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A Bissell Appreciation

"Remember, there is nothing, absolutely nothing half so much worth doing as messing around in boats — especially on the Mississippi River."

--Richard Bissell

Richard Bissell - image

Richard Bissell Biography

Richard Pike Bissell (June 27, 1913-May 4, 1977) was an author of short stories and novels, playwright, business executive and riverboat pilot/master. He was best known for his river books, and for his novel 7½ Cents, based on his experience in the garment industry, which he helped convert into Pajama Game, one of the most popular Broadway musical comedies of the 1950's and made into a movie musical. He wrote a book about the experience called Say, Darling, which chronicled the ins and outs of a broadway musical production; this book was also turned into a musical of the same name.

Bissell was born and died in Dubuque, Iowa. The scion of a wealthy family he graduated from Harvard University, about which he wrote You Can Always Tell a Harvard Man. After college Bissell had a brief adventure in the Venezuelan oil fields and then signed on as a seaman on an American Export Lines freighter. In 1938 he married Marian Van Patten Grilk and returned to Dubuque, where they lived on a houseboat on the Mississippi River. Bissell became a vice president in the H. B. Glover Company, a clothing manufacturer. Turned down when he tried to enlist in the Navy during World War II, Bissell worked on towboats on the Ohio, Mississippi, Illinois, Tennessee, and Monongahela rivers. Returning to Dubuque and Glover's after the war, he published articles on his riverboat experiences in such prestigious national magazines as Atlantic Monthly, Collier's, and Esquire.

In 1950 Bissell published his first novel, A Stretch on the River, a largely autobiographical story whose nonstop dialogue portrayed the excitement, humor, and independence of a hard-working steamboat crew on the upper Mississippi. It was published to significant critical acclaim; several commentators compared Bissell to Twain. Both flattered and embarrassed by the frequent comparisons to Twain, Bissell addressed the issue with self-deprecating humor in 1973 with the publication of My Life on the Mississippi, or Why I Am Not Mark Twain.

I learned three-quarters of what I know about writing from reading Richard Bissell, God bless him.
—-Elmore Leonard