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Be Cool (2005)
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Friday, June 07, 2013

Remembering Dubuque’s Shakespeare, Richard Bissell - He Had a Great Influence on Elmore’s Work

Telegraph Herald (Dubuque, IA)
BYLINE: KATHERINE FISCHER

“Elmore Leonard (“Get Shorty,” “Hombre”) turned to Bissell for great dialog.”

At New York cocktail parties, Richard Bissell told glittering actors and producers, “I’m from the state where the tall corn grows, not potatoes. On top of that, I’m from the best part of the state - Dubuque.”

Famed writer of the 1950s-1970s, author of “7½ Cents” (“The Pajama Game”), Dick Bissell was a river rat his entire life beginning at birth in 1913 until his death in 1977.

Although critics hailed him as a modern Mark Twain, in “My Life on the Mississippi or Why I Am Not Mark Twain” Bissell resists, “I wasn’t born in a little frame shanty down in Missouri. I was born in splendor at the top of the Fourth Street Elevator in Dubuque, Iowa, Key City to the West, greatest state in the Union.”

Our Shakespeare, Biss had a wit sharpened on the rails of the 4th Street elevator: “I don’t think I am really much like Mark Twain. Maybe I write better, but listen, folks, he came from Missouri and he did all right. I just had the advantages is all. He would have been the first to admit it.”
In marrying Marian van Patten Grilk, he found a ready mate for river adventures. They built a raft from found logs. Marian located two rocking chairs, plopped them atop the raft, and they rocked across the main channel. Several exploits later, he abandoned the raft concluding, “I hope those rocking chairs are in use in some boardinghouse somewhere.”

Tiring of their “Cave” basement apartment, the Bissells moved year-round onto a houseboat downtown in the harbor, warranting a steady parade of mailmen, house-calling doctors, piano tuners, TH paperboys, and party guests. His mother was not amused and even decades later chastised, “Really Richard, the houseboat. It was so unnecessary.”

Unlike his beloved muddy river, Bissell’s likes and dislikes are crystal clear in his writing. As his collaborator, editor, mother of their four kids, and best friend, Marian is at the top of his LIKES. Next are his children followed by local friends, sunsets, island camping, Huck Finn, Picketts beer, Spechts Ferry, Potosi, and Charlie Vandermillen’s dock.

The Dubuque “seawall,” burgeoning auto traffic, dams, Urban Renewal, and progress in general top the list of things he held in lowest regard.
Just emerging from two months of the Mississippi in my own basement, I feel a kindred spirit in his account of spring floods saturating the Glover factory where he managed his family’s garment business: “Dubuque is a real rivertown and there is nothing quite like it. Any rivertown is better than any no-rivertown but this was the Mississippi, the real stuff. It was inconvenient but somehow there was glory in having the Father of Waters in your basement.”

The late Tom Gifford sent his manuscript to Bissell who passed it on to his agent. Thus was born Giff’s runaway bestseller, “The Wind Chill Factor” and his entire career. Elmore Leonard (“Get Shorty,” “Hombre”) turned to Bissell for great dialog.

Although he never met Dubuque’s current celebrated NYT bestselling author Bob Byrne, 40 years ago Bissell notes, “In Dubuque my book was simultaneously hailed by the newspaper and banned by the Catholic Mothers Purity Association. Was Mark Twain ever banned in Hannibal? Getting your books banned in Boston used to be easy enough but get these headlines: MODERN MARK TWAIN BANNED IN DUBUQUE!!
Times have changed. Last year a Dubuque lad published a book about growing up in the parochial schools (Memories of a Non-Jewish Childhood) that I wouldn’t lend to a lascar coal passer but no word has been heard from the Catholic Mothers.”

When I taught a class on Dubuque writers at Clarke University, students were amazed by Bissell’s ability to pack so much into so few words. That Kindle is re-publishing his works as e-books guarantees a fresh new market for this splendid Dubuque belletrist.

As we celebrate the 100-year anniversary of Dick Bissell’s birth June 27, I’ll be out on a houseboat re-reading his “Stretch on the River.” I might even pop open a Potosi beer (and imagine Pickett’s). For sure, I’ll be scouting islands for a couple of rocking chairs.

Fischer is Professor of English Emerita at Clarke University and author of Dreaming the Mississippi. Her email is .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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