Lew Wallace and his Lost Literary Masterpiece

Lew Wallace’s fame generates from his literary masterpiece Ben-Hur. He 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). While these three major novels were actually published, Lew wrote another novel that didn’t survive long past its initial public presentation.

Lew’s Literary Aspirations

While a student at the Indianapolis Seminary, Lew Wallace attended meetings of the Union Literary Society. During meetings, students shared debates, recitations, readings, and parliamentary proceedings. In time, Lew began writing and publicly reciting a lengthy historical poem he had written about John Smith of Virginia. 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.Lew Wallace before he created any literary masterpiece

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

Travels of a Bed-Bug

Lew followed his historical poem with Travels of a Bed-bug. A bed-bug, born in the office of an Indianapolis lawyer, passes from office to office and from hotel to hotel. It provides 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. Later, he regretted it. 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.”

A Literary Masterpiece is Born

After these two efforts at epic poetry, Lew realized that his forte might rather lie in prose. As a result, he commenced writing a lengthy novel. He read this work 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!

The story focused on a page named Pedro. Pedro, of good blood, bore himself like a paladin. A talented youth, he played the lute, sang ballads of knights and ladies fair. In addition, he excelled at horsemanship. He spoke with grace and was generally heroic.

Among the cast of hundreds, the story featured an evil duke, a fair maiden named Inez, and a hateful old widow, and a kindly hermit. The hermit 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. The evil duke separated the the young lovers. Pedro eventually finds glory on a Crusade to Jerusalem in 1097. The finale included a famine, a plague, and a dying hero.

As Lew wrote: “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.” The duke, seeing Pedro and Inez’s love, grants Pedro his dukedom.

The Literary Masterpiece is Lost

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. However, while Lew served 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. He didn’t regret so much its literary quality, but the amusement it would have provided.

Lew stated that despite his youthful tendency to waste time, writing this book proved him 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 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 literary masterpiece demonstrated abilities that led Lew to write The Fair God and, ultimately, Ben-Hur.

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