Although Edward Everett Hale lived a long, vigorous, colorful life as a journalist, novelist, editor, historian, reformer, and Christian minister (including a stint as U.S. Senate chaplain), his fame rests almost entirely on his first well-known publication, the short story “The Man Without a Country.”
Hale was a young man when he first determined to write a work of fiction about an exile who longs for home, but it took the national trauma of the American Civil War and, in particular, the 1863 Ohio gubernatorial campaign to crystallize his idea into “The Man Without a Country.” When one candidate proclaimed that he did not want to live in a country led by Abraham Lincoln, Hale became enraged and wrote his short, patriotic fiction as a political polemic. Ironically, Hale’s effort had no effect whatsoever on the specific election, since its first publication in the Atlantic magazine was delayed until well after the event (the pro-Southern candidate was trounced anyway). Instead, it caught the public fancy and quickly became the great and popular artistic embodiment of American patriotic sentiment.
The factors behind the story’s immediate impact are not hard to understand—the trauma of the Civil War, a roused and committed public opinion, the atmosphere for fervent nationalism and jingoism—but the reasons for its continued popularity are somewhat more difficult to pinpoint. It is easy enough to fault the story for thin characterization, vague scenes, sentimentality, and blatant didacticism, but such a judgment misses the nature and intention of the work. “The Man Without a Country” is a secular parable. It is not a realistic story that is spoiled by too much rhetoric; it is a didactic story—even a sermon—that is given color and vigor through the use of realistic narrative devices. In the final analysis, the greatness of “The Man Without a Country” lies in its perfect blending of rhetoric and storytelling.
Once the reader accepts Philip Nolan’s unlikely sentence as fact, the rest of the story follows believably. The realism of the tale is enhanced by Hale’s quasi-documentary approach. In the best nineteenth century tradition, the reality of the tale is certified by the manner of its telling. The narrator of the story claims to be an old naval officer recounting his experiences with Nolan. These experiences are given plausibility through the use of specific details: ships, places, historical events, and naval procedures. Hale is especially skillful in fitting Nolan’s fictional story into the real events surrounding the downfall of Aaron Burr. The narrator’s reasonable explanation for the “suppression” of Nolan’s story, coupled with the fact that Hale originally published the story anonymously, convinced nineteenth century readers that Nolan was a real person; for years, even after Hale acknowledged the piece as his own fiction, the Navy received protests and inquiries on the matter. The device may have long ago been exposed as fictional, but it still gives the story a strong sense of reality and immediacy.
The action of the tale moves swiftly and easily. In each scene, Nolan emerges from his mysterious cabin to confront another reminder of his exile—the reading of Scott’s poem on patriotism, a shipboard dance with an old female acquaintance, combat with a British ship, and contact with a slave ship. The climax of the tale occurs when, as Nolan lies dying, the reader is finally admitted to his cabin and encounters a miniature America made out of bits and pieces. Admittedly, the emotions evoked are sentimental and pathetic, rather than tragic, but as a distillation of nationalistic attitudes and evocation of patriotic emotions, “The Man Without a Country” unquestionably realizes the author’s stated intention to create a “sensation story with a national moral” directed “towards the formation of a sentiment of love for the nation.”