When Lew Wallace's Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ first appeared in 1880, it was bound in a cadet blue-gray cloth with floral decorations on the front cover, spine, and back cover. Wallace had only one other novel printed before (The Fair God in 1873) and Harper probably only issued this first printing in an edition of 1,000 copies.
It was copyrighted October 12, 1880; published November 12th (as noted in a letter to Wallace from Harper dated November 13, 1880). In fact, the earliest autographed copy noted bears Wallace's inscription dated November 17, 1880, in the collection of the Indiana Historical Society Library. The first printed review appeared in The New York Times, November 14, 1880, and noted that it is "printed and in the hands of book dealers."
According to Russo and Sullivan, Mrs. Wallace objected to the floral decorative cloth. She wrote to Harper on January 3, 1885, in answer to a question about the true first edition: "I incline to the belief that the volume seen was one of the first issue of Ben-Hur, which would explain the gay binding." (Original letter is in the Eagle Crest Library.) Further, the Harpers Literary Gossip printed an article, "How the First 'Ben-Hur' Was Bound": "Inquiries have reached the Harpers concerning the binding of the first edition of Ben-Hur, which appeared in 1880. The first edition was issued in a series which the Harpers were then publishing. It was 16mo form, bound in cadet-blue cloth, and decorated with clusters of flowers in red, blue, and green on the front cover and a vase of flowers in the same colors on the back cover. The lettering on the cover is black." (Excerpt in the Eagle Crest Library.)
Harpers apparently retaliated at Susan Wallace's objections over the binding. In the next two binding states (all 1st editions), the text was bound in drab, brown mesh cloth (seen occasionally today as a faded gray) over beveled boards [Binding State 2] and brown pebbled cloth over beveled boards [Binding State 3]. In my personal collection, I have two other binding states with the short dedication, which I will describe later.
More confusion is caused by the dedication, which in the first printings appears as "To the Wife of My Youth". This dedication appears in the first printing run of about 5,000 copies, all either in the 1st edition, 1st state binding or in two alternate bindings. In an 1887 printing of Ben-Hur at the Rare Books Department of the Cincinnati Public Library, Lew Wallace wrote to Alexander Hill: "My Dear Friend Hill--When Ben-Hur was finished, I told my wife it was to be dedicated to her, and that she must furnish the inscription. She wrote "To the Wife of My Youth" / The book became popular; then I began to receive letters of sympathy and enquiries as to when and of what poor Mrs. Wallace died. I laughed at first, but the condolences multiplied until finally I told the good woman that having got me into the trouble she must now get me out, which she did by adding the words--"Who still abides with me." / The device was perfect." Wallace apparently also received many marriage proposals from some frisky women.
So, despite what many dealers call a first edition of Ben-Hur, only one TRUE first edition exists. Beware of sellers who simply refer to Ahearn's guide to rare books or those who mistakenly identify the 1887 printing as a first edition.
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