Page:The Cambridge History of American Literature, v3.djvu/92

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74
The Later Novel

later gave up the ministry in the firm conviction that he could reach thousands with novels and only hundreds with his voice. His simple formula included: first, some topical material, historical event, or current issue; second, characters and incidents selected directly from his personal observation or from newspapers; third, an abundance of “nature” descriptions with much praise of the rural virtues; and fourth, plots concerned almost invariably, and not very deviously, with the simultaneous pursuit of wives, fortunes, and salvation. Barriers Burned Away (1872), The Opening of a Chestnut Burr (1874), and Without a Home (1881) are said to have been his most widely read books.

The greatest, however, and practically the ultimate victory over village opposition to the novel was won by Ben-Hur A Tale of the Christ (1880), a book of larger pretension and broader scope than any of Roe’s or Holland’s modest narratives, the only American novel, indeed, which can be compared with Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a true folk possession.[1] Its author, Gen. Lew Wallace (1827–1905), an Indiana lawyer, a soldier in both the Mexican and the Civil War, had already published The Fair God (1873), an elaborate romance of the conquest of Mexico. A chance conversation with the notorious popular skeptic Col. Robert G. Ingersoll led Wallace to researches into the character and doctrines of Jesus which not only convinced him but bore further fruit in a tale which thousands have read who have read no other novel except perhaps Uncle Tom’s Cabin and have hardly thought of either as a novel at all, and through which still more thousands know the geography, ethnology, and customs of first-century Judaea and Antioch as through no other source. Without doubt the outstanding element in the story is the revenge of Ben-Hur upon his false friend Messala, a revenge which takes the Prince of Jerusalem through the galleys and the palaestra and which leaves Messala, after the thrilling episode of the chariot race, crippled and stripped of his fortune. And yet, following even such pagan deeds, Ben-Hur’s discovery that he cannot serve the Messiah with the sword does not quite seem an anticlimax, though the conclusion, dealing with the Passion, like the introductory

  1. An edition numbering a million copies was ordered by a Chicago mail order house in 1913 and promptly distributed.