is the novel catch-22 representative of the sixties?

Es­ti­mated reading time is 9 minutes.

SE­LECTING TEN NOVELS that sum up the era we refer to as “the Six­ties” would be a task worthy of a minor Greek demi-deity. And by the Six­ties, I am re­fer­ring to the whole peace-love-do-your-own-thing coun­ter­cul­ture: pot and acid and con­scious­ness ex­pan­sion and free love—lots and lots of free love—and rock & roll and Zap Comix and you know the rest.

Such a list would not even en­ter­tain the pos­si­bility of in­cluding most main­stream nov­el­ists, in­cluding best-sellers like Saul Bellow, James Mich­ener, Philip Roth, John Up­dike, or my fa­vorite au­thor, James Clavell.

My first thoughts for such a list would go to sci­ence fic­tion ti­tles that were adopted by coun­ter­cul­tural types (for the sake of con­ve­nience, we’ll call them “hip­pies”), es­pe­cially Frank Her­bert’s Dune and Robert Hein­lein’s Stranger In A Strange Land.


This ar­ticle orig­i­nally ap­peared on my other blog on Oc­tober 7, 2014. It is posted here now as it fits the theme of this site.


Any such list would have to in­clude J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord Of The Rings trilogy (which is ac­tu­ally one novel in three large vol­umes). If more fan­tasy books were avail­able, no doubt some would have at­tracted at­ten­tion, but until the un­prece­dented suc­cess of the Tolkien books, few Amer­ican pub­lishers had any fan­tasy in print.

But there are two so-called main­stream novels that should make any­one’s Top 10 Six­ties Novels: Ken Ke­sey’s One Flew Over The Cuck­oo’s Nest and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. 1

For­tu­nately, four years ago I pub­lished a piece on Heller’s book, “Yos­sarian Lives! (and He’s an Oc­to­ge­narian).” As it fits the theme of this site, I have ap­pro­pri­ated it and moved it here. It is in­dented be­tween the first image below (the cover of the first edi­tion of the book) and the final image (Yos­sarian in the cockpit of his plane).


Catch 22 book 1stEdition 500

This is the first US edi­tion of Catch-22 by Simon & Schuster (June 1961) is bound in blue cloth with the top edges of the pages stained red. “First Printing” ap­pears on the copy­right page. The dust jacket has $5.95 on the bottom of the front flap and the au­thor’s pic­ture on the back with no blurbs.

I forgot Yossarian’s birthday!

I found an ar­ticle ti­tled “Catch-22: A Paradox Turns 50 And Still Rings True” for NPR Books and thought, “Holy Min­derbinder! It’s Yossarian’s birthday and I forgot!” I thought this be­cause I saw the Oc­tober in the article’s date­line and reg­is­tered it as for this Oc­tober of 2014. It is not—it was for 2011, meaning that I did forget Yossarian’s birthday. And Doc Daneeka’s and Orr’s and Aarfy’s and Milo’s. But so what!

If you are over 50—or if you are one of the un­usu­ally lit­erate among the seem­ingly func­tion­ally il­lit­erate gen­er­a­tions that have been fol­lowed us—and you haven’t read Catch-22, you are missing a touch­stone of the post-WWII Amer­ican cul­tural psyche of the ‘we-are-f*cking-up-badly-but-I-still-give-a-damn’ crowd. 2

Why is Catch-22 a touch­stone? The book’s bitter but ironic de­scrip­tion of modern war-making specifically—and all other forms of uni­lat­eral, au­thor­i­tarian decision-making generally—describes the hypocrisy and in­sanity of our times and jus­ti­fies the para­noia of just about everyone better than any screed ever written by a rad­ical lefty or righty!


Catch 22 book Dell 1stEdition 600

This is the first Dell pa­per­back edi­tion of Catch-22 (1962) that I read in the late ’60s. I found it at Back Date Books & Mag­a­zines on South Main Street in Wilkes Barre, where pa­per­backs were 10¢ each or three for a quarter, with or without the cover intact.

There was only one catch

Merriam-Webster de­fines catch as a noun as “a hidden problem that makes some­thing more com­pli­cated or dif­fi­cult to do.” This is how Heller de­scribes the catch in his story:

“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which spec­i­fied that a con­cern for one’s safety in the face of dan­gers that were real and im­me­diate was the process of a ra­tional mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more mis­sions. Orr would be crazy to fly more mis­sions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.” 3

The novel’s nar­ra­tive deals with Cap­tain John Yossarian’s at­tempts to find a way out of the war and back home to nor­malcy. I am not going to say any­thing more, ex­cept that the im­por­tance of the book is not in the plot. 4


If Catch-22 had been made as a black and white film in Eu­rope and came with sub­ti­tles, it would have been a crit­ical rave and an art-house fave.


A corol­lary to the main meaning of catch-22 also found in the book is that “Catch-22 states that agents en­forcing Catch-22 need not prove that Catch-22 ac­tu­ally con­tains what­ever pro­vi­sion the ac­cused vi­o­lator is ac­cused of violating.”

In the case of the novel, the “agent” stating the corol­lary is an MP, so one could apply this corol­lary to anyone with a police-state men­tality, who ap­pear to abound in our society.

All catch-22s exist as a threat to the freedom and dig­nity of the in­di­vidual, which should make every catch-22 some­thing to be loathed by everyone, re­gard­less of one’s po­lit­ical bent.

Fi­nally, the book is beau­ti­fully written, very funny (if black hu­mor­ously so), oc­ca­sion­ally tragic, and al­ways en­ter­taining and pos­sibly even illuminating!

A must-read to be read now for anyone who has for­gotten the spirit of ‘the Six­ties’ or just never grokked it! And there are many edi­tions to choose from!

Prior to the In­ternet, you would have had to have been a col­lector who haunted spe­cialist used book­stores to see any­thing but new books or the more common ti­tles as used books. Now, finding var­ious edi­tions of fa­vorite books from dif­ferent pub­lishers in dif­ferent coun­ties can be done in a few min­utes at your computer!


Catch 22 book 1stEdition UK 500

This is the first UK edi­tion by Jonathan Cape (1962), which sports much more in­ter­esting art­work on the dust-jacket.

Catch-22 as a movie

In 1970, Para­mount Pic­tures turned the suc­cessful novel into an un­suc­cessful movie: Catch-22 was pro­duced by John Calley and Martin Ran­so­hoff and was di­rected by Mike Nichols from a screen­play by Buck Henry.

It starred Alan Arkin as Yos­sarian and in­cluded Martin Balsam, Richard Ben­jamin, Art Gar­funkel, Jack Gil­ford, Bob Newhart, An­thony Perkins, Jon Voight, and Orson Welles, along with young­sters Bob Bal­aban, Charles Gordin, and Martin Sheen. Plus there’s one of the era’s the sex­iest ac­tresses, Paula Pren­tiss.

By “un­suc­cessful” above I mean that it did not light the fire of many critics and was a box-office dis­aster, losing mil­lions for Para­mount. Its rep­u­ta­tion as a cin­e­matic dis­aster has fol­lowed it for al­most fifty years.

But for some of us, Catch-22 was one of the best films of 1970, a year full of fine films. It was an as­tounding adap­ta­tion of por­tions of the book. The movie did cap­ture the bleak, black humor and the often sur­real sit­u­a­tions. While the cast was uni­formly ex­cel­lent, Jon Voight shone as Milo Min­derbinder, es­pe­cially his boy­ishly en­thu­si­astic ex­pla­na­tion of his deal with the Ger­mans to bomb one another’s camps to save time and money.

Catch-22 was not re­garded as a great suc­cess with the con­tem­po­rary [1970] public or critics. The film ap­peared as Amer­i­cans were be­coming re­sentful of the bitter and ugly ex­pe­ri­ence of the Vietnam War, leading movie­goers to quit seeing [most] war movies of all kinds. 5

De­spite the film’s com­mer­cial and crit­ical fail­ures, it was nom­i­nated for a BAFTA Award for Best Cin­e­matog­raphy and re­tained a cult fol­lowing. A modern re­assess­ment has made the film a cult fa­vorite; it presently holds an 88% Fresh rating on Rotten Toma­toes.” (Wikipedia)

As one of the few who saw the movie in the the­aters in 1970, I en­joyed it and rec­om­mended it to others. If memory serves me well (as it still usu­ally does), a very fa­vor­able re­view ap­peared in Rolling Stone that said some­thing along the line of “If this film had been made in Eu­rope, in black and white, and came with sub­ti­tles, it would be a crit­ical rave and an art-house fave.”


Catch 22 book Corgi 1964 300

This is the first UK pa­per­back edi­tion of Catch-22 from Corgi Books (1964). It fea­tures a cover that im­me­di­ately brought to my imag­i­na­tion Hitler and Nazis and the SS and swastikas. Ef­fec­tive, Yah? Nein?

Another blessing from the Internet

So, is Catch-22 rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the era we refer to as the six­ties? Hell yes! It’s far more rep­re­sen­ta­tive than a lot of the comic books that are turning up as over-produced, over-hyped movies that people sali­vate over. It’s far more rep­re­sen­ta­tive than a lot of the lame rock al­bums that are men­tioned as “clas­sics” from the era.

I am saying this as someone who loves ’60s rock and writes paeans to their glory in my other blogs.

I am saying this as someone who loves comic books and bought them all back then.

I am saying that as one of the few who saw the movie in the the­aters in 1970, I en­joyed it then, I have en­joyed re­watching it since, and I am still rec­om­mending it to others—and that in­cludes you!

Holy Min­derbinder! It was the 50th an­niver­sary of the pub­li­ca­tion of CATCH-22 and I forgot! Share on X

Catch 22 Arkin finger 1000

FEA­TURED IMAGE: Alan Arkin as Everyman Yos­sarian dis­playing his at­ti­tude to­wards his su­pe­rior of­fi­cers who keep in­creasing the number of combat mis­sions he has to fly be­fore they let him go home.



1   I would un­der­stand anyone wanting to con­sider other main­stream titles—I keep looking at John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy and sev­eral Kurt Von­negut novels.

2   You know who you are: the ‘I-can’t-read-or-write-cursive-or-sit-through-a-whole-book-and-don’t-give-a-damn’ crowd foisted upon us by an un­der­funded school system, a lost civ­i­liza­tion, and de­ranged politi­cians who seem hell-bent on cre­ating the ne­ces­sity for an ever greater wel­fare so­ciety while damning wel­fare simultaneously.

This latter crowd is sim­ilar to, but not nec­es­sarily syn­ony­mous with, such groups as those termed ‘li­brulls’ and ‘pro­gres­sives’ and ‘six­ties left­overs.’ They are not to be con­fused with the con­ser­v­a­tive ‘everybody-else-is-f*cking-up-badly-but-I-still-give-a-damn’ crowd, be­tween which there are more sim­i­lar­i­ties than their leaders want us to be aware of. But that’s an­other story.

3    Since the ex­ample is spe­cific to the plot of Heller’s novel, here is a more gen­er­al­ized de­f­i­n­i­tion of the ‘logic’ be­hind Heller’s con­cept for prac­tical, everyday usage:

“A catch-22 is a para­dox­ical sit­u­a­tion from which an in­di­vidual cannot es­cape be­cause of con­tra­dic­tory rules. Catch-22s often re­sult from rules, reg­u­la­tions, or pro­ce­dures that an in­di­vidual is sub­ject to but has no con­trol over be­cause to fight the rule is to ac­cept it.

An­other ex­ample is a sit­u­a­tion in which someone is in need of some­thing that can only be had by not being in need of it. One con­no­ta­tion of the term is that the cre­ators of the catch-22 have cre­ated ar­bi­trary rules in order to jus­tify and con­ceal their own abuse of power.” (Wikipedia).

4   Of course, as so many vet­erans of the Eu­ro­pean and Pa­cific the­aters of op­er­a­tion dis­cov­ered when they did re­turn home in 1946, their ‘nor­malcy’ wasn’t everyone else’s ‘normal’ anymore.

5   Critic Lucia Boz­zola wrote, “Para­mount spent a great deal of money on Catch-22, but it wound up get­ting trumped by an­other 1970 anti-war farce, Robert Alt­man’s M*A*S*H.”


Catch 22 book Corgi 1970 600

This is a later edi­tion from Corgi Books (1970?) fea­tures Yos­sarian as a latter-day Stands With Fist. But some­thing is missing—like maybe an ex­tended middle finger.


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