WHEN THE TIME CAME for Kurt Vonnegut to title his final book, not so long before he stumbled in his Park Avenue home, banged his head, and died, the writer turned, in a Rosebud touch, to a short story he read as an Indianapolis schoolboy during the Great Depression. That story was “The Man Without A Country” by Edward Everett Hale, first published anonymously in the December 1863 issue of a young Atlantic Monthly. Nowhere in Vonnegut’s long 2005 goodbye letter, A Man Without A Country, does he explain the title reference. This was less an oversight than a bonus message for the dwindling number of Americans who remember when Phillip Nolan, the sea-born hero-in-exile of Hale’s story, stood for allegorical and literal deracination of the saddest sort. The sly reference strikes twice. It evokes lost innocence and nostalgia for another age. Then drives a letter-opener through their heart.
Vonnegut’s title also winks at the vicissitudes of literary fame. When Hale died at age 87 in 1909, he enjoyed an international reputation nearly as warm and deep as Vonnegut’s in 2005. After his once formidable output dried to a trickle, the New York Critic ranked Hale the 11th-greatest living American author. His dozens of books spanning fiction, history, criticism, and blueprints for social change were in heavy print during his life and for decades after. But it was always understood that his popular fame, and single shot at immortality, rested on “The Man Without A Country.” All but forgotten today, the story was taught in American schools for a century alongside that other literary artifact of 1863, “The Gettysburg Address,” in whose shadow “The Man Without A Country” celebrates its own subdued sesquicentennial this year.
It’s not easy to imagine today a piece of short fiction occupying the perch long enjoyed by “The Man Without A Country.” Spanning the years roughly between Gettysburg and Tet, it was a cornerstone of America’s national religion, straddling literature, civic education, and popular culture. Various editions in book form anchored millions of home libraries, and it became a staple of stage, radio, and film. For a century, if children did not encounter the story at home, they read it in middle school, where Philip Nolan’s epic banishment and redemption were a literary kiln used to harden patriotic sentiments. It did this by first softening them up. In the introduction to a schoolhouse edition from the 1920s, the historian Wayne Whipple told young readers, “If you can read it without straining your heart-strings, a choking in your throat, or moisture in the eye, something is wrong with you.” During the story’s reign, whatever tension emerged between its saccharine sentiment and evolving critical standards was eased by the special privilege granted to beloved tales. For some, it was America’s Independence Day answer to A Christmas Carol. For others, it was a genuine masterwork of the form. As late as 1954, Hale’s biographer Jean Holloway could reasonably describe Philip Nolan’s ship, the Levant, as moored in the national imagination alongside the Flying Dutchman, and she felt empowered to rank Nolan’s wanderings with those of Don Quixote.
Time has since made mincemeat of these assessments. “The Man Without A Country” did not come close to winning a third century of fame. Its author is all but forgotten even in his native Boston, where he was once the city’s most famous citizen and still stands larger than life in bronze next to the Commons’ Charles Street gate, a short walk from the Unitarian church where he preached a proto–Social Gospel for half a century. One hundred fifty years later, this story about extralegal persecution, on a floating black site, has a strange relevance that could not have been imagined by its author, who deserves remembering for contributions that went well beyond his light fiction.
The origins of “The Man Without A Country” can be traced to the author’s love of Boston and his large, close-knit and storied Brahmin family. The idea of a man banished from his native land came to him during a youthful bout of homesickness in a Philadelphia hotel in the early 1840s. There he sketched out plans for a two-volume novel about a peripatetic that ends in a homecoming “as other novels end with a wedding.”
Hale had more reason to be homesick than most. He was born in 1822 to one of the city’s most famous clans and grew up in a home lively and loving by the austere standards of the Old Boston. His father, Nathan Hale, son of the Revolutionary War hero of the same name, edited the Boston Daily Advertiser, where he pioneered the phenomenon of the unsigned leader. His maternal uncle, Edward Everett, after whom he was named, was minister of the Brattle Street Church. Another uncle, Alexander, was US minister to China. Among the many frequent dinner guests at the Hale house was Daniel Webster. History pervaded Hale’s youth from the drawing room to his bedroom window, overlooking School Street, from which he watched Lafayette parade toward the dedication ceremony for the Bunker Hill monument. Another passerby often seen shuffling down the street below his window was the revolutionary war hero Major Melvill, better known as Oliver Wendell Holmes’s “last leaf upon the tree.”
Hale attended the Latin School and was translating Ovid at 10, the same age at which his children’s choir gave the first public performance of “My Country ’Tis of Thee” in the Park Street church. Admitted early to Harvard, he gained a reputation as a cutting wit. During the reception following the Phi Beta Kappa Address at which Ralph Waldo Emerson debuted “The American Scholar,” a teenage Hale announced in Latin that the Sage of Concord’s lecture reminded him of Jupiter’s thunderbolts — a mix of “raging fire, thirsty cloud, and empty wind.” Emerson just smiled. In later years the two men would become close friends.
In the years after graduating from Harvard, Hale struggled with the decision to enter the clergy. He wanted to be a novelist (anticipating his maternal in-law Harriet Beecher Stowe) but there were social expectations, and a Unitarian ministry was seen as a compromise that would allow for a life of letters on the side. It was with relief that in his early 20s Hale had a mystical experience that finally settled the matter with his conscience. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James cites Hale’s account of this experience as an example of “Religion of Healthy-Mindedness,” bracketing the young Hale with Rousseau and Whitman. Along with writing sermons, he published a stream of fiction and essays — Hale would become one of Whitman’s first boosters as he built his reputation as a critic during the 1830s and 1840s — and was active in numerous social reform projects. In the 1850s, these projects increasingly merged with abolition and then the Union cause.
Hale was involved in local immigrant aid work when Congress passed the Kansas–Nebraska Act in 1854, nullifying the Missouri Compromise and threatening to tilt the political balance in favor of slave states. When a Worcester schoolmaster named Eli Thayer published a pamphlet using the principle of “Squatter’s sovereignty” to keep the two states free, he was mostly mocked. But Hale contacted him immediately — having already struck on the same idea for Texas and written a pamphlet, How to Conquer Texas — and shared his plan for the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society, which signed up Abolitionist emigrants in Boston to settle the Midwest. To orient them, he penned a handbook called Kanzas and Nebraska. The Society received publicity help from Hale’s friend Horace Greeley, who ran its materials as editorials in the New-York Tribune. The pipeline between Massachusetts and Kansas grew to a caravan of 5,000 over the course of its life and ties between the two states ran deep. (Lawrence, Kansas, came very close to being known as Worcester when the Massachusetts city offered to build a complete library in the settlement in exchange for naming rights.) When Missouri border ruffians challenged the emigrants, they fought back with rifles sent from Massachusetts and Connecticut in crates marked “Bibles.” At the end of his life, Hale wrote, “I am more proud of my part in the settlement of Kansas […] than I am of any public service I have ever rendered.”
He was right in gauging its impact. In The Middle West: Its Meaning in American Culture, James R. Shortridge writes that the Massachusetts settlement of Kansas “formed the dominant symbolic force in the state well into the 20th century. Through at least 1923, the people were said to have been strongly “marked by Puritanism,” by which commentators meant a strong moral quality that had made Kansas a leader in a series of social reform movements,” including the prohibitionist movement, the Populist Party, various organized expressions of agrarian rage, and Bull Moose Progressivism.
The incident that triggered “The Man Without A Country” came after war broke out. It was the summer of 1863, and a pro-South Democratic candidate for Ohio governor named Clement Vallandigham announced during a speech that he “did not want to belong to a nation which would compel by arms the loyalty of any of its citizens” — that he “did not want to belong to the United States.”
Hale was aggravated by the comment, and something in that aggravation turned his imagination toward his “homesick” epic conceived two decades prior, the novel he had sketched out in the 1840s. In August of 1863 he submitted 10,000 words to The Atlantic Monthly, a magazine he had been closely involved with since its 1857 founding. Hale had hoped the piece would be printed in time to influence the Ohio election. But because of what he called “a certain languor that attends the publication of most monthly journals,” it ran in the December issue released just after the election. The issue containing “The Man Without A Country” appeared just as Abraham Lincoln sat down to write what became known as the Gettysburg Address, whose delivery was attended and transcribed by Hale’s brother, Charles, for the benefit of the readers of the Hale family-run Boston Daily Advertiser.
“The Man Without A Country” begins with the narrator, Captain Frederic Ingham, under whose name the story was published, pointing out an obituary notice in the August 18, 1863, edition of the New York Herald. It reports the death at sea of one Philip Nolan. Who is this Philip Nolan? The present blurs, and Ingham recounts his story.
The fictional Nolan’s troubles begin when he falls under the sway of Aaron Burr. In 1806, the adventurer-politician Burr had just sailed down the Mississippi for the second time to recruit allies for a plan to claim land west of the river for the United States. It didn’t bother him that federal law prohibited such freebooting campaigns. Burr’s many enemies and critics — he’d recently killed Alexander Hamilton in a famous duel — also spread rumors that the one-time vice president intended to found an independent fiefdom in the western part of North America.
Nolan, patriotic and brave but a bit of a hayseed, was no match for a cynical smoothie like Burr, whose grand plans and wartime adventures made the young soldier’s sentry duty on the western frontier seem like baby-sitting. When Burr is caught and tried for treason the following year (which actually happened), Nolan is swept up in the indictment and faces a military tribunal as co-conspirator. During the trial a greybeard judge and Revolutionary War vet named Colonel Morgan asks Nolan to make a statement to counter the evidence against him and prove his loyalty to the nation. In a “fit of frenzy” the hotheaded Nolan issues a cry extrapolated from Clement Vallandigham’s campaign oratory: “Damn the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!”
The military court is stunned into a lingering silence. Upon regaining his composure, the old judge sentences Nolan to have his wish granted. Declares Morgan, “The Court decides, subject to the approval of the President, that you never hear the name of the United States again.”
Nolan laughs at the sentence, but his levity is brief. He is immediately whisked away by armed frigate, billeted on the first of many US Navy warships roaming the world’s seas. Upon these ships he spends the rest of his life in floating purgatory, a punishment personally approved by Thomas Jefferson. For the length of his sentence, Nolan is forbidden from so much as hearing the name of the United States or seeing the words in writing. His shipmates are prohibited from sharing any news regarding the country’s politics and rapid development. Writes Hale, “For that half-century and more, he was a man without a country.”
Much of the rest of the story recounts Nolan’s life at sea, anchored at ports around the world, shuffling between vessels, from stateroom to stateroom, doing white-collar time, trying to be of use to his shipmates and occasionally finding opportunity for minor heroics. But the blackout is enforced. When Texas joins the Union, articles concerning the annexed territory are expunged from Nolan’s permitted reading. He is left to fantasize about the news once contained in the gaping rectangular holes in the newspapers he is given. His only window into the growth of the nation is the shipboard flag, whose wind-flapped stars steadily multiply over the years. With no job, obligations, or possibility of romantic pursuits, Nolan occupies his waking hours with natural history, registering exotic specimens of fish and fowl brought to him by sympathetic shipmates.
The story’s torrential bathos finally overflows its pages in the final scene, related to the narrator in a letter sent by a Navy officer who met Nolan on his deathbed. Close to death and fully contrite after 55 years at sea, Nolan makes a final plea to the ship’s ranking officer to learn about his beloved country before he dies. “Surely you will tell me something now?” begs Nolan. “There is not in America — God bless her — a more loyal man than I. There cannot be a man who loves the old flag as I do, or prays for it as I do, or hopes for it as I do.” The officer relents, and tells him about Abraham Lincoln, about the war, about the wild western frontier. Nolan “drank in and enjoyed” the news in his final minutes. He leaves behind a note with instructions to bury him at sea and a final plea, asking, “Will not some one set up a stone for my memory at Fort Adams or at Orleans, that my disgrace may not be more than I ought to bear? Say on it: 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.”
The story led to immediate fame for Hale. Many in the military thought the story was true, and letters poured into newspapers from men claiming to have known Philip Nolan on the Levant, a real corvette in the United States Navy. Hale was pleased by the response, even if he hoped to be remembered for weightier work, in particular a planned multivolume History of the Pacific Ocean and its Shores. He notably did not shirk from the only possible reading of the story: as maudlin agitprop for American nationalism. “This story was written,” Hale explained in an 1866 introductory essay, “towards the formation of a just and true national sentiment, or sentiment of love to the nation.”
After “The Man Without A Country,” Hale continued to publish at an astounding rate. Among the major undertakings of his final decade were several chapters for the 70-year-old author’s Memorial History of Boston, the official collation of Ben Franklin’s England papers, and several works of fiction. He also remained at the forefront of too many civic projects and social reform crusades to list — from Indian rights to the Associated Charities of Boston to a Pure Milk Campaign. His short story “Ten Times One” essentially created the idea today known as “Pay It Forward,” and inspired a nationwide network of Ten Times One clubs, now institutionalized as the Lend a Hand Society. This work was the fruition of Hale’s youthful decision to make Christianity the tool by which the world would be made “unselfished.”
After giving up his ministry, Hale served during his last years as chaplain of the Senate. It was in this capacity that he uttered one of the more memorable zingers of the era. When asked if he prays for the senators, Hale replied, “No, I look at the senators and pray for the country.”
Hale was of the era of western continental expansion. His politics were never aligned with and his temperament never at home with the aggressive global role America began to assume toward the end of his life. During the 1890s, he published a journal called the Peace Crusade that advocated for the establishment of a world court. In the years before the Hague Conference, Hale keynoted the first meetings on US soil dedicated to the idea of international arbitration. But as the old patriotism of the 19th century began to commingle with modern jingoism and the early stirrings of empire, Hale was helpless to stop others from putting “The Man Without A Country” to work.
The story experienced a revival in the run-up to the Spanish-American War when presses struggled to meet the spiking double-demand of patriotic societies and school boards. As the newspapers of William Randolph Hearst ran sensationalist accounts of Spanish perfidy, the influential magazine Outlook reprinted “The Man Without A Country” to complement its pro-war editorializing. The story was put to a similar end a decade after Hale’s death during the inaugural war of the film age, when in 1917 the Thanhouser Film Corporation released a silent version of The Man Without A Country, the first of what would be several screen adaptations. The film updated the story for a national audience divided over looming involvement in the European conflict. It revolved around a pacifist who, when asked if he’s against the war, utters Philip Nolan’s famous line. He is promptly handed a copy of “The Man Without A Country,” the reading of which summons a visit by the ageless spirit of Lady Liberty, who materializes out of thin air like the Ghost of Treasons Past. She informs him that he is in fact the reincarnation of Philip Nolan, and that the story he has just read is his own story from a former life. The reincarnated Nolan flings away his peace button in disgust and replaces it with a flag ribbon-pin.
The story was filmed again in 1925 — “picturized,” as an early New York Times film critic named Mordaunt Hall would put it. The 1925 version is not in circulation, so we’ll have to take Hall at his word that the “melancholy photoplay should appeal to the patriotism of every American heart,” based as it is on “a story which has taught and will continue to teach a lesson.” Although he quibbles with the construction of the adaptation — which gives Nolan both a girlfriend and a mother who wins him a pardon from a magnanimous Abraham Lincoln — the critic is sure the film “will inspire many to give an extra thought to patriotism even now, old a story as it is.” In 1938, when the country was again divided over the prospect of involvement in an overseas conflict, Hale’s story was produced as an opera at the Met with British tenor Arthur Carron in the lead. A short film adaptation of the same year was nominated for an Oscar.
The last film production of “The Man Without A Country” was a big-budget 1973 ABC “Kodak Special” made-for-TV movie starring Cliff Robertson. It is set in the 19th century and hews closest to the original story of all the films. The timing was again no accident. It was broadcast as United States involvement in Vietnam and Cambodia was coming to an ignoble conclusion, when patriotism didn’t need stoking so much as salvaging. For older viewers, the movie would have provided a bittersweet salve from bloody news footage out of Southeast Asia and reports on the latest campus protests. It’s easy to imagine Vonnegut in 1973 feeling conflicted as the small-screen version of “The Man Without A Country” played in the background in his Cape Cod home as he completed Breakfast of Champions.
Why did Hale’s story resonate with Americans for so many decades after its initial publication? Though it contains some of the elements of a ripping adventure yarn, it is essentially a red, white, and blue horror story. There is a nightmare’s causality to the way Nolan’s rash utterance in open court results in a life sentence, a punishment out of all proportion to the peccadillo. It’s like a teenage anxiety dream where cheating on a geography quiz gets you the electric chair or going to second base at a keg party results in the school nurse denouncing you for harlotry over the PA system. For his crime, Nolan loses not only his country but his identity as well. “I dare say there is many a man who has taken wine with him once a fortnight, in a three years’ cruise, who never knew that his name was Nolan,” the story’s narrator speculates. “Or whether the poor wretch had any name at all.”
In addition to namelessness, Nolan is condemned to placelessness. He is literally adrift, forbidden from setting foot on solid ground. His obituary reports his place of death as the Levant, followed by the geographical coordinates: latitude 2° 11′ south, longitude 131° west, or smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean as can be. Hale’s message is clear: To disown one’s homeland is to become a disembodied spirit floating through the world. This conceit wasn’t so distant from the reality of the story’s original readers: Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus in several states in 1861, two years before the publication of “The Man Without a Country.” Then, as in 2013, you could be disappeared, held indefinitely without trial, powerless as in our worst nightmares. We are told how Nolan’s punishment is a state secret but also that his case has been forgotten by the very authorities that demand it be kept confidential. In a Kafkaesque turn, after several decades, all records of Nolan’s crime and sentence have been lost and he languishes in a legal shadowland. No one dares pardon him because they aren’t sure they have the authority.
This echo with post-9/11 US policy era is loudest when considering the story’s lingering appeal with modern conservatives, the last ones to let it go. When a video surfaced in the 2008 presidential race of Obama’s onetime spiritual advisor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, declaring “God damn America!” a contributor to National Review Online reached for Hale’s famous story as an assimilation tool. “I’m sure my parents, children of immigrants both, read [“The Man Without A Country”] in school during the 30s and 40s,” he wrote. “How many children of today’s immigrants read it in the schools in L.A. or Miami or New York or Chicago? Maybe they read “El hombre sin país” instead.”
But Hale’s story is not enjoying resurgence in the Spanish language. Nor will it ever again be used to stoke passions in advance of war, or act as an example of the independent lives stories develop over time independent of their creator’s intentions. It will not do any of these things because “The Man Without A Country” has disappeared from American life. Reading the story today, one sees that this was inevitable. Stories of comparably ancient vintage, such as Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” are still taught and read widely. But Hale’s premise and narrative machinery became too preposterous to frighten. Uncritical patriotism took fatal hits around the time of Cliff Roberton’s turn as Philip Nolan in the 1970s; his resignation, acceptance, and fealty strike modern readers as pathetic, if not thoroughly demented.
Neither print nor film versions of Hale’s story are easy to locate these days. I found a single copy of The Man Without A Country in hardback buried in the basement stacks at The Strand. It was a cheap edition put out by a small upstate publisher that specializes in rare and out-of-print books. The silent 1917 film is the only one I could easily track down. I stumbled on the 1973 version by luck, when I found a California woman hawking it in the comments section at IMDB.com. She was thrilled when I wrote her to request a copy. Two weeks later the DVD arrived in my mailbox taped to a sharpened oversized Chinese-made pencil. On it was rows of red hearts and the words, “I Love the U.S.A.”