First published in 1880, Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur is one of the best-selling novels of all time. Employing analytical strategies from the fields of literature, fan studies, reception history, and media research, Barbara Ryan traces Ben-Hur’s popularity from 1880 to 1924. She analyzes fan mail as well as a wide range of manuscript and print sources, using as her starting place two letters in which admirers declared that they would rather be the author of Ben-Hur than to be President of the United States. Ryan’s discussion of the novel in terms of its contemporary fandom makes it possible for her to dispel misconceptions about the novel’s audience which include assumptions about its popularity with all Christians. She makes fascinating connections between Ben-Hur, slavery discourse, and the changing nature of U.S. politics to challenge critics who assume that Wallace consciously used a sure-fire formula. By shedding light on attempts to squash the novel’s popularity, Ryan examines dramatizations of Ben-Hur by amateurs and on Broadway. Her in-depth reception history of Ben-Hur’s incarnations in print and on stage establishes the novel’s importance for understanding nineteenth-century U.S. literature, politics, and culture.
Barbara Ryan is an associate professor in the University Scholars Programme at the National University of Singapore.