My Pushkin-Tolstoy-Turgenev chain should have been followed by a story by Anton Chekhov or Isaac Babel . That would be a good idea. Maybe someone else will do it. I’ll make a swerve. I’m going to look at “The Man without a Country” by Edward Everett Hale, an 1863 story that was once a pretty solid American classic, but has shriveled up quite a bit. Long ago, my great grandmother gave me a collection by Hale, and though I was too young to really understand it, I was surprised at how much I remembered, dimly of course. It is a vivid piece of storytelling.
It is also desperately weird. Young Philip Nolan, a U.S. Army officer, gets tangled up in Aaron Burr’s conspiracy to create a breakaway American state, his motive more vanity than anything else. At Nolan’s trial
when the president of the court asked him at the close, whether he wished to say anything to show that he had always been faithful to the United States, he cried out, in a bit of frenzy:
“Damn the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!”
Shocking language, to an eight year-old, or whatever I was. The judge grants Nolan’s wish. He is put aboard a naval vessel that is given special instructions making sure that the prisoner never sets foot on or hears the slightest detail about his home country. Newspapers are censored, books that mention the United States are removed from his access, officers and sailors watch their speech, and the buttons of his army jacket are replaced “for the reason that [they] bore either the initials or the insignia of the country he had disowned.”
Nolan travels the world as the guest and prisoner of the U.S. Navy, transferred from ship to ship, until his death fifty-six years after his conviction for treason. Along the way he repents but accepts the consequences of his punishment. He goes so far as to aid his host vessel in its military operations, leading a cannon crew in combat (“and when the gun cooled again, getting it loaded and fired twice as often as any other gun on the ship” – if there was any scene I remembered distinctly, at the distance of several decades, it was this one), and aiding in the capture of a slaving ship, a scene I wish I had remembered because it is fascinating.
“The Man without a Country” is explicitly patriotic, a defense, during a dark period of the Civil War, of the justice of the Union cause – the fight against slavery but even more the effort to preserve the integrity of the nation. The patriotism would be enough to doom a story stronger than this one, not to mention its concern with honor and glory, more unfashionable theme. The story is decidedly not of our time.
But. The art of the story lies mostly in the clever rhetorical moves the narrator makes to insist that the story is true, the moves towards realism. Yet the story is obviously preposterous, really quite bizarre. I kept picking up tastes of Herman Melville or sometimes Joseph Conrad, because of the seafaring setting, of course, but also because I could see how, especially at certain junctures, the story could easily be bent into a Melville or Conrad story, or for that matter a Franz Kafka parable, the tale of an American Flying Dutchman condemned to forever sail the seas by an insane judge and unreachable bureaucracy.
I wonder what later writers have done with “The Man without a Country.” Something could be done with it, is what I am trying to say.