Lew Wallace: Life and Legacy
Although Lewis “Lew” Wallace served as a governor, lawyer, American statesman and Union general (Wikipedia), he is best known for his works of literature. And of his seven works, he is most remembered for Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, ironically written from his search of the Christ. Wallace's realization that he did not know his own religion set him on a journey to find out who God was.
Lew Wallace was born in 1827. His mother died when he was seven, and his father soon became a governor. As a result of this tragedy and change, his scholastic scores began to drop. In his own words, “My rating at school was the worst; yet, strange to say, education went on for me, for I was acquiring a habit of reading.” (Ben-Hur). He became a copyist at age 16, then a newspaper reporter, while studying nights to become a lawyer (Spragg). Soon, he earned his dream job, and became a lawyer before serving in the Mexican War (1846-47). Later serving in the American Civil War, he was promoted from brigadier general to major general in 1862 (Spartacus). After the war, Lew served on the military commission responsible for finding Abraham Lincoln’s murderers (Biography). Together, the commission accused the guilty and sentenced them justly (Spartacus). But even though he had success in several areas, he was dissatisfied and began writing novels. Although he had already been writing during childhood, he was now more passionate (Ben-Hur).
Lew Wallace’s novels became great successes, so that he was quoted as saying, “I would rather write another novel than be rich.” (Museum). During his lifetime, Lew composed seven works of literature, although Ben-Hur proved to be most popular. The first of these novels, The Fair God (published in 1873), contained a detailed account of the conquering of the Aztec Indians, and was inspired by Lew’s experiences during the Mexican War (Encyclopedia). Two years later, in 1875, while riding a train, Colonel Robert Ingersol questioned Lew about many critical Christian concepts, which Lew could not answer (Ben-Hur). “I was ashamed of myself,” Lew wrote, “and make haste now to declare that the mortification of pride I then endured…ended in a resolution to study the whole matter; if only for the gratification there might be in having convictions of one kind or another.” (Ben-Hur). Lew went on to examine the lifestyle that Jesus would have lived, in order to write about the Christ. By observing major geographical features and buildings, and by studying reference books (including the Bible), he was able to make accurate portrayals of first century life. Years later, when Lew visited the Holy Land, he remarked, “I find no reason for making a single change in the text of the book.” (Ben-Hur). In 1880, Lew wrote Ben-Hur while serving as governor of the New Mexico Territory (Wikipedia). Although originally intending to write a story about Christ, he realized that people would not want to pick up a novel about Jesus. He therefore decided to weave Jesus Christ into the story of a prince named Ben-Hur who was looking for the Messiah. “The Christian would not tolerate a novel with Jesus Christ its hero, and I knew it…I would be religiously careful that every word He uttered should be a literal quotation from one of His sainted biographers.” (Ben-Hur). (The only violation of his rule was the giving of water to Ben-Hur by Christ.) Lew began writing a story of Ben-Hur, a prince who watched Christ heal his sister and mother from leprosy. Having finished the novel, Lew remarked, “I have seen the Nazarene. I saw him perform works which no mere man could perform. I have heard him speak. I was at the crucifixion. With Ben-Hur I watched and studied him for years, and at last I, too, took the word that Balthasar gave him- ‘God.’” Lew also stated, “When I had finished that, I said to myself with Balthasar, ‘God only is so great.’ I had become a believer.” (Ben-Hur). According to Wikipedia, Ben-Hur became the “best-selling American novel of the 19th century.” In addition to never being out of print, the book has seen four video versions (one was a silent film), and has been translated into twenty languages (Museum). It outsold every book except the Bible, until Gone With the Wind in 1936, but then surpassed Gone With the Wind sales in the 1960s (Ben-Hur). Lew’s accurate description of Turkey in the novel led him to become the U.S. Minister to Turkey in 1881, under President Garfield. Ben-Hur’s popularity gave Lew the choice to resign from his political role, which he gladly carried out in 1885 (Spragg).
Lew also wrote several other novels, none of which were as popular as Ben- Hur. Among those was The Boyhood of Christ, published in 1888, in which several children came to their Uncle Midas on Christmas Eve looking to know about Jesus. Uncle Midas told the children legends, but made it clear that all that is known for certain is what the Bible says. Wallace also wrote The Prince of India (more commonly known as Why Constantinople Fell), considering this to be his best novel. Most people did not agree, asserting that he should have ended with Ben-Hur (Museum). Having died in 1905 during the writing process for his autobiography, Lew Wallace was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Crawfordsville, Indiana (Wikipedia). His wife Susan, and their assistant Mary Hannah Krout, later finished the autobiography (Museum).
Although Lew was influential in several wars, and wrote seven works, he will always be remembered for Ben-Hur. Having been made into several films and having undergone several revisions, Ben-Hur remains a favorite of Americans today. Inspired by Lew Wallace’s own ignorance of Christianity, Ben-Hur, the story of a prince in search of the Messiah, will always be Lewis Wallace’s greatest accomplishment.
“Ben Hur: The Book That Shook the World.” <http://www.neh.gov/news/humanities/2009-11/BenHur.html>
General Lew Wallace Study & Museum. “Meet Lew Wallace: Author.” <http://www.ben-hur.com/meet_author.html> Sparactus Educational. <http://www.sparactus.schoolnet.co.uk/USACwallace.htm> (Note: I don't know why this link isn't working!)
Spragg, Joann. <http://www.ben-hur.com/WallaceBiography.pdf>