GEN. “LEW” WALLACE is the author of the most popular story ever written by an American. ” Ben Hur” has been translated into every language which can boast of a literature. In the summer of 1900 it was estimated that nine hundred thousand copies of the book had been sold. It is safe to say that by this time the million mark has been reached. This literary phenomenon is enlarged by the fact that ” Ben-Hur ” has never appeared in a cheap, that is, a paper-covered, edition. The General has been urged repeatedly to authorize the publication of such an edition, but his refusal has been firm from the first. A friend of his who once heard the author repeat his refusal, exclaimed : ” Good for you !” It is a question whether this friendly enthusiasm served any high purpose. If, as has often been reported, ” Ben Hur ” has converted many readers to Christianity, then its circulation might well be furthered in every way possible.
We mention this circumstance because of the half-sacred nature which, not simply in the minds of emotional readers but also in the mind of the stern-charactered author himself, the book has been gradually assuming. A few years ago General Wallace, while on a lecture tour among the big cities, related how ” Ben Hur ” was conceived and brought forth. He frankly admitted that prior to its conception, his religious views were unstable. But as the ideas took hold of him, as chapter followed chapter, as the central figure emerged under his pen from the mist of the early years in Bethlehem into the divine glow of the later years around Jerusalem, his own life under-went changes, until at length, when the work was done, he stepped forth a militant Christian for the first time in his life. We have heard many authors describe the manner in which their books were born, but Lew Wallace’s description of the birth of
Ben Hur,” for impressiveness and for entertainment, stands alone.
If the General had done nothing else but write the tale of Christ his fame would be certain of outlasting generations. But, as a matter of fact, the wonderful book represents only one of his many qualifications to sit among the Immortals, as we shall see presently.
The author was born in Brookville, Ind., on April 10, 1827. His father was David Wallace, who, after graduation from West Point and a two years’ service in the army, adopted the profession of law and went to live in the little Indiana town. Six years after Lewis was born his father was elected lieutenant governor by the Whigs, and three years later he was elected governor. From 1841 to 1843 Governor Wallace represented his district in Congress. His political career was brought to a close simply, it is said, because he voted for an appropriation to assist Professor Morse to establish telegraph communication between Baltimore and Washington. Lewis’s mother was Esther Test, a daughter of a well-known Indiana judge, who is described as a woman of marked beauty and culture, and to whom may be traced the son’s artistic and literary genius. She died in 1837, but her children were fortunate to be reared and trained by a woman of extraordinarily strong character, Zerelda Saunders, the daughter of an Indianapolis doctor, who, when she had devotedly completed her performance of the none too attractive duties of a step-mother, worked for the causes of temperance and equal suffrage, according to a woman who knew her well, with eloquence, dignity, enthusiasm and conscientiousness.”
General Wallace avoided school. Thus he missed the basis which erudition demands, but he at least improved his passion for art and for literature. What he enjoyed most was to stroll out of town to the wild-grown fields and woods, and there he would read his favorite books and study nature. Not one of our authors knows nature more intimately. In fact, in those juvenile days he thought seriously of becoming an artist; and though, if the thought had ever been realized, literature would have lost much, still art might have gained in equal proportion. For at the General’s home in Crawfordsville are some excellent examples of his skill with the brush. One of his notable pictures represents the conspirators concerned in the assassination of President Lincoln. Another equally remarkable work of art is his portrait of the Sultan of Turkey. Many of the General’s friends have valuable samples of his artistic genius.
We mention these facts to show that there was once good ground for the author’s ambition to be an artist. Yet at the age of eighteen, just when one would expect such a talent to exert itself irresistibly, young Wallace enlisted to fight against Mexico. He was made a second lieutenant and ordered to guard the stores at the mouth of the Rio Grande. In Mexico he found the material for ” The Fair God,” his first novel, on which he worked occasionally for twenty years. At the end of the Mexican war he returned to Indiana to study law, in which respect, it will be noticed, he followed in the foot-steps of his father. Three years after his admission to the bar he married Susan Elston, of Crawfordsville, herself of no mean literary gifts, as her three collections of charming sketches, “The Land of the Pueblos,” The Storied Sea,” and The Repose in Egypt,” attest. The Wallaces lived in Crawfordsville until the outbreak of the War of the Rebel-lion. Thereupon the young lawyer went straight to Indianapolis and offered his services to the governor. For a while he served as adjutant-general. Then he took the colonelcy of a regiment of zouaves, and with such vigor and success that early in September, 1861, he was brevetted brigadier-general. For gallantry at Fort Donelson he was afterwards brevetted major-general. At the close of the war he was one of the most distinguished soldiers in the land. As a recognition of his great services in July, 1864, according to Secretary Stanton and General Grant, he had saved Washington from destruction he was appointed to the commission which tried the assassins of Lincoln. That duty done, he returned to Crawfordsville.
This return home signalized the real beginning of his literary career. He was now not far from forty years of age, and he was not content to live on his military reputation. Law had little power over him. So he turned to the manuscript which had been growing slowly for many years ; and 1873 saw the publication of The Fair God,” the souvenir of the author’s service in the Mexican war. Compared with the average romance, ” The Fair God” possesses exceptional power and originality. ” Ben-Hur” appeared in 1880 ; but it must not be sup-posed that General Wallace gave this second book his exclusive attention for the seven years that had passed. It was half written when, in 1878, President Hayes appointed the distinguished Indianian Governor of New Mexico. The visitor at the Wallace home-stead in Crawfordsville will be shown the beech tree in the shade of which the work was done. To the way in which he works we shall turn later. The concluding half of the tale was written at spare moments in the governor’s palace in Santa Fé, which Mrs. Wallace has described as ” the last rallying-place of the Pueblo Indians.”
At first the more captious of the critics accented their discovery that ” Ben-Hur” showed no rhetorical improvement over ” The Fair God “; and, though they were right, they erred sadly in trying to measure the book with narrow rules. It has defects, as the most sympathetic critic must admit; but the impartial critic must also admit that in boldness and grandeur of conception and in vigor and beauty of style, the story stands unequalled in American literature, and, in parts, unexcelled in the romantic literature of any nation. Here and there are unbalanced sentences, graceless phrases, misplaced words, and interpolations that detract from the unity of effect desirable in all works of art ; but here and there, too, especially in the chapters descriptive of the Grove of Daphne and of the chariot race, is a vivid power at once more charming and more thrilling than anything to be found in any other English novel. “A great historical romance,” as one of our critics remarked many years ago, ” is not to be made with reference to the square and the compass. It must be a vivid historical impression, and at the same time a wisely considered story of life.” “Ben-Hur” adequately fulfills these two fundamental conditions. Moreover it perfectly fulfills, delicately yet impressively, the great moral purpose which the author imposed upon himself. As we recall the author’s narrative of the writing of the tale, this moral purpose, beginning gently, gradually acquired a force that mastered him completely. It was like a flood that first trickles through the seam in the dam, and then, gathering in volume, sweeps all before it. The characters themselves, from Christ to the faithful steward, display the highest flight of imagination to be found in any American novel. Indeed, many of the landscape features themselves are so wonderfully vivid that the same praise awarded Tom Moore for his imaginative descriptions of the East may judiciously be extended to General Wallace. We have heard the General say that a scene which he had regarded as purely fictitious or imaginative appeared in surprising reality when, years after the book was published, he first visited Palestine.
Of the tremendous sensation which Ben-Hur ” made when it appeared, and of the phenomenal success which it has maintained even down to the present time, it is, we presume, unnecessary to speak. The author, as we noted before, has guarded its fame diligently, jealously; in fact, although Lawrence Barrett urged him years ago to allow the book to be dramatized, he did not yield to solicitation in this form until 1900. This circumstance reminds us that the General once wrote a play called ” Commodus,” but its multiplicity of leading characters has kept it in his desk. It would bankrupt any manager in America, they told him. ” The Prince of India,” the romance published in 1893, suffered, as it must have suffered, by comparison with “Ben-Hur.” Judged by itself, it is delightful. It exemplifies the writer’s remarkable creative force and his ever-youthful enthusiasm. Probably the last notable work from the General’s pen will be the autobiography on which he has been at work for the last few years.
General Wallace’s diplomatic experience at Constantinople is worthy of a chapter, but we must content ourselves with saying that it added brilliancy to the honors which he had earned as a soldier and as an author. Of late the General has been living a semi-pastoral life at his estate in Indiana. He has himself described his daily habits :
“I begin to write at about 9 A.M. Keep at work till noon. Resume about 1.30 P.M., and leave my studio about 4. I then exercise for two hours. I walk or ride horse-back, according to the weather. When it rains I put on a heavy pair of boots and trudge five to seven miles across the country. I usually ride about a dozen miles. To this habit of taking regular exercise I attribute my good health. I eat just what I want and as much as I want. When night comes I lie down and sleep like a child, never once waking until morning. I usually retire at 9.30 and rise at 7.30, aiming to secure nine hours’ sleep. I smoke at pleasure, a pipe or a cigar, but never a cigarette, which I consider the deadliest thing a person can put in his mouth. The amount of work I produce in a day varies greatly. Sometimes I write four hundred and sometimes twelve hundred words. What I write to-day in the rough, to-morrow I revise, perhaps reducing it to twenty words, perhaps striking out all the day’s work and beginning at the same point once more. That constitutes my second copy. When proofs come from the publisher another revision takes place. It consists chiefly of condensation and expurgation.”
He was asked once what he considered the secret of his success. ” Work,” he answered, ” and, as an author, the doing it myself with my own hand, not by means of a typewriter, or amanuensis or stenographer. To work I would add universal reading.”
Who is your favorite novelist ? ” the questioner went on.
” Sir Walter Scott.”
” What is your favorite novel? ”
“‘ Ivanhoe.’ ”
And your favorite poem? ”
” Idylls of the King.’ ”
” What do you consider the sublimest poetry in the world? ”
” You will find it in the Psalms and Job, in Homer, in Milton and in Shakespeare.”
” Who, in your judgment, are the three greatest warriors the world has produced ? ”
” Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon.”
Who, in your opinion, were the greatest American statesmen? ”
” George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. Alexander Hamilton is, in my judgment, the father of the American Constitution. But that Constitution would never have been adopted save for the support given it by the great name of George Washington.”
We have said, after all, far too little of this distinguished man, but all that we might say would hardly give the right emphasis to the greatness of his manifold deeds and to the charm of his personal character.