Friday, 11 January 2013

BOOK REVIEW

The Man Without a Country 
by Edward Everett Hale (1863)

Here’s an amazing story for Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books at her blog Pattinase, not to be confused with A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut (2005).

“He cried out, in a fit of frenzy, ‘Damn the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!’” 

And Lieutenant Philip Nolan, the young and intelligent Union army United States Army officer, never does hear a written or spoken word of the country of his birth until his ignominious death.

To be sentenced to spend the rest of your life, a little over a period of fifty years, on the high seas, is a fate worse than life in prison. To spend it without hearing the name of America even once during all those years at sea is doubly cruel.

It was the price Nolan paid for his impulsive outburst against his country before Colonel Morgan, the president of the court, who was trying him and a close acquaintance, Governor Aaron Burr, for treason during the Civil War. In a fit of rage Nolan wished he never heard of America again, a wish Morgan granted him without hesitation, if only to teach him, and other American citizens, the lesson of a lifetime—love and cherish your country. The harsh sentence, we are told, has President Jefferson’s consent. 

The author in 1988. © Project Gutenberg
Edward Everett Hale, American writer and minister, has naval officer Frederic Ingham narrate Philip Nolan’s remarkable story, the 56 years he spent at sea, hopping from one ship to another, boarding up with new commanders and sailors who carry out the judge’s order in letter and spirit.

Nolan’s life aboard the naval ships are filled with many a poignant moment. For example, the “inmate” is treated well and has access to everything that a normal prisoner does except for one thing—the word ‘United States’ or any reference to the country is not to figure anywhere, in writing or in conversations. Thus, just as Nolan is reading an interesting piece of news, he suddenly finds a gaping hole in the paper. The officer assigned to him has cut it out because of a reference to America on the other side of the page
. There is no end to the levels of censorship.

The young officer, however, endears himself to the sailing crew by making himself useful on board, by showing them how to handle a gun or use artillery, reading Shakespeare, teaching them dance steps, explaining mathematics, inculcating a love for reading books and, in one instance, serving as a Portuguese interpreter aboard a dirty little schooner filled with slaves.

As Nolan grows old and sick, the magnitude of his sentence begins to sink in and he pines for information about his country, even grows to love the land he once hated so much. Then, one day, he repents in total surrender, crying out aloud before his last commanding officer, Danforth, who takes pity on the sick old man and tells him all that has happened during the course of a half a century.

“Pray, what has become of Texas?” 

As Frederic Ingham, the narrator, tells us: “The reason he had never heard of Texas was that Texas and her affairs had been painfully cut out of his newspapers.”

Nolan dies a hero, his father's badge of the Order of the Cincinnati pressed to his smiling lips. Before he goes, Nolan tells Danforth to bury him at sea for “it has been my home, and I love it” and requests a tombstone either at Fort Adams or at Orleans, his epitaph reading:


“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.”

I am sorry if I have given away more than I should have. It’s that kind of a story where you say more in spite of saying little. But fear not, there is much more to this 30-odd page account that could pass off as a short story or short fiction. For instance, the speculation whether Edward Everett Hale is telling a true story, whether the inspiration for it was the exiled anti-war pro-Confederate Ohio Democrat, Clement Vallandingham, whether the characters including that of Nolan are real, whether the events immediately preceding Nolan’s trial and sentencing actually happened, whether narrator Frederic Ingham really was a retired officer of the United States Navy, and whether The Levant, the last ship Nolan sailed on, was the same corvette that sailed from the Port of Honolulu in 1860 and was never heard of since.
 

Hale keeps you guessing on all these aspects though there are several other interesting elements of the Civil War that you will enjoy reading and as you do, you will learn much about that tumultuous period in American history.

The Man Without a Country, which was first published anonymously in The Atlantic in December 1863, the year Philip Nolan died, has been adapted for films several times including a silent movie in 1917 and a three-act radio play in 1977. The story, now termed as a classic, made a big impact on America, in the sense that it influenced Americans into supporting Abraham Lincoln’s ‘Preserve the Union’ declaration and turned many against the secessionist Southern states. Apparently, Hale intended for the story to swing the tide in favour of the Union.

14 comments:

  1. I've known of this story since I was a kid, but I didn't know it was anything more than pure fiction.

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    1. Ron, you're right, the story is pure fiction except the fiction is based around certain facts such as the betrayal and arrest of former Governor and Vice President Aaron Burr by General Wilkinson, the commander of the United States army as well as the allusion to certain events that took place during the civil war. The story gave rise to all kinds of speculation about Philip Nolan and who the young man might be.

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  2. It was also read on the radio in the early 1950s. My mother was reminding me last week that I cried and cried and cried because I found it so sad.

    It could have been a play. I was a toddler and remember just what the protagonist said and his penalty.

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    1. Joyful A, thank you for visiting and commenting. I haven't listened to the radio programme of this story or watched any of its film adaptations. There was a radio play in 1977 though there could have been others prior to it, in the early 1950s as you say.

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  3. It is a new story for me but a very sad one. It must be a disastrous thing to be exiled.

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    1. Mystica, I knew about this story though, for some reason, I read it only last week. It is a very sad story and you actually feel sorry for Nolan. The absurdness of the punishment does not make Hale's story absurd and it reads like a true story.

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  4. You know, i haven't read this one but I definitely should. I'm going to make it a goal this year.

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    1. Charles, I am sure you'll enjoy this story. It's available free on the internet. This afforded an interesting glimpse of events during the Civil War.

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  5. I'm sorry, but Philip Nolan could not have served in the Union Army. It must have been the Continental Army. The Union Army was called that because it fought to preserve the Union in the Civil War, the date of which(1860-1865) precludes any sentences from Jefferson who died in 1826. And the picture of the author could not be from 1988. He died in 1909. I'm surprised that none of the Americans noticed any discrepancy.

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    1. Anonymous, thanks for writing. I rechecked the story and Hale does refer to Philip Nolan as a lieutenant in the United States Army and not the Union Army. I stand corrected though, I believe, the Union Army was also known as the US Army or the Federal Army. There is no mention of the Continental Army formed during the American Revolution.

      Hale's narrator, Frederic Ingham, refers to President Jefferson in his narrative. He says, "I have always supposed that Colonel Morgan himself took the proceedings of the court to Washington city, and explained them to Mr. Jefferson. Certain it is that the President approved them." Philip Nolan was sentenced on September 23, 1807, during Jefferson's presidential term from March 4, 1801–March 4, 1809.

      The year 1988 in the caption under the author's picture is an oversight on my part. Hale lived from 1822 to 1909. I have struck out the erroneous year.

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  6. I remember this story well from my childhood. I enjoyed being reminded of it. Thanks very much.

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    1. Tracy, you are welcome. The internet has led me to a veritable treasure of known and unknown books and comic-books and I continue to dig away happily.

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  7. What a sadistic judge. Seems like an interesting book.

    Add another star to your award.

    http://inkquilletc.blogspot.in/2013/01/blog-of-year-2012.html

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    1. That he was, Neer. Good thing he was a fictional judge. The book is an unusual read. And thank you very much for the blog award. I'm going to add it to the ones from Jeff at The Stalking Moon and John at Pretty Sinister Books.

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