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3:AM Cult Hero: George Ade

By Robert O’Connor.

American Literature loves the tragic hero. Holden Caufield, Captain Ahab and Gatsby all struggle against the odds to live their own lives. They have flaws within them that undo them by the end, but their singular determination have made them both inspirations and cautionary tales. George Ade’s characters were ordinary people whose humorous confrontations with everyday problems endeared them to the public, allowing them to laugh at themselves.

Ade made his living as a newspaper man in Chicago, at the Chicago Record. He had come from Kentland, Indiana, a tiny town 80 miles south of Chicago. The population of the town then was 600, and Chicago may as well have been a foreign country to them.

He attended Purdue University where he met John T. McCutcheon (younger brother of George), who would go on to be a political cartoonist at the Record. Ade joined him and began writing prolifically for the newspaper.

In 1893 he began writing Fables in Slang for the paper and they were an instant hit. Today, the slang is out of date, and the humor is hard to find sometimes, but they have a range of characters (from fairies to caddies) and the morals range from practical to confusing (“Treat NY businessmen going to Chicago like Dickens treated the rich in his work”).

Ade also began writing a feature column for the paper “Stories of the Streets and of the Town,” which starred a cast of characters like a copy boy named Artie and an African-American barber named Pink Marsh. The columns featuring them were turned into Ade’s first novels, Artie and Pink Marsh.

Like his hero, Mark Twain, Ade’s characters spoke “American” rather than English. And like Jim in Huck Finn, Pink Marsh’s dialogue can be cringeworthy in light of modern sensibilities about race. However, unlike Twain, Ade never examined or confronted racism in his work.

Ade’s creation of fictional characters would be continued by another great Chicago columnist, Mike Royko, who would converse with his characters like Slats Grobnik and Dr. I. M. Kookie.

By the 1910s, Ade was rich and famous as a writer of fables and a playwright. In 1908 he built a home near Brook, Indiana – not far from Kentland. It became famous for holding gatherings: homecomings of soldiers, children’s parties and even becoming a campaign stop for two Presidential candidates: William Howard Taft in 1908 and Theodore Roosevelt in 1912.

Ade also gave away money to charity, most generously to the Sigma Chi fraternity, of which he was a member, and to Purdue University. He died in 1944 at the age of 78.

Fellow Hoosier Jean Shepherd wrote a loving introduction to a collection Ade’s work The America of George Ade. In it Shepherd compares Ade to contemporary raconteurs Irvin Cobb and Booth Tarkington, while calling him the predecessor of James Thurber. It could also be argued that Shepherd himself followed in Ade’s footsteps as well. He writes that there are no heroes or noble figures in Ade, and thus no tragedy.

Like Charles Dickens, George Ade wrote sketches of ordinary people dealing with ordinary problems. He thumbed his nose at the gentry and humor came from his use of language as much as the situations his characters ended up in. I think he’s forgotten because unlike Boz and Mark Twain, he didn’t use that humor to combat the social ills that plagued his time, although muckrakers of the day were doing just that.

More: Ade’s work (Project Gutenberg) / 150 Ade stories read by Ron Evry / Digital exhibit, Purdue University / Bio, Indiana Historical Society / “Moment of Indiana History” entry by Yael Ksander, Indiana Public Media, 2006 / Guide to the George Ade papers, Purdue University

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Robert O’Connor is a journalist, writer, adventurer and a few dozen other things (including Co-Editor of 3:AM). His stuff has appeared in the Twin Cities Daily Planet, Hot Press, KFAI and a few other places. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

First posted: Thursday, December 9th, 2010.

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