You don’t need me to explain catch-22: It’s been part of our vocabulary for more than 60 years. A catch-22 is “a paradoxical situation from which an individual can’t escape because of contradictory rules or limitations.”
Catch-22 comes from Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel of the same name, published in 1961 and set during World War II; it was made into a 1970 movie (directed by Mike Nichols) and a 2019 miniseries (starring, among others, George Clooney). The novel has never been out of print.
In the novel, Doc Daneeka, an army psychiatrist, explains that “anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy” and therefore can’t plead mental illness as grounds for discharge:
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.
By 1963, catch-22, sometimes capitalized, sometimes not, had won wide enough acceptance to be used in a scholarly article in the Jahrbuch für Amerikastudien, the journal of the German Association for American Studies. (I’m sure there’s some irony there.) The relevant sentence, cited by the OED: “No subject … contains more traps, difficulties, treacheries, mirages, pitfalls, illusions, and Catch 22’s than does Comparative Literature.”
Why am I bringing all of this up now? Because over the weekend I saw the wonderful new documentary Turn Every Page, about the 50-year working relationship between the author Robert Caro (age 87) and the editor Robert Gottlieb (age 91), and catch-22 plays a small but illuminating role.
The story isn’t new—I’ve been reading about it for years—but it bears retelling for what it reveals about books, language, instinct, and deadline pressure.
Joseph Heller was an ex-GI working as an advertising copywriter in New York when he wrote the first draft of what would become Catch-22. When his manuscript appeared on Gottlieb’s desk at Simon & Schuster in 1958, though, its title was Catch-18. An excerpt had been published in 1955 in New World Writing under the Catch-18 title; in the story, Catch-18 is “a rule requiring officers who censor enlisted men’s letters to sign their names to the pages,” according to Tracy Daugherty, whose biography of Heller, Just One Catch, was published in 2011.
Gottlieb loved Heller’s book, but there was, yes, just one catch: the number 18. Another World War II novel released in 1961, by bestselling American author Leon Uris, was titled Mila 18, after a street address in the Warsaw Ghetto. Two war novels with “18” in their titles would confuse readers, Gottlieb declared.* Seventeen was also out, because of potential conflict with the 1953 World War II movie Stalag 17.
Daugherty recounts the story in Just One Catch, excerpted in the August 2011 issue of Vanity Fair:
“We were all in despair,” Gottlieb recalled. In his office, he and Heller sat opposite each other, spitting out numbers like two spies speaking in code. They liked the sound of “Catch-11”: hard consonants followed by vowels, opening up the mouth. Ultimately, they decided it was too close to the new Frank Sinatra movie, Ocean’s Eleven. They agreed to sleep on the question of a title and try again later.
On January 29, 1961, Heller sent Gottlieb a note, bringing to bear all his adman persuasion: “The name of the book is now CATCH-14. (Forty-eight hours after you resign yourself to the change, you’ll find yourself almost preferring this new number. It has the same bland and nondescript significance of the original. It is far enough away from Uris for the book to establish an identity of its own, I believe, yet close enough to the original title to still benefit from the word of mouth publicity we have been giving it.)” Gottlieb wasn’t sold.
Heller’s agent, Candida Donadio, later took credit for choosing 22: Her birthday was October 22. Gottlieb refutes this version:
“I remember it totally, because it was in the middle of the night. I remember Joe came up with some number and I said, ‘No, it’s not funny,’ which is ridiculous, because no number is intrinsically funny And then I was lying in bed worrying about it one night, and I suddenly had this revelation. And I called him the next morning and said, ‘I’ve got the perfect number. Twenty-two, it’s funnier than eighteen.’ I remember those words being spoken. He said, ‘Yes, it’s great, it’s great.’ And we called Candida and told her.”
The story is greatly condensed in the new documentary, whose focus is Caro’s great biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson. Gottlieb simply grins and says “Twenty-two is funnier!”
Can numbers be funny? Certain madeupical numbers, like eleventy-seven, can sound funny. Twenty-two may not be intrinsically humorous, but its rat-a-tat sound forces the tongue to literally catch, something a number beginning with a vowel wouldn’t do. And its evocation of doubleness—there are several déjà-vu incidents in the story—is definitely à propos.
By the way, the film title Turn Every Page is a reference to a piece of advice Robert Caro received, early in his career, from his editor at Newsday. When researching a story, the editor said, be sure to “turn every page” and take nothing for granted.
Go see the movie; it’s terrific. It’ll make you want to read, or re-read, Caro’s books, and to yearn for the long-awaited fifth volume of the LBJ biography.
I am contractually obliged to include at least one branding reference in every WotW post, so here you go: There’s a Catch 22 restaurant in Hilton Head, South Carolina. It specializes in seafood. There are unrelated Catch 22 restaurants in Athens, Georgia (veteran owned!); and in Dubai,
* Eighteen is a significant number in Hebrew numerology. It can be expressed with the letters chai and yud, which spell “chai,” or “life.”
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