Review: The Man Without a Country

From: Classic American Short Stories

From: Classic American Short Stories

Mr. Hale’s story is long and rambling, and at times “getting through it” becomes a chore. As much as I hate to say it, this one in particular didn’t appeal to me outright. The character, Philip Nolan, is beset by an interesting set of circumstances. In his youth he slandered his country before a military tribunal, and as consequence his superiors saw fit to cut him off from all awareness of the country he slammed. He would spend the rest of his days under “lock and key” aboard various naval vessels in which he’d never see nor even hear mention of the country that he’d forsaken.

The premise is interesting enough. It is a kind of social experiment involving isolation and exclusion, but not neglect, so that the severe isolation could be maintained indefinitely. But the writing doesn’t fail at the premise.

First you have to understand that this is an older work, and that Mr. Hale wrote in the 1800s. When you consider that fact, though it makes the text no more palatable, it softens your bias. Here you will find the vivid prose of King or Eowyn Ivey, but you will discover, if you set your bias aside, that what you are reading is as much a time capsule written in just a few short pages as it is a story.
I do not know whether or not Mr. Hale was an abolitionist, but he did write in the later 1800s, and the mention of “the rebellion” and Abraham Lincoln. And this is where the story becomes interesting to me, because so often the only picture of the Civil War we get it dictated to us through High School History books and Hollywood adaptations, and here we get an author-of-the-time’s opinions.

There is a scene in which Nolan is called upon to translate Portuguese onboard a slaver-ship to some newly liberated slaves. What makes me think Mr. Hale is an abolitionist is his idealism in the scene. It is a very solemn scene, very respectfully crafted, and the slaves themselves, all black, are elevated to the point of near-sainthood in their suffering and their dignity. Now, while I appreciate his treatment of the subject matter, my suspension of disbelief ends at the point where they decide to waste more resources and time just to bring theses slaves back home. This is a point that shows the flawed-idealism of Mr. Hale’s time, because while acts of kindness and sympathy surely happened on the open sea, they were not devoid of racism.

So, while Mr. Hale’s idealism is problematic, and seems to seek the absolution of White Americans in whatever nebulous role they’ve played in developing the institution of slavery, it is interesting to feel his underlying guilt and to see the delicacy with which he treats the subject matter, and through what pains he suffers to make sure there is no mention of the slaver’s ethnicity or skin color. Also, the fact that slavery plays such a pivotal role in the story is telling as well. There are not too many authors I’ve read who’ve acknowledged the realities of an ugly thing, and here Mr. Hale shines light upon a subject that most would prefer to keep swept under the rug, especially of his day.

I would recommend reading this story as a survey of facts, events, and culture of the 1800s. In that capacity this story is a fantastic voyage. But be warned, though the subject matter is grand, you may get bogged down in the slow-paced prose from time to time.

Thank you for reading,
David

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