Historical fiction as a genre was first developed by the writers of the Romantic school, which arose around the end of the 18th century; the RomanticsHistorical fiction as a genre was first developed by the writers of the Romantic school, which arose around the end of the 18th century; the Romantics were drawn by the exoticism of historical settings and the drama of epochal events, and even of daily life in a time was life was wilder and more dangerous. Lew Wallace's masterwork stands squarely in this tradition, but takes it in a new direction. For the first couple of Romantic generations, "history" largely meant European history. Biblical history, outside of the text of the Bible itself, simply wasn't that well known; archaeology was in its infancy, and neither writers or readers could really imagine the Biblical world as it actually was.
By 1880, however, scholarship had pulled back the curtain of obscurity enough to bring to light the basic contours of that ancient and Near Eastern world, and a full-fledged epic novel of the time of Christ had become possible. It was Lew Wallace's destiny to write it. A lawyer-politician with a military background in both the Mexican and Civil Wars, he was already a successful historical novelist. At the time he embarked on writing Ben Hur, by his own statement, he had no particular religious beliefs; but during the seven years of research he put in for the writing of the novel, his study of the New Testament and its historical background led him to become a Christian believer. Although title character Judah Ben Hur is the novel's protagonist, this is also very much, as the subtitle says, a tale of the Christ, who will be the decisive influence in the protagonist's life; and the author's treatment of Christ and his ministry is thoroughly reverent.
The novel isn't without its flaws. Having a background in Biblical scholarship, I'm prone to notice factual errors in the historical-cultural details; and despite Wallace's research, there are several of them here, though in the interests of time I'll refrain from cataloging them. Besides his typical 19th-century diction (which doesn't bother me personally, though it does some modern readers), his pacing can be slow, especially in the opening chapters, and a few passages of dialogue basically take the form of long, sermon-like discourses or expositions that can be on the dry side. His prose style is often description-heavy, and there sometimes isn't a corresponding gain in the clarity with which readers can visualize the scenes (for instance, despite the laborious attempt to describe the appointments of the ampitheater at Antioch, I can't say I really have a clear mental picture of it, though that may be my fault and not his). He inserts miraculous Divine activity into some contexts where the New Testament writers don't; and in common with most 19th-century Christians, he belabors a false dichotomy between Christ as a savior and "spiritual" king vs. his role as future king of the physical world, a dichotomy which IMO makes nonsense of both Old and New Testament eschatology (though Wallace is right in recognizing that Christ's mission in his first coming was vastly more profound, and less militant, than the role the Zealots wanted to cast him in).
However, the pluses here strongly outweigh the minuses. This is a substantial novel, dealing with serious spiritual, moral and psychological issues, and embodying them in the experiences and decisions of very well-drawn, lifelike characters. To be sure, there is the full panoply of a Romantic -school novel of excitement and adventure, with plenty of appeal to strong emotions (miscarriage of justice, galley slavery, piracy, shipwreck, a high-stakes chariot race with the possibility of death or injury for the contestants, a romantic triangle, revenge, betrayal, the horrors of leprosy, and above all the intense real-life drama of the crucifixion of Christ, here depicted with as much horrific force as prose can give it without the visual element). All of this, of course, is something the Realist critical establishment, of Wallace's day and ours, sees as literary mortal sin, and deprecates accordingly --and which I do not. But it's coupled with a significant message that's as profound as that of any other classic novel that's stood the test of time. That combination made this the best-selling novel of the 19th-century, and ensured that it's never been out of print since. It was the decisive influence in opening up the Biblical world as a setting for historical fiction, which innumerable authors since have made use of, and in opening up the minds of conservative Protestant readers in the English-speaking world to the legitimacy of fiction as an art form. These are no mean achievements; by any objective measure, Wallace ranks as one of the most influential and significant American authors of his period, although you would never discover this from most of the "official" literary histories and academic survey courses.
Note: I read this in the 1992 Reader's Digest unabridged edition, which has an illuminating Afterword adapted from Lew Wallace, Militant Romantic, by Robert and Katharine Morsberger....more
I've now started on the third and final volume of L'Amour's collected Western short stories (I'm treating the collection as a single, three-volume booI've now started on the third and final volume of L'Amour's collected Western short stories (I'm treating the collection as a single, three-volume book, though Goodreads doesn't have a unified entry for it). This volume has 28 stories; in this stint of reading, I read 11 of them --mostly in order, though I read "A Gun for Kilkenny" out of order because it's quite short, and I needed a short one at that point to finish before starting a common read in one of my groups.
L'Amour's prose style and literary quality is highly consistent, and the basic characteristics of the stories here are much the same as in the preceding volumes; so many of my general comments made in my reviews of those would also apply here. Hostile critics, in order to find an accusation against L'Amour, would be most apt to charge him with "predictability." To a degree, the general outlines of his plots do tend to be predictable, in the sense that good will triumph, reflecting a way of looking at the universe that's morally optimistic. (Nonetheless, he can pull some genuine surprises out of the hat in places, in the details of his plotting, though they fit into the story organically without being dragged in.) To my mind, this isn't necessarily a literary fault, and uncertainty on that point isn't necessarily a plus. (In a very real way, despite the frequent violence in the stories and the way they recognize and depict the great depths of callous evil that humans are capable of, these tales can qualify as comfort reads.)
The stories featuring Texas Ranger Chick Bowdrie were apparently all grouped in Volume 2; none of those here is an overt Bowdrie story, though from the description of the unnamed Ranger just referred to as "Sonora" in "The Guns Talk Loud," he could be Bowdrie. Besides the story I named in the first paragraph, though, at least one other selection features the restless gunfighter Kilkenny, so he might emerge as another L'Amour series character here. Because of their similar quality, it's hard to pick one or two favorites among the tales I read this time. I'd say that my favorite among the heroines here is probably Clarabel Jornal in "Pardner from the Rio" --but they're all admirable, and so are the heroes. :-) More will follow later, the next time I dip into the collection!...more