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America's Critic Right or Wrong

by Michael McDonald

Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature
by Louis M. Dabney
New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005, 656 pp., $35

Each Monday for nearly 20 years the 19th-century French literary critic Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve delivered to a leading Parisian daily a lengthy essay discussing one of the nation's pre-eminent authors, notable books or new artistic movements. The essays, in which Sainte-Beuve leaned heavily on personal biography to unlock the mysteries of literary creation, proved a great success with the reading public; they were eventually published in two fat volumes, the Causeries du Lundi and the Nouveaux Lundis, each of which attracted assiduous readers well after his death in 1869.

Sainte-Beuve had every reason to be proud of his accomplishments, yet for all his fame he recognized the dubious, parasitical nature of his work. "No one will ever erect a monument to a critic", he reputedly muttered. Genuine literary creation is one thing—the real thing—that perdures and provokes later generations to mark and memorialize its birth, not the secondhand commentary that falteringly seeks to attach itself to it.

But that, as the expression goes, was then. Take a stroll now around our benighted postmodernist literary playground and you cannot help but stumble over various imposing monuments to literary critics of one stripe or another. To be sure, they may not be hewn from stone or cast in bronze—antiquated pre-industrial materials ill-suited to our virtual mode of reality. (Although surely there must be a graven image of Michel Foucault or Roland Barthes outside of some academic lecture hall somewhere on the Yale or Harvard campus, n'est-ce pas?) Rather, they exist most typically in the form of endowed chairs, literary prizes, philanthropic foundations and even films (Derrida). But the most obvious and plentiful source of these public tributes comes fashioned out of paper: namely, the depressingly overweight, 500-page memorial stone that goes these days by the name of literary biography.

America's Critic It is not clear why this should be so. Biographies of creative writers—those who, as the appellation suggests, do little more than sit and write for the better part of their lives—are bad enough, but these at least can be justified on the grounds of providing greater insight into the enticing yet hermetic imaginative worlds their subjects have conjured up. But books on men and women who sit and write about other men and women who've sat and written (not to speak of review essays of the former)? Things would appear to be getting out of hand.

When you add to the mix the fact that most criticism, unlike creative writing, is inextricably time-bound, entangled as it must be in a web of current references and preferences, arriving at a convincing explanation becomes even more daunting. And yet these monuments of paper and glue continue to roll off the presses at an astounding rate. Irving Howe, Dwight Macdonald, Susan Sontag—to name only a few notable contemporary critics no longer wit—have each been entombed since their passing in massive critical biographies. F. R. Leavis, if you can believe it, has received the treatment twice over.

Should we be at all surprised, then, that the man referred to as "the dean of American letters", "an American Plutarch" and "America's best mind" is well on his way to being biographed in three separate books? The first, Jeffrey Meyers' Edmund Wilson: A Biography, was published in the centenary year of Wilson's birth, 1995, and has recently been reissued in an attractive 2003 paperback edition. Louis M. Dabney's brick-like tome, Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature, has just come out, and two English literature academics, David Castronovo and Janet Groth, will complete the hat trick before year's end with The Critic in Love: A Romantic Biography of Edmund Wilson.

Edmund the Great

If biography can be justified on any grounds for any critic, it certainly is warranted in the case of Edmund Wilson. In addition to the accolades noted above, Wilson has been lauded for his "pioneering spirit" ("He continually explored and settled new literary territory"—F. W. Dupee), his "intelligent, critical mind" (not only "luminescent, curious, cosmopolitan in range", but also "unceasing in inquiry and tireless in speculation"—Leon Edel), and, in short, for being, with the possible exception of T. S. Eliot, "the greatest literary critic of his time" (Hilton Kramer).

Wilson was indeed staggeringly learned and possessed the tireless intellectual energy that creative artists such as Victor Hugo have deemed the better part of their genius. Impelled by a relentless curiosity, independent learning and a lively historical sense, his range as a critic was dazzling. No 20th-century American critic before or since has been as versatile. Isaiah Berlin nicely summed up this aspect of Wilson's genius by noting how he was able

to consider works of literature within a larger social and cultural frame—one which included an absorbed, acutely penetrating, direct, wonderfully illuminating view of the author's personality, goals and social and personal origins, the surrounding moral, intellectual and political worlds, and the nature of the author's vi—and to present the writer, the work and its complex setting as interrelated, integrated wholes.

In an age that during Wilson's lifetime was already increasingly dominated by what George Steiner has called "the pygmies of specialization", he was the last of a breed: the true man of letters.

Though Wilson never underwent an expatriate phase, his horizons were always cosmopolitan. Believing that Americans have much to learn from others, he mastered an amazing variety of foreign languages, not something most Americans, even if artistically or intellectually inclined, are apt to do. (One is inevitably reminded here that Wilson's Princeton classmate, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who spent much time in Paris, was by his own quite believable admission never able to say much more in French than, "Très bien, you son-of-a-bitch.") In his youth, Wilson learned ancient Greek, Latin, French and Italian; in middle age, German and Russian; and in his twilight years, Hebrew and Hungarian. Thus armed, Wilson ranged effortlessly over world literature and could generate real excitement in his criticism as he led readers on a daunting cross-country run through varied intellectual terrain.

And yet his outlook remained American. John Updike has observed how Wilson's virtues as a critic "were old-fashioned American ones: industriousness, enthusiasm, directness, integrity." To which one may add that Wilson's Americanness was also apparent in the way he read—not so much for the aesthetic pleasure it provided, although there can be no doubt that he loved literature passiona—but so as to understand the practical consequences that knowledge of the past could have for people's lives today. "The great difference between Europe and America", Wilson wrote in 1956, is that "we have always had something to build, to win, whereas they have too much to look back on." In Wilson's view, literary criticism, too, had its part to play in the building and winning of a more progressive world. This helps explain Wilson's distrust of T. S. Eliot, a great poet who, sadly, after trading in his American character for a pretentious English one, engaged in the criticism of nostalgia by extolling the virtues of a long-dead medieval world.

There were a few detractors, at least at the start of his career, mainly concentrated in the halls of academia. They accused Wilson of superficiality and of practicing little more than a type of haute vulgarisation. Given that most of his essays first appeared in magazines such as Vanity Fair, The New Republic and The New Yorker, there is something to the charge. Wilson's essays work better as first-time introductions to complex works—Ulysses, The Waste Land, À la recherche du temps perdu—than as lasting guides to their depths. In this the critic James Wood is right to note that, "The more one knows about the subject the less helpful Wilson becomes."

Wilson conceded the point, never referring to himself as anything other than a working journalist, and never setting his aim any higher than trying, as he said, "to contribute a little to the general cross-fertilization, to make it possible for our literate public to appreciate and understand both our own Anglo-American culture and those of the European countries in relation to one another." In this, he succeeded admirably. Certainly no soi-disant "serious" academician has done more to elevate the taste and sensibility of the American public during the last century. Wilson was a democracy's man of letters, a man who believed in the capacity of average citizens to elevate their spirits and their lives through literature and learning.

Edmund the Scrivener


Born on May 8, 1895 in Red Bank, New Jersey, Wilson was the the only child of Edmund and Helen Kimball Wilson. Descended from Puritan stock on his mother's side (a cousin of Cotton Mather), his family was a solid part of the Eastern Establishment's Protestant gentry. Indeed, his father, a successful lawyer who served a term as Attorney General of New Jersey under then-governor Woodrow Wilson (no relation), was later considered by President Wilson for a Supreme Court seat.

Puritan stock or no, Wilson became an avowed atheist in his teens, rejecting Christianity as "the worst imposture in history." In its place, he substituted literature, initially wanting to be a poet before finding his true vocation after the World War as a journalist and critic. Churning out one review on deadline after another was a demanding way to earn a living, but Wilson, who was blessed with an iron constitution throughout his life, took the pressure in stride. Others may have considered it drudgery or hack work; he reveled in the opportunity it afforded him to serve the holy cause of literature. Indeed, following a priest-like ritual, Wilson would not deign to write even the most trivial review without first washing his hands.

Wilson was clever in the selection of books he convinced his editors and patrons to allow him to review. In due course, when the reviews had piled up, he was able to transform them into solidly thematic books. This is how Wilson's most famous work, Axel's Castle (1931), his introduction to Symbolism and literary modernism, came into being; his chapters on Joyce, Proust and the rest first appeared as individual articles in The New Republic.

Viewed as a whole, Wilson's articles and essays are of a very high quality despite the occasional duds caused by his disdain for humor and his sometimes too extended commentary on plot lines and relevant historical conditions. In addition, he possessed some serious deficiencies: He was blind to the beauties of German modernist literature as embodied in the works of Kafka and Mann, and since he neither read nor spoke Spanish would have nothing to do with Spanish literature, going so far as refusing to read Don Quixote throughout his life.

Nor were Wilson's judgments always compelling. To cite but two examples, Wilson viewed the greatest and most luminous book of the last century, Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu, as "one of the gloomiest books ever written." Similarly, he had no use for the creator of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves. But Wilson wrong, as an academic commentator on his oeuvre once noted, still makes better reading than most critics right.

More to the point, anyone who ever embarked on a writing career cannot but be inspired by the thought of Wilson relentlessly working away, day after day, to assess the artistry of the written word. From this perspective, Wilson is perhaps less valuable for the articles, essays and books he left behind than for the example of his life. The list of those he inspired through his unremitting efforts to understand and to evaluate is not only legion but of the highest order, including Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin, Hilton Kramer, John Updike, and more recently, Paul Berman, Louis Menand and Jed Perl.

Edmund the Grouch

It is the portrait a biographer paints of Wilson's literary willpower that is likely to sustain anyone's interest in reading 500-plus pages about him. On this score Louis Dabney's new book must be counted a success. Unfortunately, any biography of Edmund Wilson must also inevitably deal with his less appealing qualities, most notably his untidy sexual antics and heavy drinking. For, as if to constitute a living example of the thesis he set out in one of his most famous books, The Wound and the Bow (1941)—namely, "that genius and disease, like strength and mutilation, may be inextricably bound up"—Wilson's literary genius was for much of his life inextricably tethered to what one scholar has aptly termed his genius for "disciplined dissipation."

Wilson is typically viewed as carrying on with traditional Enlightenment values. This association is based on the 18th-century vigor of his prose; his repeated attempts (following the 19th-century French critic Hippolyte Taine, himself following in the footsteps of Honoré de Balzac) to establish a relationship between science and literature and to explain the historical and geographical roots of a writer's books; and lastly because of his oft-quoted 1959 statement to Henry Brandon, "I was born in the 19th century, and, like most people born in the 19th century, I still have—entirely instincti—the belief in human progress, the conviction that the world won't fall apart, the faith in the value of reform." But there were also dark currents to the Enlightenment—one has only to think of the Divine Marquis (de S—and away from his desk Wilson swam in some rather murky currents of his own.

Given his upbringing, perhaps it could not have been otherwise. His father, alternatingly domineering and aloof, was subject to fits of depression. His mother was cold and unfeeling to the point, Wilson later complained to his wives, that she had never kissed him. Alienated from his parents and with no brothers or sisters, Wilson developed a difficult character and withdrew into books. He became more interested in ideas than people and he remained rather insensitive to the feelings of others throughout his life. By his twenties he already seemed like a grouchy old man, having developed a saturnine imagination and a powerful melancholic streak.

After the First World War, when Wilson plunged himself into the bohemian social life of Greenwich Village, he transformed himself from a teetotaler (on the order of his father, who never drank) into a heavy drinker. Sedentary by day and drinking at night, Wilson's summum bonum seemed to be, as he put it, "dedicated toil followed by an orgy." Wilson's hard drinking was exacerbated by his periodic depressions, loneliness when he wasn't in one of his four marriages, and marital strife when he was. Fortunately for his productivity, he was able to drink all night and wake up without the least trace of a hangover the next day. He never suffered from writer's block either.

Any biographer is duty-bound to address such matters, all the more so in the case of Wilson, who not only recorded his seductions, drinking binges and shouting matches in a creepily clinical tone in his diaries, but also expected them one day to be published. Wilson, as Leon Edel memorably remarked, was as keen to provide the public with the record of his own copulations "as if he were a naturalist at the zoo of himself, writing a chapter of natural history."

Nevertheless, friends and admirers of Wilson at his old haunts such as the New York Review of Books and The New Republic ripped his first biographer, Jeffrey Meyers, for exploring these subjects in detail. Jason Epstein labeled Meyers' biography "squalid." Paul Berman found "something repulsive about the book" and called Meyers' retelling of the sexual antics Wilson himself had set down in print "slightly ghoulish."

Ironically, perhaps, Dabney seems to have benefited from the critical beating Meyers took in clearing the ground on these matters. Dabney relates many of the key episodes in much the same way Meyers did, although in a slightly more understanding manner. A casual review of the index to A Life in Literature indicates that somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 out of 522 pages are studded with some mention of Wilson's sexual exploits, with all the spankings, foot-fetishism and 36-hour sex romps left in. And yet by adopting the not unreasonable view that Wilson's sexual candor in print was linked to his determination, as a traditional rationalist, to demystify sex, Dabney has managed to escape the slightest bit of censure in the half dozen or so reviews of his book that have thus far appeared.

The Political Wilson

There was more to Wilson's life than just literature and sex. In true 20th-century fashion, there was also and inescapably politics. In the AI's inaugural issue, Owen Harries quoted Wilson to the effect that intellectuals, on the whole, are optimists who believe that human beings are fundamentally rational and can, if they put their minds to it, devise solutions to make a better society. Wilson, as Harries observed, diagnosed the condition accurately and warned against its dangers. Sadly, though, Wilson was not in the least bit immune to this condition himself. Despite so much contemporary evidence to the contrary, Wilson adopted this same belief as the underlying basis of his political credo when he leapt into political commentary in the 1930s and 1940s.

The killing fields of the Great War, during which he served in an army hospital in northeastern France, laid the groundwork for Wilson's political radicalization. By exposing him to such grotesque suffering and death, the war transformed him into a lifelong pacifist. The bohemian lifestyle he maintained in the 1920s led him to further distance himself from middle-class, bourgeois society and conventions. Wilson had already inherited from his gentrified family a profound hostility to the commercial mentality of capitalism, a hostility deepened by his admiration for against-the-grain American writers such as Melville, Poe and Twain. Once Black Tuesday hit, Wilson made his own metaphysical jump out the window, issuing appeals to American Progressives "to put their idealism and their genius for organization behind a radical social experiment." He wanted them "to take communism away from the Communists, and take it without ambiguities or reservations."

America's Critic It was during this radical phase of his career that Wilson embarked in 1934 upon what many believe to be his magnum opus, To the Finland Station. The six years that Wilson devoted to researching and writing his account of revolutionary politics from the French Revolution to the Bolshevik seizure of power resulted in a powerful and passionately argued work of history. Peopled with a cast of thought-provoking intellectuals from Michelet to Marx to Trotsky, Louis Menand is right to say that To the Finland Station "is, if not a great book, a grand book" in the way "it brings a vanished world to life." With the possible exception of Wilson's good friend Isaiah Berlin no one has better brought the history of ideas to life.

To the Finland Station has never left radical reading lists since it first made its appearance 65 years ago. The reason for this is not hard to explain. Wilson was in full-blown, fellow-traveling, true-believer mode. Hence the passion that reverberates off each page of the book—a passion that led him, as he himself put it in a later corrective preface, to give "a much too amiable picture" of that jolly tyrant, "the great headmaster" as Wilson calls him, V. I. Lenin. The scales would eventually fall from Wilson's eyes. But just as something of a sublimated religious intensity came out in his essays on modernist literature in the 1920s, we see here the same sublimated religious impulse preventing Wilson from grasping the full extent of Lenin's malevolent brutality.

When Wilson visited the Soviet Union to research aspects of this book in 1935, he could not help but notice evidence of Stalin's ruthlessness and the general suffering caused by Soviet tyranny and inefficiency. And yet, ideological blinders snugly fitted into place, he could still write, "In the meantime, despite these defects, you feel in the Soviet Union that you are living at the moral top of the world." He went on to pen a lyrical account of filing past the mummified body of Lenin in his Red Square mausoleum.

No doubt the onset of Operation Barbarossa shocked Wilson, but because of his pacifism, he remained isolationist when America entered World War II some six months later. That stance, together with an independent streak that would never allow him to take orders from representatives of the Communist Party, eventually ended his fellow-traveling days. Well before the war was over, he had become a target for party-liners and hacks, derided as something of a drunken, former Trotskyist, popinjay.

During the 1950s, Wilson's criticism turned anthropological as he produced a body of work on the surviving remnants of minority cultures such as the Zuni and the Iroquois. These engagements resulted in many fine books, as did his travels, on The New Yorker's dime, to France, Italy, Hungary, Haiti, Israel and Canada: The Scrolls from the Dead Sea (1955), Red, Black, Blond and Olive: Studies in Four Civilizations: Zuni, Haiti, Soviet Russia, Israel (1956), Apologies to the Iroquois (1960), O Canada: An American's Notes on Canadian Culture (1965) and Europe without Baedeker: Sketches Among the Ruins of Italy, Greece, and England (1947, revised and enlarged, 1966). He continued to review books, but as he became more engaged with minority cultures he became less engaged with major contemporary British and American writers. Most of his other literary production in the 1950s and 1960s consisted of spruced-up omnibus collections of previously published reviews and essays, for example: Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties (1950) and The Bit Between My Teeth: A Literary Chronicle of 1950-1965 (1965).

At the same time, Wilson's grouchiness took new forms. Wilson had always been something of an eccentric. For example, he never drove a car throughout his long life. Some of his eccentricities were harmless enough, as for example the diatribe entitled "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?", in which he anathematized detective stories as a waste of an intelligent reader's time. Some could be farsightedly genial: his plan for an "American Pléiade", the series eventually realized after his death as the Library of America. But some could be downright sinister: Dabney mentions in passing Wilson's oft-expressed postwar view that, the Nazi experiment notwithstanding, Americans should not be shy of creating "a bureau which should ask for volunteers for the breeding of a new race."

Equally unsettling was the somewhat unhinged view of American society Wilson began to express in print during these years. He had always had a commendable intolerance for authority, but in the 1950s and 1960s it began to morph into what he himself recognized as a "scorn for the human race" in general and Americans in particular. "This country, whether or not I continue to live in it, is no longer any place for me", he proclaimed. Wilson argued that American government had gotten out of control while the people had become passive and mindless. He attributed this to the Cold War ("just an animal rivalry—a couple of gorillas beating their breasts") and to the income tax. Wilson landed in hot water for not paying taxes from 1946 to 1955 and needed high-placed friends in the Kennedy Administration such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., to bail him out.

But tax problems were just a part of the reason for Wilson's strange morphing of America into "Amerika." Something deeper seemed to be at work. In a thought-provoking 1965 New York Review of Books essay entitled "Lessons of the Master" (unmentioned by Dabney), Frederic Crews observed how Wilson seemed to be regressing from his professed humane values to the "hollow nihilism" of Mark Twain's last days. Reading certain passages in Patriotic Gore (1962)—in which Wilson compares Lincoln to Lenin and opines that, "The wars fought by human beings are stimulated as a rule primarily by the same instincts as the voracity of the sea slug"—one finds Crews' comparison to Twain to be apt.

But to read Wilson "joking" of A-bombing the country ("I try to look on the cheerful side, and to tell myself that there's no real way of getting rid of the horrible American cities except to have them vaporized, so I am not in favor of those weapons which exterminate the human beings without destroying the buildings"), you get a sense that he has more in common with the late Hunter S. Thompson ("America: just a nation of two hundred million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anyone else in the world who tries to make us feel uncomfortable"). Perhaps we should simply be grateful that unlike wife number three, Mary McCarthy, Wilson, although adamantly opposed to the war in Vietnam, never praised the gentleness of the North Vietnamese.

Dabney's Wilson

In 1950, Wilson wrote to Arthur Mizener, who was writing a biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald, "It is important in writing a biography to remember that you are telling a story and the problems of presenting the material are in many ways just the same as those of presenting a subject of fiction…. You must put yourself in the reader's place…and calculate the tone of every sentence." In this case, as with so many of his other literary judgments, Wilson was spot-on. But applying Wilson's criteria on biography-writing to Dabney's book, one cannot help but find it something of a disappointment.

Dabney teaches English at the University of Wyoming and is the editor of both The Sixties, a collection of Wilson's works from 1960-72, and The Edmund Wilson Reader. Dabney worked on A Life in Literature for 20 years, and it shows. The book is terribly overwritten and lacks narrative propulsion. The chapters are so overworked that they seem like separate essays hermetically sealed off from one another. Wilson himself would surely have preferred Jeffrey Meyers' biography, for Meyers, like Wilson, is a fantastically prolific working journalist-biographer who has produced 40 or 50 books.

Dabney's subtitle, "A Life in Literature", indicates where he wants the reader's focus to be. This is a mistake on three counts. First, Wilson is sufficiently clear in his literary intentions and critical works to forgo the need for an explicator. Richard Ellman taking 25 years to write a biography explaining what James Joyce was up to is one thing. Dabney taking 20 years to apply the same treatment to Wilson is, well, slightly absurd.

Second, Dabney wants to concentrate on Wilson's literary side in order to excuse or downplay his disorderly personal life and many political misjudgments. In this sense, Dabney has produced the "authorized" version of Wilson's life that Meyers didn't—or woul—write, which goes far to explain the kid-gloves treatment his biography is receiving.

Third, the strategy of concentrating on Wilson's literary side is doomed to failure inasmuch as various aspects of Wilson's misguided political positions inevitably leak into Dabney's tale. In such instances, Dabney is prone to justify Wilson. Helping him along is the fact that Dabney, like Wilson, believes that the United States is indeed an irresponsible sea slug. Consider the following passage, in which Dabney connects Wilson's political opinions to the war in Iraq:

The introduction to Patriotic Gore became cogent during the Vietnam years, and again after the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the attacks of Al Qaeda on 9/11 made possible the invasion of Iraq. One need not blame the war policies of Lyndon Johnson or George W. Bush on Abraham Lincoln to observe the notable coincidence that, on an aircraft carrier named for Lincoln, a triumphant President Bush hailed the illusion of victory in Iraq ('Mission Accomplished'). Wilson makes the larger historical point efficiently: 'Whenever we engage in a war or move in on some other country it is always to liberate somebody.'

There can be little doubt that Wilson, who was soft on fascism of the German-Italian variety, would have displayed not the slightest enthusiasm for opposing modern day Islamo-fascism. But for Dabney to applaud Wilson with his "efficient" larger historical point about talk of liberation being mere piffle seems willfully obtuse in the wake of free elections in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Dabney also compares Wilson to George Orwell, but not convincingly. True, both men were gifted writers with quirky anti-establishment temperaments. But Orwell was decidedly the more level-headed of the two when it came to politics and had no fondness for pacifist platitudes that would allow aggressive, expansionist totalitarian ideologies to run rampant. Of the two men, Wilson was much more the crank. As Isaiah Berlin observed of him: "He managed to combine profound insight and extraordinary vision into cultures not his own with turbulent prejudices, hatreds and a great deal of pure nonsense."

Before he died, Wilson could see that literature was slowly becoming more and more irrelevant to American life. Writing in The Nation in 1938, he observed, "The young today…are not enthusiastic about books; they merely approve when the book suits their politics." Writing to Vladimir Nabokov a few years later, he further lamented how the general state of the world had become "discouraging for what used to be called the humanities." Wilson wouldn't be any happier if he were alive to see slapdash political screeds at the top of the bestseller lists—one day Al Franken, another day Rush Limbaugh. Nor is it hard to guess what Wilson would make of the damage done by postmodernist literary academics, who see the role of criticism as one of perpetual protest in which classic literary texts are used only to undermine authority.

Fortunately, Wilson has remained part of the literary landscape these days, thanks to the efforts of men like Dabney and Meyers. These biographical monuments to Wilson are worth having if only for the encouragement they may provide to a new generation of readers to seek out Wilson's writings. This, in turn, is made all the more easy by the fact that an amazing 16 of the 50 or so books Wilson produced during his lifetime are still in print, solid testimony to the timelessness of his prose style. If they do seek Wilson out, new readers will discover that reading him is a wonderful antidote to the degraded, highly politicized literary culture in which we now find ourselves thoroughly mired. Let us hope they do so.
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