August 13, 2013

Philip Nolan: The Man Without a Country

Philip Nolan's obituary was published "in an obscure corner" of the New York Herald on August 13, 1863. The text was simple, announcing only that he died aboard his ship about three months earlier. "And now the poor creature is dead," wrote Edward Everett Hale of his fictional character, "it seems to me worth while to tell a little of his story, by way of showing young Americans of to-day what it is to be A MAN WITHOUT A COUNTRY."

Though the story is fiction, Hale peppered "The Man Without a Country" with an apparent historical basis (including the exact issue of the New York Herald which, in fact, did not include the obituary quoted above), leading some to believe it was a true account. Nolan had become a follower of Aaron Burr when the former Vice President of the United States began a campaign to create an independent nation from the western territories. Other conspirators renounced the plan but Nolan told the judge he had no remorse, crying out in court: "Damn the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!”

The judge saw fit to sentence Nolan to the exact fate he called for. Assigned to a ship bound out of the country, the man would never see his country again. Sailors were ordered never to discuss or even acknowledge national affairs, his reading materials were all censored, and for some 50 years, Nolan was without a country, condemned to frequent ship changes, always avoiding those which would take him back to the United States. Though he was technically a criminal and a prisoner, his companions treated him cordially and respectfully; some, including the narrator, even came to admire him. Nolan, of course, came to repent his actions and his words: Only in the forced distance from his home did he come to appreciate it. On the edge of death, he is finally visited by the narrator in his private room - a room decorated with patriotic symbols and a United States map drawn from history. As he tells the narrator, "Here, you see, I have a country!"

If it wasn't clear enough that the 1863 story was analogous to the Civil War and the secession of the Confederate States, one extended scene features the crew (and Nolan) coming across a boat illegally loaded with enslaved Africans. Nolan serves as a translator for the captain, who offers to take the rescued Africans to a local port. They protest, and instead demand to be taken to their native continent, lest they never see their families, friends, and homes again. Nolan is clearly affected by their pleas and, in privacy with the narrator, offers:

"Youngster, let that show you what it is to be without a family, without a home, and without a country. And if you are ever tempted to say a word or to do a thing that shall put a bar between you and your family, your home, and your country, pray God in his mercy to take you that instant home to his own heaven. Stick by your family, boy; forget you have a self, while you do everything for them. Think of your home, boy; write and send, and talk about it. Let it be nearer and nearer to your thought, the farther you have to travel from it; and rush back to it when you are free, as that poor black slave is doing now. And for your country, boy,” and the words rattled in his throat, “and for that flag,” and he pointed to the ship, “never dream a dream but of serving her as she bids you, though the service carry you through a thousand hells. No matter what happens to you, no more matter who flatters you or who abuses you, never look at another flag, never let a night pass but you pray God to bless that flag. Remember, boy, that behind all these men you have to do with, behind officers, and government, and people even, there is the Country Herself, your Country, and that you belong to Her as you belong to your own mother. Stand by Her, boy, as you would stand by your mother, if those devils there had got hold of her to-day!"

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