During the 19th century, the antislavery movement was a huge concern for most American authors who wrote literature to abolish it. This concern issue attracted female and male writers to devote their writings to advocate the African slaves, where they were transcendentalism. The writer Henry David Thoreau- social reformer, philosopher, transcendental, and great writer. His student Louisa May Alcott and Thoreau were very much involved in the antislavery struggle in the place of America. Louisa May Alcott the activist student who grow up in a time where she was surrounding by her father and his close friend Henry David Thoreau supported the antislavery movement as did Louisa.
She studied in school under the management of Henry David Thoreau. Where Alcott’s attention was attracted to her inspiration -Thoreau, and Thoreau was attracted to Alcott’s writing. “Alcott transformed Thoreau into the fictitious Mr. Warwick in her novel Moods, where Louisa note of his “massive head, covered with waves of ruddy brown hair, gray eyes that seemed to pierce through all disguises, and an eminent noise.” (Matteson, 89). Thoreau and Alcott used their pens as a gun to fight for what they believed was right. They both expressed their thoughts about slavery and helped to abolish it. Thoreau and Alcott were from extended relationship, where there was personal connection between them. Slavery influenced their writing, it also influenced their view so they were not just writing to abolish slavery but also each one of them had a great personal position in the movement to abolish slavery that history reminds us of.
Slavery was a sensitive issue to the government and people, even for slaves themselves, however, those writers wrote about it boldly and bravely. Those brave transcendental writers wrote from their experiences from the life they lived. They both wrote boldly and clearly about their view of antislavery movement, and consider this issue in many of their works. They appealed their readers to abolish slavery, and fought about their view bravely. By seeing the horrible lives that slaves lived , led them to write literature against slavery and call to abolish slavery. However, both authors wrote about similar issues, but had completely different accomplishments. Louisa May Alcott was the next generation to Thoreau. She wrote from a different angle than Thoreau did. In this paper, I am going to express the efforts of Henry David Thoreau and Louisa May Alcott in slavery and how they wrote about it in different genre by giving some evidence of their collecting works.
Henry David Thoreau started writing about slavery before the Civil War and he rhetorically addressed in his essays about slavery, the Massachusetts governor and criticized him for allowing recapture the slaves under the act of antislavery. He framed in his works his opinion about slavery and why he is calling his readers to abolish and stand by the right side which is abolish slavery. Thoreau was an active practitioner of the art of writing. His writing supported antislavery movement. He gained his inspiration and influence from slavery. He wrote and spoke about slavery and consider it in his work as a serious issue we have to pay attention to. In Thoreau’s writing, readers can read his character from the titles of his essays. He lived according to his high ideals and aspirations, guided by integrity and morality. He devoted his writing power physically, intellectually, and spiritually to these issues he was supporting. He played a main role in antislavery movement and his view about what happening in that decade to slaves was vivid and clear in his essays, lectures, poems, and speeches. In his writing, he expressed a clear picture about slavery.
An example of his work in slavery his essay “Slavery in Massachusetts,” where Thoreau wrote about Simms case in 1851 and Anthony case in the 1854 the slaves who had escaped from the North and sent back to the South. Slavery had become a prominent issue in Massachusetts. Thoreau’s incentive by slavery feels the law enslaves all people. Thoreau pointed out that there are many slaves in Massachusetts when Thoreau said, “There is not one slave in Nebraska; there are perhaps a million slaves in Massachusetts.” (Thoreau, 181). He refers to the Massachusetts’s law as the slaves’ law. He addressed the Massachusetts’s governor and criticizing them for allowing the recapture of slaves under their acts. “Perhaps I do not know what are the duties of a Governor; but if to be a Governor requires to subject one’s self to so much ignominy without remedy, if it is to put a restraint upon my manhood, I shall take care never to be Governor of Massachusetts.” (Thoreau, 183).
He expressed his disappointment with the government and the citizens of Massachusetts for the way they ignored the issue of slavery. He also expressed his disrespect and dissatisfaction for the governor and states that didn’t take any reaction toward this important issue. He spoke clearly and expressed his opinion about slavery boldly. Thoreau expressed that people are living in heedless and think in a way far from the truth and the right and if they could stand with each other and support this issue and free slaves will be right to do instead of being fool from the truth and he refers to them as “Nowadays, men wear a fool’s cap, and call it a liberty cap.” (Thoreau, 184). Therefore, he was not just against the government but also against people who treated slaves in a bad way and were fine with slavery to be continued. Those same people became angry when the slaves were released, but also did not want them to have any rights.
Thoreau asserted that people should not just sit around and let slavery get worse, but work towards a solution. Thoreau described the men who vote for this law which support slave are men making this country get worst, and they have no principles of morality. “The majority of the men are of the North, and the South, and East, and West are not men of principle.” (Thoreau, 189). He asserts that this is not justice because “Justice is sweet and musical; but injustice is harsh and discordant.” (Thoreau 191). He also asked of justice and free life so the state of Massachusetts become flourish as it was before. “Show me a free State, and a court truly of justice, and I will fight for them.” (Thoreau,191). He refused to consider himself part of this state to fight for it or even stand by it, but if this state will change and stop slavery. Because the effect of a good government is to make life more valuable. (Thoreau, 191). He also felt the people needed to help get slavery abolished and not wait for someone to fix it, if we don’t do anything then nothing will ever change. There will be more and more pain if everyone stands by and watches.
Thoreau’s opinions about slaves become vividly clear in this essay, which Thoreau delivered as a speech. His public appearance helped him with the radical abolitionism in 1850. Thoreau did not agree with slavery and especially not any evil law, which supported it. He expressed that we cannot look to a man who was created by God as a slave. God created us all as free people, no matter what race we are. Thoreau used satire as a way to expose the flowed logic in the law and criticized the sanctions that were passed down on slaves. This will offer challenges to the people to consider his words to do the right as he did.
Another example of his work in slavery was a popular essay supporting the abolishment movement of slavery, which was titled “Civil Disobedience.” The original title for this essay was “Resistance of Civil Government” before publication. Thoreau in this essays talks clearly about his opinion toward slavery issue and government which he described as “I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also.” (Thoreau, Civil disobedience, 128). Thoreau had a lot of courage while speaking to American citizens especially the Concord citizens. However, he was not only fixated on Concrd citizens but also those citizens who practiced these cruel and unusual slavery practices. “This American government, -what is it but a tradition.” (Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, 125). Thoreau asserts that government follows what it used to do in the past, it doesn’t look to improve it law by looking to the right and do it and break it tradition principles. He declared what the government does to those slaves is inhumane and injustice. He calls for breaking the law if it serves the wrong thing, if it prevents those slaves from their freedom what is their right to ask for. “If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth- certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.” (Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, 132).
He asked people to follow him, while being like him in trying to abolish slavery. He was so intense and passionate about slavery and felt others should be as well. Even if everyone else is in aggreance to slavery, we know it is morally wrong and should fight against it. There is power in numbers. He was trying to awaken government and people from their negligence of what slaves were suffering from. Thoreau wrote politically and socially. Thoreau wrote about what he owes in this life and what is owed to him . What he thinks he owes life is to do the right thing, to not stand by without doing anything or at least not doing the wrong things which he believed is not standing with slavery and staying silent in this issue. He appeals his reader to look for the right and do the right even if the majority of people do the wrong. “A man has not everything to do, but something; and because he cannot do everything, it is not necessary that he should do something wrong.” (Thoreau, 133).
Thoreau’s immediate target were those states supporting this issue. He also blames the fellow citizens of these states for their silence and hateful feelings toward those poor slaves who just wanted freedom, which they are owed. He states very clearly that he will do the right thing and nothing can stop him. “It is not my business to be petitioning the Governor or the Legislature any more than it is theirs to petition me; and if they should not bear my petition, what should I do then? But in this case the State has provided no way: its very Constitution is the evil.” (Thoreau, 133).
He was a writer who supported his issues by expressing his personal experiences. One of Thoreau contributions to the antislavery movement was when he refused to pay the taxes to protest for those slaves. He also wrote about these experiences in this essay and he recommend people to follow his path to do like him. He declared that he did not pay taxes because he is trying to awaken the people of the graveness in these issues. He claimed: “I have never declined paying the highway tax, because I am as desirous of being a good neighbor as I am of being a bad subject; and as for supporting schools, I am doing my part to educate my fellow-countrymen now. It is for no particular item in the tax-bill that I refuse to pay it. I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually. I do not care to trace the course of my dollar, if I could, till it buys a man.” (Thoreau, 140).
He went on to explain his reasoning for not paying the taxes, because he felt that if he paid the taxes to the government he is technically supporting their law, which he did not agree with. These taxes supported the expansion of slavery. Thoreau want to use his experience in jail to raise awareness about the issue of slavery. The fact that he went to jail over these issues shows his dedication in various forms. Thoreau argued for nonviolence but he wanted people to awake and do right. He influenced many people. As stated previously the biggest was most Louisa May. Her father also was influenced as well. His name was Mr.Bronson. He followed Thoreau’s path and refused to pay taxes either and he also was in the jail for the same reason. According to Matteson the writer of Eden’s Outcasts which is a story book about Louisa and her father he said, “Bronson thought it would be a handsome piece of honor and justice if he also and his antislavery compatriots would refuse to pay that amount in taxes and willingly go to prison for their noncompliance” (Matteson, 211).
Louisa May Alcott the admired student of Henry David Thoreau used a different genre to deal with these issues. She was the next generation after Henry David Thoreau, and she wrote during the Civil War and after the Civil War. She was a prominent woman writer of the time : who used her life experience to influence her works as Thoreau did. She was a civil war nurse and abolitionist. Her writing was influence by the life she experienced during her work in the nursing. She wrote about the slaves in these situations. she raised in transcendental home surrounding by her father and his transcendentalism friends Henry David Thoreau and Walden Ralph Emerson. Which influenced also in her writing. Her family house described as fugitive slaves. She and her family remember have many stories in rescuing slaves lives where history proud of it. One of them was according to Matteson in Eden’s Outcasts book her and her father grief feelings about the escaped slave Anthony Burns who catch and sent back to Virginia where they wished to help him. Alcott wrote about him in her short story “My Contraband” where she created Robert Dane, the ex-slave with a disfigured face. Although, her father Mr.Bronson declined even to vote in an election.
She wrote about slavery and supported the antislavery movement but she was a fictional writer. She expressed slavery more in her short stories, which she based off of characters of different races from her life. She faced some difficulty in publishing her direct work about slavery, such as a poem she wrote for slavery. Her works were denied to be published because she was a woman. According to what has been written in the introduction of the collection of her writings on the, Race, Sex, and Slavery, “The problem was that women could write, especially for other women readers, and popular newspaper and periodicals took advantage of cheap female authors, allowing them to publish discreetly under pseudonyms.” (Elbert, xxvi).
Although that was not a barrier, she could not cross. Her strong relationship with many literary writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson helped her to publish her journals. Despite her close relationship with Emerson and Thoreau’s family helped her, she was the most contemporary woman in the issue of slavery. Although she was not as vocal and she didn’t write speeches, essays or talk clearly against government and people who practice slavery, her role in abolishing slavery was just as significant as those who did. She called herself a “fanatic” in the slavery abolition movement. She supported this issue through her writings and by standing with enslaved women to teach them how to become literate. She also chose to be identified as a working woman not as white woman. She struggled with the government’s decision that slaves are property and no person of African dissent qualified to be a normal citizen.
An example of her work in slavery in the collection book of her writings on Race, Sex, and Slavery by Sarah Elbert, there are five stories, the one entitled “M.L.”. Alcott wrote in it about “a professor at New York Central College who was black, became engaged to Mary King, a white student. While visiting friends in a nearby town, he was attacked by a mob armed “with tar, feathers, poles and an empty barrel spiked with shingle nails.” He escaped, injured but alive, and the couple hastily married and then fled to England. Professor Allen was a friend of Louisa May Alcott’s uncle” (Matteson, 390). “M.L.,” a tale that was inspired by professor Allen’s life. In “M.L.” Alcott represent a woman of strong character and independent and beauty named Claudia who fall in love with a man was a slaves to horrible master ten years ago. She represented a love was worth desiring. She expressed the love in Claudia eyes when she looking to him. She is remembering a painting she saw when she was a child. According to Elbert in the introduction of the book “The “painting” is identical to the illustration in the Alcott family’s edition of Longfellow’s Poems on Slavery (1842).” (Elbert, xxxvii).
Paul, who Claudia loved, did not tell her about his past. He wasn’t looking black rather a bronze wrote a letter. He confessed to Claudia about him being sold as slave when he was with his little sister Nathalie. She was sold to a family at fifteen and couldn’t recognize her brother face after a while . He mentioned in the latter because of what happened to him, his sister had learned to look on him on another light. That letter was found when Claudia’s cat “Jesse” spies in the tender courtship and found the confessional letter Paul intended to give to Claudia.
Alcott described the tempestuous nature of Paul tamed by suffering. Paul possessed Claudia’s love at this point. He begs her to understand him as a rebellious and proud boy who had a hard master. Alcott moment of doubt expressed by the iron law when she said, “I could not change my nature though I were to be a slave forever.” (Elbert, 19) . He ran for freedom but he was caught in the process. Paul was a kind, brave man who suffered from a lot. He was a man full of faith and humanity where his only sin was that he kept his past secret from Claudia. But the great Claudia accepted him and promised to marry him. Alcott wrote a sentence that restored the sentimental racial hierarchy to her works as antislavery writer, “Tears hot and heavy as a summer ran baptized the new born peace and words of broken gratitude sang its lullaby, as that strong natured cradled it with blessings and with prays.” (Elbert, xxxix). Paul was weaker where Claudia learned the greatness of past fear by aggressiveness of provide joy. They had wedding and Claudia invited her friends for it. Alcott ended her story with avoiding suffering.
Secondly, her short story “An Hour” expressed a story about a slave woman named Milly who is pretended to be a faithful servant to her master and Gabriel’s stepmother and the two sisters. Alcott descried Milly as someone wearing the faithful mask. Milly was pretending this faith to kill her master. Milly was one of group’s slaves having this idea where Alcott descried them by calling them heroes, all they desired was an hour of freedom. Milly still wearing her mask while she was preparing a list of beating, tortures, and child sales that were acceptable under slavery. Milly’s job was to collect weapons, destroy those she cannot take, and stop any messengers from leaving the island, thus isolating the whites. Milly succeeded in doing all these tasks, and she dropped her handkerchief out the window to signal readiness, but Gabriel spotted her signal.
Milly achieved what she wanted to do and she is enjoyed her hour of freedom with one significant direction – Gabriel. She loved him and he also loved her. His father is dead and he now only has the wicked stepmother and stepsisters. Gabriel asks Milly to leave his stepmother and his stepsisters. He asked her to spare the woman and prove herself as a true woman. He sacrifices himself and promise Milly to free himself all the slaves in the morning. Also promises Milly to free her if she helps their escape. True love here, Milly from her full participation in the slaves’ plot, she decided to save the three white women’s life. Milly and Gabriel separated by a few drop of blood and the heroin differences between the master and the slave.
Her being black and slave not free to marry her true love. Alcott was trying to show that just different color of skin can determined the fates of humans. But Alcott achieved justice in the end as any other stories she wrote about slaves, by making Milly escaped with Gabriel and married him. Gabriel has an hour to free the slaves and save his love Milly. Where Alcott called him “a womanly man”. “An Hour” illustrates the sentimental homilies to touch the readers heart and feelings. Although, the story’s themes and characters may have included many of nineteenth-century readers while it simultaneously solicited their sympathies. According to Sara Elbert on Race, Sex, and Slavery, “An Hour” was presented and published after the Civil War. (Elbert, li).
Third example of Alcott stories in slavery is her most powerful and popular which focused particularly in the slavery a tale entitled, “My Contraband” about two brothers, one a slave, the other his master. The tale gives real events from Alcott’s personal life while she worked as a nurse during the Civil War. In the story, she gives contraband to a slave named Bob. In this tale she kept a mulatto hero from killing his brother who is his master and not actually a brother. The story begins with Faith’s supervising physician, Doctor Franck, requesting her to stay by the side of a young Rebel officer who was seriously ill with typhoid, which, is the illness Louisa suffered from. While Miss Dane the main character, are trying to have this man. A black man named Bob who is the mulatto slaves whom brought in for her as a servant.
Miss Dane was described with vivid human like qualities. Which are clear when she said, “Though I cannot quite love my enemies, I’m willing to take care of them.” (Elbert, 69). Miss Dane become quite found of Robert, the contraband. Faith sees Bob as a curious mixture of the submissive, spiritless black slave coupled with the high and haughty nature of his white heritage. Miss Dane take care of him and instead of being cruel with him she tried to know more about his life. Bob refused to be housed with those and he regarded to defined himself as “niggers” and so agreed to stay with Faith to nurse the Rebel commander. Right away Faith can see that Bob, whom she refers to as Robert since he has no last name (his own choice) has something on his mind: “… the man was not dully brooding over some small grievance; he seemed to see an all-absorbing fact or fancy recorded on the wall, which was blank to me. I wondered if it were some deep wrong or sorrow …” (Elbert, 71). While they were becoming acquainted, the sick man takes a turn for the worst and said “Nothing but sleep or a miracle will keep him now” (Elbert, 74). Which is how you know that there is no optimism for the life of this man to be spared. Faith takes an interest in him, noticing that despite the ugly gash across his face that he still “comeliness” (Elbert,70) about him.
As the Rebel officer, a captain, begins to turn the corner towards recovery, Bob makes his intentions known. He was planning to kill the captain. Faith awoke before he could complete the task, but the stage was already set. The door was locked, he had the key and Faith in his tight grip. Faith struggles to find some way to convince Bob to deny him from achieving his plan. Bob hoped the captain would die on his own, but if he did not, so Bob planned to finish the job. In an attempt to divert Bob’s attention and keep him occupied, Faith uses her wits to discover the reason: the captain, known to Bob as “Master Ned” was Bob’s brother and he was stolen and defiled Bob’s wife Lucy. Master Ned blurted out that Lucy killed herself. Faith’s fear turns to sympathy towards Bob but she is still intent on preventing murder. Alcott is interested in justice. So she secures Bob freedom after Faith convinces him to spare the captain by giving him a new life in Massachusetts so he can start again. After that, Bob joined the army to fight the rebels. The sweet and interesting justice Alcott made in this story expressing the suffering of the slave Bob is that he met his brother on the battlefield where he could kill him so he can exact revenge legitimately without destroying his future life in heaven.
Alcott tales had an aspect of grotesque fantasy that betrayed a lack of experience in the world. Her rich imagination was tempered by a sad but strong knowledge of the way things were around her. She sent messages to her readers about the life of slavery and what they suffer through. She described to her readers the miserable life they were living. She talks about them as a normal human being who have feelings, so they love, care, and hurt. Often, the trials of slaves were not accounted for, but Alcott takes the side of Robert in this story and uses this to portray the horrible things that happened to him. By mentioning her efforts in trying to save their lives and help them to contraband, she was asking and showing her readers what they should do. Moreover, by showing them that when she saves slaves’ lives, she is doing what is right. She also explains the atmosphere of the slaves lives when she said, “In an atmosphere of suffering and death.”, “leaving the saddest of all sad facts.” (Elbert, 70-71).
She was looking for people’s sympathy toward those poor slaves who faced a lot from other humans like them. However, it wasn’t as direct as Thoreau did, but we are still reminded of her great efforts in history. She expressed in her stories characters from her real life. In the novel, she expressed herself and her experience in several positions as she was supporting slaves. For example, she succeeded in saving a slaves life named Shadrach from the federal courthouse, but she failed in trying to save another slave from prison. She also wrote about her experience being a nurse. She offered in her stories and books different types of characters likewise, mulattos, white women, white men, as well as those African born heroes. Alcott was refused many times by publishing companies. This happened with the writings in her journal “Mr. —— won’t have ‘M. L.’ as it is antislavery, and the dear South must not be offended.” Three years later Alcott submitted her second antislavery story, called “My Contraband,” and the new editor, James F. Fields, accepted it (“with much approbation,” Alcott noted in her journal); the magazine published it as “The Brothers.” But when she sent in a third (and final) antislavery story to Fields’s business partner, William Davis Ticknor, for his new magazine Our Young Folks, she again met resistance. “Ticknor accepted a fairy tale I sent him but refused ‘An Hour,’ because it was about slavery I suppose.” Both of the rejected stories—“M. L.” and “An Hour”—would ultimately find a home at The Commonwealth, a local abolitionist magazine edited by a friend.
In addition of her work in slavery, she was expressing her opinion about slavery indirectly. The characters she wrote about were inspirations from real life situations. For instance, in her novel Moods in the second chapter “Servant” when Christie Devon, the hero was told “My Cook is black.” Christie replies, “I have no objection to color, ma’am.” Alcott then wrote, “An expression of relief dawned upon Mrs. Stuart’s countenance, for the black cook had been an insurmountable obstacle to all the Irish ladies who had applied.” She revealed her views about slavery. Where she had no offense to colors. She did not look to people for their color or race. Alcott showed her moral opinion toward antislavery clearly through her works. Although, she appealed her readers’ feelings and their sense of justice where she was achieving justice in the end of each story she wrote. She was giving those poor slaves hope by ending her stories with happy, justice and peaceful life to them, although this did not happen often. She gave them the life that she thinks they deserve it, and showing others white people that what they deserve to live because we were all created equally.
She boldly and bravely showed her passion of abolishing slavery. She never stopped when her workings was denied to be publish. Women in that age group were meant to be homemakers and do womanly chores Alcott was fighting to prove herself and idea as a writer expressing important issue such as slavery. Alcott had experienced the horrors of war through her work, and she did not sugarcoat them in her writing. Alcott granted to her readers by writing those stories which ended happily and justice to look to slaves in different way. When she wrote, she wanted her characters to resemble real people that were relatable, rather than your stereotypical character at the time. In which she was quite successful doing. She went on to be one of the most productive writers at the time.
In the conclusion, Thoreau and Alcott both expressed their disagreement with Fugitive Slave Law by writing from different approaches to slavery. Both did similar work, but in different times. Henry David Thoreau was fighting in her essay and speeches to abolish slavery before the Civil War. Louisa May Alcott was fighting in her fiction story to show people how they should look to those slaves as human being after the Civil War. Both Thoreau and Alcott had always hoped that people and government to inspire commensurate concessions from the south and stop slavery. Thoreau and Alcott had experienced seeing African Americans taken from their midst and sent south to be enslaved without having the right to defend themselves. “They had seen senator beaten senseless in the Capitol. They had watched as a slaveholding chief justice proclaimed that a Negro had no rights that a white man was bound to respect. By 1859, countless despisers of slavery, Thoreau and Alcott had had enough of turning the other cheek.” (Matteson, 252).
Both Thoreau and Alcott had countless personal contributions in this issue. For instance, they both stood with Captain John Brown the abolitionist who believed in the violence over the slavery system. John Brown mission was to foment rebellion among the slaves. Thoreau and Alcott stand with him and supported his movement against people and governments who practice slavery. Brown was captured during the raid and later hung, but not before becoming an anti-slavery icon. Which was a big disappointed and sadness to Thoreau and Alcott.
Thoreau according to John Matteson on Eden’s Outcasts wrote about him an eloquent speech, which he called “A Plea for Captain John Brown.” And “he calculated that there was enough courage and intrepidity among Massachusetts men that one could muster a band to steal South, since they cannot march openly there, and rescue him from the slaveholders.” (Matteson, 253). Where Alcott in July 1860, Mrs. John Brown was a guest at Orchard house, where Alcott invited supporters to meet her. Louisa May Alcott described her as “A tall stout woman, plain, but with a good strong face, and a natural dignity that showed she was something better than a ‘lady’ though she did drink out of her saucer and used the plainest speech.” (Elbert, xxvi).
Alcott also wrote a poem about John Brown. “Alcott despised slavery, as it has been seen; she also refused to use any product that slave labor had reduced.” (Matteson, 190). By living in this environment, the strong desire to fight and fight strongly by their pens to support and abolish this issue. However, despite their efforts in supporting this issue was differently in writings but similarly in personal contributors both of their efforts worked to play a big role in abolish slavery and in making a lot of fellows to them. These great and brave efforts made history and generation remember these authors and what they stood for.
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