"This is a book only by necessity. More seriously, ..." - James Agee
The strategy of defining an emerging narrative form in terms of an established one isn't new. As long ago as the early eighteenth century Henry Fielding sought to extend credibility to his picaresque 'experiment', the novel Joseph Andrews, by calling it "a comic epic poem in prose". 1 For his attempt to write the new to be taken seriously, Fielding had only to convince the literary public that his narrative innovation in the realm of prose fiction was but a version of what was then the most exalted of the literary arts - epic poetry. Faced with a similar problem two and a half centuries later with the publication of In Cold Blood (1965), Truman Capote hit upon a similar solution. Having written a book which was like a novel in terms of narrative technique (witness the multiple points of focalisation, the creation of suspense by means of a discordance between the orders of story and narration, etc.), but unlike a novel inasmuch as it was supposedly made up out of transcripts of actual conversations and unmediated reconstructions of actual events, Capote began referring to his book in trade interviews as "a nonfiction novel". 2
A respectable paradox, as it were. Thereafter the line between fact and fiction, journalism and literature, in American letters became seriously blurred in the late-1960s. But if Capote's book forced a reconsideration of canonic orthodoxies so as to accommodate an understanding of what was at that time still an oxymoron (the nonfiction novel), Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson's writing collapsed those orthodoxies altogether (for good, seemingly) by decade's end. Suddenly, what became known as "the new journalism" was developing overnight into "the first new direction in American literature in half a century"!
Or so, at least, Tom Wolfe immodestly claimed in his famous introductory essay to the comprehensive Picador anthology of The New Journalism. 3 The great rhetorical effect of effacing all sense of history from the writing represented in that collection was calculated to reap some very rich rewards. If only Wolfe could persuade the reading public to believe that the new journalism was wholly without precedent, then his own writing would seem all the more 'original' and 'creative'. Naturally, he'd be invested with the spiritual leadership of the new literary élite. Hot damn, he might even get to be the world's most famous writer!
With stakes that high, of course, facts were liable to get in the way of ambitions. Like the fact that James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) anticipates, to some degree, virtually every achievement of the new journalism almost thirty years before the form has been invented already! Wait on a minute.... Thirty years! If this gets out, who's going to believe all that stuff about the new journalism being really new?
So there's only one thing to do with Agee's book, right? Dump on it! Spread it round that Agee "showed enterprise enough, going to the mountains and moving in briefly with a mountain family" and all, but that his big "problem" was one of "extreme personal diffidence". Okay, the guy could write; but he was too "shy", "too polite, too diffident" to get personal with "these humble folk" and win over (winnow out?) their confidence.
After all the enthusiasm I had seen critics generate over James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men - a book about poor folks in the Appalachians during the Depression - reading it was a great disappointment. He showed enterprise enough, going to the mountains and moving in briefly with a mountain family. Reading between the lines I would say his problem was extreme personal diffidence. His account abounds in 'poetic' descriptions and is very short on dialogue. It uses no point of view other than its own. Reading between the lines you get a picture of a well-educated and extremely shy man ... too polite, too diffident to ask personal questions of these humble folk or even draw them out. 4 .
What's at issue here in the debate over strategies for writing the new is a question of efficacy. Which approach best serves the purpose of writing: to reveal or deliver the truth? For Wolfe's is a cynical misreading of Agee's book that distorts and falsifies an unsettling, if always impossible, attempt to re-create through writing its author's lived experience over the summer months of 1936 among three sharecropper families in the American Deep South. 5 Unsettling, because Agee recognises throughout the impossibility of ever achieving his intention. Impossible, because writing is always already only ever so many "frauds, compromises, artful dodges and tenth removes as would fatten any other art into apoplexy if the art were not first shamed out of existence" (p.236). In short, the struggle here is over powers of representation: realism versus a precursive postmodernism, perhaps. Or, in post-Hegelian terms, science versus speculation. It's along the lines of such a divide between, as it were, ordinary and literary language that I now want to follow Agee's departure (proleptic though it be) from Wolfe's commitment to a theory of journalism as a writing of the real.
Agee is so disillusioned by the inevitable failure of words that,
If I could do it, I'd do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement. Booksellers would consider it quite a novelty; critics would murmur, yes, but is it art; and I could trust a majority of you to use it as you would a parlor game.
A piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point. (p.13)
Nor can he be accused of being simply modish. It may well be the fashion now for writers to trouble our assumptions about the power of language to re-present experience, meaning, truth; but that was hardly so in the late-1930s when Agee was writing Famous Men. Small wonder that Fortune magazine in New York, after assigning Agee and photographer Walker Evans to cover the story of Alabama's poor white trash in the Depression years, declined to publish this alien account of how language can't be trusted with the truth. Other reporters get the job done, the Fortune editor must have wondered: why can't you?
Which is precisely what Agee and Evans's book puts at risk. Getting the job done, in other words, might well be contingent upon the journalist's conflation of the real and the empirical. Only then, by what might be called a science of the look, is what is real able to be defined as what can be observed and measured in essentialist terms. But that journalism shares with science a dependence on method and instrumentation to reproduce itself, or establish self-identity between its findings and the truth, is a matter both of ponderous and parodic possibilities. So, for example, in his Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72 Hunter Thomson self-parodies his professional status as a journalist for forgetting the exact measure of his profession's scientificity - the famous "Five W's":
Jesus [he writes], what's the other one? Every journalist in America knows the "Five W's". But I can only remember four. "Who, What, Why, Where", ... and, yes, of course ... "When!" 6
Not the imagined but the veritably unimagined is thus the journalist's domain. The other belongs to poets and novelists: seekers after truth. Or so the binary should operate. For journalism to retain hold of its authority as a discourse on the real, that is to say, it can't be seen to speculate or imagine; were it to stray from the proper into the figural it would no longer be itself. It's for this reason, perhaps, that Wolfe is careful to emphasise not the otherness of the new journalism's expression of the new, but its exaggerated sameness, its excessive similarity to what (against which) allows it to be called 'new' and positions it as other. In order to write the real, first you have to live the experience:
Saturation Reporting, as I think of it, can be one of the most exhilarating trips, as they say, in the world. Often you feel as if you've put your whole central nervous system on red alert and turned it into a receiving set with your head panning the molten tableau like a radar dish, with you saying, 'Come in, world', since you only want ... all of it.... Some of the nicest times are when Pesky Danger rises, and the adrenalin flows, and the whole riot is on, and the shitfire rains from on high - and you discover that your set is still on! you're still combing the chaos for the details! the creamy stuff you can use! ... Why, that horrible fiend who just threw the sapper bomb in the ballet master's lap - was that a mishar or a bandana he had around his neck? 7
Thus, by careful observation the journalist will get it right and get the job done. So much the better should these imperatives be achieved by 'literary' means, so long as this means realism. Not surprisingly, Wolfe argues that the same "devices" which gave the nineteenth century realist novel its "unique power" were discovered also ("by 'instinct' rather than theory") by the new journalists in the 1960s. 8 Chief among these "has always been the least understood": namely,
the recording of everyday gestures, habits, manners, customs, styles of furniture, clothing, decoration, styles of traveling, eating, keeping house, modes of behaving toward children, servants, superiors, inferiors, peers, plus the various looks, glances, poses, styles of walking and other symbolic details that might exist within a scene. Symbolic of what? Symbolic, generally, of people's status life, using that term in the broad sense of the entire pattern of behaviour and possessions through which people express their position in the world or what they think it is or what they hope it to be. The recording of such details is not mere embroidery in prose. It lies as close to the center of the power of realism as any other device in literature. 9
Matched alongside his own writing as a new journalist, however, Wolfe's defence of realism here smacks of subterfuge. Indeed, as John Hellmann remarks, Wolfe writes "less as a Balzac than a Pynchon", 10 although one might quibble that the comparison is a touch too bold.
Of course, writing the real escapes genericity since it is still writing; but that's not to deny differences at least a provisional effect, which also holds for the similar and the same. Yet it shouldn't be supposed that Agee, by comparison or contrast with Wolfe, shamelessly disfigures words at the cost of all feeling - that a purely formal exercise, however formless from the point of view of journalistic conventions, takes the place of any passion or respect for the sharecroppers who are the (necessarily) nominal subjects of the words. (As Amanda says in Tom Robbins's Another Roadside Attraction, after all, "'it is style that makes us care'".) 11 Indeed, it is precisely out of his respect for their integrity as real people, that each "exists, in actual being, as you do and as I do, and as no character of the imagination can possibly exist" (p. 12), that Agee is compelled to intrude on the illusion of the sharecroppers being somehow embodied in the writing.
For it is the writing and the writer ("I would do just as badly to simplify or eliminate myself from this picture as to simplify or invent character, places or atmosphere" [p.240]) about which Agee is most troubled and concerned. On the one hand,
I will be trying here to write of nothing whatever which did not in physical actuality or in the mind happen or appear[....] (p.242)
[Y]ou should so far as possible forget that this is a book [...] it has no part in that realm where disbelief is habitually suspended. (p.246)
But he knows, on the other, that "[w]ords cannot embody; they can only describe" (p.238). What they describe is largely an effect of his own mediation, his own "individual, anti-authoritative human consciousness" (p.xiv) in which the experience is held but out of which it can't be simply translated for the reader since the words get in the way.
It is no mere digression, then, when Agee forcefully interrupts the narrative (which in any case is written "in a continuum" [p.62] so as to emphasise the distance between the writing and the experience: that the writing is the experience) by including his answers to a Partisan Review questionnaire, 'Some Questions Which Face American Writers Today', circulated in 1939. His replies are a kind of coda for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, expressing at once Agee's deep sense of responsibility as a writer and his doubts about what writing can achieve. "Do you think of yourself as writing for a definite audience?", one of these questions asks. "Would you say that the audience for serious American writing has grown or contracted in the last ten years?" (p.351). Acknowledging that "[m]y anger and speed made my answers intemperate, inarticulate, and at times definitely foolish" (p.350), Agee replies:
What do you mean, 'audience'? It draws in to the point of a pin and it spreads out flat like a quoit. Some of the time you are writing for all men who are your equals and your superiors, and some of the time for all the deceived and captured, and some of the time for nobody. Some of the time you are trying to communicate (not necessarily to please); some of the time you are trying to state, communication or none. In the terms you are setting it, no decent writer can possibly be interested in the question. And what sort of conception of 'audience' and of 'serious' writing can you have, that you can wonder, journalistically, whether this past or any other ten years can make but an illusory and dangerous difference to it? (p.354).
Despite its Shandean digressions, though, Famous Men employs other, more familiar, means to attempt to imprint the real upon - if not its readers' imaginations, then on the surface of the text. Contrary to Wolfe's cheap shot at its author's so-called "diffidence" the book is a remarkably lucid work of reportage, richly descriptive in its detailing of the bleak domestic lives and working conditions of the sharecroppers. In a section headed 'Clothing', for example, Agee brilliantly performs what we would now call a semiotics of dress and dress codes that contributes to an understanding of the social order of the poor white trash heap - at the very bottom of which the poor white women are situated. (So much for the new journalism having discovered or appropriated, as claimed by Wolfe, the means and effects of documenting "status life".) Indeed, Agee reserves his most moving and despairing passages for portraits of women: fourteen and sixteen-year-old girls married to oafish men as old as their fathers, helplessly condemned to a lifetime of unrelieved drudgery and servitude. Far from being diffident he could be accused only of being too sympathetic toward his subjects, of over-identifying with those in whose lice-ridden beds he slept and at whose sparsely-laden tables he sat down to share an ill-affordable hospitality in the summer of 1936:
Mrs Ricketts [sic]: I am not sure that she has more than one work dress: in any case there was no change of it during the time that I knew her, and it seemed even at first to have been worn for a long time. Excepting for the clothes of babies, it is the most primitive sewn and designed garment I have ever seen. It is made of a coarse tan cotton I will speak of later. It is shaped like a straight-sided bell, with a little hole at the top for the head to stick through, the cloth slit from the neck to below the breasts and held together if I remember rightly with a small snarl of shoelace; the bare arm sticking through the holes at the sides, the skirt ending a little below the knee, the whole dress standing out a little from the body on all sides like a child's youngest cartoons, not belted, and too stiffened perhaps with dirt to fall into any folds other than the broadest and plainest, the skirt so broad away from her at the bottom that, with her little feet and legs standing down from inside it, for all their beauty they seem comic sticks, and she, a grievous resemblance to newspaper drawings of timid men in barrels labeled John Q. Public. (p.277)
More text, in other words. But neither is the writer blind to this possible charge, realising that his own middle class upbringing and Harvard education intrude on his every word, memory, and perception. "I have a strong feeling that the 'sense of beauty'," Agee writes by way of example, "like nearly everything else, is a class privilege" (p.314) - once more asserting himself at the foreground of the picture while shifting the cotton farmers out of frame. For what is the beauty that Agee beholds in the sharecroppers' pitiful way of life if not a product of his own socially-conditioned senses, his socialist-inclined sensibility?
Chaotic and uncooperative, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men knows that words are at best only a substitute for the colours of the sky, the textures of a wooden hut, the voices of real people: all of which and more belong to the experience of James Agee's few months in Alabama. It is thus to the photographs of Walker Evans that the book defers the (equally doomed) task of coming closer to a portion of the truth. While every picture tells a story, though, "the photographs are not illustrative. They, and the text, are coequal, mutually independent, and fully collaborative" (p.xv). No less than Agee's prose, Evans's photographs thus constitute a writing of the real. Even so, we are less mindful of the oblique between photographic signifier and signified than between written word and thing. As Barthes remarks, in the photograph "the referent adheres". 12 Yet the series of repeated photographic representations of the sharecroppers, their homes, work places, and sites of pleasure (a ramshackle general store, a rundown main street, a dilapidated barn that might once have sold cheap liquor), produces in us a (re)discovery of the same: their lives are dismal and their prospects grim. More text, again.
Not Tom Wolfe but Hunter Thompson is Agee's heir. The Wolfe (undoubtedly in sheeps' clothing) of 'The New Journalism' essay, at least, finds it convenient to argue along traditionalist lines for a writing of the real predicated on the sheer old-fashioned (time-honoured) truth-telling power of the journalist's attention to detail. By meticulous observation ("saturation reporting") the good journalist will arrive or get at the truth, which must always be supposed to be hidden or hard to find. Hence, truth as a product of accuracy. But in order to be 'accurate' in the first place, of course, the journalist - and journalism - must presuppose the real's priority to all representations of it. There's no time to get philosophical about the structural necessity of writing's untrustworthiness, or the job won't get done: there are deadlines to meet. Simply, it is a condition of journalism as a specific writing practice that the real is already in place prior to being reported; thereafter it becomes a question of whether or not the reporting is accurate, scrupulous, responsible. 13 Writing, then, precisely as a kind of photography: a photography of the moment. The moment captured in an instant and preserved in all its full integrity.
The metaphor is not without a certain effect. 'Capturing' the moment: capturing sense. Before the word, the world is chaos. It is therefore journalism's job to dechaosify, demystify the other; but never to deconstruct itself. That way philosophy and literature lie, or at least a kind of writing which, by virtue of its own self-reflexivity, is forbidden designation as (a) science. In order for there to be journalism in the first place, there must always already be the assumption of an 'outside' journalism: a real against which the truth can be measured by dint of real-ism, verisimilitude, accuracy. In Wolfe's essay it is this assumption which goes (perhaps must go) uncontested. Thus he writes that the new journalists of the early-1960s, notably Gay Talese and Jimmy Breslin,
were moving beyond the conventional limits of journalism, but not merely in terms of technique. The kind of reporting they were doing struck them as far more ambitious, too. It was more intense, more detailed, and certainly more time-consuming than anything that newspaper or magazine reporters, including investigative reporters, were accustomed to. They developed the habit of staying with the people they were writing about for days at a time, weeks in some cases. They had to gather all the material the conventional journalist was after - and then keep going. It seemed all-important to be there when dramatic scenes took place, to get the dialogue, the gestures, the facial expressions, the details of the environment. The idea was to give the full objective description, plus something that readers had always had to go to novels and short stories for: namely, the subjective or emotional life of the characters. That was why it was so ironic when both the journalistic and literary old guards began to attack this new journalism as 'impressionistic'. 14
Perhaps it is against this charge that Wolfe's entire defence of the new journalism is organised. First get the science right, and then get literary. Then defend the 'literary', when practised by a 'conscientious'journalist, as the means to a 'better'science. By which time the "impressionistic" begins to look realistic, even when it looks like this:
O, dear, sweet Harry, with your French gangster-movie bangs, your Ski Shop turtleneck sweater and your Army-Navy Store blue denim skirt over it, with your Bloomsbury corduroy pants you saw in the Manchester Guardian airmail edition and sent away for and your sly intellectual pigeon-toed libido roaming in Greenwich Village - that siren call really for you? 15
Perhaps not. At any rate, it's decidedly more difficult to defend a journalism - like Agee's - which is not only 'literary', like your own, but also metacritical. Suddenly there are no grounds for claiming to be able to write the real any more, for claiming what you write as journalism. Now you're writing in an other space: neither science nor speculation, neither journalism nor literature, at the same time. In this space you don't have to bother with the difficult question of how to photograph a fart, however, which makes a mockery of the scientistic pretensions of realism: the question makes no sense. How could it when the experience being reported and the reporting of experience are understood to be inseparable? Especially in Thompson's case, when the reporter acts - not as Wolfe's "receiving set" for experience (or as heterodiegetic narrator) - but rather as provocateur. Thus Thompson (as persona or homodiegetic narrator) initiates the narrative action of 'The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved', for instance, by provoking an otherwise insignificant character into a state of significant fear:
'There's going to be trouble', I said. 'My assignment is to take pictures of the riot'.
I hesitated, twirling the ice in my drink.
'At the track. On Derby Day. The Black Panthers'. I stared at him again. 'Don't you read the newspapers?'
The grin on his face had collapsed. 'What the hell are you talking about?' 16
In the end, Wolfe and Agee (Wolfe and Thompson) are not writing the real at all, but writing the truth - and that's just got to be relative. Too many philosophers have said so. Science versus, not speculation, then, but passion. There is no degree of distance from experience which renders the writing of it real. There is only the truth, and that's always intertextual. So get wired, hang loose, and let it rip:
I took the car out the Madrid road, and soon the excessive heat was breezed out of it that had assembled in it while it stood frying, and I was lifting a line of dust again while the sun leaned to my left with all its heat still in it and stood like a poultice on my left face and shoulder. All these houses I hurried past were familiar; uhuh; uhuh; on a few of the front porches there were people. They looked after me and the car, turning their heads very slowly, too far gone even subconsciously to be grateful even for so small and meaningless a variant. God damn such a life. [...] There is nothing that exists, or in imagination, that is not much more than beautiful, and a lot I care about that, and existence goes on under pressures more terrible than can ever be done a thing for, and a lot I care again. I could put my foot to the floor right now and when it had built up every possible bit of speed I could twist the car off the road, if possible into a good-sized oak, and the chances are fair that I would kill myself, and I don't care much about doing that either. [...] who the hell am I, who in Jesus' name am I. This is a beautiful country. You can take that and good art and love together and stick them up your - [...] And - you, too. (pp.384-85)
But with the throttle screwed on, there is only the barest margin and no room at all for mistakes. It has to be done right ... and that's when the strange music starts, when you stretch your luck so far that fear becomes exhilaration, and vibrates along your arms. You can barely see at a hundred; the tears blow back so fast that they vaporize before they get to your ears. The only sounds are wind and a dull roar floating back from the mufflers. You watch the white line and try to lean with it ... howling through a turn to the right, then to the left and down the long hill to Pacifica ... letting off now, watching for cops, but only until the next dark stretch and another few seconds on the edge.... The Edge.... There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others - the living - are those who pushed their control as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later.
But the edge is still Out there. Or maybe it's In. The association of motorcycles with LSD is no accident of publicity. They are both a means to an end, to the place of definitions. 17
Despite its impedient form and heart-felt but humourless prose, giving way at times to outbursts of invective against the reader, Agee's baggy book caused something of a publishing sensation on its release in 1941. Its author became an instant literary celebrity, soon to make another name for himself as a writer of Hollywood screenplays (The African Queen, The Night of the Hunter) and dedicated drinker. James Agee died in 1955 at the age of forty-four.
1. Henry Fielding, "Preface" to Joseph Andrews, in Joseph Andrews and Shamela, ed. A. R. Humphreys (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1975), p.i.
2. See Truman Capote, In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and its Consequences (London: Sphere, 1981). For a benchmark study of the nonfiction novel, see Mas'ud Zavarzadeh, The Mythopoeic Reality: The Postwar American Nonfiction Novel (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976). Although Capote used the term "nonfiction novel" in his interviews with Life (7 January 1966) and Playboy (March 1968), he did not coin it. Such writers as C.P. Snow and Arthur Koestler, for instance, suffered critical disapproval in the 1950s for being so-called "non-fiction novelists". But Capote deserves credit for re-accenting the term and making it "part of the active vocabulary of the criticism of narrative" (Zavarzadeh, Mythopoeic Reality, p.73).
3. Tom Wolfe and E.W. Johnson eds., The New Journalism: An Anthology (London: Pan, 1975). First published in 1973, the anthology includes an essay by Wolfe, entitled "The New Journalism", in which the above quotation appears (p.15).
4. Ibid, p.60. Ellipsis in the original.
5. James Agee (with photographs by Walker Evans), Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (London: Pan, 1988). All page references to this edition cited in parentheses in the text.
6. Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72 (New York: Fawcett, 1974), p.92. Ellipses in the original. First published as a series of weekly-to-monthly articles in Rolling Stone between December 1971 and December 1972.
7. Wolfe, "New Journalism", p.68. Ellipses in the original.
8. Ibid, p.46.
9. Ibid, p.47.
10. John Hellmann, Fables of Fact: The New Journalism as New Fiction (Chicago: Illinois University Press, 1981), p.101. Moreover, in his review of The New Journalism anthology, Michael Wood argues that the most consistent feature of the collected essays and extracts is their suggestion "that fiction is the only shape we can give to facts, that all shapes are fictions" - New York Times Book Review, (22nd July 1973) p.20.
11. Tom Robbins, Another Roadside Attraction (New York: Ballantine, 1980), p.12.
12. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (London: Fontana, 1984), p.6.
13. One of the most damning of the many charges levelled at Hunter Thompson, for example, is that he "writes fiction without honour, fact without responsibility" - Jonathan Raban, "The New Mongrel", London Magazine, v.13, n.2 (1973) p.99 - which might be to say that his 'fiction' takes too many liberties with the facts and that his 'facts' are unreliable. Hence the centrality of questions to do with trust, credibility, and accuracy in the formation and maintenance of a writing space for journalism, thus leaving the embattled 'new' journalist with two options: either to publically step out of that space into another (familiar or transgressive), or defend her right to inhabit that space while seeking to explore other possibilities within it. Thompson takes the former option: "I'm not a reporter, I'm a writer", he tells Playboy in November, 1974. "Nobody gives Norman Mailer this kind of shit" (p.246). Wolfe, on the other hand, practices the more conservative strategy of the latter option, and is joined here by (among others) Gay Talese: "the new journalism, though reading like fiction, is not fiction. It is, or should be, as reliable as the most reliable reportage although it seeks a larger truth" - Fame and Obscurity: Portraits by Gay Talese (New York: World Publishing, 1970), p.vii.
14. Wolfe, "New Journalism", p.35.
15. Tom Wolfe, "The Voices of Village Square", in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (London: Pan, 1981), p.226. Originally published in 1966.
16. Hunter S. Thompson, "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved", in The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales From a Strange Time (London: Pan, 1980), pp.29-30. Originally published in Scanlan's Monthly (June 1970).
17. Hunter S. Thompson, Hell's Angels (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979), pp.282-82. Originally published in 1966.
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