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Many years ago when I taught at the University of Alabama, I would attend the Crimson Tide baseball games on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. The wooden bleachers at the stadium had a friendly and informal feel. The crowds were relatively small. The baseball was generally pretty good. All in all, it was an extremely pleasant experience.
One weekend, Alabama hosted the team from Mississippi State, which had an excellent baseball program, and the team brought with them a large and enthusiastic crowd from Starkville, Mississippi, which was only about 60 miles west of Tuscaloosa. The crowd was raucous and friendly, and everyone had a great time. It was one of those times when the outcome of the game seemed not to matter very much at all.
At one point in the game, the Alabama pitcher got into trouble, and as baseball ritual commands, the manager of the team walked slowly out to the mound. At that point, a young man in a tattered tuxedo jumped up in front of the Mississippi State crowd, raised his hands to gain the attention of the crowd, and then began to act like an orchestra director. He would raise his right hand, and the Staters on his right would shout, “Leave him in!” Then he would raise his left hand, and those on his left would shout, “Take him out!” These alternate chants continued until the manager had made his decision and went back to the bench.
It was one of the funniest things I had ever seen at a baseball game. After all these years, I still remember it and smile.
I hope that you remember something that makes you smile and that you have a great weekend.
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Rudolph Fisher, the first African-American mystery writer
Poet Langston Hughes called Rudolph Fisher “the wittiest of these new Negroes of Harlem. He always frightened me a little, because he could think of the most incisively clever things to say, and I could never think of anything to answer.”
Being a sparkling conversationalist was one of the many traits exhibited by this remarkable man, Rudolph Fisher. He was a medical doctor who practiced in Harlem in the 1920s and early 1930s. He was also interested in theater and acting and playwriting, he was a pioneering researcher in the new field of radiology, and he wrote and published 15 short stories in the space of a decade.
Fisher was also a novelist, and that is the main reason why we remember him, if we remember him at all, today. He wrote two novels, one of which is considered to be the first detective novel in the mode of Dashiell Hammett written by an African-American. That novel, The Conjure-Man Dies, was published in 1932.
The novel is set in Harlem in the late 1920s. The police detective at the center of the novel is Black, one of the few Black men in the New York police force at that time, and he and his Black patrol officers can only practice their profession in Harlem. The other main character of the novel is a young doctor, probably patterned on Fisher himself.
The novel is a clever whodunnit that uses a cast of well-drawn Black characters and gives the reader a wide view of life in that section of New York City during those crazy times. It is delightful to read today, and it is a shame that Rudolph Fisher is not more well-known.
Fisher was born in 1897 in New York City and spent his early years there. His father, a Baptist minister, received a new assignment in Providence, Rhode Island, and he moved his family there. It was in that city where Fisher received the bulk of his formal education.
He attended Brown University and graduated from there in 1919. He was selected as one of the students to speak at commencement that year. After that, he went on to receive a master’s degree at Brown University.
He moved to Washington, D.C., where he entered Howard University medical school, and he eventually received his medical degree. He married his high school sweetheart, and they moved back to New York City in the mid-1920s.
Harlem was teeming with life, arts, music, and laughter at the time, and Fisher was a full participant and a keen observer. In addition to his medical practice and research, he achieved success writing short stories. His first story, “The City of Refuge,” was published in The Atlantic magazine in 1925. It was later included in an anthology of the best short stories of the year. (You can read “The City of Refuge” at this link.)
His first novel, The Walls of Jericho, a gentile and incisive satire on life in Harlem, was published in 1928.
The second novel, his mystery published four years later, established his place in American letters.
Because of his interest in radiology, it is likely that Fisher often practiced on himself without realizing fully the dangers that such practice involved. In the early 1930s, he began to have medical problems, and he underwent several operations in an attempt to correct these. Unfortunately, nothing worked.
Fisher died in 1934 at the age of 37. He left behind a wife and a son and a written legacy that has lasted for nearly a century. His novels are as current today as the time in which they were written, and they are still well worth reading.
The Harlem Renaissance is the name given to poets, writers, and artists who emerged in and around Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s. Langston Hughes, the poet, is probably the most well-known of these, but Rudolph Fisher’s name should be prominent among them.
The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce: Bigamy, Bigot, Billingsgate, Birth, Blackguard, Blank-verse
BIGAMY, n. A mistake in taste for which the wisdom of the future will adjudge a punishment called trigamy.
BIGOT, n. One who is obstinately and zealously attached to an opinion that you do not entertain.
BILLINGSGATE, n. The invective of an opponent.
BIRTH, n. The first and direst of all disasters. As to the nature of it there appears to be no uniformity. Castor and Pollux were born from the egg. Pallas came out of a skull. Galatea was once a block of stone. Peresilis, who wrote in the tenth century, avers that he grew up out of the ground where a priest had spilled holy water. It is known that Arimaxus was derived from a hole in the earth, made by a stroke of lightning. Leucomedon was the son of a cavern in Mount Aetna, and I have myself seen a man come out of a wine cellar.
BLACKGUARD, n. A man whose qualities, prepared for display like a box of berries in a market—the fine ones on top—have been opened on the wrong side. An inverted gentleman.
BLANK-VERSE, n. Unrhymed iambic pentameters—the most difficult kind of English verse to write acceptably; a kind, therefore, much affected by those who cannot acceptably write any kind.
The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries. https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”
More writers’ “rules of writing” lists
A writers’ “rules of writing” list is always fun to read.
The quintessential list is that of Elmore Leonard, who has among his rules “never start with the weather” and “leave out the parts that readers will skip.”
The Guardian has recently asked several writers what their rules are, and here are a few highlights:
– Cut (perhaps that should be CUT): only by having no inessential words can every essential word be made to count. (Diana Athill)
– You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine. (Margaret Atwood)
– Do not place a photograph of your favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide. (Roddy Doyle)
– A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk. (Helen Dunmore)
– Don’t write in public places. In the early 1990s I went to live in Paris. The usual writerly reasons: back then, if you were caught writing in a pub in England, you could get your head kicked in, whereas in Paris, dans les cafés . . . Since then I’ve developed an aversion to writing in public. I now think it should be done only in private, like any other lavatorial activity. (Geoff Dyer)
– Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea. (Richard Ford)
– It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction. (Jonathan Franzen)
You can read everyone’s list here in The Guardian.
Hans Holbein: A rare glimpse for Americans
Americans are getting a rare look at the work of one of the great artists of Reformation Europe, Hans Holbein. An exhibit of his works, from portraits to woodcuts to jewelry, was at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles last fall and is now at the Morgan Library in New York City until May 15.
The Morgan Library has produced this video introduction to the exhibit: Holbein: Capturing Character.
The New York Review of Books has a review of the exhibit and a massive biography, The King’s Painter: The Life and Times of Hans Holbein by Franny Moyle. The review was written by Jenny Uglow and says, in part:
Above all, it was Holbein’s verisimilitude that made his contemporaries hold their breath. Truth to life, the uncanny evocation of physical likeness, was admired in fashionable humanist circles . . . .
Finally . . .
This week’s pen and ink: Bridge to the library
Best quote of the week:
Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art. Frederic Chopin, pianist and composer (1810-1849)
If you are looking for a quiet, meditative, non-theological but scriptural podcast to start or close your day, try pray-as-you-go.org. The podcasts are 10-12 minutes long, and they feature beautiful music, a scripture reading, and a very short devotional. It’s a great respite from an otherwise all-too-noisy world.
Helping those in need
Fires in California, freezing weather in Texas, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.
It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).
When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org) is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.
Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.
His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.
Last week’s newsletter: The first female identified as a book author, Antwerp’s golden age, and more on cryptic crosswords: newsletter, March 4, 2022
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