Who was George Ade, and what did he contribute to American literature?

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Karyth Cara eNotes educator| Certified Educator

   The Learned Phrenologist sat in his Office surrounded by his Whiskers.
   Now and then he put a Forefinger to his Brow and glanced at the Mirror to make sure that he still resembled William Cullen Bryant.
   Near him, on a Table, was a Pallid Head made of Plaster-of-Paris and stickily ornamented with small Labels. On the wall was a Chart showing that the Orangoutang does not have Daniel Webster's facial angle.
   "Is the Graft played out?" asked the Learned Phrenologist, as he waited. "Is Science up against it or What?"
   Then he heard the fall of Heavy Feet and resumed his Imitation. The Door opened and there came into the Room a tall, rangy Person with a Head in the shape of a Rocky Ford Cantaloupe. (George Ade, "The Fable of The Visitor Who Got a Lot for Three Dollars")

George Ade was born near the end of the American Civil War, in 1866, in an unimposing wood frame house in Kentland, Indiana (home state of then President Abraham Lincoln). When he was ten years old, he attended the play The Fool's Revenge in Chicago at McVikers Theater with his father. The leading man was Edwin Booth [Booth was the brother of the infamous John Wilkes Booth who had assassinated President Lincoln at Ford's Theater in Washington D.C. in 1865]. Besides allowing Ade to touch the fringe of history and moral outrage, the impression the theater made upon stayed with him throughout his life.

After writing an essay that his high school teacher had published in the local newspaper, Ade won a scholarship to Purdue University where he studied the prescribed course of liberal arts (which included sciences and mathematics), Ade gave attention to literature and psychology. His first major career move came when he joined his college friend McCutcheon in Chicago to as journalists on the Chicago Morning News. Ade started with a column on weather, which, as a farmer's son, he wrote so enthusiastically that it had a daily place on the front page of the paper. His next career advancing assignment was to cover a much touted boxing match, which he did with so much of his trademark enthusiasm that readership expanded and Ade became the official national sports events reporter, earning the top salary of any journalist in Chicago.

After his successes as a journalist, Ade turned his attention to making a beginning in literature. His first works, which were published as a series in the Chicago Morning News, were fables that were later collected for book publication as Fables in Slang, for which he is most noted. His newspaper readership took so wholeheartedly to the Fables (1899), that the collected fables sold 100,000 copies, giving Ade instant fame. More fables followed along with other works, like The Girl Proposition. Then in the Studebaker Theater in Chicago open his first successful play, The Sultan of Sulu, the story of which was based on the real-life Sultan Ki-Ram. Other plays, like The College Widow, followed, and his plays were taken on tour to rousing and heartwarming reception.

George Ade's contribution to American literature can be summarized in three large points;

  • instruction in virtue
  • cultural literature depicting the brighter side of Indiana life
  • a regaled national humorist

Ade continued to follow in the vein of the first essay that garnered him public attention: the essay (p 3) he wrote in high school:

The large potatoes are large-minded, large-hearted, honest young men. The small potatoes are small-minded, small-hearted, mean, dishonest young men. ... And so it is everywhere, life is but a basket of potatoes. When the hard jolts come, the big [potatoes] will rise and the small will fall. The true, honest and brave will go to the top. The small-minded and ignorant must go to the bottom. .... If you would be a large potato get education, be honest, observing and careful and you will be jolted to the top. ... Everything rests with you. (George Ade, "A Basket of Potatoes")

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