The Man Without a Country, by Edward Everett Hale
Directions: This Launchpad, adapted from www.WhatSoProudlyWeHail.org, provides background materials and discussion questions to enhance your reading and understanding of Edward Everett Hale’s short story “The Man without a Country.” After reading the story, you can click on the videos to hear editors Amy A. Kass and Leon R. Kass converse with guest host Wilfred McClay (University of Tennessee-Chattanooga) about the story. These videos are meant to raise additional questions and enhance discussion, not replace it.
Thinking about the Story
Philip Nolan’s Early Life, His Crime and Punishment
- Describe young Philip Nolan? What is he like as a young officer in the Legion of the West?
- Why do you think he is attracted so quickly and completely—“body and soul”—to Aaron Burr, the man and, later, to his cause?
- Does the punishment he receives fit his crime?
- What is Nolan’s initial attitude toward the punishment he receives? Do you understand it?
Charting Nolan’s Changing Attitude toward Home and Country
About each of the following incidents, please consider these two general questions:
- What has happened?
- Why does it have such an impact on Nolan?
In addition, consider the following incident-specific questions:
1. Reading “The Lay of the Last Minstrel.”
- What does Sir Walter Scott’s poem mean? Why and how does it affect Nolan? (See Canto 6)
2. Rebuke from his dancing partner, Mrs. Graff.
- Does Nolan’s acquaintance with a person like Mrs. Graff, back in Philadelphia, before her marriage, shed any further light on Nolan’s former life? What kind of person do you think Nolan was back then?
3. Nolan’s receipt of the “sword of ceremony” for his splendid and courageous action in the frigate duel with the English.
- Why might the receipt of the “sword of ceremony” be both especially meaningful and especially painful for Nolan?
- What is the significance of the tears Nolan sheds?
4. Nolan’s confrontation with the newly freed African slaves.
- Nolan’s fitness to take on this job is due to his knowledge of Portuguese. Does his knowledge of the language surprise you? What do we learn about the type of upbringing and education Nolan had growing up? What kind of family do you think he came from?
- What role does Nolan play in their emancipation?
- Why is Nolan’s agony especially poignant here?
5. The speech to young Fred Ingham.
- What significance does Nolan here attach to “of home and country”?
6. Nolan’s deathbed exchange with Danforth and the “little shrine” in his stateroom.
- Why did Danforth decide not to tell Nolan about the fact of the Civil War?
- Why did Nolan take such pleasure in discovering that the then president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, was a man of the people, not a man of privileged birth?
- Nolan dies with his father’s badge of the Order of Cincinnati pressed to his lips. (The Order of Cincinnati is an eagle-shaped badge to be worn by veterans of the Revolutionary War.) What is the meaning of this gesture?
- Was Nolan finally a man without a country? Why or why not?
Despite Hale’s insistence that the story is fictional, as noted earlier, we do know when it is written—during the height of the Civil War, in the year of the Emancipation Proclamation. Is its Civil War background important for understanding the story’s meaning?
Thinking with the Story
Hale’s story, the first entry in What So Proudly We Hail, appears under the first and overarching theme of the anthology: “National Identity: Why Should it Matter?” Since the story’s first appearance, many people have been moved by it to patriotic feeling. But as many have rightly noted, throughout the story Hale uses the word “country” not “nation.” Many have thus wondered whether, and in what way, the story is particularly about American national identity and how it works to promote it.
These questions also arise when one notes that in the fourth and fifth incidents cited above—Nolan’s encounter with the newly freed African slaves, and his subsequent impassioned speech to Fred Ingham—the emphasis is on home as the place of one’s own, not as the embodiment of political institutions devoted to the idea or fact of freedom. One’s country is spoken of as Alma Mater (Latin: “the nourishing mother”), the source of one’s life, love, and rearing, in a particular place, in a particular time—but not as a people looking up to particular ideals. What then is it that makes for national identity? How should one speak about it? What does it mean if one cannot speak or hear about it? These are among the larger issues that the story raises for our consideration.
Human Being and Citizen
- Is there anything especially American in the identity and attachment that Nolan comes to desire? Or, more specifically, is there anything in the story that would have you believe that Nolan’s newly acquired appreciation of his country embraces essential American principles (e.g., liberty, equality)? If so, where do you see it? Which principles?
- Does Nolan’s longing for “home” differ in any way from the longing for home of the newly freed slaves?
- Which is more important for making attached American citizens: the love of American principles or love of our native land?
- If love of one’s native land is crucial, what then about the national attachment of immigrants, who are Americans not by birth but by choice?
- If love of American principles is crucial, what happens to one’s attachment when the country’s deeds are at odds with its ideals?
Speaking, Hearing, and National Attachment
- Nolan’s punishment does not prohibit his speaking about the United States; it only prohibits others from ever speaking of it in his presence. Presumably, they must also ignore him when he speaks or asks about it. As we have noted, this punishment has a powerful effect on Nolan’s soul, demonstrated by his general transformation of heart, and, more visibly, by the shrine he erects in his stateroom. What is lost by the absence of shared speech about one’s country?
- In his First Inaugural, Lincoln expressed the hope—forlorn as it turned out—that the “mystic chords of memory” would draw the Union back together. This memorable expression invites us to think about how and why speech about the things we share is important for forming and cementing our loyalties, our affections, our commitments, and our common memories. What are the “mystic chords of memory”?
- Reflecting on your experience of reading this story and—we hope—discussing it with others, did it make you more aware of why your nation and your American identity matters?