Rudolph Fisher was born in Washington, DC on May 9, 1897 and reared in Providence, Rhode Island. His parents, John Wesley Fisher, a clergyman, and Glendora Williamson Fisher had three children. This truly Renaissance man was a physician, roentgenology specialist, novelist, short story writer, dramatist, musician, and orator.
Fishers short life (he lived for thirty-seven years) was filled with academic, oratorical, and literary accomplishments. Those achievements began early. In 1915, he graduated from Providences Classical High School with honors. Four years later (1919), he graduated from Brown University with a BA major in English and biology, receiving honors in the latter discipline. A year later he received an MA from Brown.
During his matriculation at Brown, Rudolphs public speaking skills did not go unnoticed. He won the first Caesar Misch Premium (in German) in his freshman year; first prize in the Carpenter Prize speaking Contest in his sophomore year; the Dunn Premium in his junior year; and he delivered one of the three orations at his commencement program. Representing Brown, in 1917, he won first prize at an intercollegiate public speaking contest at Harvard.
In addition to these accomplishments, he was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa, Delta Sigma Rho, and Sigma Xi honorary fraternities. In 1924, Fisher graduated from the Howard University Medical School with highest honors.
Fisher met his future wife, Jane Ryder, a graduate of Miners Teachers College and a grade-school teacher, while in Washington. They met in 1924 and married a year later. Their only son, Hugh, was born in 1926. Rudolph wittily gave his son the nickname, the new Negro.
As a Renaissance figure, Fisher is most noted for his literary works, but he was an accomplished musician. In fact, he was responsible for arranging a number of songs for Paul Robesons first New York concert.
Rudolph Fisher is considered one of the major or key literary figures of the Renaissance. Fisher along with Hughes, Cullen, Hurston, and Thurman made up the core of the young writers who launched the Renaissance movement. He was an active and dominant part of the black literary bohemia that dominated black literature in the 1920s and early 1930s.
In Alain Lockes essay, Negro Youth Speaks, which is in his anthology, The New Negro, he states that Fisher adds tenseness and emotional raciness of Uncle Remus to the art of Maupassant and O. Henry. Two of Fishers short stories, City of Refuge and Vestiges, were included in Lockes anthology. Further assessments of Fishers writing are given in George E. Kents essay in The Harlem Renaissance Remembered (p. 45); Kent states that:
[Fisher], who had the lightest touch of all the Renaissance writers, managed an intermingling of kindly satire and bittersweet tensions in his fiction. It is in such short stories as 'Miss Cynthie,' 'The City of Refuge,' and 'High Yaller' that he achieves a tight form that renders some of the plight of the newly arrived Southern migrant and the tensions of color caste.
Fisher wrote two acclaimed novels in his life. In the first, The Walls of Jericho (1928), he presents a cross section of black life in Harlem. He features the pretentious dickties, the earthy rats, and the various white visitors who frequent the black ghetto. In Conjure-Man Dies (1932), he created the first black detective story. Fisher's fiction gave the reader glimpses of the ordinary blacks living and working in their community.
According to Arthur P. Davis in his review of The Conjure-Man Dies for Opportunity (October 1932), it represents not merely a good 'Negro detective story,' but rather 'is a good detective story.'
In 1925 High Yaller won the Amy Spingarn Short Story Contest sponsored by the Crisis magazine. His short stories, which are the backbone and strength of his literary efforts, were finally assembled into a collected edition, City of Refuge: The Collected Stories of Rudolph Fisher, in 1991. The title for this collection of short stories was taken from the name of Fishers first short story, The City of Refuge, which was published in the February 1925 issue of the Atlantic Monthly.
The effect of those short stories establishes Fisher as an accurate chronicler of the social history of Harlem during the Renaissance. He was very adept at accurately interpreting what he saw as an active participant in the Renaissance. It is obvious that he understood the complexities and demographics of the Harlem ghetto. He was able to convincingly employ the intraracial class and color distinctions prevalent in the black community, effectively incorporate speech patterns through the use of slang, and accurately sketch the plight of the black southern migrants in an effective and comic and humanistic way. The black community and streets of Harlem are vividly drawn with his effective use of the language.
Oliver Henry (p. 150) poignantly describes Fishers appeal to the general reader:
He writes about black people in a manner which expresses their kinship with other peoples. He underscores and highlights the fundamental human condition of black Americans. He captures the historically induced unique qualities of black people; but, and perhaps even more importantly, he writes of them basically as people.
Overall, Fisher makes an honest portrayal of his characters and the community in which they live. There is no attempt to apologize for the actions of his characters or make excuses for their plight in life. The stories are focused on openness and honesty.
Davis, Arthur P. From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers, 1900-1960.Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1974.
Henry, Oliver Louis, Rudolph Fisher: An Evaluation, in The Harlem Renaissance, 1920-1940. Vol. 6, Analysis and Assessment, edited by Cary D. Wintz (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1996).
Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea: An Autobiography. New York: Knopf, 1940.
Kent, George E., Patterns of the Harlem Renaissance, in The Harlem Renaissance Remembered, edited by Arna Bontemps (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1972).
Locke, Alain LeRoy, Negro Youth Speaks, in The New Negro, edited by Alain Locke (New York: A. and C. Boni, 1925).
Tigor, Eleanor Q, Rudolph Fisher, in Dictionary of Literary Biography. vol. 51, Afro-American Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940, edited by Trudier Harris (Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1987).
The Conjure-Man Dies: A Mystery Tale of dark Harlem. New york: Covici-Friede, 1932.
McCluskey, John A., Jr. (editor). City of Refuge: The Collected Stories of Rudolph Fisher. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1991.
The Walls of Jericho. New York: Knopf, 1928.
Four unpublished stories and a modified version of a published story are in the Brown University Archives, Providence, Rhode Island
Photo credit: Portrait of Rudolph Fisher, not dated, photographer unknown. Reproduced with permission, Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.
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The Black Renaissance in Washington, D.C., 1920-1930s
http://www.dclibrary.org/blkren/ | last updated June 20, 2003