Lewis Wallace

views updated Jun 27 2018

Lewis Wallace

Lewis Wallace (1827-1905) was an American military leader and popular author, remembered especially for the novel Ben-Hur.

Lew Wallace was born in Brookville, Ind. He became a lawyer but left his practice to serve in the Mexican War in 1846. During the Civil War he served in the Union forces with such distinction that he was promoted to major general. He led the courts of inquiry investigating the conduct of Gen. D.C. Buell and of the commander of the Andersonville prison and was a member of the court trying those charged with conspiring against President Lincoln. In 1865 he resigned from the Army and for the rest of his life practiced law. He served as governor of the new Mexican Territory (1878-1881) and minister to Turkey (1881-1885) and wrote very popular novels and an excellent autobiography.

Wallace's romantic novel The Fair God; or, The Last of the Tzins (1873) told about Hernán Cortés's invasion of the Aztec empire in Mexico and his eventual defeat by Prince Guatamozin. The considerable success of this book encouraged him to write Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880), a colorful story about a young Jewish patrician, Judah Ben-Hur, who as a result of false accusations by Messala is sent to the galleys for life. He escapes, returns as a Roman officer, wins a chariot race against Messala, and exposes him. Meanwhile Ben-Hur's mother and sister have been imprisoned and have contracted leprosy. The hero rescues them and goes with them to seek out Christ. When Christ cures the women, they and Ben-Hur become converts. Wallace's skill as a storyteller, his invention of exciting events, and his vivid representation of the late Roman Empire and the beginnings of Christianity made the novel one of the best-selling books of its period in the United States (more than 2 million copies) and in many foreign countries.

Wallace's stay in Turkey prompted him to write The Prince of India (1893), a lengthy novel based upon the legend concerning the Wandering Jew. Wallace also wrote the narrative The Boyhood of Christ (1888) and had almost finished Lew Wallace: An Autobiography at the time of his death. Completed by his wife, Susan Arnold Wallace, who also was a writer, it was published in 1906.

A dramatization of Ben-Hur (1899), featuring spectacular scenes—in which, onstage, the galley was wrecked, the chariot race was presented, and Christ wrought miraculous cures—was one of the most popular American plays for many years. Three motion picture versions, one made in the days of silent pictures, were extraordinarily successful.

Further Reading

Wallace's autobiography contains an excellent account of his military and literary career. Biographies which stress respectively Wallace as soldier and Wallace as author are Floetta Goodwin, Lew Wallace during the Civil War and Reconstruction (1927), and Irving McKee, "Ben-Hur" Wallace: The Life of General Lew Wallace (1947).

Additional Sources

Morsberger, Robert Eustis, Lew Wallace, militant romantic, New York: McGraw-Hill; San Francisco: San Francisco Book Co., 1980. □