Lew Wallace really comes into focus at the General Lew Wallace Study & Museum in Crawfordsville, Indiana. He was one of the most important celebrities of the 19th century and a true Renaissance Man. He won’t be forgotten. Among his accomplishments was the indisputable fact that he wrote the best selling book of his time. Translated into more than 40 languages, Ben-Hur was the most published book worldwide until a kid named Harry Potter came along.
Like a lot of restless geniuses, Lew gave his father trouble. The film about him at his study and museum calls him a “frontier dreamer”. He disliked school but became fascinated by military life. After studying law he entered the infantry and became a Civil War participant with an uneven career. Probably the most famous battle he fought in was Shiloh. Over time he did well enough to steadily rise in the Union Army. Abraham Lincoln promoted him, and Wallace became the youngest man to hold the rank of Major General in that war. He presided over the trials of Lincoln’s conspirators. He returned to Crawfordsville, ran for Congress, and wrote his first of 7 books. Over the next several years he was Governor of the New Mexico Territory and served his country as Ambassador to what is now Turkey, bonding with its Sultan. He became a painter, played the violin, was responsible for 8 patents, etc.
His 2nd book was his blockbuster. Ben-Hur, which he partially wrote under a beech tree on his Indiana property, has been made into a film 5 times–1907, 1915, 1925, 1959 and 2016. The 1959 version directed by William Wyler won 11 Academy Awards. Its chariot race is still considered a marvel of movie-making and is reportedly the best thing about the 2016 version.
Lew Wallace built his unusual, basically one-room study as a retreat from the world and a place to display his considerable and beloved belongings. It once had a moat. After his death, his family opened it to the public so that they could see “the Home of Ben-Hur”. Lew’s lair has changed little since then, and is definitely worth the trip to Crawfordsville.
Opened seasonally, generally April to October, the Wallace Study & Museum was setting up a new display when Ruth and I were there. In it will be Judah Ben-Hur’s racing costume from the 2016 film. It was not out yet, but I thoroughly enjoyed looking at a 1st edition of one of the most successful book ever written.