Published in 1928, Rudolph Fisher's The Walls of Jericho presents a rich panorama of social classes in the late 1920s. The novel centers on the evolving relationship between Shine, a piano mover, and Linda, an ambitious maid. Shine's need for his tough-guy exterior, so important for his survival among the “rats,” thwarts his feelings for Linda and the confrontation with his own past. An often bemused narrator deftly sketches the choreography of the couple's relationship, movements that summon forth themes of futile vengeance and self-delusion. Shine's conflict is made clear when a minister eloquently shapes the biblical story of Joshua and the walls of Jericho. With the words haunting him afterward, Shine can finally proclaim: “The guy that's really hard is the guy that's hard enough to be soft.”
Fisher's comedy is genial here, his satire even-handed. As comic counterpoint throughout, Jinx and Bubber, coworkers with Shine, voice the irreverent views of the street crowd on a wide range of subjects. The African American bourgeoisie, no less than the white, liberal professional class, comes in for criticism, especially in the longest scene of the novel, the General Improvement Association costume ball. Fisher focuses his judicious satire on the deluded attempts at an easy racial harmony. Society woman Agatha Cramp bears much of the weight of this critique. Pomposity and aloofness are spoofed with quick and telling strokes.
At the novel's end, Shine and Linda have drawn much closer. Merrit, the black-and-blond lawyer who has briefly and mischievously passed for white at the costume ball, will help Shine start his own trucking company. Thus rifts within the African American community, rifts predicated on delusions generated by caste and class, are healed for the moment.
Few other writers employed satire and comedy with much consistency during the Harlem Renaissance. Fisher's shadings are more optimistic than those of Wallace Thurman (The Infants of the Spring, 1932) and less caustic than those of George S. Schuyler (Black No More, 1931). As with his second novel (The Conjure Man Dies, 1932) and his body of short fiction, Fisher's achievement was the affection, close criticism, and symmetry he brought to his portraits of the African American encounter with the modern city.
Leonard J. Deutsch, “Rudolph Fisher's Unpublished Manuscripts: Description and Commentary,” Obsidian 6 (Spring/Summer 1980): 82–97.John McCluskey, Jr., ed., intro-duction to The City of Refuge: The Collected Stories of Rudolph Fisher, 1987.
John McCluskey, Jr.