The Man Who Dreamed Ben-Hur

“My God! Did I set all this in motion?”

Lew Wallace was taking a behind-the-scenes tour of the Ben-Hur stage show, soon to open in New York. The centerpiece of the whole show was the chariot race, which is hard enough to stage for a movie, so you can imagine how it was for a live show. In this case, there were real horses running on a cleverly designed treadmill, with scenery rolling past in the background.

As Wallace looked around, he simply couldn’t believe how much money was being spent, how many people were working day after day — all to bring the story he dreamed up to life.

It amazed Lew Wallace to see the preparations for a stage version of his novel. What would he have said if he could have seen the titanic effort that goes into making a Hollywood epic?

Tens of millions of dollars go into making a movie like Ben-Hur. Thousands of people spend months, sometimes years, making a story that will appear on the movie screen for two hours or so.

And Lew Wallace set it all in motion. One man with a pen dipped in purple ink.

Who was this Lew Wallace, anyway? Flash back to 1862.

Gen. Lew Wallace, author of Ben-Hur

Gen. Lew Wallace, author of Ben-Hur

It’s the bloodiest battle of the Civil War so far — Shiloh, a name that will live on in the history as a representative bloodbath. General Grant is in bad shape: his horse fell on him a few days ago, and he can’t walk without crutches. The Confeder­ate forces have pushed Grant’s men back to the river. He needs reinforcements.

Where is General Wallace?

That was the question that would haunt Lew Wallace’s career for the rest of his life. Where was General Lew Wallace when Grant needed him at Shiloh?

The answer was that he was on his way to where he thought Grant was, but Grant had moved. Grant insisted that he had sent Wallace orders to go by one road; Wallace insisted that he never got those orders. He was taking another road — one that would have led his little force right into the back of the Confederate army. A messenger caught up with him at last, and Wallace turned around. But he and his men had missed much of the worst of the battle. When they did arrive, they were exhausted from a long roundabout march.

It was all the more irksome for Wallace because he had never wanted to be anything other than a great soldier. In his old age, he remembered back to his school days in the 1830s and a sight that gave him a lifelong love of the military life.

From then on, soldiers and battles were all he thought of. His delight in them led him straight into history, of course, and Wallace remembered a summer spent with his brother William and their playmates reenacting the famous battles of Scottish history as they were described in a historical novel by Jane Porter.

This was the man who was hoping for glory in the War between the States. Instead, his reputation as a soldier was tarnished forever, and not even considerable heroism later in the war could save it. He returned to active duty in 1864 and was credited by Grant with saving Washington from Confederate invasion.

We shouldn’t pity Wallace too much. His military career was seriously damaged by the incident, but he was still a general. After the war, he continued to do useful work, practicing law, meddling a bit in politics — and writing, which he did to relieve the boredom of practicing law. He never really liked practicing law.

Wallace’s first novel was a historical epic called The Fair God, set during the Spanish conquest of Mexico. It was moderately successful — enough to allow him the luxury of thinking himself a successful novelist, but not enough to allow him the luxury of giving up his day job. He had spent years researching the subject: he found that each incident, each setting, and each character in the story led him back to the libraries to find out more about what Mexico was like in the time of the conquistadors.

This was a habit that would serve him well when he came to write his next novel.

*

What got Lew Wallace started on writing “a tale of the Christ”? Actually, it was a conversation with America’s most famous atheist.

Robert Ingersoll was everyone’s favorite crusader against religion. He gave the revival preachers something to shout about. He gave dour New England clergymen a reason to shake their heads in pity. He gave the editors of newspapers something to denounce on a slow news day. And he gave lectures that people paid the enormous sum of a dollar a head to hear, so they could tell their neighbors they had seen the great infidel in person.

He was a large man and a sort of rhetorical steamroller, with an answer for every argument and a mastery of the language that let him dominate every conversation. And one day, when Lew Wallace was riding to Indianapolis on a sleeper train, the great infidel appeared in his nightshirt and said he wanted to talk. He knew General Wallace slightly and knew that Wallace had no use for creeds or churches.

At that time, speaking candidly, I was not in the least influenced by religious sentiment. I had no convictions about God or Christ. I neither believed nor disbelieved in them.

The preachers had made no impression upon me. My reading covered nearly every other subject. Indifference is the word most perfectly descriptive of my feelings re­specting the To-morrow of Death, as a French scientist has happily termed the succession of life.

The World of Ben-Hur

This article is adapted from a chapter in Mike Aquilina’s THE WORLD OF BEN-HUR. Click image to order or to preview other chapters.

So Ingersoll talked and, as usual, completely dominated the conversation. He trotted out facts — he said they were facts, any­way — in such a rapid and uninterrupted stream that Wallace was completely overwhelmed. And a little ashamed of himself. After all, it hardly seemed right that this famous antireligious crusader should know so much about the origins of Christianity, and Wallace should know nothing, or at least next to nothing. It was obviously an important topic.

For the first time, his indifference to religion struck him as a flaw in his character. He shouldn’t be indifferent. He should have certainty, one way or another. Ingersoll was so certain because he had so much knowledge — at least that was the impression one got from hearing his steamroller rants. So Wallace decided he would have that knowledge too.

How to get it? Immediately he knew the answer to that.

While writing The Fair God — a task that took years, on and off — Wallace had made himself an expert on the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Every little point in the narrative, every detail of the backdrop, sent him scurrying back to the books to find out what re­ally happened — how people lived, how they dressed, what they ate, what the climate was like, how they traveled, what they believed.

The lesson was clear to him: if I want to be an expert on something, I need to write a novel about it.

*

Even in the age of the Internet, researching a historical novel is a daunting task, at least if you want to get the history right. You have to know not only where the references are but which ones are useful and which ones will lead you astray (a skill Dan Brown never mastered). You have to take little scraps of evidence and build them into a picture that satisfies the historian on the one hand and makes sense to the ordinary reader on the other.

Now imagine what it was like in the 1800s, with no Inter­net, no copy machines, no telephones. Public libraries were not thick on the ground: Andrew Carnegie would not donate his first library until three years after the novel Ben-Hur was published. Colleges had libraries; there was the Library of Congress; and, of course, there were rich people with private libraries. But how would you even know what was in them? Correspondence had to be sent by letter, or — if you were feeling hurried and had the money — by telegram. Merely chasing down a particular book that might tell you what you wanted to know was an adventure.

But Wallace would do that chasing, because he wanted to get the history exactly right. Remember that he wrote the story for the sake of learning the history; he wasn’t going to be satisfied with just getting by. He was going to make his historical setting satisfying to the most punctilious historian — in spite of his own obvious limitations.

To make use of all that research, Wallace dreamed up a story that would take place during the time of Christ. He intended to sell it as a magazine serial — a popular way of publishing novels in the late 1800s. Since he meant to sell it, he had to be careful not to make it offensive to religious readers — which meant that he would have to be very careful about introducing Jesus Christ as a character. He quickly decided that Christ couldn’t be the main character. Instead, his story would be about someone who lived at the same time as Christ, and how Christ’s presence on earth affected that person.

My characters are essentially living persons. They arise and sit, look, talk, and behave like themselves.

In dealing with them I see them; when they speak I hear them. I know them by their features. They answer my call. Some of them I detest. Such as I most affect be­come my familiars. In turn they call me, and I recognize their voices.

Some literary critics might dispute the “living” quality of Lew Wallace’s characters. To many readers they seem wooden, like puppets made to clatter across the stage for the purpose of making the point the author has in mind. But there is no ques­tion that they occupied his imagination. As he told their story, he filled in more and more of the world behind them. And as the world filled in, Wallace found himself inevitably led down a surprising path toward a destination he had not expected. In fact, he was finding his certainty. The more he wrote, the more he got to know his characters — both the imagined ones and the historical ones with whom they interacted.

Such being the case, think of the society to which the serial directly admitted me!

Think of riding with Balthasar on his great white camel to the meeting appointed beyond Moab; of association with the mysterious Three [Wise Men]; of breaking fast with them in the shade of the little tent pitched on the rippled sand; of hearing the “grace” with which they began their repast; of listening as they intro­duced themselves to one another, telling how and when and where they were severally summoned by the Spirit; of the further guestship in the final journey to Jerusalem, the star our guide!

Think of attending a session of the Sanhedrin; of hear­ing Herod the Builder ask Hillel, more than a hundred years a scholar, where the new King of the Jews was most likely to be discovered!

Think of lying with the shepherds in their sheepfold that clear, crisp, first Christmas night; of seeing the lad­der of light drop out of the window of heaven; of hearing the Annunciator make proclamation of his glad tidings!

Think of walking with Joseph from the Joppa gate across the plain of Rephaim, past the tomb of Rachel, up to the old khan by Bethlehem; of stealing glances at the face of the girl-wife on the donkey, she who was so shortly to be, in good old Catholic phrase, the Blessed Mother of God!

Think of seeing that face so often and with such dis­tinctness as to be able to pronounce that there are but two portraits of her in the world, Raphael’s and Murillo’s, all the others being either too old, too vulgar, or too human! Then tell me, was it strange if I wrote reverentially, and sometimes with awe? Or that I was unconsciously making ready to cast my indifference as a locust casts its shell?

The indifference was fading. The famous atheist Ingersoll had given him the first shove, and Wallace spent years on his journey of discovery. He was rather surprised to find out where he had ended up.

As this article is in the nature of confessions, here is one which the reader may excuse, and at the same time accept as a fitting conclusion: Long before I was through with my book, I became a believer in God and Christ.

By finding out as much as he could about the real history of the time of Christ, Wallace became a Christian convert. He never joined a church: to the end of his life, Wallace was not so much hostile as indifferent to organized religion. But he was certain that Jesus Christ was divine. The history had convinced him of it.

I am not a member of any church or denomination, nor have I ever been. 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. None the less I believe in the Divinity of Jesus Christ.

As we already know, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was a great success. Not at first, though. It attracted little attention when it was first published, and the reviews were mixed at best. But word of mouth, and a few lucky celebrity endorsements, made the difference: the book started to take off. In a few years, Wal­lace had made enough money to retire very comfortably. In fact, by most standards, he was rich. He used some of the money to build himself a curious Byzantine study from his own plans, and he decorated it with portraits of Judah Ben-Hur and his sister Tirzah. It still stands today as a museum dedicated to the life of the man who dreamed Ben-Hur.

Even with all that success, though, Wallace was always a soldier at heart. You may call him intensely patriotic, or you may say that he never stopped being a little boy playing with swords. When the Spanish-American War was declared in 1898, Wallace immediately offered to raise and lead a band of soldiers, but the government had no use for him. So he went to his local recruiting office and tried to enlist as a private. They didn’t take him there either. Perhaps they thought seventy-one was a bit old for a private.

As a soldier, Wallace never did get out from under the shadow of Shiloh. In spite of Grant’s later retraction, it’s most often Grant’s earlier story — that Wallace got lost on the way to the battle — that makes it into the history books, even today.

Fortunately for Wallace’s reputation, no one remembers him anymore as a failed civil-war general. Everyone remembers him as the blockbuster novelist who gave us Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Mike Aquilina’s The World of Ben-Hurwhich is available from Sophia Institute Press

Mike Aquilina

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Mike Aquilina is the award-winning author of more than forty books on Catholic history, doctrine, and devotion. His works have been translated into many languages. He has hosted nine television series and several documentary films and is a frequent guest on Catholic radio.

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  • Gail Finke

    What an interesting man! I read elswhere that he was haunted by the Battle of Shiloh because the immense number of casualties was made to seem his fault (and maybe it was) and he could not get over the sight of it. It sounds as if his method of research and imagination was a kind of “lectio dviina,” which many people find very powerful — imagining himself being present at what he was reading.

  • Howard

    I wish I could have met him — even though he was a Yankee.

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