(Short Story Criticism)

Fisher, Rudolph 1897-1934

American novelist, short story writer, and playwright.

With the publication of "The City of Refuge" and "Ringtail" in Atlantic Monthly in 1925, Rudolph Fisher became the first Harlem Renaissance writer to break into mainstream publishing. Considered the most able writer of this new wave of African American authors, Fisher wrote two well-received novels, The Walls of Jericho (1928) and The Conjure Man Dies (1932), in addition to more than a dozen short stories. The Conjure Man Dies was the first detective novel written by an African American, and was later made into a stage play, Conjur' Man Dies (1936). Writing was not Fisher's primary occupation; he was also a wellrespected physician whose scientific articles on the effects of ultraviolet rays on bacteria were published in medical journals during his lifetime. Fisher practiced medicine for all of his adult life, while simultaneously writing fiction. At the time of his early death at age 37, critics agreed that Fisher had yet to realize the full potential of his talent.

Biographical Information

Rudolph "Bud" Fisher was born into the black bourgeoisie of Washington, D.C. on May 9, 1897. He spent his childhood in various cities along the East Coast, as his father, who was a Baptist minister, moved the family each time he was assigned to a new parish. The family eventually settled in Providence, Rhode Island, where Fisher later attended Brown University. There he was awarded several academic prizes in addition to earning his B.A. in English and his M.A in biology. His talent and passion for both literature and biology were evident then, and the prizes he won ranged over subjects as diverse as German, composition, and public speaking. From Brown, Fisher moved on to Howard University Medical School, the only class A medical school in the United States for African Americans at that time. It was during his senior year at Howard that Fisher began work on his first short story, "The City of Refuge," which he submitted to the Atlantic Monthly in the spring of 1924. Also in 1924, Fisher met Jane Ryder, an elementary school teacher who he married the following year. In 1925 Fisher was awarded a National Research Council Fellowship to study bacteriology at Columbia University in New York City, and relocated to New York with his wife. He remained a New Yorker for the rest of his life, and established a private radiology practice on Long Island that relied on patient referrals from Harlem.

From the time of the publication of "The City of Refuge," Fisher continued to write short stories and sketches, including "The South Lingers On," "Ringtail," (also published in the Atlantic Monthly) and "High Yaller" (Crisis, 1925). The last of these won the Amy Spingarn Prize for fiction in 1926. By this time, Fisher had become friends with other influential figures of the Harlem Renaissance, among them singer Paul Robeson and writer Langston Hughes, with whom he collaborated on a project that set traditional Negro folk songs in a series of skits that were to be performed by Paul Robeson. The project was never realized because Robeson found success on the London stage and declined to return to America. During the later part of the 1920s and the early 1930s, Fisher spent much of his leisure time exploring Harlem's nightclubs, speakeasies, and theatres, observing the styles and customs of Harlem's denizens. It is clear that Fisher became quite familiar with the dance and theatre crowd, and used his understanding of those people to create the vivid, dynamic characters that populate his short stories. This understanding was also parlayed into stories and essays that captured the essence of Harlem in all its complexities and contradictions, in turn earning Fisher the reputation of "Harlem's interpreter."

Unfortunately, Fisher's life was unexpectedly cut short at the age of 37, when, after undergoing three operations for a stomach disorder, he died of complications on December 26, 1934. His loss was deeply felt in the African American community, and expressions of grief and sympathy poured into Harlem from across the country. Summing up the reaction of many, Zora Neale Hurston lamented in a telegram to Fisher's wife: "The world has lost a genius, you have lost a husband, and I have lost a friend."

Major Works of Short Fiction

In "The City of Refuge" Fisher began exploring themes that dominated many of his later works: the rural immigrant's adjustment to the city; race relations; tension between social classes; and "passing," which is when an African American is mistaken for white, or vice versa. This last theme, which was of great interest to Fisher, is predominant in "High Yaller" and "The Man Who Passed" (unpublished). Religious characters, most often in the form of a grandmother figure, appear throughout Fisher's short fiction as links to the traditional values of the past—a connection repeatedly placed in jeopardy by the sinful nature of Harlem. One such grandmother is the protagonist of what is probably Fisher's most widely anthologized story, "Miss Cynthie" (Story, 1933). Miss Cynthie attempts to protect her grandchild from the perils of Harlem, especially nightclubs, dancing, and jazz. Always present in Fisher's fiction are vivid descriptions of the multi-racial composition of Harlem—its sights, sounds, and people—portrayed clearly by the varied dialects and the jazz and blues music Fisher knew so well. Music plays an integral part of several of his stories, setting the mood or acting as a refrain that comments upon the action, as is seen in "Common Meter" (Negro News Syndicate 1930) and "Blades of Steel" (Atlantic Monthly 1927).

Critical Reception

Criticism on Fisher's work prior to 1987—when the first collection of his short stories was compiled—was focused on his most anthologized stories: "The City of Refuge" and "Miss Cynthie." John McCluskey, in the Introduction to one of the collections (The City of Refuge, 1987) asserts that each belongs to a different "movement" prevalent in Fisher's short fiction, and identifies the movements as "The Quest" and "The New Land." The first, characterized by "The City of Refuge," deals with newly arrived Southerners' first experiences in Harlem. The characters bring with them a great sense of hope, which they struggle to maintain in the callous environment of Harlem. The second movement turns inward as the characters now struggle to maintain personal integrity and to reconcile their traditional upbringing with the "sinful" practices of the city. The challenges these characters face form the basis of Fisher's short fiction.

In all of his stories, Fisher writes about immigrants, musicians, and the poor of Harlem. In his time, critics chastised him for not writing about African Americans of his own bourgeois class. W. E. B. Du Bois wrote to that effect in a 1928 review of The Walls of Jericho, asking why characters more like Fisher's actual Harlem friends (doctors, writers, and educators) never appear in his fiction. Countering that criticism, Wallace Thurman commented that "The entire universe is the writer's province and so are all the people therein" ["High, Low, Past and Present," Harlem 1928], and argued that it was silly for Du Bois to decree that African American writers should write about one class and not another. Both concur, however, that Fisher wrote remarkably well, and that in his descriptions of the era's Harlemites he managed to capture the elusive essence of the times.

More recent criticism tends to focus on the themes and characters of Fisher's work, including the issues of race and class, and the character of the grandmother. Much has been said about the plight of the rural southern immigrant newly arrived to the city and about the importance of the stock scene of the cabaret or dance hall. The latter is seen as a means to incorporate the African American vernacular and folk traditions into the stories. Other interpretations of his work are still emerging as it gains new attention in the 1990s. Still, critics agree that Fisher was the writer who best captured the essence of Harlem during its most vital period, deftly exploring the tensions of class and color that played beneath the surface in such stories as "High Yaller," "Blades of Steel," and "Common Meter." His understanding of Harlem and its people, and his love of blues and jazz, gave Fisher the background necessary to become Harlem's pre-eminent interpreter.