Sunday, September 21, 2014

he cried out, in a bit of frenzy - the almost weird "The Man without a Country"

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.


  1. I do not recall ever having encountered Hale. Your morsel intrigues me, which -- come to think of it -- is the wonder of blogging: a fellow never quite knows what might pop up next to pique his interest. I think I must now sample a larger portion of EEH. Thanks for the sample.

  2. You say, "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." Perhaps I will. Now if I could only lay my hands on the Babel. Or what about Chekhov? Why not?

  3. Pushkin, The Captain's Daughter, then Tolstoy - The Cossacks and Hadji Murad and whatever else - and then Babel's Red Cavalry. This sounds like fun to me. Well, the content is awful, but otherwise the rewards would be high. There must be further books in the chain, too, in Soviet or post-Soviet literature, but I don't know what they might be.

    I think you would find the Hale story interesting. You can imagine what it would be like to teach it to today's undergraduates. Very difficult, is my guess. Just the assumptions it makes about the reader's knowledge of American history, what a challenge.

  4. Yikes! I am suddenly confronted by a semester long syllabus! However, when you say the content is awful, I am less enthusiastic. As for teaching Hale to undergraduates, perhaps that would be no more challenging than teaching so many other stories and novels; you might be surprised about the modern student's incapacity for appreciating allusions, contexts, ironies, figurative language, . . . and the list goes on and on and on (or . . . you might not be surprised, but I should know better, yet I am still blown away by the shallow, muddy waters of undergraduate preparation and capacity).

  5. I read this when I was a kid, early in my teens. Maybe in school; I can't really remember. Every once in a while bits of the story float to the surface of my mind but I could never recall the title (and certainly not the author's name). I remember now that Heinlein (or somebody) wrote a marginal SF story called "The Man Without a Planet" or something like, probably in the 50s. So this is good, you writing about Mr Hale, so I can go find a copy and see how poorly I remember the story. I don't think I ever knew that this was written in the middle of the US Civil War.

  6. They're so short, though, wee little novellas and short stories. Two weeks of reading. As for "awful," I am mostly thinking of Red Cavalry, war stories that are pretty rough going. Not that Hadji Murad is a trip to the garden store.

    Heinlein - at least the title is good, and the story would have been written when everybody caught the reference. If you read it, you will be able to see the exact moment when the story tips itself out of any US literature anthology anyone would put together today.

  7. Maybe we could make the story more Kafkian. Something along the lines of Buzzati's Colombre, say. The protagonist will be banned not only from entering his homeland, but from writing, talking or reading about it. Vast armies of murderous spies will allegedly keep watch over him, his conversations, his reading habits, his interactions with others. True, he may get lucky once or twice and escape punishment by sheer luck, but would he be willing to risk a quick and cruel death if the person sitting next to him turns out to be one of the enforcing executioners?

    The protagonist spends his whole lifetime in fear of inadvertently mentioning his homeland, or visiting by accident a page about his fatherland. Eventually, when he's very old, he meets some tourists from his native country and asks them for news about it. They chat for a while, and finally he asks them if they've ever heard of his case. They seem to vaguely recall the judge's name because he was scandalously removed from his judgeship, decades ago, due to mental health issues, when he started sentencing people to banishment to Pluto or planet Namek, or to reincarnation as a centaur or a cockroach, they couldn't remember exactly what, but something crazy like that.

    1. It's obvious Il Colombre is the next Buzzati I must read! And it's been such a long time without his fantastic short-stories.

  8. Humblehappiness, that's a good direction. Hale actually gestures towards your ending - it is a little bit uncanny. He obviously never conceived of going that way, yet he opens up the path a little. It's there, waiting.

  9. AR(T), my little trifle is, at most, a shadow of a shadow of Kafka. After geniuses like Kabir, Li Bai or Kafka discover new literary patterns, it's easy to create copies matching those patterns. As a matter of fact, most of the extant works of Kabir and Li Bai are presumably just that: copies made by imitators. Kafka has been luckier, the work of his imitators (and precursors) has not yet been attributed to him. Borges famously listed works by Zeno, Han Yu, Kierkegaard, Browning, Melville (Bartleby), Lord Dunsany and Leon Bloy among Kafka's precursors, perhaps Hale's tale belongs to that class too.

  10. Kafka and Borges have trained us to see these patterns that were there all along, but somehow invisible. Hale is a precursor if we make him one.

  11. Well, as usual, you spur me to read... I pulled out a copy that had been my grandfather's, in the old "Little Leather Library" edition, those miniature books that were once so popular. Hale is indeed an expert story-teller, particularly since so little happens: a series of vignettes of a sympathetic and suffering character, whose inner life is mostly withheld from us (the scrap-books are a good touch). I was reminded of the Man in the Iron Mask, which Hale mentions. But I suspect the real model was the Wandering Jew, wandering forever because of a blasphemy. Switching the religious offense to a patriotic one is an odd idea, but he made it work... I'll have to read more Hale; he apparently wrote stories about time travel and satellites, too. Huh!

  12. Doug, I saw that - Hale wrote the first story about an artificial planet, making him an ancestor of Ringworld and the like. Amazing!

    "The Brick Moon" - of course Adam Roberts has had his hands on it.

  13. This sounds fascinating (I'm always looking for anything with elements of Conrad and Kafka). The title seems vaguely familiar, but I can't say for certain that I've heard of it before. American classics have a tendency to survive based on academics' selective memory, which is the case everywhere, but maybe more so here, due to (as you say) "unfashionable themes." I'll have to check Project Gutenberg!

  14. So cruel to the academics, so cruel. I do not believe it is a failure of memory but rather that this story is not much help with their current concerns.

    I'll remind you that the element of Kafka is something I - now we, in the comments - have created in a Pierre Menard-like exercise. Don't blame me too much, is what I am saying.