American humorist who helped shape the way we speak

The Best of George Ade, selected and edited by A. L. Lazarus. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press. With illustrations by John T. McCutcheon. 254 pp. $17.50. George Ade is the ancestor of James Thurber, S. J. Perelman, and Garrison Keillor. While Mark Twain, Irvin S. Cobb, and maybe even old Ben Franklin are his predecessors.

Ade's ``Fables in Slang'' were popular at the turn of the century. These Aesop-like short morality stories were syndicated in daily newspapers, and when collected in one volume in 1899 were a huge success. His show, ``The Sultan of Sulu,'' was a hit on Broadway in 1902. This light opera, as they called musicals then, satirized US gunboat diplomacy in the Philippines. This and other plays made him the Neil Simon of his time. His essays and short stories were very popular, too.

A. L. Lazarus has put together a careful selection of ``The Best of George Ade,'' a labor of love that deserves what is probably a first reading for most people.

George Ade has earned a unique place on the American bookshelf. A regional humorist of the Midwest, he has permanently shaped our language. His Indiana was a world of yokels and country folk contending with the growth of the city (Chicago) and the coming of culture. They were rustics not unlike those Shakespeare included in his plays.

Ade's contribution was the use of slang, the language everyone heard, but had not seen in print. Homespun phrases and incongruous moralisms helped give an honest picture of much of American life and foreshadowed modern American humor.

The characters in the fables spoke for themselves, and still speak for us all. Only where some of the slang has become obsolete do they suffer.

Ade considered himself a realist, his work coming from the people on Main Street with its wooden sidewalks.

Theodore Dreiser, for example, is another kind of realist of that period.

Mr. Lazarus says in his interesting introduction: ``Dreiser and Ade after all had access to the same raw materials. But how much lighter is Ade's treatment!''

Here is what he means. The subject (alas) is vote buying:

Mr. Dreiser writes:

``Say what you will, Mr. Hand, but it's the two-, and five-, and ten-dollar bills paid out at the last moment over the saloon bars and polling places that do the work.''

Mr. Ade says it like this:

``There can be no greater disgrace for a working politician than to lodge a man for two weeks before election and then lose his vote on election morning.''

One of his ``Fables in Slang'' is about the popular books of fiction of the day. He enumerates the different kinds of ``romances'' and styles of writing, concluding that a prospectus for a mining corporation probably has the best fiction writing. The Aesopian moral at the end is: ``Only the more Rugged Mortals should attempt to Keep Up on Current Literature.''

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