MONMOUTH, Ill. — Author and literary critic William Dean Howells was nicknamed “The Dean of American Letters,” but for a few months following Howells’ death in May 1920, that title was transferred to another literary titan who was born and raised in Monmouth.
In the fall of 1920, the body of William Wallace Young was laid to rest in Monmouth Cemetery. He had died Oct. 2 at his summer home on Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire, at the age of 75, following a career as a playwright that had brought him fame from Broadway to the London stage. Also an acclaimed poet who contributed to Howells’ The Atlantic Monthly, he remains best known for his dramatization of the bestselling novel Ben-Hur, which became one of the greatest theatrical spectacles of the early 20th century.
Growing up in a small frontier town, the odds seemed stacked against Young becoming an internationally-acclaimed literary figure, but he did have the advantage of a strong academic pedigree. His father, Dr. John A. Young, was one of Monmouth’s leading physicians. His passion for literature and the arts led him to become a prime mover for the organization of Monmouth College and one of its charter trustees.
Born in Ohio in 1812, Dr. Young had lost his mother at an early age and had been raised by an uncle who was a conductor for the Underground Railroad. He initially learned his father’s trade — that of a tanner — but his uncle saw in him a remarkable gift for scientific inquiry and offered to pay his expenses if he would study medicine. Young finished his degree a year early and was admitted to practice without a formal exam — specializing in women’s diseases. In 1838, he set out on horseback for the West, traveling to Fort Dearborn (Chicago), and then Monmouth, where he set up practice.
William Young was born in 1845 and grew up in the family home which stood on the southwest corner of South Main and East Second Avenue. A prodigy, he entered Monmouth College at age 14, enrolling in the Classical Course. His literary talents immediately began to emerge, and he was elected president of the Philadelphian literary society. Upon his graduation in 1863, he was chosen to deliver the oration and valedictory, on the topic “The Pen and the Sword.”
With bachelor’s degree in hand, Young set out to study law in Chicago, but his fascination for writing — particularly playwriting — caused him to soon lose interest in that profession. He determined that the best way to become a successful dramatist was to first become an actor and director, so he became active with community and touring theater companies. Among his credits was directing the future international actress and modern dance pioneer Loie Fuller in her first performance at age 12 in Monmouth.
In 1866, Young married his college sweetheart, Joanna Parry, who would become his lifelong muse and traveling companion. Those travels would include frequent trips to Europe, including studies at the Conservatoire de Paris, the oldest acting school in continental Europe.
In addition to acting, Young began to emerge as a published writer, with his poetry appearing in The Atlantic, Galaxy, Lippincott’s and Scribner’s magazine. His first commercial success as a playwright occurred in 1871, when Edwin Booth staged his tragedy, Jonquil; or Only a Heart in his New York theater. Set in Paris, the title character was played by noted Shakespearean actor Lawrence Barrett, who would produce and star in future plays by Young.
Young’s fascination with historic narrative poetry led him to pen in blank verse the tragedy Pendragon, inspired by Idylls of the King, Tennyson’s epic collection of poems about King Arthur. Produced by Barrett, the play opened to popular acclaim in 1881 at Chicago’s McVicker’s Theater. The theater’s owner, J. H. McVicker, whose stepdaughter had married Edwin Booth, took a personal interest in the young playwright’s emerging career.
Young continued to write from his Monmouth home through the early 1880s, when he and his family began wintering in New York, and eventually removed permanently to the East Coast.
The first comedy to come from Young’s pen was presented at New York’s Madison Square Theatre in 1883. Titled The Rajah, it was denounced by critics, yet it ran 250 nights and later became a popular road attraction. In 1884, a critic who viewed the show at Chicago’s Grand Opera House compared Young’s comedic talent to that of American humorists Bret Harte, George W. Cable and William D. Howells.
Critics also praised Young’s next literary work, a book of poetry titled Wishmaker’s Town, published in 1885. James P. Irvine, the noted poet from Kirkwood, Ill., wrote that “one of the chief merits of Mr. Young’s verses is the singing quality of his lines … the intrinsic music of the words, whether in the middle or at the end of the line the euphony — the marriage of sense and sound, all of which evince the delicately tuned ear of the poet.”
In 1891, Lawrence Barrett again produced and starred in a Young historic play, written in blank verse. Ganelon, A Romantic Tragedy in Four Acts premiered at the Broadway Theatre with lavish and costly scenic effects. Young had found the materials for the play, based on a Corsican legend, in the libraries of Europe. The production itself ended tragically, however, as midway through the season Barrett was forced into retirement by illness, which would lead to his death a year later.
Young’s greatest success would come in 1899 with his theatrical adaptation of Gen. Lew Wallace’s popular 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Bringing the book to the stage was a major coup, because for years the devoutly religious Wallace had resisted the idea of Jesus being depicted by an actor. In May 1899, Young and a representative of the production company spent two full days with Wallace in his study in Crawfordsville, Indiana, and won the author over. Young completed the script in two months.
The six-act extravaganza, which opened on Broadway the following November, spawned an international tour that ran for 21 years. By its last performance in 1920, it had been seen by 20 million people and earned over $10 million. Upon its 1901 opening in Chicago, a critic wrote: “The difference between William Young’s dramatization of Ben-Hur and some other dramatizations of stories is the difference that lies between the illuminating powers of a wax candle and an arc light.” An article written in conjunction with its Chicago opening gives a sense of the production’s scale and grandeur:
“More than four hundred people are on the stage in the principal scenes of Ben Hur. Two special trains will be required to transport the production from New York to Chicago. The first will consist entirely of sleepers and day coaches, and the second, eight 60-foot baggage cars and two live stock cars with twelve horses and three camels.”
The cycloramic scenery used in the chariot race weighed 40 tons. Eight horses attached to two chariots ran on a treadmill, allowing them to be seen by the audience running at full speed during the entire race.
In 1892, Young had joined the Authors Club in New York City. In his later years, he and his wife spent their winters in residence at the club and their summers at their lake cottage in New Hampshire. His final Broadway production, A Japanese Nightingale, opened to lukewarm reviews in 1903 and lasted only 46 performances.
The summer before his death, Young completed a historical play, which he gave to his daughter to transcribe for publishers. A story published in the Monmouth Daily Atlas said, “He knew that the end was approaching and said that he would live on in his new play.” The paper also noted that “Mr. Young has always regarded Monmouth as his home. He has never taken his citizenship away from Illinois…”
Joanna Young lived until 1932 and is buried in the Young family plot in Monmouth Cemetery.
Jeff Rankin is campus historian and an editor for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking on western Illinois history for more than 35 years.