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The Theory and Practice of American Literary Naturalism : Selected Essays

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The Theory and Practice of American Literary Naturalism : Selected Essays

Post by Hush on Fri Mar 06, 2009 4:11 pm

I'll try to post here some essays that have been published in a book by Donald Pizer called The Theory and Practice of American Literary Naturalism : Selected Essays and Reviews.

I Think that after reading these essays you'll master Naturalism.

Here we go:

Intoduction :The study of American Literary Naturalism a retrospective

I did not begin graduate work at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the early 1950s intending to concentrate on late nineteenth-century American literature.For one thing, the doctoral examinations at UCLA at that time permitted only one exam out of the required four to be in American literature, which meant that a good deal of my attention was necessarily focused on English literature. For another, Leon Howard, who directed almost all graduate work in American literature at UCLA during this period, was interested primarily in colonial and antebellum literature. Nevertheless, from my earliest seminar in American literature, during my first year as a graduate student, in 195152, I was deeply drawn to the writers of the 1890s and especially to the work of Stephen Crane and Frank Norris. (I was later to write my dissertation on the early work and career of Hamlin Garland, another 1890s author, chiefly because of the availability of his manuscripts at the nearby University of Southern California.)

I did not know why I was attracted to these writers, but in hindsight I believe that it was because the world they depicted in their fiction was closer to my own experience than any other writing I was permitted to work on. At that time, I should note, and especially so in a conservative English department, as UCLA then was, very few dissertations were written on post-1900 literature, and ''Modern'' was not a fully recognized field within the discipline. But in the fiction of Crane and Norris, and later in that of Dreiser, I found subjects and themes that were "modern" in the sense that they touched upon experiences and concerns that had been part of my own life. I had not suffered, growing up in a New York working-class family during the 1930s and early 1940s, anything like the poverty of a Maggie or a McTeague. Nor had I, as a youth of ten when the Depression ended and as too young by several years to serve in the Second World War, undergone the depth of soul-searching that social chaos and war had brought to a Presley or a Henry Fleming. But nevertheless, as someone who had been raised in a totally urban civilization and who had lived through depression and war, I instinctively sensed the relevance of the lives depicted
in this fiction to my own life.


I therefore read the fiction of Norris and Crane initially not because it was required for a course but because it interested me. I did not read it, to put the matter somewhat differently, because it illustrated a body of ideas about this phase of American literature, ideas which I was supposed to learn, but because it gave me pleasure to read it. But I also soon discovered, first through conventional survey courses in American literature and then through my reading of criticism bearing on this period, that a fully developed interpretation of the period was indeed already in place and was almost universally accepted. The novels of Crane, Norris, and Dreiser, I read and was told, were examples of literary naturalism. They therefore derived their essential nature and purpose from the theories and practice of Emile Zola, the foremost spokeman of the movement, and were characterized above all by a desire to demonstrate through fictional characterization and event the thesis that all experience was determined by heredity and environment. The novels of such naturalists as Norris, Crane, and Dreiser could thus best be understood in relation to the ways in which their fictional characters were shaped, conditioned, and usually destroyed by social and biological forces beyond their control. Moreover, as I was assured by such standard historical and critical studies of the period as Oscar Cargill's Intellectual America (1941) and Malcolm Cowley's "'Not Men': A Natural History of American Naturalism" (1947), the naturalists had failed in this effort to apply a scientific accuracy and detachment to fictional representation. The early naturalists had not only falsely degraded the human condition because of their commitment to materialistic precepts but had also been hopelessly confused in their efforts to dramatize a fully deterministic universe. Their novels were therefore both untrue and inept. Aside from "having opened up American expression to new kinds of experience" (as the critical platitude was usually put), naturalism was in effect a regrettable false step in the "development" of American literature.

In general, like most graduate studentsat least those of my generationI did not quarrel with received opinion. I was, after all, in graduate school to absorb a body of wisdom, wisdom which I was then expected, with additional "contributions to knowledge" of my own, to help perpetuate. But I nevertheless had considerable difficulty with this particular wisdom. It seemed to me, for example, that far more was "going on" in a McTeague or a Red Badge of Courage or a Sister Carrie than the demonstration of a pseudo-philosophical theory of human behavior. The characters in these novels are weak and inept, and some of them die in "unpleasant" circumstances, but I did not feel that life was cheapened or degraded by these conditions and events or that it had been simplistically and one-dimensionally depicted. More was occurring in these portrayals than had been allowed, and I found myself deeply interested in attempting to discover what this ''more'' was. It addition, it seemed to me that these novels were far more successful as fiction than they had been given credit for. The stories they toldof McTeague's decline, of Henry's battlefield wandering, of Carrie fumbling her way toward happinessheld and absorbed me more than they were supposed to. So here, too, I wished to discover the basis for this "more."
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Re: The Theory and Practice of American Literary Naturalism : Selected Essays

Post by Hush on Fri Mar 06, 2009 4:19 pm

My first major attempt to confront these two interrelated discrepancies between conventional belief about American literary naturalism and my own response to specific naturalistic texts took the form of a seminar paper on Frank Norris's The Octopus that I wrote for Leon Howard. My training at UCLA had been almost entirely in history-of-ideas criticism, in which a literary work was studied principally as a reflection of the philosophical, political, or social ideas of its time. But I had also, through the influence of a few wayward younger instructors and some undirected critical reading, come into contact with the New Criticism, and especially with issues relating to fictional form and technique. (Mark Schorer's essay "Technique as Discovery," I remember, was a revelation.) So when I said to Howard that I had found many of Norris's ideas about nature and about human perception in The Octopus familiar to me from my reading in the American transcendentalists, he encouraged me in this line of inquiry because as a history-of-ideas man he was instinctively in sympathy with an approach of this kind. And when I then said to Howard that I believed that a good many misconceptions about the novel as naturalistic fiction (The Octopus was conventionally thought to be completely confused and contradictory in its themes) stemmed from a failure to understand Norris's narrative methodsor, more precisely, his point of view techniqueHoward had the good sense not to dismiss this angle of approach because it was foreign to his own methods but rather to recommend a number of useful books on fictional form, books which I then read.

The result was a seminar paper, and later an article called "Another Look at The Octopus" (it appeared in 1955 in the journal Nineteenth Century Fiction), which represented my first and therefore a tentative yet nevertheless characteristic effort to describe a work of naturalistic fiction as I had found it rather than as I was supposed to find it. What I discovered was that Norris had not been intellectually confused in The Octopus and that he had created a largely successful fictional expression of his ideas. His beliefs comprised a late nineteenth-century blend of old and new concepts about nature. Nature was an immense and uncontrollable force, but it was also, when properly understood and responded to, a benevolent force, and man had the capacity to intuit this truth about nature and to order his life in accord with this insight. The thematic confusion attributed to Norris in The Octopus was, I argued, the product both of a critical disposition to seek out only "naturalistic" themes in the novel and thus to view any productive or benevolent role of nature and any affirmative view of man's capacities as anomalies, and of a failure to grant Norris, because he was a naturalist, any technical sophistication. Thus, for example, almost all readings of the novel had failed to recognize that Norris's dramatic rendering of the principal reflector in the novel, Presley, permitted Presley the integrity of his own beliefs and therefore did not at all times represent Norris's ideas. It was Presley who was fumbling his way toward insight rather than Norris who was confused.

In this reading of The Octopus I had, in a sense, found a critical mission, though it was to be a decade or so before I began to pursue it fully. Norris's themes in the novel, I had discovered, were far more affirmative than any attempt to interpret them in conventional naturalistic terms could hope to understand, and his means of rendering his themes were far more complicated than could be accommodated within a conventional notion of the heavy-handedness of the naturalistic novelist. When looked at closely as a fictional representation of beliefs about human nature and experience, the naturalistic novel, in short, was far more complex than it was believed to be within any traditional definition of the form and the movement.

I was not, however, at this time interested in developing the underlying method and thesis of my essay on The Octopus into a full-blown reexamination of the theory and practice of literary naturalism in America. Rather, for the next decade or so I engaged in the close study of the work of specific late nineteenth-century authors, with little discussion of naturalism in general, as in my books on Hamlin Garland in 1960 and Frank Norris in 1966. But I was nevertheless also building toward a more theoretical criticism of the fiction of the period in several ways. One was in my interest in making sense of Norris's literary criticismanother aspect of his work which was thought to be hopelessly confusedmuch of which bore on the issue of what was naturalism in America. (This concern led to my 1964 edition of Norris's criticism.) Another was in my increasing involvement in the work of the other important late nineteenth-century American naturalists, Crane and Dreiser. By the mid-1960s I had given enough thought to all the major naturalistic fiction of the period to come to two related decisions. I would devote a great deal of specific attention to Dreiser because his work, more than any other writer's, characterized and defined naturalism in America, and I would also seek in a series of essays to describe and thus to redefine American naturalism as a whole during the late nineteenth century. Both of these efforts were pursued simultaneously over the next ten years. The first resulted in several books and editions of Dreiser, culminating in The Novels of Theodore Dreiser: A Critical Study (1975). The second was expressed in a number of articles, perhaps the most central of which were "Nineteenth-Century American Naturalism: An Essay in Definition" (1965) and "Nineteenth-Century American Naturalism: An Approach Through Form" (1976). Both concernsmy interest in Dreiser and my interest in naturalism as a wholejoined in ''American Literary Naturalism: The Example of Dreiser'' (1977).
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Re: The Theory and Practice of American Literary Naturalism : Selected Essays

Post by Hush on Fri Mar 06, 2009 4:32 pm

Several common themes run through these essays of the late 1960s and 1970s in which I attempted to describe the general character of late nineteenth-century American naturalism. One was my desire to wipe the slate clean for a fresh look at the fiction of the period by analyzing the reasonsmost of them extraneous to the fiction itselffor the critical disfavor of naturalism. The various "cases" against naturalism, I argued, derived largely from religious, philosophical, and political issues of the critic's moment, from the 1890s to the present, rather than from a close examination of the fiction itself. And the fiction itself, I then sought to demonstrate, was not antithetical to traditional humanistic and tragic values. (This, indeed, was the principal thrust of my 1978 Mellon Lecture, "American Literary Naturalism and the Humanistic Tradition.") These writers, I believed, were expressing a sense of the worth of the human enterprise whatever the limitations placed on human volition by the immediacies of social reality. Rather than a mindless adoption and crude dramatization of deterministic formulas, I found in their fiction instance after instance of an author's struggle to confront the conflict between old values and new experience in his time, a struggle which usually resulted in a vital thematic ambivalence. And, I concluded, it was this very ambivalence, rather than the certainties of the convinced determinist, which was the source of the fictional strength of the naturalistic novel of the period.

My attempts to describe the general characteristics of American naturalism by an examination of specific novels of Norris, Crane, and Dreiser resulted in my recognition not only of large- scale similarities in this fiction but also of major differences in each writer's response to the central drift of ideas in his time. There was indeed a drift, one derived from the inevitable awareness pressed upon writers coming of age in post-Civil War America that the conditions of urban and industrial life as well as the new understanding of man's animal origin seemed irreconcilable to the concepts of human dignity and freedom inherent in traditional religious, philosophical, and political belief. But each writer, I also discovered, was responding in his own distinctive wayin subject matter, in theme, and in formto this large undercurrent of his age. Indeed, as a kind of key to this variability, I had noted as early as 1962, in "Frank Norris's Definition of Naturalism," the remarkable absence of a philosophical center in Norris's concept of naturalism, despite his debt to Zola, who had insisted on a materialistic and mechanistic foundation to his own conception of naturalism. This lacuna in Norris, I argued then and later found confirmed in my close reading of individual naturalists, characterized naturalism as a whole in America and was in part responsible for the great freedom of response (and hence variety) by writers to naturalistic tendencies. Naturalism in America, I was coming to see, was not a "school" and was perhaps not even a "movement." Ratherand I soon came to adopt these termsit could best be described as an "impulse'' to which there gradually accrued a "tradition."

Dreiser was of course the only major naturalist of his generation to have a career extending fully into the twentieth century, and my study of his work thus brought me into closer involvement with modern American writing. Indeed, from the mid-1970s to the present much of my work on naturalism has been devoted to the examination of its continuing presence in the twentieth century. As with my writing on naturalism in the 1890s, this criticism is of two kindsbook-length studies of individual authors, in which I seldom discuss their relationship with naturalism, as in my study of John Dos Passos's U.S.A. (1988), and essays on specific works or groups of works, in which I seek to raise issues about twentieth-century American naturalism in general, as in the introductions and essays of my Twentieth-Century American Literary Naturalism: An Interpretation (1982) (excerpted in this collection under the title "The Three Phases of American Literary Naturalism") and in such separately published articles as "Con- temporary American Naturalism" (1985) and "American Naturalism in Its 'Perfected' State" (1991).

Much of this writing about twentieth-century naturalism has sought to establish the two interrelated points that naturalism, contrary to conventional critical belief, did continue as a significant and powerful tendency into modern and contemporary American expression, and that this continuity has taken the form of a variable impulsethat each new generation of writers attracted to naturalism has expressed itself in ways that both echo traditional naturalistic concerns and introduce the preoccupations and fictional methods of that generation. My discussions of twentieth-century American naturalism thus promote the idea of "phases" in the continuity of naturalism in America. Specific social conditions and intellectual movements, in other words, encourage the reemergence of naturalistic modes of expression, but this reemergence occurs not as a pastiche imitation but rather as a form in which the naturalistic impulse speaks to a historical moment in the voice of that moment. At first, in my Twentieth-Century American Literary Naturalism, I identified three such phasesthe 1890s, the 1930s, and the late 1940s and early 1950sbut in my "Contemporary American Naturalism" I attempt to describe yet a fourth phase beginning in the late 1960s.
In addition to stressing the idea of variable phases, much of my writing about modern American literary naturalism has sought to demonstrate the related premise that naturalism has matured in the course of its presence in American expression. I had initially claimed, in my discussions of naturalism of the 1890s, that this fiction was more sophisticated in theme and technique than was commonly believed, but this claim was of course made in relation to the common belief. There were, however, notable weaknesses in this fiction, just as there wereI later arguedin the opening stages of any new form of expression. But in its later phases, I came to believeand stated in my "American Naturalism in Its 'Perfected' State" and "Dreiser and the Naturalistic Drama of Consciousness" (1991)naturalistic writers joined in the post-Jamesian drift toward greater complexity and indirection in the expression of theme. In particular, naturalistic writers from the 1930s onward rendered the interaction between social reality and the felt inner life with far greater subtlety and depth than had been true of earlier naturalists.

Both my efforts to break the hold of the criterion of an absolute determinism in the definition of American naturalism and to claim the persistence of naturalistic strains into twentieth-century American writing have been criticized for resulting in a definition of naturalism so loose and flexible that it is no longer a useful critical and historical construct. This criticism, it seems to me, returns the discussion of naturalism to an earlier phase of critical examination, when works in the movement were examined principally in relation to their adherence to Zolaesque beliefs. There always has been, and, it appears, there always will be, a desire to attach naturalism to a fully deterministic and thus a pessimistic core of belief. To be naturalistic, a novel must adhere to this core, otherwise it either is not naturalism or is confused naturalism. A flexible concept of naturalism as a tendency or impulse reflecting the various ways in which human freedom is limited or circumscribed and the various ways in which this truth is made palatable by combining it with traditional notions of human worth therefore won't do. But it will have to do, I believe, and can also serve an important critical and historical purpose, if the conflict between new truths and old beliefs, and the inevitable lack of a clear philosophical and tonal center which is the product of this conflict, are indeed the essential characteristics of the naturalistic impulse and tradition in American writing.

As is suggested by the presence in this collection of four reviews of full-scale studies of American naturalism that have been published during the last decade, there has been much recent interest in the movement. (A number of other important recent studies, such as those by Amy Kaplan, Daniel H. Borus, and Robert Shulman, contain large sections devoted to naturalism.) This is all to the good, as I note on several occasions. But my reviews, as well as my essay on recent tendencies in the editing of naturalistic texts ("Self-Censorship and the Editing of Late Nineteenth-Century Naturalistic Texts" [1985]), also reveal my concern that the study of naturalism often is still bedeviled by the incubus of determinism. Thus, the effort to return the texts of The Red Badge of Courage and Sister Carrie to discarded early states is posited in part on the critical preconception that an absolute determinism is central to naturalistic fiction. In addition, some recent criticism, such as Harold Kaplan's Power and Order and John J. Conder's Naturalism in American Fiction, continues to overstress, as in much criticism of the 1930s and 1940, either the baleful political consequences of deterministic belief or the pseudo-philosophical character of the naturalistic novel. And in other critical studies, such as Walter Benn Michaels's The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism and Lee Clark Mitchell's Determined Fictions, recent theoretical approaches to literary studya tendency toward revisionist deconstructive analysis in Mitchell, a reliance on New Historicist assumptions about an author's vulnerability to contemporary ideology in Michaelsresult in a confirmation yet again of the deterministic center of American naturalism. A major and common difficulty with these various readings, I believe, is that they tend to delimit strictly and thus to diminish both the individual work of naturalistic fiction and the American naturalistic tradition as a whole and thus fail to account for the vitality and continuity of that tradition. I note at several points in this collection of essays Willard Thorp's comment in 1960 that naturalism somehow refuses to die in America. Thorp was in part bemused by this insight because the long and seemingly indestructible life of American naturalism owed little to critical understanding or support. Yet, it seems, as long as American writers respond deeply to the disparity between the ideal and the actual in our national experience, naturalism will remain one of the major means for the registering of this shock of discovery.
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Re: The Theory and Practice of American Literary Naturalism : Selected Essays

Post by Hush on Fri Mar 06, 2009 4:34 pm

One The Three Phases of American Literary Naturalism

An important paradox characterizes the history of American literary naturalism. Although the movement has been attacked by literary journalists and academic critics since its origin in the 1890s, it has been one of the most persistent and vital strains in American fiction. As Willard Thorp noted in 1960, naturalism "refuses to die" in America despite the deep antagonism it usually inspires. 1 Few of our major twentieth-century novelists have escaped its "taint," and it is perhaps the only modern literary form in America that has been both popular and significant.

There are a number of reasons for the opposition to naturalism.2 Because much naturalism is sordid and sensational in subject matter, it is often dismissed out of hand by moralists and religionists. The early naturalists were particularly vulnerable in this regard. A more meaningful antagonism arises from the feeling of many readers of naturalistic fiction that their basic assumptions about human nature and experience are being challenged. Man's faith in his innate moral sense and thus his responsibility for his actions, and his belief in the semidivine nature of the American experience and in the healing and preserving roles of family and lovethese and many other traditional values appear to be under attack in the naturalistic novel. Many readers have also objected to the fullness of social documentation in most naturalistic fiction. From the early attack on naturalism as "mere photography" to the recent call for a fiction of "fabulation," the aesthetic validity of the naturalistic novel has often been questioned.

These traditional objections to naturalism arise for the most part from a priori beliefs about man and fiction. The most probing critics of naturalism have attacked it not on these grounds but on those implied by the ideological origins of the movement. They have argued that a fiction as ideological as naturalism should have a unified and coherent philosophical base and a distinctive form and style consistent with that base. This position has its origin, whether acknowledged or not, in the preeminence of Zola's theory of literary naturalism, and in particular in Zola's belief that the naturalist is a scientist manqué who describes human behavior as closely related to the demonstrable material factors that have conditioned it. Naturalism, in this still widespread view is above all social realism laced with the idea of determinism. 3 We live in a biologically and socially conditioned world, and it is the function of the novelist to demonstrate this truth. An entire generation of critics has argued, however, that naturalists have been hopelessly confused because they introduce elements of free will and moral responsibility into accounts of a supposedly necessitarian world.4 Even Charles Walcutt, who avoids the trap of condemning naturalists for their allegiance to two seemingly irreconcilable systems of value (the "two streams" of his major study of naturalism in America),5 nevertheless slips into the related position of faulting the movement for not producing distinctive literary forms consistent with its deterministic philosophy. No wonder, then, that naturalism in America has always been in ill repute. Whether damned for degrading man beyond recognition by depicting him as a creature at the mercy of "forces" ("Not Men," in Malcolm Cowley's well-known phrase)6 or attacked for inconsistency because of the presence of characteristics that fail to debase him, the naturalist has seldom lacked detractors.

Yet despite this unceasing and almost unanimous assault on almost every aspect of American naturalism, the movement, unlike its European counterpart, has continued to flourish. A number of reasons have been advanced to explain the hold of naturalism upon both our writers and our readers. Because of its documentary method, the naturalistic novel, it is argued, has a concreteness and circumstantiality particularly congenial to the American temperament. Alfred Kazin sums up this notion when he writes that "with us naturalism has been not so much a school as a climate of feeling, almost in the very air of our modern American life, with its mass patterns, its rapid social changes, its idolatry of the mechanical and of 'facts.'" 7 Naturalistic fiction is not only "familiar" in its solidity but is also, unlike much modern fiction, fully and strongly plotted. From McTeague to Lie Down in Darkness, the narrative as "story" is a powerful characteristic of the naturalistic novel even when it contains various experimental techniques. Naturalistic fiction also attracts many readers (while repelling others) because of its sensationalism. "Terrible things must happen to the characters of the naturalistic tale," Frank Norris wrote in 1896,8 and so it has been ever since. The sensationalism of naturalistic fiction, howeverits violence and sexuality, for examplehas an appeal that strikes deeper than the popular taste for the prurient and titillating. The extraordinariness of character and event in the naturalistic novel creates a potential for symbolism and allegory, since the combination of the concrete and the exceptional immediately implies meanings beyond the surface. Naturalism is thus closely related to the romance in its reliance on a sensationalistic symbolism and allegory. And if, as Richard Chase and others have argued,9 the romanceas in the fiction of Hawthorne and Melvilleis the form most native to the distinctive American experience, then naturalism is a form that continues to fulfill this need in American life.

These explanations of the sources of appeal of naturalism in Americaits closeness to many of the requirements of popular taste yet the implication of a deeper level of attraction as wellhave prompted my own method in this study. My approach has not been the conventional one of beginning with a definition of naturalism derived from late nineteenth-century ideas and conditions and then judging writers in accordance with their degree of conformity to the definition. It is this critical procedure, as I have suggested, which has contributed to the misunder- standing of and hostility toward the movement. Because I have sought rather to write an empirical account of naturalism in America, I have begun with a loose sense or impression of what constitutes a naturalistic novel, an impression gathered largely from my earlier examination of American naturalistic fiction of the 1890s. After selecting a number of major novels that appear to bear a resemblance to this impression, I have attempted out of a close reading of these novels to derive a number of general ideas about naturalism in America without a commitment to the discovery of a single, static definition. I have, in brief, written a book about naturalism in which a detailed study of potentially naturalistic novels suggests that there is no neat definition applicable to the movement in America but rather a variable and changing and complex set of assumptions about man and fiction that can be called a naturalistic tradition.

The working hypothesis which guided my selection of novels for further consideration is that naturalistic fiction usually unites detailed documentation of the more sensationalistic aspects of experience with heavily ideological (often allegorical) themes, the burden of these themes being the demonstration that man is more circumscribed than ordinarily assumed. The two large ideas which emerged out of my examination of American novels of this kind since the early 1890s are that these works frequently contain significant tragic themes (I discuss my notion of naturalistic tragedy in my introduction and return to it often elsewhere), and that they fall into three distinct groupsthe three waves of major novels by major new novelists in the 1890s, the 1930s, and the late 1940s and early 1950s. (It was this realization that helped determine the organization of my study.)

The reappearance of naturalism at several points in our literary history suggests that it has survived as a significant yet popular literary movement in America because it has responded to the preoccupations of particular moments of modern American life and has discovered appropriate forms for doing so. My task as an interpreter of this phenomenon was therefore threefold. I had to seek to identify the characteristics of naturalistic fiction at the particular moments during which the movement flourished in order to distinguish the distinctive qualities which crested during that decade. I had to confirm and identify more clearly than in my working hypothesis those characteristics that appear in naturalistic fiction from decade to decade and which thus represent the sustaining base of the movement. And I had to attempt to establish the relation between the naturalism of specific works and the permanent fictional worth of these works.
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Re: The Theory and Practice of American Literary Naturalism : Selected Essays

Post by tellmemore on Sun Dec 27, 2009 2:40 pm

Great job thankx ALLAH BLESS YOU
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