A Person of Ability

I just finished reading Ben Hur, by Lew Wallace. For the third time. I’ve always been mildly curious about the man who could and would write such a story. This time I decided that I was curious enough to actually dig up a biography.

Based on the stories in the first chapter of Lew Wallace:Militant Romantic, I would guess that if Lew were growing up today his parents, at the very least, would have him medicated, or he would be on his way to, or in, reform school. As a child, Lew could see no reason why he should want to fit into the typical mold. It got so bad that when he was 16, his father judged it best to send Lew out to earn his own livelihood. Which was really just what Lew had been wishing he could ask for.

The authors, Robert and Katharine Morsberger comment, “In the 1840’s formal diplomas were not the sine qua non that they have since become; a person of ability could get ahead without transcripts and dossiers.” I get the impression that the Morsbergers, wouldn’t think much of such a gamble these days.

“Despite his erratic schooling and haphazard attendance, Lewis had learned from Professor Hoshour how to educate himself. At home, his father’s family readings dropped more seed in his son’s creative soil than had all the floggings by schoolmasters. These readings and access to his father’s library implanted the love of literature in the future novelist. David Wallace ‘bought the best editions of the best books’ and subscribed to the Edinburgh Review and other major British quarterlies. Of contemporary writers, he particularly admired Macaulay, but other favorites included Lamb’s Essays of Elia, Shakespeare, Milton, and Sir Walter Scott. Summer readings were special treats, but on long winter nights, the family regularly gathered around the hearth fire and forgot about the freezing weather outside, as David Wallace, in a sensitive, well-modulated voice, free from the affectations of professional recitationists, read Hall, Bossuet, and Bourdaloue, and the English poets, essayists, and novelists. Afterwards, he had his sons practice declamations and corrected their performance and enunciation. ‘A man might be awkward in manner,’ he argued, ‘careless in dress, homely in feature, false in premise, illogical, even ungrammatical, yet a good speaker, if he only enunciated clearly, and was in earnest.’”

At 16, Lew found a job and did well. He relieved the tedium of his nine-to-five job by writing, but was unsatisfied by his casual efforts. He says, “At last the real cause of the malady uncovered itself. In connection with impulses to try something as a writer I was not doing anything in preparation for the work.”

“He needed to study prose style; and if he were to continue with historical fiction, he needed to research his subject. . . and he now determined to devote [his evenings] to self-education. The former truant now assumed a schedule almost as rigorous as Benjamin Franklin’s.” In his readings, he hit upon the subject of Cortes’ Conquest of Mexico. “He little thought that the project would last for thirty years.” This was the subject of his first published novel, The Fair God.

I’ve only read the first chapter of Wallace’s biography, so I can’t comment on the quality of this book. I own The Fair God, but haven’t read it yet, so I can’t comment on it either. What struck me about Wallace’s early life was how classical his education was without benefit of much formal schooling.

What if?

What if we trusted our instincts enough to train up our children in the way they should go? Without worrying about what the neighbors think.

What if the largest part of our homeschool time and budgets went into discovering and obtaining the best books, the books that have formed great men and women for hundreds or thousands of years?

What if we trained up children of such abilities that they could get along without diplomas and dossiers?

What if we set our children such excellent examples of self-education that our children followed suit—for the rest of their lives?

What if we were willing to wait 20 or 30 years or more to see the fruits of our labors, rather than needing trophies and pieces of paper from the world to tell us we had succeeded?

What if we raised up children who saw the connection between hard work and self-motivation and success?

Just wondering.

**Diane and Sara will be reviewing Wallace’s Ben Hur, Heston’s Ben Hur, and the new Ben Hur film soon!