New Look at "The Man without a Country". (Humanism in Literature)

By Bronstein, Lynne | The Humanist, March-April 2002 | Go to article overview

New Look at "The Man without a Country". (Humanism in Literature)


Bronstein, Lynne, The Humanist


When I was in grade school, we ere frequently treated to patriotic assembly programs in which we were shown short films, including a film version of the classic Edward Everett Hale short story, "The Man without a Country." Somehow, every time I saw it, I felt sympathy for the lead character despite his status as a traitor. Years later, reading the short story itself, I again felt sympathy for Lieutenant Phillip Nolan and wondered if my response was correct.

It wasn't just sympathy that I felt. It was identification, which is more tricky. Well-rounded literary characters catch our interest and provoke our sympathy even when they do wrong-headed things, but we are usually on alert to the author's viewpoint that the character has done something wrong and we aren't to sympathize with the wrongdoing. In Nolan's case the wrongdoing is one of attitude more than deed. As someone who grew up during the 1960s, with anti-Vietnam War protests and draft dodging constantly in the news, I felt as if many members of my generation were, like Phillip Nolan, being maligned as traitors to the United States when all they were doing was exercising their right to freedom of speech and thought.

Hale, a Unitarian minister and writer, wrote "The Man without a Country" during the Civil War. It was published in the December 1863 issue of the Atlantic Monthly and became a fabled moral tale of one person's momentary mistake which costs him a lifetime of freedom. It is worth noting that Hale was the grandnephew of another favorite hero of patriotic homilies: Nathan Hale, the twenty-two-year-old Revolutionary martyr whose brief life and tragic death at the hands of the British was supposed to have been redeemed by the idea that he was willing to sacrifice his life for his country's freedom. In that context, Phillip Nolan, a fictional creation made to seem real by Hale's journalistic style, is virtually the anti-Nathan Hale. Just as Nathan Hale's last words, "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country" are seen as mitigating the waste of his untimely hanging, Nolan's utterance against the Union damns him as a traitor.

For those of you who don't recall the story: Nolan is a young U.S. Army officer, serving in the western division of the army (actually the Mississippi Valley area) around 1805. He becomes involved in the enterprises of Aaron Burr and is court-martialed. During the trial, when asked if he had been faithful to the United States, he freaks out and shouts a rejoinder so shocking that printers of the day had to represent two letters of it with a dash: "D--n the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!"

The officer presiding in court, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, is markedly shaken, as are the other veterans in the courtroom. The verdict therefore handed down by the court is that Nolan will have his wish fulfilled. He is to spend the rest of his life as a prisoner on a series of U.S. warships; assigned a comfortable stateroom; allowed to wear an army uniform (with plain buttons, minus the U.S. insignia); given freedom to take meals with the officers and crews, to read books and foreign papers, as long as all mention of the United States and its activities have been scissored out; and to be treated courteously but with the precaution that no one may speak to him or to anyone else in his presence about the country he repudiated by his courtroom outcry. The story goes on to tell of Nolan's life during the next fifty or so years in which he lives in custody of the men who do have a country.

Sympathy for the outlaw is exactly what the author wants us to feel here, for Nolan is portrayed as the classic tragic hero whose suffering purifies him from his original hubris. We feel Nolan's pain when, as he reads out loud to his shipmates from Walter Scott's The Lay of the Last Minstrel, he falters at the lines:

   Breathes there the man with soul so dead, Who never to himself has said,
   This is my own, my native land! … 

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