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Bet You Don’t Know George Ade

Rediscovering a great Hoosier humorist

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Imagine a college football stadium named after humorist James Thurber or playwright David Mamet.

Improbable, you say. It is Europe, not America, where public buildings are named after artists; there’s a Paris Metro station named after Victor Hugo, for example, but no Scott Fitzgerald Airport in St. Paul, Minnesota, where the author of The Great Gatsby was born.

Indiana is an exception to this rule. In West Lafayette you will find Ross-Ade Stadium, named in part after George Ade, a Purdue alum who rose to prominence with short humorous pieces in a new key, then made serious money on Broadway, some of which funded the stadium’s construction.

True, the stadium is named after Ade in his role as benefactor, not leading practitioner of what I call the Midwestern Smart-Aleck School of American Humor. But in the particularly un-remunerative field of short-form literary comedy, he’s all we’ve got.

Ade is largely forgotten now—certainly by football fans—but he was an innovator who held a mirror up to American social climbers, first-generation college boys, and love-struck maidens with a genial humor that hasn’t aged more than a century later.

Born in Kentland, Indiana in 1866, Ade became a Chicago newspaperman in 1890 and was soon a columnist, penning Stories of the Streets and of the Town. One day, out of newsworthy subjects, he decided to write a fable, retaining the traditional format of Aesop but filling up that ancient vessel with the language and people of his time. (Warning to budding journalists: this is probably a firing offense nowadays, as current Morning Joe contributor Mike Barnicle discovered when he took a creative writing approach to what was supposed to be a factual column for The Boston Globe.)

Ade began to refer to these short pieces by a functional label “Fables in Slang” because that’s what they were. To each was appended an oblique moral that summed up Ade’s ambivalence to the clash between traditional morals and new-fangled temptations. Those snapshots of urban life, illustrated by his wry Purdue classmate John T. McCutcheon, documented the transformation of America from a rural society to an urban one; the rubes who showed up on the streets of the Windy City in Ade’s tales–and the sharpies who took advantage of them–were comic incarnations of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and her paramour.

Ade was a humanist, putting his characters on the page and letting them work out their small-beer destinies without invidious distinctions between ethic groups; predecessors such as Bret Harte and Joel Chandler Harris had depended on dialect and stereotypes, but Ade wrote in the plain-spoken tongue that would become the American speech of the twentieth century. In this regard, he may be regarded as the first modern humorist in our literature.

By comparison, reading the dialect tales of early 19th century humorists such as Josh Billings or Artemus Ward is like wading through waist-high underbrush without a mower. The “slang” of Ade’s tales consists of the pretentious clichés and euphemisms of his subjects, capitalized in the manner of a morality tale to give an ironic view of the dignity its speakers assumed their rhetorical flourishes lent to their speech.

To give an example, in one fable Ade tells the story of a high-minded cultural conclave of the type that survives in current-day book groups; once folks have gathered together to listen to classical music and discuss Literature (as Ade would punctuate it), they soon become bored and begin to play the 19th century version of rhythm ‘n blues, featuring a lyric of low-down life on the wrong side of the tracks.

On the stage, Ade refuted the theorem of George S. Kaufman (author of several Marx Brothers screenplays) that “Satire is what closes on Saturday night,” an epigram that expressed Kaufman’s doubts about America’s capacity to laugh at itself. Sultan of Sulu: A Satire in Two Acts, was one of the most popular operettas of its time, touring for five years after a long Broadway run.

Ade was admired by Mark Twain during his life, and by novelists as accomplished as Thomas Berger, the author of Little Big Man, after his death. Berger tried his hand at Ade-like fables for a men’s magazine in the 70s, which he penned “with apologies” to Ade, conceding that he hadn’t surpassed the master.

If Ade is forgotten now it is because, like his fellow Chicago newspaperman Ring Lardner, he worked in a short form that critics don’t take seriously. He never wrote a Novel You Could Sell by the Pound (I seek to flatter Ade by imitating him), preferring to entertain his audiences rather than improve them.

In Portage, Indiana, beside the eastbound lanes of the Indiana Toll Road, you will find the George Ade Travel Plaza, a humble memorial to a man who was no doubt pleased to see his name on a grander edifice at his alma mater, but who would nonetheless be amused to find himself honored by such a pedestrian structure.

I lived in Worcester, Massachusetts in the mid-70s at a time when its rough Irish “Main South” neighborhood was turning into a more polyglot district. As the aging Irish immigrants died or left their “triple-decker” apartments for nursing homes, the used book stores in town began to fill up with Ade’s fables, a testimony to his popularity among working class readers at a time when a prime source of entertainment among such folks was still the printed word.

When I die, the volumes I purchased back then will go by will to the State of Indiana to be preserved at Ade’s Travel Plaza. My wish while I’m alive is that you’ll give Ade a try, and get some laughs from a writer whose current obscurity is undeserved.

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Ross-Ade Stadium photo by Tstuddud at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.

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2 Responses to Bet You Don’t Know George Ade

  1. Pingback: Boilermakings Is Talking Week 3 Blogpoll, Night Games – Boiler Up Nation – Purdue Boilermakers

  2. Robert Morse says:

    I became aware of George Ade in the late 60’s while listening to Jean Shepherd on WOR-AM out of New York. He used to read Ade’s fables on the air from time to time. Shepherd, also from Indiana, edited a collection of Ade’s work called The America of George Ade. Shepherd thought quite highly of Ade, seeing him as the father of modern American humor. He also wrote about Ade’s knack for capturing the lives of everyday people, those not normally written about. As for Hoosier humorists writing in the short form, I’d have to add Shepherd himself to that list.

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