Writer, researcher, translator, critic

Exist Yesterday.

Floy joy floy joy floy joy.

1900: George Ade


This week I'm thinking about the first two volumes of Fables in Slang by George Ade, published in 1899 and 1900. He would go on to publish almost a dozen further volumes to diminishing (artistic) returns, but it was these two which made him a household name outside of Chicago, where the Indiana-born cynic had won a public as a newspaperman in the days when newspapers were the most vital, immediate, and cacophonous form of media the world had yet seen.

Covers from  digitized   copies  available at the Internet Archive

Covers from digitized copies available at the Internet Archive


If you've never read an Ade Fable, it's difficult to describe their effect. They only take the form of a traditional fable (as performed by say Aesop) for the first couple of sentences, and not even always then: sometimes they're sketches, sometimes they're mordant short stories, and at their worst they're mere anecdotes. But his stylistic choice to capitalize the first letter of nearly every noun and some of the more important verbs gives the prose a curiously camel-train quality, a wink to the early-reader primers of nineteenth-century schoolrooms that imbues his lively vernacular idiom with a kind of self-parodying pomposity. It's the kind of thing that can only be illustrated by example, so here's a slice from the most savage satire in either book, "The Fable of the Honest Money-Maker and the Partner of His Joys, Such as They Were":

The Wife of the Respected Farmer was the only Work Animal around the Place that was not kept Fat and Sleek. But, of course, Henry did not count on Selling her. Henry often would fix up his Blooded Stock for the County Fair and tie Blue Ribbons on the Percherons and Herefords, but it was never noticed that he tied any Blue Ribbons on the Wife. 

And yet Henry was a Man to be Proud of. He never Drank and he was a Good Hand with Horses, and he used to go to Church on Sunday Morning and hold a Cud of Tobacco in his Face during Services and sing Hymns with Extreme Unction. He would sing that he was a Lamb and had put on the Snow-White Robes and that Peace attended him. People would see him there in his Store Suit, with the Emaciated Wife and the Scared Children sitting in the Shadow of his Greatness, and they said that she was Lucky to have a Man who was so Well Off and lived in the Fear of the Lord. 

I read a Dover Thrift Edition from 1960, the introduction to which (by sci-fi scholar E. F. Bleiler) helpfully points out that, at least in these early Fables (which were originally printed in Ade's weekly column in the Chicago Record, a generation before the likes of Franklin P. Adams and Heywood Broun launched the Algonquin set in their New York columns), Ade's narratives, taken strictly as narratives, are often as bleak and harrowing as any Naturalist of the period could wish, his exposure of the venal hypocrisy and self-deceit at the root of small-town (and big-city) American life as thorough as the 20s modernists' — but because they're couched in such breezy terms, with the sparkle of wit and the bang of punchlines dancing attendance, they slipped under the notice of the moralists who would have howled with outrage at similar narratives from the pens of a Theodore Dreiser, an Upton Sinclair, or a Frank Norris.

But Ade was no Mark Twain, slipping his scathing critique of society into supposedly light-hearted fare. For Ade, the light-heartedness was the point and the social criticism only a formula, which he dispensed with as soon as he was able. Once the Fables had made him rich and he could write whatever he wanted, he went into the theater, wrote popular plays of no particular substance, and became even richer. Because the public clamored for more Fables, he wrote them, but the older and richer he got the less they described the actual capricious, vicious, unhappy American landscape he had been intimate with as a newspaperman, and the more they resembled the preposterous cartoons of humanity that unwary readers had always taken them for.

This at least was Bleiler's contention; I haven't read deeply enough in Ade to positively agree or disagree, though I've read enough that I can see his point. Since my main concern isn't with the Fables' Naturalism but with their comedy, I can point out that they are indeed often very funny (the second volume is funnier than the first, which suggests that there are at least several years of Good Stuff left to get out of Ade). I even noticed a couple of places where P. G. Wodehouse picked up a good gag.

I will note that the Dover edition left out one Fable from the second volume, "The Fable of the Man-Grabber Who Went Out of His Class," due to a Jewish caricature — but it includes "The Fable of the Ex-Chattel and the Awful Swat that was Waiting for the Colonel," which contains a much more extensive and unmannerly Negro caricature. The (or rather a) Black man is victorious in the latter, while the Jewish salesman loses out in the former, which perhaps explains the apparent double standard. Perhaps.

I have dozens more Ade volumes to read; since he was one of the most important and influential humorists of his era, he has to be reckoned with, and so far at least he certainly repays the effort. The internet has made non-standard typography a more viable stylistic choice than it has been for some three generations of readers; while it might perhaps be too much to hope that Ade is more readable today than he was sixty years ago (even though he rarely uses actual slang, his choices of metaphor are sometimes difficult to parse at a remove of 120 years), it seems likely that his kidding-a-kidder typographical excesses might be less cumbersome than they once were to the Serious Reader.