His formal education included a course at the Michigan State Agricultural College, but like many other Middle Western writers of the period following the Civil War, Lewis gained his essential training in the composing rooms of smalltown newspapers.
Lewis began to learn the printer's trade at the age of fourteen and served a thorough apprenticeship as journeyman printer and foreman on newspapers at Pontiac and Lansing, Mich. Some years as a private in the Union army further familiarized him with the rank-and-file American audience for which he was later to provide entertainment. After working for some time as a compositor on the Lansing Jacksonian, Lewis accepted the offer of a newspaper editorship in Jonesboro, Tennessee, but while traveling on the Ohio River he was seriously injured by a boiler explosion during a steamboat race and spent many weeks recuperating in Cincinnati. He then returned to his old position at Lansing.
Later, while in temporary charge of the paper, he printed a humorous account of the accident, entitled, "How It Feels to be Blown Up. " This widely copied piece started him on his career as a professional "funny man. " In 1869 Lewis joined the staff of the Detroit Free Press as legislative reporter. Between sessions of the law-makers he wrote a variety of descriptive and humorous sketches which gained for his paper an enlarged circulation and a national renown. Similar work was being done by Robert J. Burdette of the Burlington (Iowa) Daily Hawkeye and James M. Bailey of the Danbury (Connecticut) News; but the public demand for burlesque and verbal caricature was unlimited and was profitably exploited by a host of paragraphers.
Among Lewis' most popular inventions was the negro organization known as the Lime Kiln Club, presided over by a philosophic and pretentious negro called Brother Gardner. He also parodied Western journalism in imaginary items from the Arizona Kicker and developed a vein of domestic humor in describing the comic tribulations of the Bowser family. The production of these specialties soon became Lewis' main business, but he also found time to write several popular books on the Civil War besides a number of dime novels and plays. One of the plays, called Yakie, came on the stage in 1884. Lewis' profits as a commercial writer would seem to have been substantial.
During the greater part of his twenty-two years on the Free Press he held a proprietary interest in the paper. The last phase of Lewis' life added little or nothing to his reputation. In May 1891 he went to New York as a staff contributor on the World and the Evening World, for which he regularly wrote six columns of humor a week. Nearly all that he did, except for occasional magazine stories, was in continuation of the type of writing begun early in his career.
During the last twelve years of his life he was crippled by rheumatism but persisted in his work to the end. His books, of which Brother Gardner's Lime Kiln Club (1882) and The Life and Troubles of Mr. Bowser (1902) are favorable examples, entitle him to a minor position in the school of Western humorists headed by Artemus Ward, Bill Nye, and Eugene Field. When he died in Brooklyn in his eighty-third year, he was the last representative of the group and his work was even then all but forgotten.