Lew Wallace was born in Indiana in 1827. His father, a West Point graduate who left the U.S. military for politics, was the state’s sixth governor. Wallace’s first career was in the military, serving but not seeing combat during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). He then turned to law and local politics, but returned to the U.S. Army during the American Civil War (1861-1865), as a general. Afterward, he became the governor of New Mexico and then the U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.
Wallace and his wife, Susan, wrote during their travels. Wallace finished Ben-Hur while in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and continued his literary career while a diplomat, before retiring to Indiana to focus on writing. Ben-Hur was the most successful of his seven major works, which included two other historical novels and a Roman-themed play. Ben-Hur was the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century, and has remained in print.
Ben-Hur is not often regarded as a well-done literary piece. The plodding first section, the long descriptions of settings and characters, and the extensive historical notes belie the excitement promised by the chariot race made famous in the film adaptation of the story. However, the novel frequently appears on lists of significant literary works. For Wallace’s early readers, the novel was their introduction to the historical events surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ, to the seemingly exotic Near East, and to novels themselves, accepted alongside the Bible in many American households.
The early twentieth century literary critic Carl Van Doren credited Ben-Hur with overcoming the nineteenth century American public’s Puritan-inspired opposition to reading novels. Wallace reported that the novel was inspired by a personal quest for spiritual understanding. In the course of a conversation with a well-known atheist, Wallace became a believer in Christian doctrine and resolved to study the events of the Bible for himself, leading to his interest in the Christmas story. He was not conventionally religious, and he used the pseudepigrapha, some of nonbiblical books, as the basis for his later work, The Boyhood of Christ (1888). He feared that a novel with Jesus as protagonist would not be well received, so instead he told his story through a surrogate Jew, Judah Ben-Hur. The human Ben-Hur makes the mistakes of arrogance and anger that Jesus could not, making both characters more real.
It was the realism that made Ben-Hur appealing, and its religiousness that made it acceptable. Wallace’s Jesus, a quietly strong, compassionate, tragic character, popularized the very human Jesus that was gaining attention in the 1880’s, a characterization of Jesus that remains common. Ben-Hur ultimately becomes more Christ-like, dedicating himself to the faith, love, and good works that are recurring concepts in the narrative.
Before he became a pacifist, however, Ben-Hur was a warrior. He can be seen as a perfectly masculine man, a rugged fellow whose success is a challenge to the more urban, professional culture that developed with the Industrial Revolution. Ben-Hur is an early example of a man who led the strenuous life, an ideal that would be advocated and exemplified by U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt in the early twentieth century. Judah Ben-Hur was a vigorous, physically strong man, not someone dependent on the comforts of a decadent city. Unlike the effete and privileged Messala, Ben-Hur had to make his own way in the world. This success suggests a second comparison, to the rags-to-riches stories made popular by Horatio Alger just after the American Civil War. Ben-Hur’s story of working himself up from the nothingness of slavery appealed to Americans who were heading West to new frontiers and new opportunities. The spiritual...
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ideals of faith, love, and good works came with temporal rewards for those who embraced them.
The American West—where Wallace had lived when he was writing the novel—prompts a third comparison, to the Western. While the novel can be seen as a straightforward historical novel, a fictional work with a background of actual events and characters, Blake Allmendinger suggests it is a Western in Eastern clothes. The story of white civilization defeating Indian “savagery” is shifted in time and space, so that Christian civilization defeats Rome’s pagan savagery, with the chariot race rather than a shootout as the climactic moment in the battle.
In his “savages,” Wallace exemplifies nineteenth century Orientalism. Orientalism had been the American and European view of the Orient—of the East—as a mysterious, exotic, and corrupt Other, destined to be dominated by the West. This view would be famously criticized by literary theorist Edward Said beginning in the 1970’s, but Wallace in his time was laying the groundwork for a fascination with the East. This fascination led to things such as Ben-Hur Flour in the markets and encouraged the making of a stage play and films based on the novel. Wallace does not quite follow the classic Orientalist trope, for in Ben-Hur the Romans are the depraved and decadent “Orientals” while the Jew stands in for Western Christianity. Wallace’s depiction of Eastern settings is of an exciting but inferior land, against which the modern Western reader might define him- or herself.
Ben-Hur is most significant as an inspiration. It inspired a new interest in novel reading in the nineteenth century, along with a surge in interest in a Christianity that emphasized a personal relationship with a personable Jesus. However, Ben-Hur, subtitled A Tale of the Christ, may more accurately be subtitled “a tale with the Christ.” Although the character of Jesus satisfied Wallace’s spiritual quest, it also lent respectability to a story of sea battles and chariot races, giving religious, social, and literary weight to a novel that fit neatly into the popular literary traditions of its era.