Shep was the Editor, and wrote the Preface and Introduction.
ONE NIGHT after a broadcast on which I had performed one of the lesser-known Fables by George Ade, I took a phone call which turned out to be from S. J. Perelman. He was practically in tears. We exchanged Adeisms for over an hour. It was his considered opinion that Ade was undoubtedly one of the greatest humorists, if not the most outstanding, humorist, America has yet come up with. And what's more, that it was truly sad and ridiculous that the Great Man had become merely a three-letter word meaning "Indiana Humorist" in the New York Times Sunday Crossword Puzzle. A couple of nights later at a late supper in Dinty Moore's, near Broadway, we continued what we had begun over the phone. In addition to remarking on the excellence of the blueberry cheese cake we were consuming, Perelman, in the flush of orgiastic pleasure, went on to say that he felt that Ade had influenced all of the 20th Century American humorists in one way or another and had written about blueberry pie and ice cream as no one ever had or will again.
Up to this point I had felt that Ade was a private little crotchet of my own that I had best conceal from my more literate friends, to be secretly enjoyed when no one was looking, along with other vices such as White Sox shortstops, G-8 And His Battle Aces, old movies starring Merle Oberon, and red cabbage (sweet-sour). After hearing from Sid Perelman, I began to nose around among my other colleagues in the vineyards and immediately uncovered others who lived by Ade's advice, "Don't try to Account for Anything." Among them is the wildly talented cartoonist-writer Shel Silverstein, who supplied me with several rare volumes of Ade to add to the present collection.
I will not pretend that putting together this volume of what I consider the best of Ade was even remotely related to work. Time and again I got hung up reading selections to my friends late at night until I'm sure they couldn't tell whether I was doing a book or getting together a vaudeville act. One more thing: since most of the material in this volume has not been reprinted since the very early days of the century, I hope that a critical reevaluation of Ade will now be possible and that later generations of Americans will not only get huge enjoyment from reading Ade, but will understand American life better by having seen it through the eyes of one of the sharpest and most realistic commentators we have ever produced.
"D.H. Lawrence once observed that the American writer is obsessed with the idea of doom and futility. He singled out Melville as a good case in point and noted that Poe could only have been an American. Hemingway, Wolfe, Dos Passos, and Salinger all are marked by the same dark broodings. In spite of the comment by Dore Schary to the effect that "America is a land of happy endings..." we all share a secret knowledge that while happy endings are probably what everyone else will inherit, we ourselves are somehow destined for an unnamable Something at the end. Perhaps this springs from the essential loneliness of American life, which has only been aggravated by The Electronic Age and the Big Eye of TV. No one knows for certain. But we do know that almost from the very beginnings of American writing, the best documenters of the native scene have fought the battle of the lonely and the hunted. The way in which this struggle has been carried on has varied depending on the geographical environment of the individual combatant; the vastness and wildness of our continent has produced a dozen cultures or more and they all have their chroniclers, who speak with the accents of Mobile or Boston, Asheville or Chicago. But all are bound by the single theme of the individual trying to find his place in a vast maze with walls forever changing and rules that disappear before they are even understood.
Eugene Gant, Holden Caulfield, and Ahab were all blood brothers. The Great Gatsby, wandering through his Long Island parties always alone in the midst of revelry, personified The American. He was beaten by his white whale too, and Nick said about all that could be said when Gatsby's coffin was lowered into the rain-soaked American earth at a funeral no one had time to attend: "The poor son of a bitch". He might as well have been speaking of Willy Loman, who never did get that Big Final Order or really learn the territory. Kerouac's Dean Moriarity, meandering off into the night lit only by the buzzing neon lights of The West Side, was fighting the same nebulous war that James Jones Private Prewitt fought and lost too. The list goes on almost endlessly since there are 180 million American wanderers. We secretly feel that we are about to be lowered into a lonely grave unsung to be forgotten in three weeks or three minutes. The knowledge that we are all in it together does make it easier to take, if not more understandable.
Some writers weep over the plight of man while others laugh. Many more ignore it all together and become wealthy. It takes a particularly wide perspective and more than the usual amount of love of mankind to be able to laugh. It also involves a certain quality of detachment. And that is where George Ade and the Midwest fit into the literary battle of the individual caught in the maze.
To understand how Ade got to be Ade one has to know something of the peculiar air of the Midwest which has molded most of the American humorists from Twain to Thurber by way of Cobb and Tarkington. While the South has been drenched with Decadence, the Midwest has been swimming in a turgid sea of Futility. It is dotted with cities and towns that have never quite made it. Toledos that want to be Detroits, Detroits that want to be Chicagos, and Chicagos that forever want to be New York . And they all know they running in a race that is fixed.
Between these major metropoli lie countless hamlets whose only ambition is to become incorporated and to beat the County Seat at softball. In Monon, Indiana, the roar of trucks rushing towards Chicago in the night far to the north is mingled with the thunder of the trains boring though the dark bound for Cincinnati to the south. No one stops at Monon except for a load of gasoline. As fast as is humanly possible the young of the town depart for Indianapolis where they learn in the first ten minutes after getting off the Greyhound bus, that the really live ones go to Chicago. And upon hitting Chicago there is no place to go but New York. And always, binding it all together, are the long brooding Midwestern winters and languid summers.
Spring came to my northern Indiana town when my father, coming home from work all sweaty in his dark serge winter suit, would say in the kitchen, "Let's eat fast and hop in the car and go down to The Lake and watch The Mill." Half an hour later we would be parked in the car looking out over the dark oily waters of Lake Michigan, with the sullen red fires of the blast furnaces and the snaky white-hot ribbons of steel in the merchant mill lighting up the sky and making all our faces look dark red and shifting black. The air was alive with spring and the fishy lake and the huge soap factory a half mile up the shore. Ten minutes down the highway the new tomato plants and spring corn lay in the dark. The old man would say "ain't that sumpin," and we would toss our ice cream sticks out the window and head for home. Lying in bed later, with the bedroom windows open to catch the breeze, the endless sounds of trains going away seemed as natural as dropping off to sleep.
The thing about the Midwest is that hardly anybody really feels part of something. Everyone is always leaving. No one ever comes except on business or to see ailing relatives. The city is too close to the farm, while beyond the last Burma Shave sign the prairie rolls flat as a tabletop endlessly to the horizon. Everywhere are evidences of faded ambitions and forlorn whistles in the dark. One newspaper loudly proclaims itself "The World's Greatest Newspaper," and they believe it. Plans go forward for the construction of "the World's First Mile High Skyscraper." No one quite knows what will go into it. Or cares, for that matter. And all the while catfish swim in the slow coffee brown rivers and the snowball bushes line the porches in Bloomington. It is this incongruity that produces men who are compelled by secret dark inner urges to warn of the futility of the sad earthly posturing of Man. Of these there are two very common Midwestern types: the Humorist and the hellfire fundamentalist Evangelist. They both often say the same things, and for identical reasons. And, significantly enough, usually distrust each other mightily. Laughter always has been suspect, especially to the pious. While on the other hand, booming oratory, which is to the pious as rich food and nourishing (non-alcoholic) drink , is to the humorist the sound of air escaping from a balloon held by a somewhat backward but aggressive child.
Anyone who spends much time in small Midwestern community will constantly come into contact with both types of performer. Ade himself pointed out in an essay on Indiana that humorists of the nonprofessional but practicing variety can be found every few feet along Main Street. Most of them got that way out of self-protection since the spaces between them are filled with preachers. Almost all of their humor is of the school of Futility rather than the school of the Tall Tale of earlier frontier days. Futility, and the usual triumph of evil over good. Which is another name for realism.
I recall a southern Indiana man once telling me about Aunt Mary and Yaller-Eye Sparks. At the time we were fishing for bluegills in the Little Miami near the Kentucky border. I will tell it in his words: "Aunt Mary was a tall angry woman I lived with when I was a boy. She never wore anything but long Mother Hubbard dresses and had her hair done up in a bun that was as hard as a spring green apple. Well, sir, you never heard anything like her in your life. She talked in nothing but quotations from the Bible and since I was just a kid that made quite a dent in me. I could see angels in every cloud and the devil with a forked tail lived right behind the poolroom. Well in those days there was a man named Yaller-Eye Sparks who was the Town Drunk and clearly damned to hell. He was tall and handsome with a big set of walrus moustaches and he used to walk right down the middle of the road on Saturday night singing out loud to himself. Not many people did that back home. Well, I can still see Aunt Mary standing by the window watching old Yaller-Eye go past, saying in her hymn-singing voice so's I wouldn't mistake that she meant it, "There goes Yaller-Eye Sparks with the Devil in him. He is doomed! DOOMED! The devil will take him to hell before next planting!" Well, sir, Yaller-Eye and Aunt Mary were about the same age I guess. For years and years Aunt Mary kept up her prophesying and Yaller-Eye continued to drink and sing just as if he didn't know that the devil was hiding behind every bush awaiting to throw the net over him. One day she up and died of a fit after getting all riled up at the Spring Revival. She was about seventy at the time. Well, sir, Yaller-Eye lived to be 102, and was the oldest man in the county when he passed on one day after he got hit by the afternoon mail sack from off the Chicago Flyer. He never missed watching the trains go through. I remember the reporter from the county paper couldn't find him the day he came down to interview him on how come he had lived to be a hundred. Yaller-Eye was sleeping off a Saturday night under his porch at the time, and he was fit to be tied when he read in the paper the next week that he attributed his old age to Clean Living and Prayer. Plus one cigar per week. Anyway, everyone was surprised when he up and died like that, since he had been getting hit by that mail sack now and again ever since they put the Chicago Flyer on, back in the Nineties. Everyone figured he went before his time, so I guess Aunt Mary was right in the end." After which he smiled and continued to watch his bobber.
The important thing here is that these were real people. Aunt Mary and Yaller-Eye were not fiction, and what happened to them really happened. It is wise to note that the man who told the story obviously loved both of them. This is a characteristic of all true humor, and particularly of Ade's. The philosophy of Ade is a reassuring one, since everywhere there is the deep compassion of a man who has been there and seen it.
There are no heroes or noble figures in Ade. All are subject to the same trivial emotions and continual tiny frustrations, rich and poor alike. Ade, as has no one, before or since, chronicled the Great Unchronicled. Those who are totally unimportant. So profoundly insignificant that they hardly exist so far as literature is concerned. Those to whom nothing ever really happens. No tragedy or comedy. No romances or Great Loves. Those who settle for what they get and quietly move on. Which means most of us, in the end. He told better than anyone the stories of the lonely men who live out their lives in third-rate hotels and sit in lobbies watching bell boys carry bags, and whose chief reading matter is tabloid papers and blue-plate menus. Of the Agneses, who live across the street from the town belles, and who do piano finger exercises while the house across the street is all lit up. These are not the people who become dope addicts or commit suicide or even wind up pleasantly neurotic and hence characters in a play or novel. They are the Great Non-Existent. He often summed up in a phrase their whole way of life. "Once there was a lover who was on The Ragged Edge of the Desert Where Old Batchelors Live." Offhand I can't recall it being better said anywhere.
Here is another typical George Ade person, whom I've never met in any novel or play but have known intimately since I went to school with her, and have met in endless offices ever since in a dozen cities. "Once upon a Time there was a slim Girl with a Forehead which was Shiny and Protuberant, like a Bartlett Pear. When asked to put Something in an Autograph Album she invariably wrote the Following, in a tall, dislocated Back-Hand:
"Life is Real; Life is Earnest, And the Grave is not its Goal."
That's the kind of Girl she was. Yes I know, I remember. What happened to her? You guess. But whatever did or did not happen is exactly true to life. And this is a key to Ade as well as any other true humorist. Ade always maintained that he was not a humorist but a realist. He reported on what he saw in life and not what he imagined. The Fable of the Caddy Who Hurt His Head While Thinking is a remarkable piece of work and a prime example of Ade at his best. Read it twice and then ask yourself why it is funny. Or is it funny at all? The third time over reads like a synopsis of The Death of a Salesman. The Caddy's father is right in there pitching with Willy Loman and William O. Gant. The caddy grew up to be Prewitt.
Another facet of Ade which I find fascinating is his superb reporting of Culture to Bird Center. The great shift from a farm-frontier society to the beginnings of the present homogeneous mass-urban complex that has swept over the country since the turn of the century. Since Ade lived in the primitive Indiana of the '70's and '80's as well as the roaring Chicago of the '90's and 1900's he was able to give an accurate first hand account. In his Fables which appeared in the old Chicago Record this theme continually reappeared and was always hilarious. Culture was usually being foisted off on the men by ambitious dreaming women. Here is a description of a typical Ade Culture-victim in a small Indiana town of the '90's:
Once there was a Happy Family that began to get a few hard Bumps when Ma bought a Work on Etiquette. Up to that time the Outfit had not tried to throw on any Lugs. The Male Contingent slouched around the House in their Shirt-Sleeves, while the Girls often came to Breakfast in their Balloon-Wrappers, and never thought of Primping until about 3P.M. Father had an assortment of Rube Table Manners left over from his early Experience on the Farm.
He never saw the sense of changing Knives when he hacked into the Butter, and as for using the side of the Spoon, he never could get the Hang of it.
Up to the Time that he married and became House-broke he had been a Sword-Swallower in a $4 Beanery. For years he up-ended his Soup-Plate so as to get all that was coming to him, and cooled his coffee in the Saucer, and concluded his Exhibition of Barbaric Sports by using a large limber piece of Bread as a Mop." The extreme logicality of calling a certain type of eating "one of The Barbaric Sports" is pure Ade again. And his people are true. I myself had an Uncle named Carl who was a typical Chicago Primitive. He wore false teeth that had been given to him by theáRelief People. This was in the Depression days and Relief was a big thing. Carl had gone on Relief as soon as he got wind of it. It was made for him. Among other things such as canned radishes and pickled sweet potatoes, they had presented him with a set of store teeth. His cup was fairly full until a sad thing happened. One day his wife, Aunt Min by name, in a fit of pique threw the false teeth down the air shaft and forever into oblivion. Carl just sat there stunned for a while, until the White Sox ball game came on the radio and took his mind off his nakedness. He never got another pair of teeth and the incident was never mentioned again in Carl's presence. But as a kid, I was always fascinated by the way he gummed his Indiana corn when he came to our house for dinner. This is a typical setback of the sort that Ade was constantly reporting. I mention it here only to show that Ade's Midwesterners were not unique nor imaginary.
Ade's life was of a sort that will never again occur in America. He was born in Kentland, Indiana in 1866. Kentland today is known only as a town where the Greyhound bus stops over for twenty minutes while the passengers stoke up on diner food before continuing on to Chicago from Indianapolis or Cincinnati to the south. In 1866 it was as isolated from the rest of the world as Antarctica. Even though Chicago was only 80 miles away it might as well have been in Europe as far as Kentland was concerned. According to records of the time there were about 600 people in Kentland, which isn't a great deal less than are living there today. His family included three boys and three girls, a normal hard-pinched father, and a mother whom Ade worshiped all of his life. One day in 1883, a day which he later celebrated in several fables, George boarded the train for Lafayette, Indiana and Purdue University, a brand new fresh-water institution, for a shot of higher education. It was at Purdue that he met John McCutcheon, who became his life-long friend and collaborator. It is not on record that Ade got much of an education at Purdue itself, but obviously Lafayette, with its theatrical road companies, vaudeville shows, and 15,000 people, was heady stuff to Ade. It taught him a lot. He became fascinated by the theatre and show people and for the rest of his life was impressed by actors and performers of all sorts. This, needless to add, is still happening to sophomores in Lafayette. The Midwesterner practically by definition is a born Audience Member. When in the outside world he feels he is eternally a guest, allowed only to participate in the proceedings because of the politeness of those around him. Or because they aren't on to him yet. In this respect Ade was a true Midwesterner. Although he was proud of his birthright he was very conscious of it and wrote numerous articles in his later days defending and explaining Indiana.
After graduation Ade remained in Lafayette in order to study law in a law office. Six weeks of this convinced Ade that he would never make it as lawyer. The law profoundly bored him, but the experience later turned up in several excellent fables. He quit, and went to work as a reporter for a struggling Lafayette paper which shortly thereafter collapsed and died. Then came a job with a patent medicine company where he promptly made his first contribution to the language by naming a laxative "Cascarets," and coming up with a slogan for the product that is still around: "They Work While You Sleep." As with everything else he did during these days, the incident popped up in one of the fables. In 1890, the patent medicine job went the way of all jobs, so Ade packed off to Chicago where McCutcheon was working on the Morning News (later called the Chicago Record) as a cartoonist. McCutcheon talked the editor, Charles Dennis, into giving Ade a trial and he went to work. He began by writing a daily weather report which very shortly became a popular feature of the paper. Ade was a born reporter who obviously loved his work. In addition, Chicago was an ideal town for anyone who enjoyed watching the old parade go over the cliff with all flags flying daily. And it still is. In the 90's, Chicago was a wide-open city not much different from what Nelson Algren described as "...the place built out of Man's ceaseless failure to overcome himself." Saloons and crooked aldermen, opera houses and ladies of interesting reputations, elderly boxers and packing-fortune dowagers, all were in plain sight for anyone with eyes. And if anyone ever had a pair of eyes it was George Ade. He dug in, and within a year was one of the best reporters in a town that had some good ones. His style was distinctive and began to be really noticed by readers and rival newsmen. He covered fights and elections, murders and scandals, and in short, had a pretty good opportunity to see what sort of ball game we are all playing. One of his achievements of this period was the covering of the famous Sullivan-Corbett fight in New Orleans. His accounts of this epic battle raised circulation of his paper drastically and were the talk of Chicago.
In 1893 his first "Stories of the Streets and of the Town" appeared. These unsigned pieces were about anything that Ade saw, felt, or smelled, that he wanted to write about. It was a great opportunity for Ade to say a lot of things that no one else was saying. Even the Literary Set at the University of Chicago began to talk about what was happening in The Record every morning. The columns were illustrated by his friend McCutcheon who accompanied Ade on his daily roamings over the city looking for things to write about. Many of the pieces were written in short story form, others in an odd fictional essay style which later evolved into the Fables.
He experimented constantly, and the push of a daily deadline forced him to be completely unselfconscious. He wrote rapidly and rarely rewrote a line, and almost every column varied in form from the one before it. It is too bad that there are few outlets today that can give a writer such freedom and yet impose work discipline. This daily drive allowed a sort of free-swinging guttiness to come into his work of the sort which seems almost impossible to develop today.
In September of 1897 Ade turned out his first Fable in Slang. The Fable of Sister Mae Who Did As Well As Could Be Expected was the first of the lot. He later said that he was just sitting unsuspectingly in front of a sheet of paper when the innocent idea came to him to write something in fable form using the language and cliches of the moment. In other words, slang. He said that in order to let people know that he knew better than to use slang in writing, he decided to capitalize all suspicious words and phrases. He was mortally afraid people would think he was illiterate. In any event, Sister Mae did much better than Ade expected, but he had no idea of doing more fables. But talk persisted around town about his first fable, so a few months later he began to turn them out regularly. In spite of his qualms about using slang, he loved writing them. The enjoyment he got from doing them is obvious when they are read. They made such a hit locally with the Record readers that a Chicago publisher decided to bring out a collection to be called, logically, Fables in Slang.
It was issued in December of 1899, and within a short time, people all over the country were using Ade phrases and words. Practically overnight he became a national institution. William Dean Howells, the leading literary sage of the era, said, "his portrayal of life is almost absolute." To be approved by what Ade called the Serious Literary People meant a great deal to him so he was really encouraged to get to work.
Victor Lawson, the publisher of The Record, syndicated Ade in papers across the country after the success of the first collection of Fables. Late in 1900, More Fables in Slang appeared. It also sold enormously well and by the end of the year Ade was earning more than a $1000 a week. His brother, back home, was investing his surplus cash in Indiana farmland which George felt would always be there even when the rains came. Typical of a Midwestern success, he never quite believed it had all really happened. Like Scott Fitzgerald of a generation later, he always felt he was looking through the windows at the parties he saw.
This was particularly true of his attitude toward his first Broadway success. Ever since his student days at Purdue, Ade had been a theatre addict of the most hopeless sort. He had particularly been impressed by Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado and so decided to try his hand at writing for the theatre using a form similar to Gilbert's formula. He paired up with Alfred Wathall, a musician, and began work on a musical. In those days, they were known as light operas.
The Sultan of Sula opened in New York in 1902 and was a smash hit. Ade had never seriously thought of himself as a big-time showman, but here it was. In the meantime, two more books of columns had been published, "Artie" and Pink Marsh, and now everywhere Ade was being carried around on the public's shoulders. Few writers in modern times have had so much success and general acceptance in such a short time. When In Babel, a collection from the old Street and Town column was issued, H.L.Mencken said the collection contained two or three of the very best short stories ever written in America. The story of "Buck" and Gertie, which touches on religious fanaticism in Michigan, was one of Mencken's all-time favorite pieces of American writing.
With all the money that was coming in Ade built a country home on his estate near Brook, Indiana. It was an impressive English manor house which caused a sensation among the simple peasants of the area. He moved in, and within six weeks had written another item that would continue to amuse audiences for years to come. It was a play called The College Widow, based on life in a small Midwestern college (Wabash, to be exact). In September of 1904 it opened on Broadway and the opening was so tumultuous that Ade was forced to make a short speech between the second and third acts in order to calm the audience down so that the play could go on.
At the time there was another successful Ade play, The County Chairman, on Broadway, with still another about to open (Peggy from Paris), so it can be safely said that Ade was somewhat larger than Rodgers and Hammerstein in his day. The College Widow earned more than two million dollars in the years immediately following its opening and has been playing somewhere every season since. It is being seen at the current writing Off-Broadway under the title of Leave It to Jane, in a musical adaptation with lyrics by P.G. Wodehouse, book by Guy Bolton, and Jerome Kern's music. In the following ten years, Ade wrote several more plays and musicals that became successful by Broadway standards, but by then his prime days as a creative artist were on the wane. He continued to write for all the major magazines and an occasional collection of essays and fables was issued, but more and more his work lost its original biting freshness. There was one notable exception. In the late 20's he wrote a really delightful and excellent book of reminiscences about the saloon of pre-prohibition days entitled The Old Time Saloon.
Ade never married and there isn't much evidence that he ever had even a mild romance. Obviously, when he wrote The Joys of Single Blessedness he meant it when he said, "The Batchelor often wonders if his funeral will be an impressive occasion".
Loneliness echoes through every line of his best things, which are almost invariably about heroes whose timing is slightly off, sometimes by only five seconds, often by 2000 years. More and more he retired to his country home, Hazenden, to live as a country squire. His love for children expressed itself in huge picnics and parties which he gave on his estate for children who came to Hazenden from surrounding states. In fact, one party drew over 8000 children with accompanying parents. He was a lonely man.
In the 30's Ade quietly passed from the scene, when humor became a rough commodity to sell and tastes had changed. During the Depression, the Okies, and the Lefties that the Odets people waited for, had made laughter a thing of the past. In the days from 1866, just a year after the end of the Civil War, until the dark days of World War II, a lot of history had passed over Kentland, Indiana and Chicago both. Ade had seen it all but no longer had much to say. He died peacefully on May 16, 1944, at the age of 74, in Hazenden, almost completely unknown to millions of Americans whose language he had permanently shaped.
I remember seeing my mother one day when I was a kid. She was standing there in the kitchen with a pot in her hand, looking out of the window over the sink which was making that funny noise at the time. She was watching Brunner, our next door neighbor, stagger up his back steps with a snoot full. It was in the heart of the Depression and Brunner was on the Extra Board down at the roundhouse. He worked one day a month. It was getting on to dusk at the tail end of a bitterly cold winter day and Brunner had been celebrating his day's work. She watched him for a long time while he fumbled at the back door.
Finally she said quietly "...As the man says, 'Industry and Perseverance bring a sure Reward'" I said "What do you mean, Ma? What man?" She didn't answer. How could I know she was quoting George Ade? I'm not sure she knew either.
A word of advice about reading Ade. He should be taken a little at a time since his Fables were written for daily reading. His work is concentrated and pithy and is designed to be consumed like poetry, in small doses. Too much laughter is dulling and self-defeating. So restrain yourself from reading it all in one sitting. Ade has been around for some sixty odd years now without spoiling, and so can be kept a week or even longer without refrigeration.
I leave with a word of advice from The Master:
- JEAN SHEPHERD