New look at “The Man without a Country” – Humanism in Literature

New look at “The Man without a Country” – Humanism in Literature – Column

Lynne Bronstein

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!

Nolan is further humiliated when, invited to an aboard-ship dance, he dances with a young woman and slips up by asking her, “And what do you hear from home, Mrs. Graft?” The woman breaks away indignantly.

As the years go by, Nolan is frequently frustrated by attempts to find out what is going on in his former country. Those around him manage remarkably to stick to the instructions of the Secretary of the Navy and avoid telling Nolan what he wants to know, even when it concerns territories such as Texas (allegedly the area Burr was trying to conquer to begin an empire of his own). Nolan becomes tired of maps with the United States cut out and newspapers with portions missing. He staves off boredom by reading, keeping scrapbooks of information on numerous topics, and collecting objects of nature (such as insects that crew members bring him–in fact, he becomes something of an expert on insects), but he longs for a true friendship and the chance to set foot on dry land. Deprived of any sense of belonging, he yearns for a place he can call his own.

In the end, when Nolan dies, it is revealed that he was a closet patriot, having somehow smuggled the Stars and Stripes into his stateroom and drawn a map of his homeland by hand. His last request is that he be buried at sea because it has been his home but that he hopes someone may set up a monument to him bearing the epitaph (and apology): “He loved his country as no other man has loved her but no man deserved less at her hands.”

Thus we are permitted to feel compassion for Nolan, especially at the end, because it appears he has learned the lesson of patriotism, although his repentance fails to free him from his punishment. Hale tightens the screws as hard as he can by showing how even a redemptive act fails to free Nolan from his sentence. When he participates in a defense action aboard ship during the War of 1812, he is awarded an old soldier’s sword and the captain promises to mention Nolan’s valor in a report in hope of obtaining a pardon for Nolan. But Nolan doesn’t get the pardon because, for some reason, the authorities in Washington have begun to “ignore” his case, perhaps intentionally, as the narrator suggests.

So what indeed did Nolan do to earn this fate worse than death? As far as treason goes, he appears to have been a gullible follower of Aaron Burr (who was himself acquitted of treason and went on to live out a long life in the United States and on the continent). The United States in 1805 was new enough for some of its citizens to think of it in experimental terms, but it had been around long enough for the people who had risked their lives to achieve freedom from Britain to think of citizenship as a hard-won privilege. For the aging officers at Nolan’s court-martial, loyalty to one’s country must be implicit in every word and action or else their risks and agonies might have been in vain. They gave Nolan a chance to clear his name if he would state for them that he was still loyal to the United States; instead, he lashed out at the very sound of the country’s name and, thus, blasphemes his country and obliges the aging officers to condemn him. He overreacts to their do-or-die patriotism; they, in turn, overreact to his impulsive outburst.

We are now living in a time when people are once again extremely sensitive to anything that can be construed to threaten their belief in the United States. The security we have become accustomed to was assaulted on September 11, 2001, and the need to regain at least some sense of security has people running for the shelter of absolutes–we are right, they are wrong. Like Phillip Nolan, many citizens who had doubts about their country, who were self-described cynics who dared to criticize the government, are now “repenting.” We are told that the nation is united in patriotism. Flags are flying or being displayed everywhere as if to ward off evil. Still, nobody is examining what patriotism is beyond the idea that it involves defending the country and going along with whatever the president and the government tell us.

The lesson that we can learn now from “The Man without a Country” is that we should not interpret patriotism and loyalty from the outward displays nor should we rush in to condemn as traitors those who have a point of view different from the popular creed. Phillip Nolan spent his life learning about the world and helped others in need: acting as a translator, nursing the ill aboard the ships, jumping into the fray during the War of 1812. His badly timed words in the courtroom unjustly earned him a lifetime of exile; the good deeds he did in that lifetime proved his humanity.

Loyalty to one’s country and, in the larger sense, to the world can involve fighting in defense against a deadly enemy or it can involve fighting to preserve the freedoms of our Constitution, including freedom of speech and thought. To fail in this, we would be inviting more outbursts from other rebellious Nolans and, worse, we would be proving, in the words of that truly American 1950s comic strip Pogo that “we have met the enemy and he is us.”

Lynne Bronstein is a freelance writer who has published three books of poetry and numerous articles in national and Los Angeles-based newspapers and magazines. She has won two awards for broadcast journalism while writing for a southern California cable news show and was the editor of a music website.

COPYRIGHT 2002 American Humanist Association

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