Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Passion of Lew Wallace

...It took four years, but in 1880, Wallace finished his incidental employment. He called it Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. It’s one of the great if little known ironies in the history of American literature: Having set out to win another soul to the side of skepticism, Robert Ingersoll instead inspired a Biblical epic that would rival the actual Bible for influence and popularity in Gilded Age America—and a folk story that has been reborn, in one medium or another, in every generation since.

The ongoing celebration of the Civil War’s 150th anniversary has focused thus far on the conflict’s traditional heroes. Ulysses S. Grant is the subject of a best-selling biography; Abraham Lincoln just won an Oscar. Lew Wallace is not one of those heroes. He lacked Grant’s training and instincts for war, and possessed nothing akin to Lincoln’s political genius or personal charm. Wallace was brave but overconfident on the battlefield, impatient and impertinent off of it. The Union’s two greatest generals, Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, both rebounded from early missteps—Sherman was so spooked after the Union’s defeat at First Bull Run that critics openly questioned his sanity. Wallace, however, couldn’t live down his early stumble, at Shiloh, and spent much of the war on its sidelines.

Yet Wallace’s unlikely journey from disgraced general to celebrated author is as thrilling as any story of his era, and his fame in his own lifetime surpassed that of all but a handful of his comrades in arms. Few men participated so completely in the postbellum American experience. Wallace had a Zelig-like knack for insinuating himself into the defining moments of his day. A lawyer by training, he served on the tribunal that tried the Lincoln assassination conspirators and presided over the one that convicted Henry Wirz, the commandant of the notorious prison camp at Andersonville, Ga., and the only Confederate executed for war crimes. During the disputed election of 1876, the Republican Party sent Wallace to oversee the original Florida recount. For his role in delivering the White House to Rutherford B. Hayes, he was rewarded with the governorship of the New Mexico territory. The duties of office included putting down a range war in Lincoln County; among the combatants was William H. Bonney, better known as Billy the Kid. Initially charmed by the young gunslinger, Wallace once asked him for a demonstration of his marksmanship and was impressed by his handling of both six-shooter and rifle. He soon tired of the Kid’s homicidal antics, however, and put a $500 bounty on his head.

His role in the life and death of Billy the Kid earned Wallace a bit part in the dime novels that burnished the outlaw’s legend, but it was nothing compared to the celebrity his own novel brought him. He had begun the book in his native Indiana, writing in the shade of what would come to be known as the Ben-Hur beech, and would finish it in Santa Fe. At night, after he’d wound down the territory’s affairs, he would retreat to a dismal back room of the adobe governor's palace and bar the doors and windows. Sitting at a rough pine table, he composed the novel’s eighth and final book by the light of a solitary lamp.

I'll always remember it. While accompanying Senator Domenici to the Lee Ranch near San Mateo, NM, I got to sit in the same room where Wallace wrote some of the chapters to Ben-Hur.  Quite an experience. There's another story about that visit.  It involves a typewriter and whiskey.  But that will have to wait until another day.

1 comment:

Emmit Brooks said...

Frank- I have a Lee ranch story too, and will share with you sometime. Thanks for the Lew Wallace piece.