PRINCE OF INDIANA: A BIOGRAPHY OF GENERAL LEW WALLACE, AUTHOR OF BEN HUR (Part 1)

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in Self Reliance of his ideal nineteenth century man:

A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always, like a cat, falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls. He walks abreast with his days, and feels no shame in not ‘studying a profession,’ for he does not postpone his life, but lives already. He has not one chance, but a hundred chances.

This could have been a description of Lew Wallace, author of Ben Hur, who lived a life that few could today in our society of over-preparation and died on February 15th, 1905. Wallace was a Civil War general (famous for his actions at the battle of Shiloh), Governor of New Mexico and ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.

General Lew Wallace, ca. 1860

Wallace did study a profession, but while a specialist for his time, would be considered an amateur by the standards of ours.

He began his autobiography with a statement of his “absolute” belief in the Christian conception of God, and felt he needed such a clarification due to the nature of his works, especially Ben Hur,which had led some to “speculate about [his] creed.”[1] But Wallace was equally clear that he was “not a member of any church or denomination, nor have I ever been.”[2] Wallace was a Freemason, a member of Fountainhead Lodge No. 60 in Covington, Indiana. In fact, author Aleksandr Moiseevich Piatigorskiĭ, notes that Ben Hur “gives expression to some  Masonic ideas.”[3]

When I found an 1880 edition of Ben Hur at the library book sale, I thought Iʻd scored a valuable antiquarian find, but I found it was worth about the $4 Iʻd paid because Ben Hur was the best-selling book of the nineteenth century.

Wallace was trained in law at ­­­the law offices of Robert Dunn and not at any University. He was only a student at Wabash College for two months, and was only nine years old at the time! (It was Wabash Preparatory School at the time, but is now a top tier liberal arts college only for men.)

At the very beginning of his autobiography, Wallace notes (perhaps unconsciously) the priviledge that lauched him into such a remarkable career – he was the son of Indiana Governor David Wallace: “The life has been, on the whole, so happy, comfortable and fortunate, that the world … seems an esteemed associate in a long journey.”[4]

At Shiloh, he is remembered for disobeying the orders of General Grant, and it is still debated whether his or Grant’s was the right course of action, but it did damage to his reputation. As Governor of New Mexico he met, and promised to pardon (in a kind of early witness protection program) Billy the Kid. He was not able to make good on this promise, however, and Billy the Kid returned to his life as an outlaw and killed several men in the process.

1880 edition of Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ

It is in Turkey, as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire that Wallace certainly cultivated his interest in the early Christian period in the middle east, culminating in Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ and also Prince of India, or Why Constantinople Fell, which is considered by many to be anti-semitic. There is, however, a document online containing:

This self-described “Song of Praise,” to be sung by students of the Blumenholz Shul and the Lemel School “in honor of the great nobleman General Wallace, Consul of the United States of America” suggests that either the author of Ben-Hur, or the country in whose diplomatic service he served, was revered by the Yishuv.  A “David” has come to “our ashen city” the text proclaims: “The Nobleman and Prince, General Wallace has entered… (http://www.shapell.org/manuscript.aspx?american-minister-lew-wallace-jerusalem)

Upon returning, and retiring, to his hometown of Crawfordsville, Indiana, Wallace built a stand-alone study on his property and commenced the writing of his several books, including Ben Hur and his autobiography. The site is now a museum dedicated to him.
My own interest in Wallace began when I found out that Wallace is a great-uncle of mine – my grandfather’s name is Wallace Wyman Perkins.


[1] Wallace, 1893, 1.

[2] Wallace, 1893, 2.

[3] Piatigorski, 2005, 178.

[4] Wallace, 1893, 1.

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1 Comment

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One response to “PRINCE OF INDIANA: A BIOGRAPHY OF GENERAL LEW WALLACE, AUTHOR OF BEN HUR (Part 1)

  1. I first saw the movie, Ben Hur, at the drive-in in Wellfleet at about age 10. I remember it well, and I remember being told I was related to the man who wrote the story. I felt pretty important.

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