The Man Without a Country

by Edward Everett Hale

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Sea. The open seas provide the primary setting for the novel. After the protagonist, U.S. Army lieutenant Philip Nolan is convicted of treason in 1807, he is sentenced never to hear the name of his country again. To carry out this unusual sentence, he is put aboard a series of naval vessels that keep him perpetually away from the United States, and the naval officers with whom he comes into contact are instructed never to utter “United States” in his presence or allow him to come into contact with any printed material containing those words. Witnesses say that “he must have been in every sea, and yet almost never on land.” Among the distant places to which the ships take him are the Cape of Good Hope, the Indian Ocean, the Windward Islands, the Mediterranean Sea, the South Atlantic, and Argentina. After Nolan dies, the sea becomes his burial place, his final home, and his only country.

Navy ships

Navy ships. Through the fifty-five years remaining in Nolan’s life, he is moved through a succession of twenty-one U.S. naval ships that serve as his floating prisons. Whenever he is aboard a homeward-bound vessel that nears any American coast, he is transferred to an outward-bound vessel. Eventually, he spends time on half of the U.S. Navy’s finest ships, including the Nautilus, the Intrepid, the Warren, the George Washington, and the Levant, on which he dies.

While the United States is fighting Great Britain during the War of 1812, Nolan gets caught up in a sea battle aboard the unnamed American ship of the line on which he is a prisoner. When a gun officer is killed, Nolan takes charge of the gun and directs a successful action that earns the captain’s praise.

USS Levant

USS Levant. U.S. naval vessel that is Nolan’s last home. Aboard this ship, he converts his stateroom into a shrine celebrating the United States. Framing a portrait of George Washington is the current flag of the United States. It has thirty-four stars, fourteen of which represent new states about whose names he is unclear. He paints a picture of a proud eagle, with bolts of lightning in its beak and wings overshadowing the talons of one foot grasping the entire globe. At the foot of his bed is a map of the United States, beautifully drawn from memory. On it are letters indicating Indian, Mississippi, and Louisiana Territories and a patch showing Texas extending west to the undefined Pacific coast.

As Nolan lies dying in 1863, an officer visits him and updates the map by penciling in Texas, California, and Oregon. Also present in Nolan’s stateroom are his notebooks and scrapbooks, some with his own drawings, evidence of his reading about historical events and aspects of science, in censored books and newspapers. These touching accoutrements convert Nolan’s final cell into a kind of living history museum and its captive’s mini-autobiography.


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Adams, John R. Edward Everett Hale. Boston: Twayne, 1977. Includes a chapter devoted to The Man Without a Country. Discusses the work’s analogues and sources—mainly the pro-Confederacy pronouncements of the Ohio politician Clement Laird Vallandigham made early in the Civil War—and its factual background, narrative core, and popularity. Discusses Hale’s sequel, Philip Nolan’s Friends (1876).

Brooks, Van Wyck. Introduction to The Man Without a Country, by Edward Everett Hale. New York: Franklin Watts, 1960. Succinctly presents a biography of the versatile, conservative, patriotic Hale, and briefly discusses the political inspiration for the story.

Hale, Edward Everett. “Philip Nolan and the ‘Levant.’ ” National Geographic Magazine

(This entire section contains 240 words.)

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National Geographic Magazine 16 (March, 1905): 114-116. Hale’s cocky, rollicking comments on a possible location of the shipwreck of the Levant, a real U.S. Navy sloop-of-war that disappeared in 1860, in the Pacific Ocean east of Hawaii. Because of its disappearance, Hale felt free to use it as the fictional vessel aboard which Nolan dies in 1863.

Oxley, Beatrice. “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” English Journal 38 (September, 1949): 396-397. Explains the care with which Hale provided pseudofactual details and data concerning the life and background of his fictional Philip Nolan.

Van Doren, Carl. Introduction to The Man Without a Country, by Edward Everett Hale. New York: Heritage Press, 1936. Defines Hale’s motive for writing this unrealistic story as fervent patriotism in the face of the jeopardy in which the nation existed at the time of the work’s composition.


Critical Essays