Saturday, June 29, 2013

Richard Bissell Revisited

Almost a year ago I wrote a blog post, an appreciation of my favorite writer, Richard Bissell. Here’s the link, if you care to have a look, or another look, at this writer I have enjoyed and admired since I first began reading him, when I was a teenager:

(If you’d rather not be side-tracked into another post, at the end of today’s post is a mini-biography I wrote of Bissell for Tin House Magazine.)

This week, I received an email from my blogspot telling me that I had received a new comment on my tribute to my literary hero. I was thrilled to read this note from Sam Bissell, Richard’s son. It touched me deeply, so I’m quoting it here: 

Many thanks for sharing the above about my Dad. It's great to know that there are more writers out in the world, who, like you, were inspired by him. Besides Elmore Leonard, another luminary who enjoys and collects my Dad's works is Dan Rather; I recall seeing him on the tv several years ago, talking about who most inspired him to write the way he does.

Yesterday marked the 100th birthday of my Dad. While I didn't read any of his works to celebrate, I chose to enjoy the music that filled our lives as we were growing up. So, I spent most of the day playing the music he loved, among them Jimmie Rodgers "The Yodeling Brakeman", Meade Lux Lewis, Benny Goodman, Hoagy Carmichael, Bob Crosby and the Bobcats, Louis Armstrong, Lotte Lenya, Glenn Miller, Bix Beiderbecke, Sidney Bechet, and many, many more. 

I say with a smile on my face that wherever my Dad is now, what he did today included doing as many things as possible near any body of water including boating on it, swimming in it, looking for places where no one else is so he could enjoy the serenity of the river, and building bonfires on beaches that are buried deep within sloughs off the sides of the Mississippi, which we did so many times when I was growing up. 

Thanks again for sharing the reasons why you were inspired by him, along with the mini-bio of him.
All my best-
Sam Bissell

It was of course a pleasure to hear from Sam, whom I’ve never met in person but whom I remember with pleasure from his father’s book of travel memoir, How Many Miles to Galena? In that book Richard Bissell presents his son Sam as a witty kid and a cheerful travel companion.

Sam didn’t leave his email address in his post, so I have no way to thank him directly. Perhaps he’ll find this, and if he does he’ll know I consider his father’s taste in music superb. Another reason to admire the person who wrote those wonderful books.

Here as promised is the short bio of Richard Bissell, which I wrote to accompany an acrostic puzzle I made up for Tin House magazine, Spring 2002.

Richard Bissell (1913-1977), like Mark Twain before him, was a Midwestern humorist who also held a pilot’s license for tonnage on the Upper Mississippi River. Like Twain, Bissell traveled the globe, pen in hand. His literary career and success took him to the East Coast, where he joined and skewered the New York literary establishment.

But Bissell never gave up his home on the Mississippi, a houseboat in Dubuque, and his best books are all about the Midwest: A Stretch on the River; 7-1/2¢ (which became the smash it musical, The Pajama Game); High Water; Good Bye, Ava; and his memoir, My Stretch on the River, Or Why I Am Not Mark Twain.

Elmore Leonard once said that he learned most of what he knew about writing from reading Richard Bissell. I feel the same way, and I dedicated my first published novel to Bissell. In recent years his books have been out of print, and thanks to collectors like me he’s even hard to find in second-hand bookstores; but he’s worth the search. He is the best Midwestern humorist in American literature—and that includes that other tugboat pilot.


  1. What a great interactive post! Thanks, John. I've never read Bissell but it seems I should start.

    1. Thanks, Bill. If you give Bissell a try, you won't regret it!

  2. Wonderful tribute, John. I've never read Bissell, either. Seems like a writer I should have read. Making a note to start looking for some of those titles.

    1. Thank you, John. I'm sure you'd enjoy Bissell's novels, which take place in middle America in the middle of the twentieth century.

  3. I was born and raised in the midwest andwent to college there, so I am mightily embarrassed to say I never read Bissell. I must remedy that especially since Twain is one of my favorite authros.

  4. Thanks for this post, John. I was not familiar with Bissell but now I will look for his books. By the way, I loved Sam Bissell's letter. Thanks for including it. His father's taste in music goes right along with mine.
    Now I'm off to check your earlier post. Many thanks!
    Pat Browning

  5. Thank you, Lesley and Pat. And thanks to all of you who have responded. I hope you'll try a Bissell novel or two. WArning: they're addictive!

  6. I'm so glad to read about Richard Bissell, John. Like the others who've responded so far, I've never read his books -- though his name seems somehow familiar (maybe because of The Pajama Game?). Elmore Leonard, one of his fans, is one of my favorite writers. I'll be hunting for Bissell's work now, thanks to you.

    1. Eileen, I'm happy to introduce you to a writer I consider a good friend, even though I was never lucky enough to meet him.

  7. Like so many others, I haven't read Bissell, and it sounds like I've missed a lot. I'll be keeping my eyes open for his books in all the used book stores. Thanks for the introduction.
    Marja McGraw

  8. Marja, unfortunately there are fewer used book stores than there once were, and I've had a hard time finding Bissell on the shelves. But keep an eye out. And you're likely to find some of Bissell's books through

  9. Here I am, once again, John, back to thank you once again for another post....though it is more about me than my Dad. Thanks for this. (And before I forget, my email is sambissell at Leaving it here invites anyone to write me, of please mention in the Subject line that you are inquiring about my Dad, since I throw mail out in massive quantities every morning.) Sorry that it took me a while to get back to here.....but at least I made it back. :-)
    Actually, I came here looking for the previous blog as a reference for a friend to read. Having read through the other one a couple of times in the last couple of weeks, I have sent a few other friends to it for the same reason....reference material to explain who my Dad was to still more friends. Again, I certainly appreciate having it to use for that purpose.

    Recently....that is, over the course of the last 2 or 3 months...I have been reading a great deal of sci-fi & dystopian fiction, which, while fun to read, can become a bit overbearing and, hell, Depressing! So, to take break from it 3 weeks ago, I decided to read some of my Dad's works. First, I picked up GOOD BYE, AVA, which I had, surprisingly, never read! What an absolute delight to read, not just because it was about the River but because it is about Dubuque...but, more than that, I knew all of the "characters" (for that IS what they all were!) in the book: my Uncle, my Dad's best friend, his houseboat neighbors & their kids, and all the rest! When I was done with AVA, I moved on to HIGH WATER, another unread book by me and though I didn't know the characters, I knew vaguely of the events.
    On a tear at this point, I moved to STRETCH ON THE RIVER next and I can safely say that I have read it....last time when I was in college, several eons ago. STRETCH is a DAMN FINE book and is as good a spot as any, though more so, for those who haven't read any of his works, as a place to start. Shorty's chapter, of course, is a writer's dream as a place to study The Art of Writing, as you have pointed out before.
    I hasten to add here that those who haven't read my Dad's works...but Have Read Mark Twain...ought to read MY LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI, OR WHY I'M NOT MARK TWAIN. Having been referred to as the "Modern Mark Twain" for years and years, he set the record straight to let folks know exactly how much he WASN'T Mr. TWAIN in a very humorous book, which is very much his autobiography. I'm halfway through it as I write this and what a great read it is!
    I gave my Mom a call when I had finished STRETCH to let her know I was reading several of my Dad's early works, which she was delighted to hear. She asked me which book I liked better, STRETCH or HIGH WATER...and I was stumped. Fact of the matter is, though, I liked HIGH WATER more...but not much more....because they are both great books. Apparently, one of my brothers agrees with me on that score.

    Before I go, let me say that while haven't started it yet, I have waiting in the queue your book PLAY MELANCHOLY BABY. I thought it apropos since, after all, you partially dedicated it to my Dad. I look forward to it because it is also a genre I enjoy. (In fact, I have a few film noir pieces waiting for me, newly recorded, on my recorder.)

    Many thanks, again, for keeping my Dad's name alive!!
    All my best--

    1. Sam, what a pleasure it is to hear from you again. You're lucky to be encountering some of your dad's books for the first time, and I can promise you they only get better with each subsequent rereading.