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General Lew Wallace. Photo taken by Matthew Brady between 1861 and 1865. Library of Congress.
December 5, 2019

The Author of Ben-Hur, the Book that Healed a Nation

General Lew Wallace had a long and storied career, though few people outside the circle of Civil War scholars might have heard his name in our era. He is perhaps best known as the author of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ; a novel, though seldom read in our time, was the most popular book of the nineteenth century, second only to the Bible. Today, at best, it evokes a vague sense of a 1950s film adaptation and a remake in 2016. 

Born in 1827 to the future Governor of Indiana (his mother would die when he was seven), Wallace led a life that saw him cross paths with Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, James Garfield, William T. Sherman, Ulysses S. Grant, Benjamin Harrison, Rutherford B. Hayes, Theodore Roosevelt, Billy the Kid, and numerous other luminaries of the nineteenth century. He was at various times a copyist, a lawyer, a senator, a soldier, an artist, a musician, a luthier, an ambassador, and, most famously, a general, and an author. 

Ben-Hur, Wallace’s second book, was the most widely read novel of the nineteenth-century, dethroning Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It has been argued that it acted as a national salve after the Civil War. Whereas Uncle Tom’s Cabin divided the nation, Ben-Hur united it.[1] Ben-Hur helped form a cultural bond in the Reconstruction era between the North and the South, between the modernization of America and its traditional values, and between the ever-widening gap between the sacred and secular in America. Wallace himself, in his journey from disgraced Civil War general to popular novelist, embodied his book’s message of redemption, as well as the American dream of rags to riches.

Grant, who was Wallace’s commanding officer during the Civil War and was responsible for scapegoating Wallace for the heavy casualties at the Battle of Shiloh, devoured the novel in a thirty-hour sitting. Jefferson Davis, the former Confederate president, had his daughter Varina read the Tale of the Christ to him from 10pm until daybreak, both of them so enraptured by the story as to be oblivious to the passage of time.[2]

Like Grant and Davis, President Garfield could not get enough of Wallace’s writing, and woke up at 5:30 one morning to finish it in bed. That same afternoon, Garfield, a former professor of literature and fellow Civil War veteran, wrote a letter to Wallace expressing his appreciation for Ben-Hur, and soon after asked Wallace to be ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Garfield’s  motivation was literary, rather than political: he wanted Wallace to be able to research a sequel in the Levant when his duties as ambassador weren’t pressing. Wallace served in this capacity from 1881-1885. Garfield’s sequel came in the form of Wallace’s The Prince of India, published in 1893, but sadly, twelve years after Garfield’s assassination.[3]

During his time as Minister to the Ottoman Empire, Wallace did take the opportunity to travel extensively in the Levant and the Holy Land. He was quite pleased with his initial geographic and topographic research on the Holy Land, which he had undertaken in various American libraries; so much so, that he wrote that he didn’t feel he had to change any details in Ben-Hur.[4] During his appointment, Wallace also worked to help Jewish refugees who were fleeing pogroms in Russia and Romania resettle in Syria, which he achieved due to his friendship with Sultan Abdul Hamid II. Grant, who had traveled to Constantinople in 1878, was also struck by the number of refugees, many of them Jews fleeing Bulgaria. Wallace was in turn, a celebrated figure in nineteenth-century Jerusalem, whose Jewish inhabitants compared him to David, and called him “the Nobleman and Prince,” in this “Song of Praise” written to welcome Wallace to the city.

Though Wallace enjoyed much success as a writer, he was still haunted by his unfair legacy at Shiloh until he died in 1905. Wallace’s Ben-Hur continues to have a lasting impact on American culture, in the form of inspiring biblical epics that are perennially produced in Hollywood. The phenomenon of Biblical Blockbusters, ranging from The Prince of Egypt to Noah, to The Passion of the Christ is a quintessentially American phenomenon, and has its roots in Wallace’s Ben-Hur.[5]

[1] MILLER, HOWARD. “The Charioteer and the Christ: Ben-Hur in America from the Gilded Age to the Culture Wars.” Indiana Magazine of History, vol. 104, no. 2, 2008, pp. 153–175. JSTOR, p. 155, www.jstor.org/stable/27792886. Miller also discusses how Ben-Hur

[2] Slate.com: The Passion of Lew Wallace

[3]  The book has nothing to do with India, but it is based on the old anti-Semitic  trope of the Wandering Jew. An odd choice for a man who helped Jewish immigrants.

[4] https://www.ben-hur.com/susan-and-lew-in-israel/

[5]  Miller, p. 175

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