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Lew Wallace

Lew Wallace

Provided by Kankakee Valley Historical Society

I believe Lew Wallace is perhaps the greatest Hoosier to date. His list of accomplishments is dazzling! They include: Civil War Major General, Territorial Governor of New Mexico and Minister to the Ottoman Empire. His other interests include: photography, music, painting and writing. Wallace's most recognized work is the novel "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ."

The Ben-Hur novel consists of eight books. Wallace referred to Book One as "The First Christmas." It covers the story of the three Magi and the birth of Christ. The following books tell of the fictional life of Jewish noble Judah Ben-Hur and his ordeal under Roman rule. It depicts his life of a high-born to that of enslavement aboard a Roman Galley. Ben-Hur becomes a follower of Christ after being shown the true light of compassion.

It is believed that Wallace was inspired to write Ben-Hur after a lengthy discussion with the well-known agnostic and public speaker, Robert Ingersoll. After his conversation with Ingersoll Wallace set out to explore and discover his own personal Christian beliefs. The Ben-Hur novel was written over the course of seven years and published in 1880. It was an immediate hit and the leading bestselling book until the publishing of "Gone With the Wind" in 1936.

Soon after the success of Ben-Hur was realized Wallace was approached by many to allow his book to be adapted as a play. Wallace refused for his book to be set for the stage. Wallace fervently believed in Christ's divinity and a man acting as Christ would be sacrilegious. His position would not change even after 20 years of pursuit by numerous playwrights.

By this time I would guess that you are thinking what does all of this have to do with the history of the Kankakee River and this special Christmas Day River Bits column.

In 1898, there was gathering at the Pittsburgh Gun Club at Baum's Bridge of playwright William Young and stage producers Marc Klaw and A.L. Erlanger. Much of source material for this column comes from Young's publication "Ben-Hur's Stage Career." Joining them at the Pittsburgh was the famous veteran Logansport actor Walker Whiteside. Whiteside was a very close and trusted friend of Wallace. Whiteside and Wallace hunted for many years together on the Kankakee. The dilemma was how to make the stage adaptation of Ben-Hur and still satisfy Wallace's objections of Christ's depiction. A solution was found! Young wrote: "The general had for over 20 years refused to listen to propositions for staging the story because he would not have the figure of Christ portrayed on the stage. It was Mr. Whiteside who suggested the ‘beam of light' effect that was adopted." The "beam of light" represented the image of Christ.

The "beam of light" answer was to be honored and followed by all future stage and screen adaptations. This group of talented Pittsburgh Gun Club guests solved the Ben-Hur roadblock! This solution has allowed us to experience Wallace's play and later three movie vision of "The First Christmas." Ben-Hur also shows us Wallace's struggle to find his own Christianity and humanity after the horrors experienced on the Civil War battlefields.

This column solely represents the writer's opinion.

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Community Coordinator

Annette is Community Coordinator for The Times. She has been with the paper for two decades. A resident of Hobart, she graduated from Purdue University with degrees in English and German.