Thursday, July 2, 2015

Independence Day 2015 and Hale's "The Man Without a Country"

Independence Day in the U.S.A. this year has special significance for all Americans who have long believed, or have finally come to accept, that an individual should not be discriminated against simply because he or she loves someone of the same gender.
The wide acceptance of the Supreme Court's recent decision that "the right to marry is a fundamental right" and that "couples of the same sex may not be deprived of the fundamental right to marry" makes me proud to be an American.
I was so delighted with the decision that this past Sunday I picked up the Orange County Register, a very conservative newspaper in my area, with anticipation of schadenfreude that the editors would be morally and politically outraged at the decision. I wanted to gloat over that.
However, I was happily surprised that the lead editorial in the Register was headed "Expanding liberty for all." The editors agreed with the Court that to "suppress the freedom of same-sex couples to devote themselves to each other in the same manner as opposite-sex couples is misguided, and we should be proud that our society is turning away from this misuse of law."  The editorial in this very conservative Orange County newspaper agreed with me and many others, concluding: "Today, I feel especially proud to be an American."
Of course, recently Americans have been torn about something for which they are not proud—a reminder of racism that at one time was so strong it threatened to rend the country into two separate entities. And a powerful symbol of that hateful history—the Confederate flag—has been at the center of the debate.
Born in the border state of Kentucky, I understand the powerful symbolism of that flag, even though I repudiate one of the terribly hateful facts that it stood for. I agree with those who feel it is long past time to take the flag down from public buildings and sites, for whatever else it symbolizes, it is a reminder of a shameful chapter in American history.
Independence Day and reminders of the Civil War this year reminded me of one of the most famous short stories in American life—Edward Everett Hale's "The Man Without A Country." Written specifically to challenge the Southern Rebellion and to remind the citizens that their allegiance was to the United States of American, the story was published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1863, even as the tide was beginning to turn in favor of the North. It was pirated and reprinted and sold over half a million copies within the year. It made Hale a celebrity and his central character in the story, Philip Nolan, famous. 
Reviewers said it was unanimously conceded that Hale had no superior in America as a writer of short stories. When he died in 1909, his obituary notice called "Man Without a Country" the most popular short story ever written in America.
In that same year, H.S. Canby, in his book The Short Story in English, said that what makes the story so memorable, even though it lacks the tightness and complexity of the best short stories, is that Hale hit upon a "striking situation" and made the story center on it until the end.
The story is about a young officer who gets seduced by the grandiose and perhaps treasonable plans of Aaron Burr. At his court martial, which takes place on the 23rd of September, 1807, the judge gives the young lieutenant a chance to redeem himself by asking him if he wished to make a statement to show he had always been faithful to the United States. In a mad state of anger and frenzy, Nolan cries out: "Damn the United States!  I wish I may never her of the United States again!" 
The Colonel who is conducting the court, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, is so shocked that he sentences Nolan to have his wish granted—that he shall never hear the name of the United States again. He is to be incarcerated on U.S. ships and never allowed to come any closer than a hundred miles to U.S. shores. Although he is to be exposed to no indignity or be reminded that he is a prisoner, he is denied all books that mention the U.S. Any reference to the U.S. is cut out of newspapers, so he may be reading something and find a great hole or gap in the text.
Nolan laughs at the sentence at first and remains arrogant for a time as he is moved from ship to ship. However, the turning point in the story comes when Nolan joins the officers on deck who are taking turns reading poems and stories aloud. Nolan reads from Sir Walter Scott's "The Lay of the Last Minstrel," and when he gets to the following lines, he breaks down:
Breathes there the man with soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own my native land!
The narrator of the story says Nolan was never the same again and wears the look of a "heart-wounded man."
The rest of the story describes a few episodes of Nolan's life during the fifty-six years of his banishment: his bravery during a battle of the War of 1812, his serving as a nurse to wounded men, his study of plants and insects brought to him by sea men, his acting as a lay chaplain, his empathy for African slaves freed from a slave ship, his eloquent repentance of his denial of his country, and his warning to other young men to be true to their homeland.
The story ends with the death of Nolan in his eighties as finally he is allowed to hear the history of the U.S. during his exile. A slip of paper found in his Bible after his death states what he wishes to be written on his tombstone:
"In Memory of Philip Nolan, Lieutenant in the Army of the United States.  He loved his country as no other man has loved her, but no man deserved less at her hands."
Although the story is little known now, it once was required reading in junior high and high school textbooks in America. I remember reading it when I was a child in a Classics Illustrated comic book edition. It was read on the radio several times during the 1940's.  For example, Bing Crosby narrated a reading of the story for the Philco Radio program in 1947 just before Thanksgiving. It has also been filmed several times, the most recent being a 1973 made-for-television movie starring Cliff Robertson as Philip Nolan.
In an introduction to the story, Hale says he wrote it in the "darkest period of the Civil War, to show what love of country is." He says he has heard many examples of its "having been of use" during the Civil War. Calling it a "parable," Hale says it was his intention to describe the life of a man "who tried to separate himself from his country, to show how terrible was his mistake."
A simple parable, the story never had much respect among academic critics, and Hale was seldom, if ever, taught in university classroom, nor is it any longer anthologized for the edification of junior high school students, at least as far as I can determine. Even as long ago as 1970, when I did a search for it in print, I could find it anthologized in only one short story text: An Anthology of Famous American Short Stories, edited by Burrell and Cerf for Random House in 1953..
It is of interest to me as a critic and scholar of the short story, for it is one of the rare cases when a short story—not a novel or a play, but a mere short story—had a powerful impact on the minds of its readers.  Granted, it is a simple story, rather carelessly written, and obviously designed for a polemical purpose, but simplistic as it is, it has many of the characteristics of what I have come to recognize as central to the short story as a genre.
It illustrates the central characteristic of the form that Frank O'Connor argued for his book The Lonely Voice, and which I have tried to further clarify and develop in my own modest book I Am Your Brother
"Always in the short story there is this sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society…. As a result there is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel—an intense awareness of human loneliness."
The atomistic short story seems perfectly appropriate for dealing with the life of the atomistic and isolated character. Because he has denied his country, Nolan is made to wander, like the archetypal wander Cain. Like the Ancient Mariner, he has denied the unity of life, but even worse than Cain, he is forbidden to tell his story.
In terms of technique, the story tries to create a sense of reality so strong that it makes readers ask, "Did that really happen?" Another story in American literature created this kind of engagement and belief—Shirley Jackson's story "The Lottery," which had people writing countless letters asking her where the horrifying lottery actually took place.
It is not a story that needs to be read carefully, for it succeeds primarily because of its concept rather than its human complexity or its narrative technique.
You can find the Atlantic Monthly version on the Internet at


Unknown said...

In terms of technique, the story tries to create a sense of reality so strong that it makes readers ask, "Did that really happen?"

I was one of those readers, that is until I read your post today, who thought it was based on a true story! I remember thinking as a child how could a judge get away with giving such a cruel sentence. I suspect I read the story in the classroom as a tie-in with the Cliff Robertson television movie (although I'm getting at that age where my childhood recollection has officially entered the fuzzy zone.

Thru the years I've occasionally thought of "The Man Without a Country" so after reading your wonderful post, I'm now wondering if certain historical moments have triggered the memory. It's a tribute to Hale that for those of us who either read, listened or watched it, his story holds a special power.

agave said...

I was made to read this story in 1969 in my junior year of high school, in a midwestern university town, and never ever was it made clear the context of this story, it's timing and intention as a political comment on the Civil War. I never knew this until I read your post just now. This clarifies a great deal. Obviously, without context it appeared to me as a simple, didactic, nationalistic story. It does seem to me now that all the required books for high school then seemed to have been chosen for their lack of any political or sexual content. Of course, that sort of theme is often found in great literature.

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Reading short story is more interesting to read. I am very lucky to read this post