In December 1863, exactly 150 years ago, The Atlantic published a short story by Edward Everett Hale, the nephew of Edward Everett, the distinguished orator whose two-hour speech preceded Lincoln’s two-minute masterpiece, the Gettysburg Address. The story proved immensely popular in the North.
Titled “The Man Without a Country,” it’s the fictional story of Philip Nolan, an Army lieutenant tried for treason as Aaron Burr’s accomplice. (In fact, former Vice President Burr had been tried for treason in 1807 but acquitted.) The fictional story is more compelling for being presented as if it were fact, with references to specific dates, events and documents. I read this patriotic story in middle school during the Vietnam War and amidst the patriotic and anti-patriotic passions of that day. What I didn’t know then was that the story is a pro-Union allegory examining the conflicting themes of love of country and rejection of one’s country that were being played out in the Civil War when it was published.
In the story, Nolan is asked during his trial if he had anything to say that would prove his loyalty to the United States. Shouting, he condemns the United States and declares, “I wish I may never hear of the United States again!” The courtroom is shocked, and the judge sentences him to “...never hear the name of the United States again.”
Nolan spends the rest of his life on American naval warships, never again setting foot in the United States — his newspapers censored, books referencing the U.S. banned, and sailors prohibited from mentioning the United States in his presence.
While initially unrepentant, Nolan grows over the years more sad and more desirous of any word about his former country. “In one of the story’s more poignant episodes,” literary critic Randall Fuller writes, “the banished man takes his turn reading poetry to a gathering of sailors. Unwittingly, he selects the fifth canto of Sir Walter Scott’s long poem “The Lay of the Last Minstrel.” Nolan begins to recite “... without a thought of what was coming.” He reads,
Breathes there a man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said ...
This is my own, my native land!
Realizing how much he has lost, Nolan is unable to continue reading.
Later, he tells a young sailor not to make the mistake he made, but to remember his country and remember “that you belong to her as you belong to your mother. Stand by her, boy, as you would stand by your mother ...!”
As he is dying, Nolan shows the story’s narrator his private cabin, “a little shrine” of patriotism that includes an American flag draped around a portrait of George Washington. The narrator, knowing that Nolan is on his deathbed, tells him “everything (he) could think that would show the grandeur of his country and its prosperity.” And because the narrator can’t bring himself to tell him about the Civil War then underway, Nolan, not knowing about the “infernal rebellion,” dies contented.
Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.MORE IN Commentary
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