“Why I Am Not Mark Twain” by Richard P. Bissell (1913 – 1977)

I just read My Life on the Mississippi or Why I am Not Mark Twain by Richard Bissell. Earlier I read and enjoyed A Stretch on the River, Bissell’s first book, written in the first person and published in 1950.

Bissell’s identity problem (“I am not Mark Twain”!) arose from the critical response to A Stretch on the River, which was hailed as the greatest American “river” writing since Mark Twain, who died three years before Bissell was born.

So how you feel about Bissell will depend partly on how you feel about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Bissell is not an uncritical admirer of Twain, but his complaining is good natured. If you are teacher who has to present those two sometimes problematic novels, Bissell may be helpful to you.

Bissell grew up in Dubuque, Iowa, and wanted nothing more than to reproduce the adventures Mark Twain describes in his iconic novels, to run away and live on a raft. But times had changed… Nonetheless, Bissell managed to live on a houseboat and become a river pilot.

Bissell’s descriptions of the Mississippi are both cultural and technological. He shows the reader why the river is so complex and challenging. He bemoans the shift from river transport to railroads and highways, and the end of the golden age of steamboating.

Most conspicuous are Bissell’s love and enjoyment of the River. He had so much fun! In addition to WORKING on the river, he bought boats, operated them, hung out on the water and visited the river port towns, even after he became a writer and New York theater personality.

I enjoyed what Bissell wrote about Mark Twain’s eccentric residence in Hartford, CT. I grew up a few miles from there, and was taken to see it at Christmas time, when it was beautifully decorated in the Victorian style. I remember the fireplace with the split chimney, designed so you can watch snow fall “into” the fire.

Bissell includes in his Life on the Mississippi a list of books about the mighty river and other American rivers. Some of these may be hard to find, but they sound wonderful.

Don’t miss A Stretch on the River. It’s a great piece of Americana.


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