"A New York man went to visit a Cousin in the Far West. The name of the Town was Fostoria, Ohio.
"When he came into Town he had his Watch- Chain on the outside of his Coat, and his Pink Spats were the first ever seen in Fostoria.
" 'Have you a Manicure parlor in this Beastly Hole?' asked the New York Man, as they walked up from the Train.
" 'What's that?' asked the Cousin, stepping on his own Feet.
" 'Great Heavens!' exclaimed the New York man, and was silent for several Moments.
"At dinner he called for Artichokes, and when told there were none, he said, 'Oh, very well,' in a Tone of Chastened Resignation."
WHAT YOU HAVE just read is the beginning of "The Fable of the New York Person Who Gave the Stage Fright to Fostoria, Ohio," one of about 500 fables written by George Ade between 1897 and 1940. There was no way I could talk about George Ade without beginning by quoting him. He is irresistibly quotable. And not just to newspaper reviewers, but to Serious Novelists. For example, when Theodore Dreiser was writing Sister Carrie, he wanted to describe the traveling salesman that Carrie meets on the way to Chicago in terms that would make instantly clear how deft the fellow was at picking up girls. It was the work of a moment to lift about a page from Ade's "Fable of the Two Mandolin Players and the Willing Performer," and insert it in his text as if written by him. (He did remove most of the capital letters. Sister Carrie is written in normal orthography, and the passage would have been Extremely Conspicuous if he had not.)
I don't blame Dreiser for a second, and I understand why he was so hurt when he was accused of plagiarism. What he said in substance was that no one ever had described a fast operator so well, and no one ever would describe one so well, so it made every kind of sense to use these marvelous words, and he was simply paying George Ade the sincerest of compliments. Besides, they were both from Indiana.
Want to hear the marvelous words? Of course you do. The situation (in Ade, not in Dreiser) is that two conventional young men in Chicago are courting a pretty debutante named Myrtle. They've been courting her for about a year, and as far as they've gotten is that they both call on her every Thursday evening, and play their mandolins (not many stereos in 1899) and make polite conversation. They are too respectful to make any advances. Then a cousin of one of them comes on a visit from St. Paul. His name is Gus. He is not respectful at all. Here is how Ade describes him:
"He was the Kind of Fellow who would see a Girl twice, and then, upon meeting her the Third Time, he would go up and staighten her Cravat for her, and call her by her First Name.
"Put him into a Strange Company -- en route to a Picnic -- and by the time the Baskets were unpacked he would have a Blonde all to himself, and she would have traded her Fan for his College Pin.
"If a Fair-Looker on the Street happened to glance at him Hard he would run up and seize her by the Hand, and convince her that they had Met. And he always Got Away with it, too.
"In a Department Store, while waiting for the Cash Boy to come back with the Change, he would find out the Girl's Name, her Favorite Flower, and where a Letter would reach her.
"Upon entering a Parlor Car at St. Paul he would select a Chair next to the Most Promising One in Sight, and ask her if she cared to have the Shade lowered.
"Before the Train cleared the Yards he would have the Porter bringing a Foot-Stool for the Lady.
"At Hastings he would be asking her if she wanted Something to Read.
"At Red Wing he would be telling her that she resembled Maxine Elliott, and showing her his Watch, left to him by his Grandfather, a Prominent Virginian.
"At La Crosse he would be reading the Menu Card to her, and telling her how different it is when you have Some One to join you in a Bite.
"At Milwaukee he would go out and buy a Bouquet for her, and when they rode into Chicago they would be looking out of the same Window, and he would be arranging for her Baggage with the Transfer Man. After that they would be Old Friends."
The details are 1899, but the situation is timeless, and if you can read that passage without one or two small shudders of pleasure, then I'm afraid yours is a mind not Open to Humor, and you had better go back to reading the collected works of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.
George Ade was a famous man from a few days after Fables in Slang was published until around 1920. Rich, too. He made so much money that he bought up most of his native county in Indiana to have for a hobby -- and that was just one of his ways of spending it.
Then he gradually dropped into obscurity -- though as late as 1927 some of the fables were being syndicated as a comic strip. There are two reasons, I think. One is that success spoiled him. He published 10 volumes of fables in all, and the second five aren't even nearly as good as the first five. People growing up in the '20s, if given a new George Ade book for Christmas by a relative, would wonder what Uncle Henry thought was so funny about that, and hurry back to Thurber and Benchley (Benchley I, that is) and other rising stars.
The other is that his vein is a very narrow one. The best hundred or so of his fables are nearly flawless -- and they would be even without the capitals, just as e.e. cummings would still be a good poet with them. But in any other form of writing he was just a competent if remarkably prolific writer. (He is thought to have published about 2,500 periodical pieces in his life.) His many sketches of Chicago life read now like sentimental copies of Oliver Wendell Holmes' much earlier sketches of Boston life in The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table. His plays, like The Sultan of Sulu and The College Widow, made him a lot of money, but they are hopelessly dated. His small body of golden work has gotten lost under this heap of dross.
For a modern reader, free to dig out the best nuggets, there still remains a problem. Ade had the common prejudices of his time and place, and he expressed them (as he did everything) with great freedom. Contemporary readers, black and white both, may be put off by his occasional use of such really quite offensive terms as "coon." A word of advice: keep reading. Sooner or later you will get to the fable of the Southern colonel who visits Chicago (this is about 1901) and gets into an altercation with the black headwaiter at his hotel. After the headwaiter has bounced a silver fruit dish off the colonel's head, as reprisal for one of those offensive terms, the colonel pulls out a gun--at which point two other waiters pin his arms, and the cops are called. The Chicago policeman who arrives happens also to be black. "So it came about that He who in Apahatchie County had them trained to hop off the Sidewalk and stand Uncovered until he had passed, now suffered the Hideous Degradation of being marched downstairs by One of Them and then slammed into the Hurry-up Wagon." He winds up being fined $32.75 (I figure that's about $400 now) and losing his gun.
It is irresistible to quote George Ade. If there were more room, I would probably quote the entire fable of the Stuffer family, prosperous farm folk who move to town and attempt to continue eating in the heroic style to which they had been accustomed in the country--and since it is one of Ade's longest fables as well as one of his funniest, I would wind up preempting most of this issue of Book World. Instead I'll use the half-inch I might have left to urge you to find out what happened to the New York Person who had them trembling in Fostoria, Ohio. It's not what a complaisant Easterner might suppose. There is a Turnabout of the most satisfying sort. Ade was good at that.
A Note on Availability: The Permanent Ade: The Living Writings of George Ade, which contains some of the Fables in Slang, is available for $25 from Hyperion (45 Riverside Avenue, Westport, Connecticut 06880) in a hardcover reprint of a 1947 edition edited by Fred C. Kelly.