dock and told to scram.

A few hours later, still under the cover of night, Billy stole back on board and was routed out a third time, again from the “paint locker.”

A third time? The Bolling's third in command, Lieutenant Harry Adams, took notes on the gutsy kid who had to be good material for the lucrative book he secretly hoped to pen. Most of the major players would score book deals after the expedition; the public was eager for adventure, or at least so publishers thought. The catch was that any deal had to be approved by Byrd: to expose any discord was to risk powerful support. Adams's book, Beyond the Barrier with Byrd: An Authentic Story of the Byrd Antarctic Exploring Expedition, was among the best: more character study than thriller, his grand sense of humor evident in his selection of anecdotes that the others deemed too lightweight to include.

Billy was not the only stowaway that September day. Also aboard was a girl Adams called Sunshine, the "darling of the expedition," a flirt who offered to anyone who asked that she wanted to be the first lady in Antarctica. (In the restless era between world wars, when movies gave everyone big dreams, even girl stowaways were not uncommon.) Brown told a reporter that Sunshine had less noble aspirations, and soon she, too, was removed from the Bolling, but not before she gave each crew member a theatrical kiss.

As the early sun rose, Captain Brown called Billy over to him from the yacht yard's holding area where he had been asked to wait with the giggling Sunshine until his father arrived. The captain admired Billy's gumption, but it was time for the seventeen-year-old to go now and not waste any more of anyone's time.

As Lieutenant Adams recorded later, "Perhaps this matter of getting rid of Bill was entered up in the Eleanor Bolling log as the first scientific achievement of the Byrd Antarctic expedition."

*** 

From THE STOWAWAY: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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The Truth Is In Here: Unlocking Mysteries of the Unknown
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In the pre-internet Stone Age of the 20th century, knowledge-seekers had only a few options when they had a burning question that needed to be answered. They could head to their local library, ask a smarter relative, or embrace the sales pitch of Time-Life Books, the book publishing arm of Time Inc. that marketed massive, multi-volume subscription series on a variety of topics. There were books on home repair, World War II, the Old West, and others—an analog Wikipedia that charged a monthly fee to keep the information flowing.

Most of these were successful, though none seemed to capture the public’s attention quite like the 1987 debut of Mysteries of the Unknown, a series of slim volumes that promised to explore and expose sensational topics like alien encounters, crop circles, psychics, and near-death experiences.

While the books themselves were well-researched and often stopped short of confirming the existence of probing extraterrestrials, what really cemented their moment in popular culture was a series of television commercials that looked and felt like Mulder and Scully could drop in at any moment.

Airing in the late 1980s, the spots drew on cryptic teases and moody visuals to sell consumers on the idea that they, too, could come to understand some of life's great mysteries, thanks to rigorous investigation into paranormal phenomena by Time-Life’s crack team of researchers. Often, one actor would express skepticism (“Aliens? Come on!”) while another would implore them to “Read the book!” Inside the volumes were scrupulously-detailed entries about everything from the Bermuda Triangle to Egyptian gods.

Inside a volume of 'Mysteries of the Unknown'
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Mysteries of the Unknown grew out of an earlier Time-Life series titled The Enchanted World that detailed some of the fanciful creatures of folklore: elves, fairies, and witches. Memorably pitched on TV by Vincent Price, The Enchanted World was a departure from the publisher’s more conventional volumes on faucet repair, and successful enough that the product team decided to pursue a follow-up.

At first, Mysteries of the Unknown seemed to be a non-starter. Then, according to a 2015 Atlas Obscura interview with former Time-Life product manager Tom Corry, a global meditation event dubbed the "Harmonic Convergence" took place in August 1987 in conjunction with an alleged Mayan prophecy of planetary alignment. The Convergence ignited huge interest in New Age concepts that couldn’t be easily explained by science. Calls flooded Time-Life’s phone operators, and Mysteries of the Unknown became one of the company’s biggest hits.

"The orders are at least double and the profits are twice that of the next most successful series,'' Corry told The New York Times in 1988.

Time-Life shipped 700,000 copies of the first volume in a planned 20-book series that eventually grew to 33 volumes. The ads segued from onscreen skeptics to directly challenging the viewer ("How would you explain this?") to confront alien abductions and premonitions.

Mysteries of the Unknown held on through 1991, at which point both sales and topics had been exhausted. Time-Life remained in the book business through 2003, when it was sold to Ripplewood Holdings and ZelnickMedia and began to focus exclusively on DVD and CD sales.

Thanks to cable and streaming programming, anyone interested in cryptic phenomena can now fire up Ancient Aliens. But for a generation of people who were intrigued by the late-night ads and methodically added the volumes to their bookshelves, Mysteries of the Unknown was the best way to try and explain the unexplainable.

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