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...
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