Fisher, Rudolph 1897–1934
Rudolph Fisher 1897–1934
Writer, medical practitioner
Considered one of the most talented short-story writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Rudolph Fisher revealed, through his fictional satirical style, the diverse elements of the African American community. During the mid-1920s, Fisher balanced his professional life between a successful medical practice and a writing career which brought him acclaim for several short stories, a play, and two novels, The Walls Of Jericho (1928) and The Conjure Man Dies (1932). While the former work emerged as one the first black novels to address the issue of class antagonism among black Harlemites, the latter is credited as the second detective crime novel written by an African American. Throughout his short-lived career Fisher balanced his writing between the speech and mannerisms of wealthy African American New Yorkers with the common speech, or what he termed “Harle-mese,” the rhythmic and idiosyncratic dialogue of 1920s black Harlem. A writer of considerable talent, his work continues to appear in African American literary volumes and collected studies of the Harlem Renaissance.
Following his birth in Washington D. C. on May 9, 1897, Rudolph John Chauncey Fisher was raised by his parents-Reverend John Wesley Fisher and Glendora Fisher--in Providence, Rhode Island. Graduating with honors from Providence’s Classical High School in 1915 Fisher entered Brown University. Affectionately known by fellow students as “Bud”-a nickname derived from the famous cartoon-creator of “Mutt and Jeff-Fisher became an award-winning scholar and orator. After earning a B.A., he graduated from Brown with an M.A. and Beta Kappa key in 1919.
On July 16, 1919, Fisher took part in a Manhattan-based program entitled “Four Negro Commencement Speakers” where he read his Brown commencement speech, “The Emancipation of Science.” The program also included a Rutgers University student, the future lawyer, famed vocalist, and political activist Paul Robeson. “There was warm sincerity in the congratulations the two honor graduates exchanged that evening-Paul, the future lawyer, and Bud the physician-to-be,” wrote Loyd L. Brown in The Young Paul Robeson: On My Own Journey. “And later, when they kept their promises to keep in touch, they would discover they would have much more in common than their ability to prove in school the ‘efficiency of the Race.’”
Fisher then attended Howard University Medical School and studied roentgenology (the diagnostic and therapeutic uses of X-rays). During his senior year at Howard University’s medical school, Fisher served an internship at Freedman’s Hope Hospital in Washington D.C., and wrote his first short story, “City of Refuge.” He graduated from Howard University with honors in 1924, and subsequently became a fellow at the National Research Council at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, where he studied bacteriology with Dr. Frederick P. Gray.
Born Rudolph John Chauncey Fisher, May 9, 1897, in Washington D.C; son of John Wesley Fisher (Reverend) and Clendora Fisher; married Jane Ryder, 1926; children: Hugh. Education: Brown University B.A.; Brown M.A., 1919; Howard Medical School degree, 1924.
Career: Writer and medical practitioner. Around 1924 became a fellow at the National Research Council at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons; first short story published in Atlantic Monthly, 1925; two years later, opened medical practice in Harlem and had stories published in American Mercury and Atlantic Monthly; in 1928 first novel published by Alfred A. Knopf; second book published in 1932 by Convici and Freide; last story published in Story Magazine, 1933.
Awards: Brown University Class Day Orator; Brown Beta Kappa Key 1919; Brown University commencement speaker; received honors from Howard Medical School; The Crisis Spîngarn Prize, 1925.
During the mid 1920s Fisher became associated with Harlem’s black Bohemian circle led by writers Wallace Thurman and Zora Neale Hurston. Fisher quickly gained a reputation as an individual of gifted wit and literary talent. “He was immensely liked by both men and women,” explained David Levering Lewis in When Harlem Was in Vogue, “not only because he was handsome but because he kept his exceptionally sharp mind from pricking people unnecessarily. Literary teas and ‘book talk’ bored Fisher. Like that of Langston Hughes, with whom he was causally friendly, Fisher’s anguish over the race problem fell short of desperation because of personal resiliency and a discerning optimism.”
Fisher’s first story “City of Refuge” appeared in a February 1925 edition oí the Atlantic Monthly. Through its main character, Solomon, Fisher’s story revealed the initial optimism and the harsh realities awaiting newly arrived migrants in Harlem, a community he called “city of Satan.” In 1925 “City of Refuge” appeared in the compendium work The New Negro. That same year, he also received The Crisis Spingarn Prize for his short story “High Yaller,” which revealed the interracial prejudice in the relationships between light complexioned blacks- “High Yallers”-and darker-skinned members of the race. Based on the courtship of a light-skinned black woman, Evelyn Brown-who appears white-and her dark-complexioned suitor, Jay Martin, the story delved into a perceived miscegenational relationship which brought harsh reactions from both the black and white communities. Rather than be mistaken for an interracial couple, and to avoid the legal and social consequences associated with such a relationship, Evelyn and Jay end their short-lived courtship-each retreating to their expected places in Harlem society. Like many of Fisher’s other work, “High Yaller” dealt not only with racial relations between blacks and whites, it also concentrated on the subject of color prejudice within the African American community.
In 1927 Fisher opened a private medical practice in Harlem 1927 and around this time became the administrator of a private X-ray laboratory, and a chair on the Department of Roentgenology at Manhattan’s International Hospital. Once established in Harlem, Fisher discovered that many of his favorite local African American night spots had been transformed into venues catering primarily to white customers. His criticism and parody of these trends surfaced in the piece “The Caucasian Storms Harlem,” published in an August 1927 edition of American Mercury. In the piece Fisher also lamented the “Negro Invasion of Broadway” --the vogue of African American stage productions which followed in the success of Flourney Miller’s and Aubrey Lyle’s 1921 landmark hit show “Shuffle Along.” Fisher’s other stories appeared in McClure’s, Survey Graphic, Redbook, and Story Magazine, as well as scientific publications such as Journal of Infectious Diseases, Proceedings of the Society of Experimental Biology, and Medicine. August of 1927 also saw the publication of Fisher’s short story “Blades of Steel” in the Atlantic Monthly. In this work Fisher described the antagonistic relationship between a razor-toting Harlem hustler-light complexioned Dirty Couzens--and Eight-Ball Eddy Boyd. After accusing Boyd of cheating him out of money at a card game, Couzens encounters his adversary at an annual barber’s ball. Despite his reputation with a blade, Couzens receives a facial wound from Boyd’s razor which leads him to flee the ball and to wear the humiliating scar of his defeat.
Through the intercession of NAACP executive secretary Walter White and novelist Carl Van Vechten, Fisher’s novel Walls of Jericho was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1928. Though a worthy effort by a first-time author, the book was condemned by W.E.B. Du Bois for portraying the upper class blacks as snobbish and lacking in values. In The Crisis Du Bois’ review of the novel admonished, “Why does Mr. Fisher fear to use his genius to paint his own kind… the glimpses of the better classes of Negroes which he gives us are poor, ineffective make-believes.” Despite Du Bois’ condemnation of Fisher’s work, historian Nathan Huggins noted in Harlem Renaissance, that the work emerged as “the only novel in the decade that exposed class antagonism among Harlem blacks.” The novel’s protagonist-hipster, Joshua “Shine” Jones, earns his living as piano mover who despises middle and upper-class blacks-people he condemned as affecting the superficial mannerisms of white society. In The Portable Renaissance Reader, David Levering Lewis lauded Fisher’s work as “a social novel with an upbeat ending in which the best elements of Harlem’s upper crust (’dicties’) eventually collaborate with men and women (’rats’) normally unwelcome in Talented Tenth salons, in order to combat organized crime, drugs, and other demoralizing forces within the community.”
Fisher wrote his short story “Common Meter” in 1930, a work which saw publication in The Baltimore African-American. In “Common Meter” two competitive orchestra leaders-Fessenden “Fess” Baxter and Bus Williams-engage in a battle-of-the-bands contest in an effort to win the affection of a beautiful young black woman. Within the narrative, Fisher explores the aspects of the orchestrated jazz style and the spiritual power of the blues. Fess Baxter’s creative musical arrangements, and his deceitful attempts to win the contest, are eventually thwarted by Bus Williams, who wins the contest with a heart-felt low-down blues number.
In 1932 Fisher’s book Conjure Man Dies saw publication by Convici- Friede, making him the second African American to publish a detective novel in the United States. Fisher utilized his medical background to write a mystery involving a cast of Harlem characters. As David Levering Lewis noted in When Harlem was in Vogue, “Fisher’s technique owed something to the master of thrillers, S.S. Divine, but the interest of the Conjure Man is largely its Harlem setting and its overworking of Amos ’n’ Andy dialogue to play to white (and secretly, black) readers.” “Like the Walls of Jericho…,” wrote Bernard W. Bell, in The African American Novel and Its Tradition, “The Conjure Man Dies reflects Fisher’s ambivalence about the black bourgeoisie and his wry vision of the capacity of black Americans to laugh at life and themselves as the key to survival and the triumph of their humanity. The celebration of black humor and experimentation with it in the detective novel are Fisher’s major contributions to the tradition of the Afro-American novel.”
Fisher’s last published work, “Miss Cynthie,” appeared in Story Magazine in 1933. A well-conceived short story, the story is about a Southern migrant grandmother, Miss Cynthie, who arrives in Harlem to meet her successful grandson. A hard-working and religious woman, Miss Cynthie raised the young man in the South, and had expected her grandson to have established himself as a member of the black professional class. To her surprise his economic advancement emerged as an entertainer in the theater-a place she views as a haven for sin and immoral characters. “Although the seventy-year-old woman finds it difficult to accept the role of the boy whom she had always thought of as a doctor, a dentist, or, as she reminds herself rather whimsically, at least an undertaker,” wrote James A. Emanuel and Theodore L. Gross in Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America, “she comes to realize that he has developed organically and honestly, on his own terms. The boy’s terms are those of the old woman, too, for she had first sung to him; she had first given him her joy and her own love of music. Without imposing his ideas on the reader, Fisher has contrasted ironically two generations of Negroes as they function in two different areas of the country.”
In the early 1930s, during the waning days of the Harlem Renaissance, Fisher fell ill. After several operations, he died of intestinal cancer (a condition said to be caused by his unprotected use of X-ray equipment) in New York City on December 26, 1934. After his death Conjure Man Dies was produced as a folk play at Harlem’s Lafayette Theatre in 1936. Over the following decades Fisher’s short works have appeared in several anthologies and collections, including The Negro Caravan: Writings By American Negroes (1941), American Negro Short Stories (1966), Black Voices, An Anthology of African American Literature (1968), Black Literature in America (1971), Voices of the Harlem Renaissance (1976), and The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1997).
As a member of the black bourgeoisie Fisher sought inspiration from the rich strata of Harlem black society from the working class hustlers, big band leaders, West Indians, and preachers, to “dicty” real estate men. “His heroes,” observed S. P. Fullinwider in The Mind and Mood of Black America, “were usually done in by his villains because he felt that the city slicker, the con-man, was being created by a new environment, and it made him sad. Fisher, who won honors all the way through high school, was isolated from the black masses of the ghetto, whom he liked and tried to understand, as he was from the white man, whom he hated.” Fisher’s fiction was filled with the tensions and struggles of race and class, revealing what David Levering Lewis described in When Harlem was in Vogue, as “the cleavages within the Afro-American world.” In his 1926 essay “The Artist and The Racial Mountain,” as quoted in The New Negro, Langston Hughes captured the most important element of Fisher’s work: “Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voices of Bessie Smith singing Blues penetrate closed ears of the colored-near intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand. Let Paul Robeson singing Water Boy, and Rudolph Fisher writing about the streets of Harlem … cause the smug Negro middle class to turn from their white, respectable, ordinary books and papers to catch a glimpse of their own beauty.”
The Walls of Jericho, Alfred A. Knopf, 1928, reprinted by Ann Arbor Paperbacks, 1994.
The Conjure Man Dies: A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem, Convici-Freide, 1932.
“City of Refuge,” 1925.
“Blades of Steel,” 1927.
“The South Still Lingers On.”
“Fire By Night.”
“Common Meter,” 1930.
“Miss Cynthie,” 1933.
“The Caucasian Storms Harlem,” 1927.
Bell, Bernard W., The African American Novel and its Tradition, University of Massachusetts Press, 1987, pp. 138-142.
Brown, Loyd L., The Young Paul Robeson: On My Own Journey Now, Westview Press, 1977, pp. 103-104.
Cavalcade: Negro Writing From 1760 to the Present, edited by Arthur P. Davis and Saunders Redding, Houghton Mifflin, 1971, pp. 337-353.
Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America, edited by James A. Emanuel and Theodore L. Gross, pp. 110-123.
Fullinwider, S.P., The Mind and Mood of Black America, The Dorsey Press, 1969, pp. 161-162.
Huggins, Nathan Irvin, Harlem Renaissance, Oxford University Press, 1971, pp. 118-121.
Lewis, David Levering, When Harlem Was in Vogue, pp. 229-230.
The New Negro, edited by Alain Locke, Albert and Charles Boni, 1925, pp. 692-694.
The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader, edited by David Levering Lewis, pp. 110-117.
Voices From the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Nathan Irvin Huggins, Oxford University Press, 1976, pp. 74-82.
The Crisis, November 1928.
"Fisher, Rudolph 1897–1934." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 14, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/fisher-rudolph-1897-1934
"Fisher, Rudolph 1897–1934." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved July 14, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/fisher-rudolph-1897-1934
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Although he had a few champions among African-American critics, Fisher's works were largely forgotten after his untimely death. His eclipse came partly because his tone and outlook were primarily satirical—a generation raised on the epic struggles of the civil rights movement looked to writers who tackled big themes. As the twentieth century neared its end, however, Fisher's works were rediscovered by a new generation of readers. Among the first African Americans to write a mystery novel, Fisher was seen as a precursor to such contemporary masters of African-American genre fiction as Walter Mosley. His writing in general was praised for its sharp observations on the social dynamics of New York City's predominantly African-American Harlem neighborhood and its relationship to the still largely white city that surrounded it. In addition to writing fiction, Fisher was also a physician. His works, noted the New York Post, have “a special intelligence and humor and knowledge of life— qualities familiar from such other physician-writers as Anton Chekhov and William Carlos Williams.”
Excelled in School
Fisher did not grow up amid the colorful street life he depicted in his Harlem stories. He was born Rudolph John Chauncey Fisher on May 9, 1897, in Washington, D.C., and raised in Providence, Rhode Island. His father, John Wesley Fisher, was a minister. A top student at Providence's Classical High School, Fisher was one of the few African Americans allowed to follow a rigorous college preparatory curriculum. He graduated with honors in 1915 and was admitted to prestigious Brown University on a scholarship, majoring in English at first but later switching to biology. College friends nicknamed him “Bud” after Mutt and Jeff cartoonist Bud Fisher.
At Brown, Fisher continued to excel academically. He won several oratory (public speaking) prizes, including one, the Caesar Misch Premium, given for a speech in the German language during his freshman year. He also won an intercollegiate oratory contest held at Harvard University. Fisher graduated from Brown in 1919 with a host of honors. He was the commencement speaker and was inducted into three honor societies, including Phi Beta Kappa. Also on stage was Paul Robeson, who went on to a distinguished career as a singer of spirituals and opera; the two exchanged congratulations and promised to keep in touch. Fisher earned a master's degree at Brown in 1920, and then enrolled at Howard University Medical School in Washington, D.C.
At that institution, the flagship of the American network of historically black colleges and universities, he worked his way through the program by serving as an instructor in embryology for four years. Despite his busy schedule, Fisher's creative side began to flower during this period; he arranged music for Robeson and accompanied him on the piano in concert. Fisher finished the program at Howard in 1924, graduating summa cum laude after an internship at Washington's Freedmen's Hospital during his senior year. He married schoolteacher Jane Ryder that year.
In the fall of 1924 Fisher moved to New York, settling in Harlem and winning a research fellowship at the nearby Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. He remained there for two years, doing work in the fields of bacteriology, pathology, and what was then called roentgenology—the study of the technology and uses of Xrays. But he was also furiously at work on a series of short stories that reflected his new milieu. Fisher wrote to Carl Van Vechten, a prominent white patron of African-American literature, about the conflicting demands of his dual careers. The 1925 publication in the Atlantic Monthly of Fisher's first story, “The City of Refuge,” did nothing to resolve his dilemma, for it was critically acclaimed and was included in the influential annual anthology Best Short Stories of 1925.
Explored Harlem Setting
“The City of Refuge,” like many of Fisher's other early stories, explored the migration of Southern blacks to New York City in the 1920s, casting a jaundiced eye on the dreams of the newcomers but never succumbing to bitterness. Its central character is King Solomon Gillis, an African American who has fled to New York to escape a murder charge in North Carolina. Instead of the “city of refuge” of the title, he finds in Harlem a nest of corruption where he is ensnared in a drug dealing operation by con men. Fisher followed up that success with a group of linked stories, The South Lingers On, in which he furthered his observations of the tensions between country and city in African-American society. One story within the set introduced a Southern character, Grammie, who sees Harlem as a place of sin and vice; she was one of a several similar characters to appear in Fisher's fiction.
The South Lingers On was included in the influential 1925 anthology The New Negro (under the new title Vestiges: Harlem Sketches), and Fisher reaped still more honors that year with High Yaller, a story that addressed discrimination based on skin tone within the African-American community. It won the Amy Spingarn fiction contest sponsored by the W.E.B DuBois-edited magazine The Crisis. Fisher's story Ringtail, also published in the Atlantic Monthly, dealt with a different kind of conflict: that between Southern-born blacks and those of Caribbean descent. The story framed blacks' differing reactions to the black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey within the perspective of a love triangle. Other Fisher stories over the next several years were published in mainstream periodicals of the day such as McClure's and Redbook, as well as black-owned newspapers and other publications oriented toward African-American audiences.
In 1926 Fisher's son, Hugh, was born; Fisher dubbed him “the New Negro.” In between his medical studies and responsibilities at home, he found time to critique Van Vechten's novel Nigger Heaven (whose title referred to the segregated balcony seating in movie theaters of the day) before its publication that year. Fisher opened his own medical practice in 1927 and published an article on the response of bacteria to ultraviolet light in the Journal of Infectious Diseases. He also returned to fiction writing with a vengeance, publishing four stories, “The Promised Land,” “Blades of Steel,” “The Backslider,” and “Fire by Night.”
Those stories, loaded with detail about life in Harlem (“The Promised Land,” for instance, depicted a rent party, a paid-admission party with musical entertainment staged in order to help a family pay the monthly rent on its dwelling), attracted white as well as black readers with the windows on black life they offered. Fisher responded to white attention, as well as the more general white fascination with African-American entertainment, in a 1927 nonfiction essay titled “The Caucasian Storms Harlem,” published in the American Mercury magazine edited by humorist and social critic H.L. Mencken. Fisher continued to feel and express tension between his writing and medical careers, but neither seemed to suffer; in 1928 he took a job as a roentgenologist (or radiologist) with the New York City Department of Health.
Fisher's corpus of short stories up to that point had encompassed a wide variety of Harlem characters, from doctors and lawyers to those operating criminal enterprises on the fringes of society. With the literary and cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance at its height, Fisher was challenged by a friend to write a novel that would weave the disparate elements of Harlem society together into a book-length story. The result was The Walls of Jericho (1928), which, in the words of Clifford Thompson of the Black Issues Book Review, “comically but convincingly evokes the worlds of three Harlem strata: educated elite, small-business owners, and rank-and-file workers.” The book was published, at Van Vechten's urging, by the major Knopf publishing house. Its central character is a prosperous black lawyer who suffers ostracism from both whites and blacks when he attempts to move into an all-white neighborhood and enter the upper echelons of white society. Despite its serious theme, the novel is filled with sharp satirical observations of both the black and white characters.
The New York Times reviewed The Walls of Jericho positively, noting that Fisher “writes from the inside. Consequently his piano movers, poolroom hangers-on, gamblers, bootleggers, ‘kitchen mechanics,’ and other colored persons who are still permitted to talk their native dialect— however mixed with the special lingo of Harlem—have authentic quality and carry conviction.”
In 1929 Fisher became superintendent of Manhattan's International Hospital. The following year he joined the U.S. Army and was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the legendary all-black 369th Infantry Regiment, otherwise known as the Harlem Hellfighters. A well-known figure in the black literary scene by that time, he served on the literature committee of the Harlem YMCA and frequently gave lectures at the New York Public Library's 135th Street branch. During this time he was at work on his second novel, The Conjure-Man Dies: A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem. The book was published in 1932, and was one of the first mysteries by an African-American author, and probably the first with an all-black cast of characters. The book tells the story of a police detective and a physician who investigate the possible death of an African king who is moonlighting in Harlem as a fortune-teller and psychiatrist.
After the publication of The Conjure-Man Dies, Fisher wrote several more short stories; two of them, Ezekiel and Ezekiel Learns (both 1933), were for children and featured a 12-year-old boy from Georgia as a central character. In addition, two of his best realizations of the figure of the Southern grandmother coming to terms with the careers of her descendants in the city, “Miss Cynthie” and “Guardian of the Law,” appeared in 1933. Fisher worked on a stage version of The Conjure-Man Dies but began to suffer the symptoms of stomach or intestinal cancer in 1934; the disease was possibly the result of his frequent use of radioactive materials in his X-ray work, undertaken without safeguards in the days before the dangers of radioactivity were fully understood. The stage version of The Conjure-Man Dies was completed by Harlem Renaissance writers Countee Cullen and Arna Bontemps. Fisher died on December 26, 1934, in New York.
Afro-American Writers From the Harlem Renaissance to 1940, Ed. Trudier Harris-Lopez and Thadious M. Davis, Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 51, Detroit: Gale Research, 1987.
American Short-Story Writers, 1910-1945: Second Series, Ed. Bobby Ellen Kimbel, Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 102, Detroit: Gale Research, 1991.
Bontemps, Arna, The Harlem Renaissance Remembered, Dodd, Mead, 1972.
Brown, Sterling, The Negro in American Fiction, Arno, 1969.
Lewis, David Levering, When Harlem Was in Vogue, Penguin, 1997.
Notable Black American Men, Gale, 1998.
The Short Fiction of Rudolph Fisher, edited by Margaret Perry, Greenwood, 1987.
Black Issues Book Review, May-June 2003.
New York Post, February 8, 2001.
New York Times, August 5, 1928.
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2007, http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (December 10, 2007).
“Rudolph Fisher (1897-1934): A Brief Literary Biography,” Perspectives in American Literature (California State University at Stanislaus), http://web.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap9/fisher.html (December 10, 2007).
"Fisher, Rudolph." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 14, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fisher-rudolph-0
"Fisher, Rudolph." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved July 14, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fisher-rudolph-0