Joseph Heller’s Handwritten Outline for Catch-22, One of the Great Novels of the 20th Century

We remem­ber Catch-22, more than half a cen­tu­ry after its pub­li­ca­tion, as a rol­lick­ing satire of Amer­i­can mil­i­tary cul­ture in wartime. But those of us who return to Joseph Heller’s debut nov­el, a cult favorite turned best­seller turned pil­lar of the mod­ern canon, find a much more com­plex piece of work. Heller began writ­ing the man­u­script in 1953, while still employed as a copy­writer at a small adver­tis­ing agency. The project grew in ambi­tion over the next eight years he spent work­ing on it, even­tu­al­ly in col­lab­o­ra­tion with edi­tor Robert Got­tlieb and its oth­er advo­cates at Simon & Schus­ter, the pub­lish­er that had bought it.

When Catch-22 final­ly went into print, one of those advo­cates, an adver­tis­ing man­ag­er named Nina Bourne, launched an aggres­sive one-woman cam­paign to get copies into the hands of all the influ­en­tial read­ers of the day. “You are mis­tak­en in call­ing it a nov­el,” replied Eve­lyn Waugh. “It is a col­lec­tion of sketch­es — often rep­e­ti­tious — total­ly with­out struc­ture.” But the book’s appar­ent­ly free-form nar­ra­tive, full of and often turn­ing on puns and seem­ing­ly far-fetched asso­ci­a­tions, had actu­al­ly come as the prod­uct of a decep­tive com­po­si­tion­al rig­or. As one piece of evi­dence we have Heller’s hand­writ­ten out­line above. (You can also find a more eas­i­ly leg­i­ble ver­sion here.)

The out­line’s grid presents the events of the sto­ry in chrono­log­i­cal order, as the nov­el itself cer­tain­ly does­n’t. The rows of its ver­ti­cal axis run from ear­ly 1944 at the top to Decem­ber 1944 at the bot­tom, and the columns of its hor­i­zon­tal axis lists the book’s major char­ac­ters. They include the pro­tag­o­nist John Yos­sar­i­an, Air Force bom­bardier; the “poor and rus­tic” Orr; Colonel Cath­cart, a “Har­vard grad­u­ate with a cig­a­rette hold­er,” and Major Major, who “looks like Hen­ry Fon­da.” With­in this matrix Heller kept track of what should hap­pen to which char­ac­ters when, at the time of which events of the real war.

The descrip­tions of events sketched on the out­line range from the broad­ly com­ic (“Chap­lain spies Yos­sar­i­an naked in a tree and thinks it is a mys­ti­cal vision”) to the cyn­i­cal (“Milo jus­ti­fies bomb­ing the squadron in terms of free enter­prise and the large prof­it he has made”) to the straight­for­ward­ly bru­tal (“Snow­den is shot through the mid­dle and dies”). Their place­ment togeth­er in the same neu­tral space reflects the sin­gle qual­i­ty that, per­haps more than any oth­er, brought upon the nov­el such a wide range of reac­tions and earned it a last­ing place in not just Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture but Amer­i­can cul­ture. Look at all the aspects of war straight on, it reminds us still today, and the total pic­ture — bloody and sense­less for the indi­vid­ual par­tic­i­pant, though not with­out its minor tri­umphs and laughs — looks some­thing like absur­dist art.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Kurt Von­negut Dia­grams the Shape of All Sto­ries in a Master’s The­sis Reject­ed by U. Chica­go

William Faulkn­er Out­lines on His Office Wall the Plot of His Pulitzer Prize Win­ning Nov­el, A Fable (1954)

How J.K. Rowl­ing Plot­ted Har­ry Pot­ter with a Hand-Drawn Spread­sheet

How Famous Writ­ers — From J.K. Rowl­ing to William Faulkn­er — Visu­al­ly Out­lined Their Nov­els

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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