The Walls of Jericho, 1928
The Conjure-Man Dies: A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem, 1932
“The City of Refuge,” 1925
“The South Lingers On,” 1925
“High Yaller,” 1925
“The Promised Land,” 1927
“The Backslider,” 1927
“Blades of Steel,” 1927
“Fire by Night,” 1927
“Common Meter,” 1930
“Ezekiel Learns,” 1933
“Guardian of the Law,” 1933
“Miss Cynthie,” 1933
“John Archer’s Nose,” 1935
The City of Refuge: The Collected Stories, 1987 (John McCluskey, editor)
Joy and Pain, 1996
Conjur’ Man Dies, pr. 1936
Born to the clergyman John Wesley Fisher and Glendora Williamson Fisher in Washington, D.C., Rudolph John Chauncey Fisher was raised in New York and Providence, Rhode Island. He began a dual career as a physician and fiction writer during the Harlem Renaissance. Fisher was an honors student at Classical High School in Providence; he graduated in 1915. He attended Brown University and majored in English, later changing to biology and ultimately graduating with honors in that field. Fisher, who received awards for public speaking during his collegiate years, was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He also earned an M.A. degree at Brown.
Between 1920 and 1924 Fisher pursued medical studies at Howard University Medical School. The year of his graduation he married Jane Ryder, a schoolteacher in Washington, D.C. In 1925 he moved to New York to further his medical career as a fellow at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. From 1925 to 1927, the peak of the Harlem Renaissance, Fisher published the bulk of his short fiction. “The City of Refuge” and “Ringtail” appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, “The South Lingers On” in Survey Graphic, and “High Yaller” in The Crisis. Fisher’s stories address the dilemmas and ironies of Harlem life as well as the continuities and disjunctures of the black southern folk tradition.
Fisher uses the ironic twist as the primary technique for ending his stories. “City of Refuge” concerns a recent arrival to Harlem who is tricked by a hustler into selling narcotics. “The South Lingers On,” a story in five parts, uses vernacular and interrelated segments to show the retention of folk characteristics. The five sections, each ending ironically, suggest a variety of themes explored in other works by the author: religious affiliation, urban employment, traditional values, and generational differences.
Other stories address interracial attitudes. “Ringtail,” whose title signifies an ethnic slur, portrays Cyril Sebastian Best, who considers himself more British than black. He ultimately gains revenge for the abuse he received from an African American. “High Yaller,” which deals with “passing” and revenge, won for Fisher the 1926 Amy Spingarn Prize for fiction.
Fisher’s stories published in 1927 treat adjustments to the urban North as well as class, religion, and nightlife. “The Promised Land” and “Blades of Steel” both appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. In “The Promised Land,” Wesley and Sam, two recent arrivals to the city, both desire the same woman, a dilemma which leads to Wesley’s death. In “Blades of Steel,” jealousy and class differences are developed using the Barbers’ Annual Ball as the setting. Both “The Backslider” and “Fire by Night” explore the conflicts resulting from the collision of secular pursuits and black church values. In a rare nonfiction piece, “The Caucasian Storms Harlem,” published in American Mercury, Fisher also analyzed the racial transformations visible in Harlem nightlife after 1925.
In 1928 Fisher’s first novel, The Walls of Jericho, was published by Knopf. A biting satire of the role of white patronage and the pretensions of black elites, The Walls of Jericho is structured around the romantic relationship of Joshua Jones, a mover for Isaac’s Transportation Company, and Linda, a domestic laborer who works for Agatha Cramp, a wealthy white patron. Descriptions of jazz and popular dance define nightlife and the cultural setting. Musical elements are equally important in “Common Meter,” which depicts a battle of the bands and competition for the desirable black woman.
Fisher’s second novel, The Conjure-Man Dies, the first black detective novel, was published after the Harlem Renaissance. Set in Harlem, it concerns the supposed murder of N’Gana Frimbo, a Harvard-educated African who practices conjuration. The investigating duo, Dr. John Archer, a physician, and Perry Dart, a black police detective, unravel the mysterious death and disappearance of Frimbo, who claims to have come back from the dead. The complex plot includes multiple suspects, disguise, and especially the deductive reasoning of Dr. Archer, who knows that the murderer is usually the least likely suspect. In 1936 the adapted novel was produced by the Lafayette Theater.
Fisher also published a series of stories in the 1930’s. “Ezekiel” and “Ezekiel Learns” are written from the perspective of a young boy who has recently arrived in Harlem. “Guardian of the Law” and “Miss Cynthie” both contain grandmother characters who retain traditional southern values. Fisher’s last published story during the 1930’s, “John Archer’s Nose,” is a detective piece in which Archer and Dart solve the murder of a young Harlem man.
Fisher, a craftsman of short fiction, avoided stereotypes and obvious racial binaries. His ironic and often critical portrayals of Harlem characters contained humor, admiration, and vernacular authenticity.