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Lew[is] Wallace (1827-1905)


American novelist and a Civil War general, whose famous novel Ben-Hur (1880) contributed to the reinvigoration of the historical novel at the end of the nineteenth century. Lew Wallace spent much of  his life as a lawyer, soldier, politician, and diplomat. Ben-Hur, which took him seven years to write, has never been out of print since its first publication. The screen adaptation of the work from 1959, directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston, won a record-breaking 11 Oscars. 

"There is an idea that war is the most noble occupation of men, and that the most exalted greatness is the growth of battle-fields. Because the world has adopted the idea, be not you deceived. That we must worship something is a law which will continue as long as there is anything we cannot understand. The prayer of the barbarian is a wail of fear addressed to Strength, the only divine quality he can clearly conceive; hence his faith in heroes." (from Ben-Hur)
Lew Wallace was born in Brookville, Indiana, the son of David Wallace, a lawyer, and Esther French Test Wallace, the third daughter of Congressman John Test. When David Wallace, a member of the Indiana House of Representatives, was elected as lieutenant governor of Indiana in 1837, the family moved to Covington.

Since he was five years old, it was Wallace's noblest dream was to become soldier like his father, who had graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Among young Lew's earliest memories was seeing the shining bullet-buttons of the uniform his father wore as a Cadet.

Wallace's mother died of unknown causes in 1834. "And so I made  acquaintance with death," Wallace recalled in his autobiography. "I have seen it since in many  forms, at times under circumstances hideous because of  its accessories . . . but  never realized its awful import, due, as I can now perceive, to an intuitive perception of the extent of the  bereavement it so remorselessly inflicted on me." Two years later his father married Zerelda Gray Sanders, who was a suffragist and active in the temperance movement.

Wallace attended briefly Wabash Preparatory School in Crawfordsville. He was not a  good student, but he loved to read, and remained a voracious reader of history and historical fiction throughout his life. Dropping out of school at the age of sixteen, he became a newspaper reporter and at nights he studied law. To pursue adventure, he frequently interrupted his practice. In 1846, Wallace left his studies to lead volunteers in the war with Mexico, but did not participate in combat. He was admitted to the bar in 1849. Wallace never enjoyed being an attorney; it was "the most detestable of human occupations," he said. In 1856, he was elected to the State Senate

Wallace married in 1852 Susan Arnold Elston; they had one son. Susan was a writer in her own right; two of her books were illustrated by Wallace. While living in Crawfordsville, he organized a militia unit called the Montgomery Guards and outfitted his men in colorful uniforms in the style of the Zouaves, a French Algerian army unit. During the Civil War, he served at the battles of Fort Danielson and Shiloh, where his dreams of military fame collapsed. Due to vague orders, his division marched back and forth along the paths and arrived at Grant's lines near Pittsburg Landing when the fighting was practically over. Wallace, who was one of the youngest generals in the army, was accused of incompetence. Later he commanded troops at Monocacy, slowing Confederate General Jubel Early's raid on Washington D.C. For the rest of his life, Wallace tried to restore his military reputation. A theme of triumph over past ran through Ben-Hur, too.

Toward the end of war, Wallace went on an assignment to Mexico to help Juárez oust the Emperor Maximilian. His camp at the mouth of the Rio Grande was beset with an epidemic of diarrhea. Back in Washington, he first served as the second-ranking officer on the commission that tried the conspirators involved in the assassination of President Lincoln. The trial continued nearly two months. During its progress Wallace employed himself sketching in pencil the members of the commission, spectators, and the prisoners themselves. He also acted as the president of martial board that tried Henry Wirtz, commander of the notorious Confederate prisoner-of-war camp at Andersonville, Georgia.

Returning to civilian life, Wallace re-entered law practice and politics. He was appointed in 1878 Governor of the New Mexico Territory, where he met the outlaw William Bonney (aka Billy the Kid) after the Lincoln County War. Wallace was impressed by his skills with firearms. He promised that if he would testify before the grand jury and the trial court and convict the murderer of Huston Chapman, an attorney, he will let Billy go scott-free with a pardon in his pocked for all his misdeeds. However, Wallace was not able to keep his part of the bargain. Billy took the stand to name slayers of Chapman.

In 1881, President James Garfield appointed Wallace to the post of American minister to the Ottoman Empire. By shaking Sultan Abdul Hamid II's hand at their first meeting, he unknowingly defied the protocol, but made friends with the Sultan. The despotic ruler, known later in history as the "Red Sultan" and "The Great Assassin," carried out a series of massacres of the Armenian population between 1884 and 1886. When the news reached American shores, Wallace declared during a New England lecture tour that the reports of the Turkish atrocities were exaggerated. Still loyal to his friend, Wallace wrote in his autobiography, "... we can readily believe that this uncontrolled master of fifty  million subjects has so kind and gentle a nature that he has never signed a death-warrant."

After settling again in Crawfordsville, Wallace devoted to writing, politics, and lecturing. Wallace died on February 15, 1905, Crawfordsville. In addition to gaining fame as a writer, Wallace held eight patents for various inventions, made and played his own violins, and was a talented amateur artist. Ben-Hur became required reading in literature classes across the United States. Until the publication of Gone With the Wind (1936) by Margaret Mitchell, Ben-Hur remained the best-selling American novel. With the royalties, Wallace built an luxury apartment building in Indianapolis, which he named Blacherne after the Palace of Blachernae in Istanbul.

Wallace's first novel, The Fair God (1873), was inspired by William Hickling Prescott's History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843). He had been indifferent to religion, but after meeting on a train Robert Ingersoll, a prominent atheist, and having a discussion with him, he decided to examine the nature and power of faith more closely, but in the form of fiction. The result was Ben-Hur. Set in the times of Jesus, the novel traces the life of Judah Ben-Hur from downfall to eventual redemption. Ben-Hur's friend, the Roman Messala, accuses him of an attempt on the life of the Roman procurator Valerius Gratus, and he is sent to the galleys for life. His mother and sister are also imprisoned. On the way to the coast in Nazareth, he is  given a cooling drink by a stranger, who later turns out to be Jesus. Years later he returns to Judea a free man and a Roman officer. In the chariot races in the Circus at Antioch he wins Messala. He also rescues his mother and sister. On the day of the Crucifixion, he confronts the Christ and follows Him to Golgotha. Recalling the occasion in Nazareth, he puts a sponge, dipped into a vessel of wine and water and put on the end of a stick, to the Christ's lips. At the end, Ben-Hur and his family embrace the new faith of Christianity. The story of the Three Wise Men is intertwined in the plot. Wallace himself was not a member of any church or denomination, or as he said, "Not that churches are objectionable to me, but simply because my freedom is enjoyable, and I do not think myself good enough to be a communicant." However, he was convinced that Jesus was the person He claimed to be.

Ben-Hur, which owes much to The Count of Monte Christo by Alexandre Dumas, père, gained a great response, eventually selling more copies than any other in the 19th century, including Uncle Tom's Cabin. Over 20 million people saw  the stage adaptation, which was performed continuously on Broadway from 1899 to 1921, complete with live horses. The first staging featured later film stars William Farnum and William S. Hart in the title role.

Movie-makers naturally seized early upon the work. Sidney Olcott's 1907 version was billed as 'Sixteen Magnificent Scenes with Illustrated Titles, Positively the Most Superb Motion-Picture Ever Made,' but was actually composed of a few interior scenes and a chariot race. Fred Niblo's Ben-Hur (1925) contained impressive optical effects and outstanding miniature work and mechanical effects. The gigantic sets were burned while shooting the Atlanta sequence in the film version of Gone With the Wind. William Wyler's colossal remake of the silent classic became the only Hollywood production to make the Vatican's official list of approved religious films. Its most famous line, "Hate keeps a man alive," is not from the novel. M-G-M's first choice for Ben-Hur was Paul Newman, who had portrayed a Greek slave in The Silver Chalice (1954). Concerned about his career image, Newman turned down the role, saying "I'll never again wear a coctail dress in a movie." Miklos Rozsa's vast musical canvas for the film brought the composer the Oscar he admitted was "the one that I cherish the most." Several pieces of the score were later adapted into hymns for use by church choirs.

Wallace's final work, The Prince of India (1893), dealt with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks, seen from the perspective of the Wandering Jew. Wallace collected material for the book during his stay in Turkey. In his official position he had access to the Turkish archives and was able to verify historical facts he wanted to use. All of Wallace's novels are marked by their attention to historical detail. He also completed two plays, Our English Cousin (aka The Blue and Gray) and Commodus.
For further reading: "Ben-Hur" Wallace: The Life of General Lew Wallace by Irving McKee (1947); Lew Wallace: Militant Romantic by Robert Eustis Morsberger (1980); The Epic Film: Myth and History by Derek Elley (1984); 'Wallace, Lew' by Thomas L. Cooksey, in Encyclopedia of American Literature, ed. by Steven R. Serafin, el al. (1999); The Sword & the Pen: A Life of Lew Wallace by Ray E. Boomhower (2005); 'Ben-Hur,' by Amy Lifson, in Humanities, Vol. 30, No. 6 (2009); Shadow of Shiloh: Major General Lew Wallace in the Civil War by Gail Stephens (2010). See also: The Wandering Jew (1844-45) by Eugène Sue and  Quo Vadis? (1896) by Henryk Sienkiewicz

Selected works:

  • The Fair God, or, The Last of the ’Tzins: A Tale of the Conquest of Mexico, 1873
  • Commodus: An Historical Play, 1877
  • Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ, 1880
    - Ben-Hur: kertomus Kristuksen ajoilta (suom. Aatto Suppanen, 1889; 9th, rev. ed., edited by Paula Pesonen, 1985)
    - films: 1907 (short), dir. by Harry T. Morey, Sidney Olcott, Frank Rose, starring Herman Rottger and William S. Hart; 1925, dir. by Fred Niblo, starring Ramon Novarro, Francis X. Bushman, May McAvoy, Betty Bronson, Claire McDowell; 1959, dir. by William Wyler, starring Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd, Haya Harareet, Hugh Griffith, Martha Scott, screenplay by Karl Tunberg with uncredited contributions from Christopher Fry, Maxwell Anderson, S.N. Behrman and Gore Vidal
  • The Boyhood of Christ, 1888
  • The Prince of India, or, Why Constantinople Fell, 1893
    - film: A Prince of India, 1914, dir. by Leopold Wharton, Theodore Wharton, starring M.O. Penn, Thurlow Bergen, Billy Mason, Riley Hatch, Elsie Esmond 
  • The Wooing of Malkatoon, 1897 
  • Lew Wallace: An Autobiography, 1906
  • Smoke, Sound & Fury: The Civil War Memoirs of Major-General Lew Wallace, U.S. Volunteers, 1998 (edited and with an introduction and notes by Jim Leeke)

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