This August, nearly 60 years after MGM’s blockbuster movie, a new version of Ben- Hur, starring Jack Huston and Morgan Freeman, will reach theaters. As with a lot of major studio releases, there will be a book to accompany it, a novel with a picture of Ben-Hur himself in a chariot on the cover. But what’s unusual is that this novel was originally written in 1880.
As it happens, the author was my great-great-grandfather, Lew Wallace, and I wrote this contemporary version of his novel. Along the way, I found out a great deal about my ancestor, how he came to write his masterpiece, and how it defined his faith.
As a little girl, I was very proud of Lew. He had been a Union general in the Civil War. He had put Billy the Kid in jail (we had a letter from the Kid hanging in our back hall). He was a diplomat and, of course, a best-selling author. Editions of Ben-Hur took up serious shelf space in our house. I even have dim memories of my parents bringing home an illustrated program from the 1959 premiere of the film starring Charlton Heston.
What I didn’t have was familiarity with the book that started it all, because Ben-Hur in its original version is a tough slog for today’s readers. But while adapting it I not only became a great fan of the text but also came to understand the surprisingly moving backstory.
Lew Wallace, it turns out, was a seeker—one of those people whose eyes are on the horizon looking for something more. When he was young, it was adventure. He ran away from home in Indianapolis at 16 to join the Texan war for independence, but got no farther than the banks of the nearby White River. Later, as a soldier, he longed for glory, and it seemed within his grasp until the Battle of Shiloh, in April of 1862.
He was then 34, the youngest major general in the Union Army, a striking figure on a big bay horse, in charge of the 3rd Division—nearly 6,000 hardened soldiers. On the morning of the battle they were held in reserve, waiting for General Ulysses S. Grant to call them up to the field of action.
Yet there was a long delay between Lew’s receiving Grant’s orders and his troops’ arrival at the Union line. In fact, they got there at the close of the first day’s fighting. This was Lew’s disaster.
Shiloh was one of the first major battles of the Civil War. The casualty numbers were appalling. In Washington, Union leaders demanded to know why Grant’s troops had performed so badly. His excuse: General Wallace didn’t get there in time.
Lew claimed the orders were unclear, but that didn’t matter; he was stripped of active command and the brilliant trajectory of his military career was halted. He never got over it. Years later he was still trying to clear his name. His anger and shame and shock never really died away.
How do we know this? From Ben- Hur. The years after the Civil War were hard for Lew. After a futile military adventure in Mexico, he unenthusiastically practiced law in Indiana. By middle age he was deep in debt. His escape was writing. In 1873 he published The Fair God, a novel about Hernán Cortés’s 1519 conquest of Mexico. The book was only moderately successful, but Lew kept writing.
His next effort was a novella about the Magi—it’s easy to see how this chronic adventurer responded to the story of three men who answered a mysterious call and set out into the desert in search of a redeemer. But he put his novella aside.
What turned that fragmentary story into a sweeping saga was a chance conversation. In 1876, Lew found himself in a train compartment with Robert Ingersoll, a superstar of the day—a sought-after speaker and America’s foremost agnostic. Ingersoll enjoyed grilling new acquaintances about their faith.
Lew had considered himself a Christian, but he didn’t go to church, didn’t pray regularly and barely knew the Bible. He was embarrassed by Ingersoll’s questions. He felt he should know more about his faith. And he decided that the best way to educate himself would be to write a novel set at the time of Christ, about a young man whose life is changed by Jesus.
People often forget that the novel’s full title is Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. And though the film versions have tended to focus on the chariot race, Lew’s book (like my version) goes beyond that to include the hero’s redemptive encounters with Jesus. It was the spiritual content that launched Ben-Hur into widespread success.
When it was first published, in 1880, Lew expected merely respectable sales figures. He went off to Constantinople (now Istanbul) to serve as U.S. Minister to the Ottoman Empire. When he came home, five years later, to his surprise and great relish, he was famous. Ben-Hur’s combination of excitement and inspiration had touched thousands of readers.
Do you remember the plot? The hero, Judah Ben-Hur, is a young prince of Israel, living in a palace in Jerusalem, when his childhood friend Messala returns from years in Rome. As boys, they were inseparable, but Rome’s heavy-handed occupation of Jerusalem, along with Messala’s arrogance, now comes between the young men.
Watching a parade of Roman soldiers from his rooftop, Ben-Hur knocks loose a tile, which wounds a Roman officer. In retaliation, his mother and sister are imprisoned and he himself is carried off in chains to serve as a slave in a Roman galley. Messala does nothing to intervene and Ben-Hur spends five years belowdecks pulling an oar, nursing dreams of revenge.
Like his hero’s, Lew’s life had been derailed in a shocking way. At Shiloh, his trust in a golden future was shattered. His anger and sense of outrage fuel the storytelling; Ben-Hur’s bitterness is Lew’s own. What’s more, Ben- Hur’s violent response to his grievance was one that would have been familiar to Lew, who was first and foremost a soldier. Ben-Hur’s revenge during the chariot race is merciless.
That race is not the end of the book, though. Ben-Hur continues to solve his problems with violence, leaving an impressive body count. Even his encounters with Jesus fail to change his habits until the Crucifixion, when he finally understands the message of peace. In the 1880s, as the national trauma of the Civil War receded, that was a thoroughly welcome idea to the reading public of America.
And though Lew never did become a regular churchgoer, writing Ben-Hur nurtured his faith. His authentic belief and his reverent treatment of Jesus’ message helped his book become a phenomenon.
In an era when fiction was often frowned on, this novel that featured Jesus as a speaking character was recommended from pulpits across the country. Word-of-mouth success was followed by a play seen by millions and, ultimately, multiple film versions.
My experience writing this new book echoed Lew’s. He claimed that he lived with his characters, that they lived and spoke to him in his imagination, and my process is similar. Like my great-great-grandfather, I have imagined myself into Jesus’ presence, not once but repeatedly. I have a feeling you know what I mean.
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