the man without a country


WHEN THE TIME CAME for Kurt Vonnegut to title his final book, not so long before he stumbled in his Park Avenue home, banged his head, and died, the writer turned, in a Rosebud touch, to a short story he read as an Indianapolis schoolboy during the Great Depression. That story was “The Man Without A Country” by Edward Everett Hale, first published anonymously in the December 1863 issue of a young Atlantic Monthly. Nowhere in Vonnegut’s long 2005 goodbye letter, A Man Without A Country, does he explain the title reference. This was less an oversight than a bonus message for the dwindling number of Americans who remember when Phillip Nolan, the sea-born hero-in-exile of Hale’s story, stood for allegorical and literal deracination of the saddest sort. The sly reference strikes twice. It evokes lost innocence and nostalgia for another age. Then drives a letter-opener through their heart. Vonnegut’s title also winks at the vicissitudes of literary fame. When Hale died at age 87 in 1909, he enjoyed an international reputation nearly as warm and deep as Vonnegut’s in 2005. After his once formidable output dried to a trickle, the New York Critic ranked Hale the 11th-greatest living American author.

more from Alexander Zaitchik at the LA Review of Books here.