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 Galina? 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.


4 Responses

  1. Now I’ve got to read him if he skewered the NY literary establishment. God knows we need good humor in our livesI And humor, I think, is harder to write than straight drama. I’ll start with that memoir: My Stretch on the River. Sounds delightful.

    • Ye gods, Nancy, I got the title of Bissell’s memoir wrong! It’s “My LIfe on the Mississippi, Or Why I am not Mark Twain.” “A STretch on the River” is the title of Bissell’s first novel (which probably has a lot of memoir in it.)

  2. John,

    I remember reading your blogpost last summer about Richard Bissell, and had read Elmore Leonard’s recommendation sometime ago. Bissell has been on my to-be-read list for too long, so I’ve paged the Stanford Libraries copy of “Goodbye, Ava” from the auxiliary library in LIvermore. Thanks for helping to revive a great, neglected American writer!

    James Harris
    Stanford University Libraries

  3. You’re going to love “Goodbye, Ava,” James. It’s a book to cheer for.

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