'Catch-22' authorís desk and lamp provide glimpse into the writing life
By Kathy Henry Dowell, University Libraries
USC Libraries is now home to a desk and desk lamp owned by American writer Joseph Heller.
Donated by his widow Valerie Heller, the two items arrived in the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections in April. Along with the typewriter Heller used to write his iconic "Catch-22," acquired by USC in the late 1990s, the desk and lamp re-create the writing environment that yielded some of the best in 20th-century American writing. All three items are on display in USC’s Hollings Library through Dec. 20.
The Joseph Heller Papers, acquired by USC in 1997 with Heller’s active involvement and support, is the largest collection anywhere for research on his work, preserving more than 150,000 pages of drafts, revisions, typescripts and correspondence that document the author’s achievement over a period of 30 years.
Highlights include the very first handwritten 100-page draft for Heller's novel, “Something Happened,” the manuscript and edited typescript from Heller’s dramatization of “Catch-22” and his final revisions for “Closing Time,” the last novel published during his lifetime. The archive contains hundreds of pages charting Heller's creative process stage by stage through to publication. It is a rich resource both for scholarly research and for introducing students to the world of writing and publishing.
The addition of more personal items, such as the desk and lamp, adds yet another dimension to the collection.
“There is no better way to understand Joseph Heller as a writer and to study how he wrote than to be able to imagine more clearly where he wrote,” said Elizabeth Sudduth, director of the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. “Our students can sit at his desk and actually type at his typewriter. When the late Dr. Matthew Bruccoli acquired the typewriter from literary critic and biographer Frederick R. Karl, it was in order to give students exactly that experience. We have a strong print collection and a fine manuscript collection, and material objects related to the collection enhance our ability to tell Heller’s story.”
After all, the typewriter is where Captain John Yossarian of “Catch-22” sprang to life. Perhaps no one understands this better than Valerie Heller, who continues to add to the Heller collection. Her gifts include hundreds of translation of her husband’s works, including translations to Spanish, Portuguese, Czech, Polish, Sloveniana, Hungarian, Danish, Swedish and Finnish. Her most recent gift tells the story of her husband’s writing life -- the desk’s top is covered with coffee-ring stains, its knee holes are rubbed bare.
“This old desk of Joe's shows much wear and tear,” Valerie Heller said. “When I came to East Hampton in the spring of 1982, the desk was in the main house and during the summer was moved over to a writing studio on the property. Joe would ‘escape’ the house to the studio to write in longhand on a lined, yellow pad and then transcribe to the typewriter.”
Joseph Heller's connection with South Carolina began during World War II when he trained as a bombardier in Columbia and Walterboro. His connection with the University of South Carolina began when he participated in the 1980 Writers Series program. He returned in 1995 for the World War II Writers Symposium. In 1996 Joseph Heller came back to accept the Thomas Cooper Medal and to deliver the principal address at the university’s F. Scott Fitzgerald Centenary Celebration.
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