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The Man Without a Country (1863)
Breathes there the man with soul so dead,
As home his footsteps he hath turn'd
High though his titles, proud his name,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
-Innominatus (Sir Walter Scott 1771-1832)
Back in 1973, when I was a mere lad of 11, Cliff Robertson starred in a TV movie of the Week version of Edward Everett Hale's great novella, The Man Without a Country. I watched transfixed. My Mom also had a tattered copy of the book which we immediately read; it had presumably been her Dad's, a former Merchant Marine. Ever since, this patriotic haunting tale has been one of my favorites.
Edward Everett Hale, a descendant of Nathan Hale and a leading Unitarian clergyman of his time, tells the story of Philip Nolan, a young man enamored of the charismatic Aaron Burr. He participates in Burr's mystery shrouded empire building scheme, for which Burr was charged with treason. While Burr and the other leaders escape punishment, Nolan is convicted. When the presiding judge offers him an opportunity to prove his loyalty to the United States, Nolan replies in fury:
D---n the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!
The stunned Court determines to grant his wish as his punishment. He is placed on board a naval vessel and the crew is ordered:
You will receive from Ltd. Neale the person of Philip
Nolan, late a Lieutenant in the United
The gentleman on board will make any arrangements
agreeable to themselves regarding his society.
For the next fifty years he is transferred from ship to ship as they approach the U.S. coast, he never hears aught of the States and his books and newspapers have all reference to America carefully excised. He grows increasingly melancholy and solitary; he is The Man Without a Country. Finally, as he lies sick abed in his cabin which no one has ever visited, he begs his current berth's captain for information. Captain Danforth recounts his visit to the cabin in a letter:
Well, I went in, and there, to be sure, the poor
fellow lay in his berth, smiling pleasantly as he gave
Danforth accedes to his request and fills him in on the events of the past half century. A grateful Nolan asks him to look in his Bible when he passes. Nolan dies that night and the Captain finds a sheet of paper with a request and a sketch of a headstone:
Bury me in the sea; it has been my home, and I love
it. but will not some one set up a stone for my
Now, I little realized as a callow youth that this was originally an anti-Seccessionist polemic. First published in The Atlantic in 1863, Hale wrote it in order to demonstrate, without regard to the actual issues of the Civil War, the devastating loss that Southerners would suffer by turning their backs on their country. Of course, at the time this show was televised--in the midst of Vietnam and Watergate--American patriotism was at its nadir. Selfish, spoiled youths were taking over their colleges, marching on Washington, turning political Conventions into battlegrounds, burning their draft cards and fleeing to Canada to avoid military service. So, for a kid who rooted for the Guardsmen at Kent State, the story seemed as timely as the day it was published. And the ineffably sad image of Philip Nolan, exiled at sea and bereft of news of his increasingly beloved homeland, was indelibly etched in my mind.
There are many technical criticisms that can be, and have been, lodged against this story. It is moralistic and simplistic, with fairly little action and no great character development. But it wields a power all out of proportion to it's breadth, depth and style. (N.B. If you think I overstate its effect, check out this story about how Covington County, AL erected the headstone Nolan asked for as part of the Bicentennial celebration in 1976). Once you read it, you will never forget it either.
Dorothy C. Judd adds:
See also:Sea Stories
-ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA: Hale, Edward Everett
-BIO: Edward Everett Hale
-Edward Everett Hale House (12 Morley Street Roxbury, MA)
-The Cambridge History of English and American Literature VI. The Short Story § 8. Hale.
-The Cambridge History of English and American Literature XIII. Later Essayists § 11. Edward Everett Hale; The Man Without a Country
-DAGERRETYPE & LETTER: (The Daguerrian Society)
-IMAGE: Portrait of Helen Keller with Anne Sullivan and Edward Everett (American Foundation for the Blind)
-ETEXT: The Man Without a Country
-ETEXT: The Brick Moon, and Other Stories 1899 (U.Virginia)
-ESSAY: The Lure, the Lock, the Key (NASA)
-The Theoretical Ground Work For Satellites: The Early Dreamers
-ETEXT: Challenge to the Boston Youth by Edward Everett Hale (American Heritage Library)
-ANNOTATED ETEXT: Edward Everett Hale The Life of Christopher Columbus from his own Letters and Journals (Self Knowledge)
-ESSAY: Veterans deserve a monument in county (Editorial, The Andalusia Star-News, Conington County, AL)
-ESSAY: Amarillo's Timeless Tales: Young men urged not to evade draft in Canada (The Amarillo Globe-News, Compiled by JESSICA RAYNOR Globe-News Staff Writer)
-ESSAY: Burton on the Bay: Rally 'Round the Flag (New Bay Times)
-ESSAY: The good, the bad & the ugly: An opinionated, irreverent look at Boston's public art (Christopher Millis, Boston Phoenix)
At the age of 13,in 1937, I read the story of "The Man without a country" in class. It so impressed me that I wrote my first poem that I have kept and remembered. I am now 79 years old, have been retired from teaching 19 years as an English teacher. I have taught students how to write for 35 years, am now writing my autobiography, my 2nd one, on my first husband and our three daughters. My first journal, finished in 2003, was a travelogue on all the adventures my 2nd husband and I had while traveling the world for 15 years. It was this first poem I wrote that started me writing a collection of poems about, among other things, poetry to all five of my grandchildren.
- Gail (Overton) Kommer
- Aug-11-2003, 12:33