Sunday, November 29, 2009

All About Bennie . . .

HUMANITIES is a magazine published by the National Endowment for the Humanities, an independent grant-making agency of the United States government dedicated to supporting research, education, preservation, and public programs in the humanities.

Their web site is a fine, diverse creation, and has an article by Amy Lifson, titled "Ben-Hur: The Book That Shook the World". It's a fascinating look at the book, first published in 1880, and especially its author, General Lew Wallace, who was a Union Civil War hero.

For most of us, Ben-Hur is the Charlton Heston movie. It was the third try at the story. The first was done in 1907, two years after the author's death. Ms. Lifson notes:

Wallace died in 1905 at the age of seventy-seven. Later that same year, his study was opened to the public. Two years later, the first fifteen-minute, unauthorized film version was released and Wallace’s son took up the cause, suing the filmmaker for using the plot and title of Ben-Hur without permission of the author’s estate. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court and firmly established the copyright infringement laws for the movie industry that are still in use today. A synopsis of the ruling hangs on the wall of the Study next to the only extant image from that film, showing the chariot race: All the other prints were destroyed by law.

The second version was done in 1925, with Ramon Novarro playing Ben-Hur, and then in 1959, the third version:

The film cost MGM $15 million to make, won the studio a record eleven Oscars, and was seen by ninety-eight million people in cinemas across the United States. It was the only Hollywood movie to make the Vatican’s official list of approved religious films, and, like clockwork, it is rebroadcast on network television every Easter. And yet the movie’s acclaim still does not compare to the waves of religious ecstasy that followed the publication of the novel, which is the most influential Christian book written in the nineteenth century.

The most influential Christian book written in the nineteenth century? No foolin':

Since its first publication, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ has never been out of print. It outsold every book except the Bible until Gone With the Wind came out in 1936, and resurged to the top of the list again in the 1960s. By 1900 it had been printed in thirty-six English-language editions and translated into twenty others, including Indonesian and Braille.

Victorians who swore off novels because of their immoral influence eagerly picked up Ben-Hur—were even encouraged to by their pastors. It became required reading in grade schools across the United States. For those who considered theater sinful, the spectacle of the Broadway version lured them in for twenty-one years, not to mention the touring show that required four entire trains to transport all the scenery and livestock. More than twenty million people saw Ben-Hur on stage between 1899 and 1920, complete with live horses running on hidden treadmills to recreate the chariot race.

Gen. Wallace was a rather exceptional chap:

The book made Lew Wallace a celebrity, sought out for speaking engagements, political endorsements, and newspaper interviews. “I would not give a tuppence for the American who has not at least tried to do one of three things,” Wallace told a New York Times reporter in 1893. “That person lacks the true American spirit who has not tried to paint a picture, write a book, or get out a patent on something.” Or, he added, “tried to play some musical instrument. There you have the genius of the true American in those four—art, literature, invention, music.”

Not coincidentally, Lew Wallace himself excelled at all four.

Go check out Amy's fine article.

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