The American Literary Landscape: William Faulkner's Mississippi
The Only Real Problem with Growing Up in Mississippi is Finding Something to Write About
“You’re a country boy, and all you know is that little patch up there in Mississippi where you started from; but that’s alright too.” -- Sherwood Anderson (Thompson).
The only thing that could possibly be more detrimental to a writing career than being from a tiny community in an obscure corner of Mississippi is having completed no formal education whatsoever, not even high school. What on earth could an undereducated southerner named William Faulkner find to write about in a place as ordinary as Oxford, or as Faulkner envisioned it, Jefferson , Mississippi? Beyond that, why would anyone outside of Mississippi ever want to read what he wrote?
William Faulkner may have won the Noble Prize for Literature, but if you would have asked almost anyone when he began his career who would win a Noble Prize between him and Hemingway or Steinbeck, no one would have picked the southern Faulkner. Eventually, they all three won the award, but Faulkner won it first. Despite this, things didn’t always look so good for Faulkner. In fact, Faulkner was so worried about being taken seriously at the start of his career that he even added a “u” to his family’s last name, Falkner. So, how did Faulkner write award winning fiction that many critics have called the greatest American fiction of the twentieth century if not the entire English language next to James Joyce?
To understand how Faulkner made his literary achievement, we need to understand a little something about his life. In his biography on Faulkner, Leland Cox observes this about the problem of finding interesting subject matter as an uneducated boy from Mississippi: “If [Faulkner] drew heavily at times on family lore for his [works], he drew even more widely from his knowledge of his region and from his own sharp insights into human nature” (Cox 7). Faulkner, it seems, had only the experiences he observed growing up. This, however, was enough. The family lore that Faulkner drew upon would become the basis for many of his best novel's most important characters. Faulkner, secluded in a small southern town, somehow developed and learned to effectively use his insight into human character as he lived watched the world around him. He used the things he saw in the lives of simple people with humble desires to create the realistic composite characters whose presences so fiercely dominate his best works.
In a similar way, Faulkner’s
knowledge of his region would develop into an amazingly alive community
known as Jefferson, Mississippi over which Faulkner rightly claims to be the
sole owner and proprietor. Faulkner was inspired by Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. In fact, Sherwood's interest in Faulkner's writing played a large part in getting young Faulkner first published. Faulkner's fictional Jefferson
sits at the heart of what used to be four large plantations. These plantations
loom over the city and its citizens just as the legacy of the once prosperous Pre-Civil
War South looms over their memories and their souls. Not
only did Faulkner have keen insight, he was also born in the right place at the
right time to observe human beings as the remnants of one order, specifically the southern
aristocracy, passes away, and another order, the amoral business class that would take the reigns of the power plantation owners once wielded, rises
to power. The passage of power, as
Faulkner describes it, is full of human compassion, error, and
consequence. His works, although they have been proven universal, also reflect the true
history of Mississippi and the place and time Faulkner grew up in. That is to say, Faulkner made literature of mythic proportions out of a very real and very small and very specific time and place. This, although it is not alone in this distinction, is one of Faulkner's most impressive achievements.
Because nearly all of Faulkner's works take place in a town that is so uniquely related to the specific events, families and places within the real world, understanding his real-world sources and use of them becomes essential in understanding how he created this literary achievements. Judging from the more than a thousand pieces of criticism written on Faulkner and his work, it seems to hardly bear worth repeating that his literature has proved one of the most fertile grounds for literary discussions and critical interpretations in the American literary landscape. In this over-saturated market of Faulknerian criticism, for this article to not be completely redundant, it must attempt to understand and explain with clarity the events that shaped the man and his literature in order to help the reader or critic to navigate their way through a dense and rich literary and critical landscape.
Read about the Sartoris's in Flags in the Dust
To start with, the most important aspect of William Faulkner’s family history to his fiction is the figure of his great grandfather—Colonel William C. Falkner. Colonel Falkner serves as the basis for one of Yoknapatawpha’s most memorable, significant and enduring founding fathers from the days before the Civil War—Colonel John Sartoris. In his foreword for The Unvanquished, Carvel Collins notes that, “Both Colonel Falkner and the fictional Colonel Sartoris formed their own troops for the Civil War and won Colonelcy by election. After both later lost re-election for leadership of their regiments, they returned home and formed partisan Calvary units,” (Collins). In Faulkner’s mythos, it was Colonel Sutpen, the central figure of Absalom, Absalom! who replaces Colonel Sartoris.
As this appropriation of events from over half a century earlier in his local history to give his fictional world a sense of real tragedy and history demonstrates that Faulkner, as he wrote in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, was keenly aware of the passage of time and of the connection the present always has with the past. Many of Faulkner's best and most intriguing characters also shared his understanding of their connectedness to the past. In this specific case, Faulkner uses his own family’s legacy to create a realistically structured and authentically felt, on the author's part, parallel to real history that cannot help by remind the reader of their own connectedness to the past. This makes his fiction far more valuable. The fact that Colonel Sartoris is the father and ancestor of several characters who continue to populate many of Faulkner’s novels shows how Faulkner took little more than the reality of his Mississippi and expanded upon it to create a mythos for a time and place that never really existed, despite how convincingly real it appears. Faulkner once said he wanted to arrest moments of time on paper so that they came alive years later when they were read again. Colonel Falkner, a.k.a. Sartoris, is only one of many such arrested character awaiting visitors to Yoknapatawpha.
Robert Cantwell, in his famous foreword for Sartoris, reveals even more of Colonel Falkner that was appropriated for Colonel Sartoris. Cantwell tells the story of J.H. Thurmond, ex-business partner of and now business rival with Colonel Falkner. On a fateful meeting between Thurmond and Falkner, Falkner is shot in the head by Thurmond (Cantwell). In both The Unvanquished (175) and Sartoris (35) Colonel Sartoris is murdered by a character named Redmond (Redlaw in Sartoris). Redmond happens to be the ex-business partner of and now political rival with Colonel Sartoris. In both narratives, Sartoris goes unarmed to face Redmond, and consequently is murdered. “Redlaw’ll kill me tomorrow, for I shall be unarmed. I’m tired of killing men,” (Sartoris 35).
Faulkner's power came from, in part, his ability to see the universal in the particular
While researching for his foreword to Sartoris , Cantwell found that, “as late as 1938, when I asked [Faulkner] about Colonel Falkner…I encountered the sensation…of a still living presence in the room,” (Cantwell). This presence, which Cantwell encountered nearly a decade after Faulkner wrote the novel Sartoris is echoed in the opening passages of the book. “Freed as he was of time and flesh, [Colonel Sartoris] was a far more palpable presence … [he] seemed to loom still in the room, above and about his son,” (Sartoris 19). If Faulkner’s characters were haunted by the heroic figure of Colonel Sartoris, it is because Faulkner was haunted by the heroic figure of Colonel Falkner. These figures were not perfect, and Faulkner portrayed their flaws. The tragedy of Faulkner's work is that these "heroes" of his culture were really looters, rapists, and slavers who dignified their ambition and greed with a reinstatement of the European Aristocracy they had left behind. Faulkner lived in a time and place that dictated that for him to be honest about who he was and where he came from, he has to look directly at things that others would prefer to ignore, to turn away from, to hide from – things like ghosts of the past, and the sins of your fathers that make up this thing we call our legacy. Like many great American writers before and after him, Faulkner sought to remind America that she must ever look to her future, and not her past, if she is to succeed. The reasons for this are developed within his work. This is why his literature, and the characters that populate it, despite his stylistic inventiveness and obtuse rhetoric, stand for something so much larger than just themselves even though they have feelings and desires inside of them that we recognize as so very human.
These last few paragraphs have well
established Faulkner’s use of his family’s past in his fiction. We could go on examining individual incidents,
and we will, but first, with that relationship firmly established, the question
of what this relationship’s effect is upon Faulkner’s work must also be explored. To
do so, let’s look a little more closely about what we know of Faulkner’s attitude
towards the things he appropriated. If Faulkner wrote tragedy, it's fair to ask why he saw tragedy in the things around him in the little part of Mississippi he called home. In
Collin’s foreword to The Unvanquished ,
he also shares this insight, “by setting…many of his works in the part of our
country which he knows best, he is not so much recording the life of that
particular region as making it a base from which he examines, in book after
book, significant aspects of man’s life in general,” (Collins). Furthermore, Faulkner himself, in a letter
addressed to Malcolm Cowley, editor of the portable Faulkner, said “I’m
inclined to think that my material, the south, is not very important to
me. I just happen to know it, and don’t
have time in on life to learn another one and write at the same time,” (Cowley
14). And lastly, in a passage that seems
to mirror Faulkner’s own indifferent attitude towards his roots, the character Aunt Jenny, a
Sartoris matriarch of unnatural long life, states, “they ain’t my Sartorises…I just
inherited them,” the reader is apt to
believe Aunt Jenny does not truly claim the Sartoris men as Faulkner does not
truly claim his own heritage (Sartoris
58). The roots for this refusal lie in the things these men who were so idolized by so many did to the weak, the poor, the downtrodden. The lust of these men knew no bounds, and Faulkner, haunted with guilt for what his ancestors who bore his name had done, could not fully identify himself with them.
Read Faulkner on Kindle!
What this means is that Faulkner was interested in the heart of man. He wanted to understand and investigate different things about human behavior. It was not the south that held any appeal for Faulkner, he was just a good enough artist to realize if his examinations of the things that go on within the hearts of men, he must set them, in the midst of their struggles and trials, in a believable place and time. So, being the resourceful southerner that he was, he used whatever he had around him, his own keenly observed memories from childhood. This is not insignificant. This shows that Faulkner was able to see through the veil that most people don’t care to acknowledge or attempt to peer through. What I mean is this, Faulkner could look at the people around him, at his own simple history, at the simple acts of humble men with simple passions and see to the heart of all men, be they strong, evil, or kind, through such simple examples. This ability, to see the universal in the particular, to see the essence in the physical manifestation, this is another one of the greatest gifts Faulkner has as a writer.
To understand just how insightful Faulkner was, consider the comment from Aunt Jenny later in Sartoris, “no Sartoris is going to stay in heaven any longer than he can help it,” (Sartoris 69). By comparison, Cox’s biography presents a picture of the Falkners that makes Aunt Jenny’s comment appear as if it could have been intended for both families, “[The Falkners] showed [William Faulkner] something of the darker side of human nature,” (Cox 7). Faulkner, rather than shy away from the demons in his own family, looked straight through to the heart of things and saw the demons lurking in the heart of his family, and he told the truth about what he saw. This type of literature is invaluable to any student of the human condition. Allowing Aunt Jenny to have the same insight makes her character more believable as well as makes Jefferson itself more vibrant and alive.
The choice of subject matter with which Faulkner had such familiarity, coupled with his philosophical insight, wit, and passion give Faulkner the freedom to fully explore the “struggles of the human heart against itself” in a setting he not only was comfortable with, but understood perhaps better than anything else in the world. The significance of Faulkner’s ability to write literature about such universal themes is a testament, not only to his insight, as we have discussed, but also to universal aspects of regionalism. How can an author write about any universal aspect of human nature without thoroughly understanding its application to specific time and location? By examining those around him, Faulkner not only learned the hearts of men, but he learned his own specific time and place. It is the masterful weaving of these two things that make his mythic portion of Mississippi one of the most important pieces of literary soil in existence.
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Not only this, but Faulkner’s fiction also demonstrates how essentail a thorough understanding of a specific time and place (something he formed through nothing more than his experiences growing up in Mississippi) to lending any author credence if they want to develop the universal themes of the human condition. This makes his work instructive for any serious student of writing. This skill is timeless. Faulkner’s ability to take pre-existing material and add his own themes and insights into it resembles Shakespeare’s work as well. Shakespeare took the themes, stories and plays that he saw around him and mixed them with the language he also heard everywhere to create works that transcend time. Like Faulkner, Shakespeare transcends his particulars not just because he was able to see the universal in the particular, but because he also thoroughly understood his own particulars.
Because Faulkner wrote about material that was so real to him, his work took on an organic symbolic nature that a deliberate symbolism would have fallen short of. “Truly effective symbols, like those in Faulkner’s novels, [are] produced almost unconsciously, when the author [is] so deeply absorbed in his story that he makes it larger than life,” (Cowley 19). In this quote, Cowley is specifically referring to the symbolism in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! which relates the story of Thomas Sutpen, who we mentioned earlier, and his failed “grand design” to establish an empire not unlike the won that Citizen Kane established in film. Cowley had suspected that the depth of the obvious symbolism within that novel was the result of an author deep at work within his story: A poor white man from the mountains comes to the south and builds the largest plantation and mansion in the country only to have it ruined by the Civil War, resulting in the demise of the man’s family until the only remaining relative is a mulatto half-wit who is neither black, nor white, and contains only the least desirable elements of his forefathers, the very antithesis of empire. Just this summary here conveys a bit of the powerful symbolism within just one of Faulkner’s works.
Faulkner confirmed this suspicion to Cowley: he was only vaguely aware of the deeply symbolic nature of the characters at the time of the writing. This masterly and rich piece of writing, full of symbol of thematic elements, is a direct result of Faulkner’s fidelity to what he knew, and as we established was so insightful about, as well as his ability to become absorbed within his novels. From such a position, the influence and effect of Faulkner writing about subject matter that he knew seems the most central to his work as a whole. In other words, it would have been impossible for Faulkner to write about anything else than the mundane reality of Mississippi and be so successful.
Faulkner borrowed from all the world around him, not just his own family history.
Beyond The parallels we have discussed, between Colonels Falkner and Sartoris—several other aspects of the little strip of Mississippi that Faulkner lived in and knew became the material for more of Faulkner’s novels. If the investigation thus far has provided us with any insight, certainly expanding the scope of it will enhance this insight. In his book, The Falkners of Mississippi, Murry Falkner, William’s brother, recalls early childhood in the Falkner household, “Grandmother Butler (Mother’s mother) lived with us until her death in 1907…Damuddy (as we called her)” (Falkner 8). In Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Quentin and Caddy Compson’s grandmother (Mother’s mother again) is called Damuddy by the children (S&F 19). The relationship between Quentin and Damuddy (given the similarity between the ages of Faulkner and Quentin when their grandmother’s died) shows another family saga in Jefferson finds its roots in the Falkners of Mississippi.
For a further example of how the Compson’s were also based on the Falkner’s, one need only look at Dilsey, the black maid and “mammy” of Quentin, Caddy, and Jason Compson. Murry Falkner recalls another important person from the life of the young William Falkner, “There was one member of our household – Mammy Callie Barr, who… [was] an honored member of the family [from the time she entered our lives] until her death nearly 40 years later…surely from her [came] many of Bills writings about events in Lafayette County, especially those pertaining to whites and blacks,” (Falkner 12). Murryr goes on to recall that, “the ‘mammies’ of that time were women who, with everlasting devotion and loyalty, became second mothers to white children and in so doing became intimate and loved members of the whole house,” (Falkner 13). This entire quote could have been edited from Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury as a description of Dilsey.
To make this point, in a very tender portrayal of “everlasting devotion and loyalty” by Faulkner we see Dilsey at the end of the novel walking home from church, “Dilsey made no sound, her face did not quiver as the tears took their shaken and devious courses, walking with her head up, making no effort to dry them any even,” (S&F 231). As Dilsey reflects of the disintegration of the family she has served so loyally, she remarks “I’ve seen de first en de last…never you mind me,” (S&F 231). Faulkner’s tenderness towards the character of Dilsey must be born of the respect and tender feelings he had for his own “mammy”. The courage of Faulkner to write about these child like affections that defied the status quo of racial issues within the south is one of the hallmarks of Faulkner’s literature.
Read about the Sutpens in Absalom, Absalom!
On a side note, one should not overlook the fact that the Falkner’s were the source for not only the Sartoris family, but also the Compson family. This, more than anything, shows how Faulkner’s Mississippi is obviously not a representation of the real thing. No one to one ratio can be established between his reality and ours. This means that the depth and power of Faulkner’s characters are as much do to his creative facilities as to his observational skills. Faulkner’s characters are not Frankenstein’s of the people he knew as a child. They are much more than that, they are living, breathing, independent and fierce parts of the legacy of American Letters.
Again, the emotional depth and power of Faulkner’s characters and their stories directly relates to Faulkner’s choice of subject matter. He chose to write about what he was so familiar with that, as we research this, it becomes harder and harder to understand how he could artistically realize with delicate precision such intimate details of his own life. Anyone who has ever read the fourth section of Sound and the Fury can identify Faulkner’s power as a writer through their own emotional responses to Dilsey’s touching section. How could he take things so personal and put them, with such sincerity, on a stage for all the world to see? His courage as a writer, despite any personal flaws, is an example to anyone who wishes to write.
Faulkner, in another letter to Cowley, revealed a little of the callousness that, perhaps, made him able to use such personal material, when he made this insightful statement with his typical wit, “life is a phenomenon but not a novelty, the same frantic steeplechase towards nothing everywhere and man stinks the same stink no matter where in time,” (Cowley 15). Faulkner was able to write so openly because he understood even his most personal and private experiences are shared and social. An even more detailed and better way to express this same truth that Faulkner told Cowley would be to undertake the writing of a series of literary novels that occur in a specific locality, each building upon separate events in the region and family of the author and each revealing separate aspects of the human heart at struggle against itself. Oh yeah, Faulkner did this as well.
Read about the McCaslins in Go Down, Moses
Read about the Compsons in Sound and the Fury.
In a very real way Jefferson Mississippi could be set in any country at any time. That is to say, the humans there are as real as the ones you meet anywhere else. Certainly tangible aspects of the issues at work: slavery, the civil war, reconstruction, et. al. would change in a different local. But, the heart of Faulkner’s work: human courage, pride, honor, rapacity, arrogance, shrewdness, and love would remain the same. Cox points out all these lessons were spread out before the young Faulkner to observe in his own family history (Cox 7). The truth is, they are spread out before us all, should we choose to look at them and consider what they mean. This is what Faulkner did, and he did it with such style that he has inspired more criticism than almost any other American author ever.
In an effort to not underestimate all that Faulkner accomplished in his little section of Mississippi, perhaps we should listen to Sherwood Anderson, who said to Faulkner, “all you know is that little patch up there in Mississippi where you started from; but that’s alright too” (Thompson). Yes, it’s an understatement. Faulkner, while also understating his own talent and genius remarked to Cowley, “Art is simpler than people think because there is so little to write about,” (Cowley 16). A much more cursory examination of Faulkner’s work than we have presented here shows just how ironic Faulkner was being in describing his own achievement as an artist.
As has been said earlier, Faulkner was not afraid to look into the dark heart of man. This darkness that he saw in the world around him also made its way into his writing. For example, some of the tragedies in his works, like those in Light in August , were things he observed in his own town growing up. In the year 1908, a black man named Nelse Patton murdered Mattie Mcmillan, a white woman, by nearly severing her head with a razor blade (Cox 9). After being arrested, Patton was lynched and murdered, “when the body was thrown out of the jail it was quickly castrated and hung,” (Cox 9). This gruesome chain of events, which would later be represented by Faulkner as Joe Christmas and Joanna Burden in his masterly Light in August , happened when Faulkner was only eleven years old. Obviously these gruesome local events shaped the young Faulkner if they found their way into a novel he would write nearly 25 years later.
Read Faulkner's version of the Civil War in The Unvanquised.
It becomes difficult to imagine choosing such intimate details from one’s youth to become the subject matter that, as an author, Faulkner would examine with such calculation and precision years later. It is a testament to not only Faulkner’s ingenuity but his dedication and earnestness with which he wrote the stories and characters in his novels. A lesser man would have told a different story, but Faulkner, ever obsessed with the pain the human heart inflicts upon itself, could not set this story aside. It was a particular that showed him too much of the universal for him to ignore it.
This particular story also shows Faulkner’s compassion to those he saw suffering from their own darkness: he could not leave Joe Christmas naked and hanging for the town to see he had been castrated. Rather, Faulkner makes Christmas’s gruesome execution a private matter that takes place in the home of a Reverend, even if that Reverend is Reverend Hightower. Information like this shows that Faulkner’s task of writing about such intimate details and gruesome events from his youth did emotionally affect him. Whereas the charge has been labeled that Faulkner delighted in the gruesome, in the depressing, the truth is, some things were just too dark for him to tell them honestly. This, in turn, makes us appreciate the sacrifice he made to look these things honestly in the face. Faulkner, one gets the feeling, would have liked to have written comedies, but he just saw too much pain in the world to not try to do something about it.
As we have seen, and as Thompson points out in his afterword to Sartoris, the raw materials from which Faulkner constructed his mythological county “had been made available to him throughout his youth. Daily talk and conversation intermingled with history, folklore, gossip, and tall tales—and even salted with wry wit,” (Thompson). What is most significant about this process, was the clarity with which Faulkner captured these details that spoke of universal things, and the dedication, passion, and style with which he re-recorded them into his own version of history. The end result of such a literary career is, again, one of the most impressive literary creations in the history of the English language. Above and beyond that, the legacy Faulkner has left to American letters has changed the face of what it means to be an American author. Today, one cannot write about the south, or the biggest war in our country’s history, without in someway borrowing from Faulkner. Authors such a Eudora Welty, Flannery O’ Conner, and even Toni Morrison have found in Faulkner a starting place for their own careers. These are just a few examples.
As I Lay Dying is a great Faulkner book to start with.
Faulkner's Impossible Quest to Write the Perfect Sentence
About his own writing, Faulkner said to Cowley, “I’m still trying to put all mankind’s history in one sentence,” (Cowley 17). I don’t think there is a better way to put it. To expand upon this aim, Faulkner has literally pulled the material for his one sentence on all of mankind from one family history in one locality in a seemingly meaningless corner of the south. For all this talk of a single story, a single sentence, the scope of his literary creation is no small task. Ultimately, it is doubtful Faulkner ever achieved, by his own standards, a vision of the entire world that fit between one capital letter and one period. Though an examination of the relationships between his novels obviously shows them all to be related which underlines Faulkner’s sense of interconnectedness. That connectedness extends between himself and his novels, his novels and the south, the south and the past, and the past and the present. This unity is at the heart of Faulkner’s work and this is obviously because of its importance to Faulkner himself. Though such a complex interconnectedness between the past, thematic elements, plot and characterization has proven to make Faulkner one of the most enigmatic and difficult to penetrate writers of the modern era, it has also established him as one of the most important and rewarding authors for those that do make the attempt.
In Faulkner’s Nobel Prize address, he makes it clear that true literature concerns itself with the issues of the human heart at conflict against itself. This speech was an omen of the literature to come. In a voice that accurately described much of post-modern literature, Faulkner said, “There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only one question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat,” (Faulkner, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech).
There could be no stronger case for the accurateness of Faulkner’s claim about the human heart in conflict with itself being the sole cause of good writing other than Faulkner’s own library of work. In the research for this article, I have found that the library of Faulkner’s work contains far more parallels between Faulkner’s own life and personal history and the literary world in which he recreated all that he saw around him than any essay short of book length could fully discuss.
To quote Cox one last time, “Growing up, young William Faulkner’s imagination was fed by a rich family history, one that abounded in lessons, not always flattering, of pride, arrogance, humility, honor, courage, rapacity, ingenuity, shrewdness, and love…” (Cox 7). It was Faulkner’s choice to not shelter himself from these things, but rather to embrace, to confront them and extract from them the essence of what it means to be human which he would inject into his literature that has made it so unforgettable. This, is the legacy of his genius, is the legacy of his Mississippi.
Cantwell, Robert. Foreword. Sartoris. By William Faulkner. New York: New American Library, 1964.
Collins, Carvel. Foreword. The Unvanquished. By William Faulkner. New York: Signet, 1959.
Cowley, Malcolm. The Faulkner – Cowley File. New York: The Viking Press, 1966.
Cox, Leland H. William Faulkner: Biographical and Reference Guide. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1982.
Falkner, Murry C. The Falkners of Mississippi. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1967.
Faulkner, William. Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech. The Portable Faulkner. New York: Viking Press, 1967.
Faulkner, William. Sartoris. New York: New American Library, 1964.
Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. New York: Random House, 1956.
Faulkner, William. The Unvanquished. New York: Signet, 1959.
Thompson, Lawrance. Afterword. Sartoris. New York: New American Library, 1964.
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