Edward Everett Hale (18221909). The Man without a Country.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
Criticism and Interpretation
By Henry Seidel Canby
THERE are few tales charged with stronger patriotism than breathes from this narrative of a man who loved his country as no other man has loved her; but no man deserved less at her hands. Not many poems called forth by the intensities of our war period so well embody the strong loyalty engendered by the struggle. And there are few narratives at whose last line we can say with stronger conviction, Here is a great story. Philip Nolan, lieutenant in the United States Army, expressed with an oath the wish that he might never hear of the United States again. The Court sentenced him to have his wish fulfilled. This is the plot, and it is worked out with all the ingenuity of a clever story-teller, and all the passion of an ardent patriot. There are splendid climaxes: where poor Nolan, on shipboard, an exile from even the name of home, reads aloud, by unhappy accident, Breathes there the man, with soul so dead; or when the Kroomen of the captured slave ship beg through his agonized translation, Take us home, take us to our own country. And yet this story has received scant notice at the hands of historians and critics of the only literature in which Americans can claim distinct originality, that of the short story.
The reason for this neglect is that this tale lacks the perfect structure and the new technique which was to make unity of impression easy, and good short stories abundant. The emphasis is not reserved for the end; there is much that is irrelevant, unplaced, digressive in the narrative; the first paragraph is by no means conscious of the last. Why then successful? Why then not merely a good narrative, but a good short story, with an impression left upon the mind which is single and intensely vivid? Undoubtedly Mr. Hale was forcible because he felt every word he wrotebut that does not explain why, with so little attempt at structure, he made such an excellent short story. The truth is that he succeeded because he hit upon that other device for making a short story effective; he gripped firmly, not a plot, but, most striking situationsuppose a man, for treason, to be kept ignorant of home and countryand made his story to center upon that from first word to end. This is equivalent, in its result, to structural emphasis, for the impression has to be a unified one. And it seems to account for the effectiveness of Mr. Hales easily running story.
This choice of a situation as the nucleus for a story had been adopted some twenty years before by Hawthorne, with very different material and for a very different purpose. Inevitably, whether through imitation, or by a natural experimenting with means available for a desired end, it was bound to be continued in the later development. But Mr. Hale was the first, after Hawthorne, to apply the principle for really great results, and, furthermore, he points the way, in his stories, towards the use of situations, not moral-philosophical, like Hawthornes, but simply interesting as are those chosen by Henry James or Maupassant. The Man Without a Country is, therefore, a true milestone. It was an artistic success because of its very vivid impression of a souls tragedy. The impression made is so vivid because the story which conveys it is not too long for one idea, and one only, to fill it. It was possible to make it short, with a mans life for subject, because, not the plot of Philip Nolans tragedy, but the poignancy of his situation was the aim of the narrative.From The Short Story in English (1909).