At Slate, John Swansburg tells the story:
The train was bound for Indianapolis and the Third National Soldiers Reunion, where thousands of Union Army veterans planned to rally, reminisce, and march in a parade the New York Times would later describe as 'the grandest street display ever seen in the United States.' It was Sept. 19, 1876, more than a decade since the Civil War had ended. [General Lew] Wallace had grayed a bit, but still wore the sweeping imperial moustache he’d had at the Battle of Shiloh. 'Is that you, General Wallace?' the man in the nightgown asked. 'Won’t you come to my room? I want to talk.'
Robert Ingersoll, also a veteran of Shiloh, was now the nation's most prominent atheist, a renowned orator who toured the country challenging religious orthodoxy and championing a healthy separation of church and state. Wallace recognized him from earlier that summer, when he'd heard Ingersoll, a fellow Republican, make a rousing speech at the party's nominating convention. Wallace accepted his invitation and suggested they take up a subject near to Ingersoll’s heart: the existence of God. Ingersoll talked until the train reached its destination. 'He went over the whole question of the Bible, of the immortality of the soul, of the divinity of God, and of heaven and hell,' Wallace later recalled. 'He vomited forth ideas and arguments like an intellectual volcano.' The arguments had a powerful effect on Wallace. Departing the train, he walked the pre-dawn streets of Indianapolis alone. In the past he had been indifferent to religion, but after his talk with Ingersoll his ignorance struck him as problematic, 'a spot of deeper darkness in the darkness.' He resolved to devote himself to a study of theology, 'if only for the gratification there might be in having convictions of one kind or another.'
But how to go about such a study? Wallace knew himself well enough to predict that a syllabus of sermons and Biblical commentaries would fail to hold his interest. He devised instead what he called 'an incidental employment,' a task that would compel him to complete a thorough investigation of the eternal questions while entertaining his distractible mind. A few years earlier, he'd published a historical romance about the Spanish conquest of Mexico, to modest success. His idea now was to inquire after the divinity of Christ by writing a novel about him.There may be something of a revival of interest in Wallace and his post-bellum Bible epic.
It took four years, but in 1880, Wallace finished his incidental employment. He called it Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. It’s one of the great if little known ironies in the history of American literature: Having set out to win another soul to the side of skepticism, Robert Ingersoll instead inspired a Biblical epic that would rival the actual Bible for influence and popularity in Gilded Age America—and a folk story that has been reborn, in one medium or another, in every generation since.
A conference at Rutgers last month featured some serious scholars inquiring into Ben-Hur, including Ed Blum, Brooks Holifield and David Reynolds. I've found surprising little on Ben-Hur, especially when compared to the amount of scholarship that has been done on the best-selling Christian novel immediate preceding Wallace's work, Uncle Tom's Cabin.
I'm interested because Ben-Hur regularly serves as a point of comparison for commentary on the success of Left Behind. At the height of its popularity in 2001, for example, there was one copy of the ninth volume of the Left Behind (the most-sold volume) for every 95.2 Americans. In 1912, when a new printing of Ben-Hur was the largest single printing in American history to that point, there was one copy per 95.3 Americans.
A lot of the comparisons are pretty vague, though, and only make generalizations about how popular Ben-Hur actually was. There's even less information generally given about how it was sold, how it was received, and so on.
Swansburg has done some helpful research, though, and put together key information about the 19th-century best seller:
Ben-Hur wasn't an immediate success. Sales were slow for the first few months as the book absorbed mixed reviews. With its story of a noble prince endeavoring to save his family and restore his good name (winning the heart of a humble but beautiful Jewess in the process), the novel resembled the romances Wallace had loved as a child, which had long since fallen out of critical favor. With its chariot race and sea battle, it shared something with the dime novels then enjoying wide popularity but no literary esteem. Always a lover of the bold stroke, Wallace had written out his final manuscript in purple ink, a color his critics would have found apt for some of the novel’s loftier passages.Hopefully there will be more work done on this novel and its place in American history soon.
Yet what the critics dismissed the reading public soon came to love. Tracking book sales in the 19th century is an inexact science, but the Morsbergers, Wallace's biographers, estimate that Harper Brothers sold a million copies of the novel between 1880 and 1912; in 1913, Sears, Roebuck ordered a million more, at the time the largest book order ever placed. James David Hart's The Popular Book: A History of America’s Literary Taste (1950) cites a study conducted in 1893, which found that only three contemporary novels were held by more than 50 percent of public libraries. Ben-Hur was first among them, present in 83 percent of the collections surveyed. (The other two were Little Lord Fauntleroy and Ramona.) 'If every American didn't read the novel, almost everyone was aware of it,' Hart concludes.