Monday, March 18, 2013

Lew Wallace and his Lost Masterpiece

Lew Wallace is generally given credit for writing three novels of historical fiction. The Fair God: The Last of the ‘Tizins (1873), Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880); and The Prince of India; or, Why Constantinople Fell (1893). It is true that these were his three major novels that were actually published, but he wrote another novel that didn’t survive long past its initial public presentation.

While a student at the Indianapolis Seminary, Lew Wallace attended meetings of the Union Literary Society where students shared debates, recitations, readings, and parliamentary proceedings. In time, Lew began writing and publically reciting a lengthy historical poem he had written with John Smith of Virginia the hero. In the poem, this hero is aptly named “Virginia John.” Written in the flavor of Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion his poem ended with the dramatic rescue of Pocahontas.
A young Lew Wallace

Irving McKee in his book The Early Life of Lew Wallace speculates that Lew might have been inspired by a production of the play Pocahontas by Robert Dale Owen that was performed by the Indianapolis Thespian Corps in the winter of 1839. In this production, Lew had the role of “Numony,” Pocahontas’ sister and his real-life brother, William, had the lead role of John Smith.

Lew’s historical poem was then followed by his Travels of a Bed-bug. In this poem, a bed-bug, born in the office of an Indianapolis lawyer passes from office to office and from hotel to hotel with adventures and commentary on local citizens along the way until it dies from over drink—much like the famed Alexander the Great. Lew had this effort published to the great amusement of the town, but to his regret, as he wrote of: “. . . the just indignation of the gentlemen concerned. Learning that several of them were looking for me, canes in hand, I went hunting, and was gone time enough for the flurry to blow over.”

After these two efforts at epic poetry, Lew realized that his forte might rather lie in prose. He then commenced writing a lengthy novel that he read to the Literary Society in installments. This work, The Man-at-Arms: A Tale of the Tenth Century truly became an epic production. Just the synopsis in Lew’s autobiography runs from page 63 to page 72! To summarize the summary, the hero was a page named Pedro, who was of good blood and bore himself like a paladin. A talented youth, he played the lute, sang ballads of knights and ladies fair, excelled at horsemanship, spoke with grace and was generally heroic. Among the cast of hundreds, the story included an evil duke, a fair maiden named Inez, and a hateful old widow, and a kindly hermit who married the young lovers in a cave in the mountains.

Trials and tribulations flowed from Lew’s pen as the story wound on and on with the young lovers separated by the evil duke. Set in the year of our Lord 1097, Pedro eventually finds glory on a Crusade to Jerusalem. The finale included a famine, a plague, and a dying hero. As Lew wrote in remembering this work: “On a bed of straw she found him lying, to all appearance dying. Not minding his feeble protest, she unlaced his helmet and took it off. The recognition was instantaneous. The scene that ensued was to the author’s heart, and he gave it his best power.” Ultimately Pedro was restored to health because “there is no leech like love” and the duke, seeing Pedro and Inez’s love grants Pedro his dukedom.

By the time Lew had finished this gripping tale it had stretched to over 250 pages of text closely written and bound in a book. He kept the book at his home for several years, but while away serving in the Mexican War, the book was misplaced or destroyed. Even as Lew penned his autobiography some fifty years later he wrote that the loss of this book was one of his standing regrets—not so much for its literary quality, but for the amusement it would have provided. He stated that even with his youthful tendency to waste time, writing this book proved to him that he was capable of continuity of purpose. It also proved to him, that although sophomoric and overly sentimental, he could capture an audience with his writing and with his public speaking. The members of the Union Literary Society turned out in force whenever he had a new installment of the story to present. In theme and prose this effort presaged his later works of religious fiction. More importantly, this lost masterpiece demonstrated to Lew that he had abilities that deserved further self encouragement and ultimately led to the writing of The Fair God and ultimately, Ben-Hur.


The General Lew Wallace Study & Museum celebrates and renews belief in the power of the individual spirit to affect American history and culture.




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