- Ben-Hur and the Spectacle of Empire
For visitors to Manhattan in the last days of the nineteenth century, there could have been few more spectacular sights than the Dewey Arch. Occupying a prime spot in Madison Square, the eighty-five-foot-tall structure—flanked by six decorated columns and adorned in flamboyant beaux-arts sculpture—had been designed by Charles L. Lamb to commemorate Admiral George Dewey’s victory in the Battle of Manila Bay just a few months before. As crowds gathered on September 29, 1899 to witness the parade in Dewey’s honor (not far from another and now more famous triumphal arch, this one for George Washington), the symbolism of the Dewey structure could hardly have been more resonant. It had been partly modelled, like Washington’s, on the Arch of Titus in Rome; completed in 85CE by the Emperor Domitian to commemorate his brother Titus (and in particular Titus’s victory at Jerusalem in 70CE), it was, like most Roman triumphal arches, a confident testament to the irresistible might of Rome’s imperial reach. The Dewey Arch, in a similar vein, was built to celebrate a moment of military victory, a battle which had seen U.S. forces destroy the Spanish flotilla and all but secure the Philippines as an overseas territory. It was, in David Brody’s words, the “material manifestation of America’s newfound interest in displaying the vast possibilities of empire.”1 Much of the violent reality of the battle is naturally enough absent from the arch’s jingoistic and idealised sculptural adornments, representing what the National Sculpture Society called the “four patriotic steps”: patriotism, war, triumph, and peace.2 It is this absence, this imposing statement of apparently benevolent and progressive intervention, which makes the Dewey Arch a pertinent starting point here. By way of overt iconography as well as implied analogy, the arch brought the implications of Roman imperial history into the [End Page 85] center of modern America, and yet even as it did so it served to reinforce and perpetuate a long history of imperial denial.
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This essay argues that one of the most phenomenally successful and widely-read novels of the nineteenth-century, Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880), acted to naturalize and inscribe in narrative terms something the Dewey Arch was doing monumentally—namely, the role of spectacle in the public life of U.S. imperialism. The novel performs a significant social function, I suggest, not as a self-conscious allegory of imperialism as such but as an index to a recurring pattern of imperial logic, acting to displace the political present into a romance of a geographically-distant ancient past. In this way, Ben-Hur not only helped to domesticate an imperial structure of feeling that allied spectacle with denial, but in doing so it allows us to reconstitute the ways in which that structure ordered (or at least attempted to order) the discourses of everyday life. Situating the novel within its own moment whilst bringing to bear the much longer [End Page 86] imperial history it self-consciously engages with, I argue that Ben-Hur registers in its spectacular set pieces an abstract notion that is normally much harder to grasp: the ubiquity and invisibility of imperial ideology. What is more, I want to use Ben-Hur to raise some broader points about the place of the historical novel and historical analogy in the cultures of U.S. imperialism. The kind of popular romance that Wallace’s novel in many ways exemplifies, conventionally excluded from accounts of the period’s literary history,3 ask us to look again at our tendency to define the modernity of the Gilded Age as a social and technological transformation or as a decisive turn to a twentieth-century world yet to come. If the novel is “one of the chief cultural means of legitimating imperial practices,”4 and if the specifically historical novel is, as Lukács claimed, a product of emerging national consciousness...