The New England Quarterly

A journal of New England cultural, literary, political, and social history

A conversation about Henry David Thoreau

by sehudson

Independent scholar Andrew Menard recently sat down with Professor Laura Dassow Walls to discuss nationalism and nature in Henry David Thoreau’s Walking.

Their exchange is the latest addition in the NEQ podcast series. Listen in!


March 2014 Editorial

by sehudson


            As the authors of NEQ’s March 2014 issue explore the workings of power across racial and cultural divides in colonial America, “dynamic” is a word that pops off the page. Jacqueline Henkel opens her essay with a compelling set piece: in the fall of 1652, Monequassun delivers his conversion narrative to a group of Puritan dignitaries. Time and again, he notes, his resistance has given way to compliance: he reluctantly leaves his home to reside in the praying town of Natick; he accepts the Christian message he originally rejected; he overcomes his anxieties about learning how to read to become the town’s schoolmaster; and in a particularly painful act of capitulation, he cuts his hair.  The authenticity of the confession is problematic for historians, as indeed it was for contemporaries: adapted to English norms, it is derivative, and included as it was in John Eliot’s Tracts, it was translated and shaped by parties eager to use it to rally English support for New World Indian missions. Henkel proposes subtle and sophisticated ways to tease out meaning from the tension “between genre and voice, between a rhetoric of authenticity and the personal and historical detail,” as well as between “orality (as authentically immediate and truth revealing) and written discourse (as transparent and official).”

            The texts Kelly Chaves investigates are merchant account books. Taking a long view (1672–1740) of indigenous participation in Nantucket’s whaling industry, she is able to show that the debt that ultimately culminated in Native Americans’ involuntary servitude to their English merchant masters originally helped them enjoy some of the benefits of a market economy. Native Nantucketers, who had plied the waters surrounding their island for centuries, chose to enter the English cod fishery, an occupation that offered them a means to exercise their formidable skills and to support their families. Most of them, Chaves has found, “eked out a modest living aided by, but not enslaved to, credit.” As whales replaced cod as merchants’ preferred prey, however, the stakes changed, and Natives lost their autonomy, their community cohesion, and all too often their lives.

            Like the rest of the country, Jared Hardesty reminds us, eighteenth-century Boston relied on unfree labor to run its economy. Whereas other regions employed slaves to work their farms, however, Boston “depended upon skilled laborers who could provide specialized services such as shipbuilding (which employed around thirty different trades), blacksmithing, coopering, and printing,” and “artisans and merchants trained their slaves to perform such skills.” That training not only enhanced the value of masters’ slave property but gave slaves some leverage to negotiate the terms of their labor as well as to “lodge protests against working conditions, defend their perceived rights as workers, and craft a workplace identity.” “Rarely did [slaves] assert claims for freedom,” Hardesty observes, but they were nonetheless able to “secure a greater degree of autonomy than we might expect.”

            Ultimately, however, they were still slaves. Chernoh Sesay looks at those individuals who did assert claims for freedom, not only for themselves but on behalf of all enslaved people of African descent then residing in Massachusetts. Influenced by the rhetoric of Revolution, a number of free and enslaved men, aided by sympathetic whites, appealed to the governor and legislature of Massachusetts between 1773 and 1777. Their petitions are moving and multifaceted, alternately conciliatory and defiant. Although they were ultimately lost in the shuffle of Revolutionary-era politics, they commanded attention when they appeared, and they played a part in shifting public sentiment regarding slavery. More important, the petitions established a standard for African American activism that would ensure that “abolition would be a movement not only about but also of black people.”

            With an exchange between Michael P. Winship and Francis Bremer about the function and uses of Puritan conversion narratives, narratives much like that Monequassun delivered in 1652, the March issue comes full circle. It is a circling ’round that demonstrates the dynamism of NEQ, where ideas are constantly being reexamined in the light of new evidence.

                                                                                         —Linda Smith Rhoads





Interested in the Editorship of NEQ?

by sehudson

The New England Quarterly Inc., the administrative governing board of The New England Quarterly, invites inquiries from individuals interested in editing and colleges, universities, or cultural organizations interested in hosting the journal as of 1 July 2015. The directors of NEQ Inc. will consider any viable arrangement that advances the mission of the journal to publish the best that is being written about New England literature, history, and culture and their relation to the United States and the world.

Interested individuals should address their preliminary inquiries to the NEQ Transition Team, c/o Sarah Hudson, The New England Quarterly, 249 Meserve Hall, Northeastern University, Boston, MA 02115, or at, no later than 1 February.

For more information, visit NEQ’s website at

Colonial Almanacs

by stefrojas1

The almanac was ubiquitous in colonial America.  It provided essential information including weather forecasts, planting dates for farmers, and tide tables arranged in a calendar.    Almanacs might contain essays, tools for making financial calculations, political commentary, a local directory, and space for doodling and recording.  Nearly every household owned a copy of the Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress, and the current almanac.  The first was published by William Pierce in 1639 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  The most successful and well-known were printed in the mid-eighteenth century by men such as Nathanial Ames and Benjamin Franklin.

Size and Portability

Though some colonists elected to keep their almanacs in accessible locations within their homes, publishers designed them to be carried around, much like we carry our phones with us today.  They were sized for portability.  A typical almanac was about 4×7 inches and contained 24–36 pages.  It was slim enough to fit into a pocket or a lady’s reticule (an early type of handbag).  When an almanac was lost, it was not unusual for the owner to place an ad in the paper offering a small monetary reward for its return because almanacs had the potential to be highly personalized (more on this later).


Few farmers were without a copy of the most current almanac. Early Americans thought that the movement of the planets had a bearing on the physical processes of Earth, information of particular importance to farmers who relied on the weather.  An astrologist would be well paid to examine the night sky and make the necessary calculations.  The results would then be published and used as a guide for when to plant and when to harvest. Astrological predictions were notoriously unreliable but in the absence of anything better they were followed carefully.  Even illiterate people knew how to read the symbols used to communicate this essential data.


The premonitory powers of the almanac were not just confined to the weather; it was believed that one could use the almanac to predict one’s health as well.  Before the nineteenth century, the alignment of the sun, moon, and stars, was thought to have a direct bearing on a person’s health.  The world was composed of four elements—water, fire, earth, and air.  The human body had four humors, each of which corresponded to an element: phlegm (water), yellow bile (fire), black bile (earth), and blood (air).  Each person exhibited a signature combination of the four humors.  Someone with a lot of phlegm might have a cooler temper while someone with more yellow bile might have a warmer.  If the humors or elements became unbalanced, disease could result.  The four elements also corresponded to astrological signs.  And so, based on an almanac’s astrological information, people were able to predict their future health.  For more about how early Americans conceived their place in the cosmos, see “Urania’s Dusky Vails”: Heliocentrism in Colonial Almanacs, 1700-1735 by J. Rixey Ruffin in NEQ’s June 1997 issue.  In addition to helping colonists know when they were going to be sick, the almanac also featured recipes for common ailments such as muscle cramps, fevers, and congested sinuses.

Court Dates

A high point of the year in colonial America was the court date.  Since the distance between towns could be great, a judge or group of judges traveled around the colony, stopping along to way to hold trials. The almanac listed each travelling judge when they were scheduled to appear in various locations.  People who had a dispute that needed to be resolved could have it heard without having to travel a great distance.  Colonists who weren’t directly involved in a trial often attended simply for the opportunity to gossip, trade, and socialize with neighbors.


Almanacs recommended roads from major cities to various towns, listed “Houses of Entertainment” where the weary traveler stop for refreshment and rest, and noted the best times to set sail from specific ports based on weather predictions and planetary alignments.


Perhaps most impressive, the almanac enabled early Americans to calculate local time.  One added to or subtracted from, depending on the time of year, the natural time read on a sundial the number of minutes listed in the almanac.  Since mechanical timepieces could be temperamental, many colonists relied on this paper counterpart instead.


The almanac could serve as an account book.  It offered interest and conversion tables, which were essential to calculating loans. Moreover, in the decades following the American Revolution when paper money from the US and England mixed with gold and silver coins as legal tender, figuring out exactly how much money one had could be complicated.  The almanac provided blank charts for tracking income and spending.


Almanacs weren’t all about serious business. Many also included jokes, comics, and puzzles.  One could find poems, advice, passages from the Bible, and historical information.  Poor Richard’s Almanack, published by Benjamin Franklin from 1733 to 1758, was well known for its proverbs, which espoused thrift, civility, and industry. Some colonists inserted pages into their almanacs, converting them into day planners and diaries.  Many of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington used their almanacs in this way—a boon to historians. In an era when paper was quite expensive, the blank spaces within discarded almanacs were used by enterprising authors to share thoughts with family and to create wish lists, as Michael Eamon notes in “Don’t Speak to Me, but Write on This”: The Childhood Almanacs of Mary and Katherine Byles (NEQ, June 2012). Some almanacs were heavily illustrated with cartoons and designs to make them more visually appealing.  Finally, almanacs contained essays and anecdotes with political commentary.  For more on how the writings in almanacs reflected contemporary politics, read To Reach Men’s Minds: Almanacs and the American Revolution, 1760-1777 by Allan R. Raymond in NEQ’s September 1978 issue.


Almanacs varied greatly by publisher.  Nathanial Ames, said to have published the best almanac to be had in colonial New England, distinguished his with extracts from great works of literature.  Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack was noted for its wordplay.  Benjamin Banneker, who published almanacs in the late eighteenth century, was a noted abolitionist, and his views were reflected in the essays he chose to include in his editions.  Notes on New England Almanacs by N. W. Lovely in NEQ’s June 1935 issue will satisfy this blog’s more curious readers.

Today, almanacs are relics of a bygone era, souvenirs produced for a public fascinated by Yankee culture.  In the place of an almanac we use such inventions as the smartphone and the day planner to access information and plan our lives. We still need to track our finances and cure our colds, but in place of an almanac we now have Excel spreadsheets and WebMD.


American History, twelfth edition, Alan Brinkley, New York:  McGraw-Hill, 2007, p. 94-95

Looking to September

by Anna K Williams

Though it’s the height of summer, here at the offices of NEQ we’re wrapping up our September issue. As Editor Linda Smith Rhoads illustrates in the editorial that will preface the issue, it is filled with essays that uncover forgotten New England artifacts, events, and personalities, making it the perfect accompaniment to those darkening, memory-evoking autumn nights. We hope this glimpse of our upcoming issue will help our readers look forward to the fall as much as we are!


I think of the current number of The New England Quarterly as our Lost and Found issue. You will learn about maps being misplaced, accomplishments being forgotten, events being effaced from landscapes, books being found but their import being lost, borrowings overtaking originality, and intentions vanishing in the return to tradition. Our authors recover what has gone missing.

Paul Cohen traces the fates of seven copies of Abel Buell’s 1784 map of the United States. If history has a price, $2 million has captured the attention of bibliographers, collectors, and librarians, who in the earlier part of the previous century dismembered, sold off, miscataloged, and mistreated the first map of the United States created by a U.S. citizen. Indeed, one copy of Buell’s map was had for a paltry 86¢ in 1915. Cohen’s tale is as thrilling as it is cautionary, a story of shifting institutional priorities, economic realities, and the perils of insufficient recordkeeping. It is also a remembrance of one restless and hapless early American genius.

Craig Brown, Victor Mastone, and Christopher Maio have patiently and systematically recovered and retraced the progress of the Battle of Chelsea Creek, a provincial offensive that predates the Battle of Bunker Hill. Unlike Lexington and Concord or Bunker Hill, no memorial signifies that here our ancestors held their ground to defend American liberties. Conducted under the cover of night, the maneuver had few eyewitnesses. The plaques that once dotted the battlefield have been stolen, and the terrain on which it lay has been consumed by the urban sprawl of Boston’s East End, Chelsea, and Revere. But with the aid of current technology and a return to the extant record, the “forgotten” battle has been returned to its rightful place in the chronology of the American Revolution.

In July 1766, John Adams noted in his diary that his clerk had brought a “curious Volume” to his attention, a “Collection of Pamphlets published in the memorable Year 1640,” from which he recorded twenty-nine titles. The particular book Adams held in his hands has been lost, but the individual pamphlets he listed form a bridge from his revolutionary moment (the Stamp Act Crisis still fresh in his mind) to events that prompted New England’s puritan emigrants to flee their native land. Detailing objections to ministerial corruption, church government, and ecclesiastical conformity, the pamphlets, Michelle Orihel observes, offer an occasion for reflecting on how the puritan experience of tyranny may have shaped eighteenth-century colonial opposition to British imperial authority, especially in New England.

In August 1758, Benjamin Mecom, Benjamin Franklin’s nephew, published “A Letter from Father Abraham.” Despite the family connection, editors and authors have been reluctant to attribute the publication definitively to Franklin. Kevin Slack has carefully reconstructed the piece, including its extensive borrowings, to give readers the fullest possible criteria on which to base their decision. And finally, Laurie Hochstetler outlines changing matrimonial practices in pre-Revolutionary Massachusetts, concluding, surprisingly, that a return to Anglican traditions actually signaled colonial solidarity and a reinvigorated Puritan piety, a subtle social rebuke of the Crown and its church.


We learned this week that our longtime editor Edmund S. Morgan has died at the age of ninety-seven. Serving on the editorial board since 1948 and as an erstwhile judge for the Walter Muir Whitehill Contest, he has dispensed his wisdom with grace and a fervent desire to encourage the rising generation of historians. Through a remarkable chain of influence, he has mentored a number of our editors and authors, who have gone on, in turn, to mentor others. We mourn his loss and celebrate his life. An In Memoriam will appear in our December 2013 issue.

Anna and I would like to thank Stephanie Rojas, who offered invaluable support this summer as NEQ’s first editorial intern.

 —Linda Smith Rhoads

Summering in Newport

by Anna K Williams

“Newport represented the escape from duty into an atmosphere of unmitigated holiday-making.” – Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence

Summer is officially here! In Gilded Age America, the start of the summer season was the cue for the wealthiest and most famous families from New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and the South to flock to Newport, Rhode Island. The seaside city, located on Aquidneck Island, already had a rich history by the mid-nineteenth century. It had been home to a thriving Native settlement, served as a refuge for Anne Hutchinson and her followers—banished from Boston for their religious beliefs—and flourished as a leading and busy seaport. The British army’s occupation of Newport during the Revolutionary War devastated the city, but it soon rebuilt as a summer resort, appealing to visitors with its untouched landscapes and colonial architecture.

Newport is today often best known for its “summer cottages”—or ostentatious mansions commissioned by America’s elite during the Gilded Age—such as Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s The Breakers, an Italian Renaissance-inspired villa with seventy rooms designed by Richard Morris Hunt. However, many artists, writers, and thinkers also gathered in the City by the Sea. The James family—including theologian and writer Henry James Sr., novelist Henry James Jr., philosopher and psychologist William James, and diarist Alice James—lived in Newport on several occasions, while radical abolitionist and writer Thomas Wentworth Higginson and his wife settled in the city after his Civil War service. Novelist Edith Wharton, born into an old New York family, summered as a child and young woman at Pen Craig, and she later bought her own Newport home, Land’s End, and enlisted architect and decorator Ogden Codman Jr. to help her remodel it. Both Henry James and Edith Wharton depicted Newport life in several of their novels and short stories, often turning a critical eye on its competitive and coded social life. Thanks to extensive preservation, many of Newport’s mansions and homes still stand, waiting to transport visitors back to the city’s golden era. Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence or Henry James’s “The Sense of Newport” provide an equally evocative glimpse into Newport’s intricate social world.

The New England Quarterly has published extensively on all periods of Newport history. To learn about Williams James, his cousin Minny Temple, and their time in Newport, read Alfred Habegger’s New Light on William James and Minny Temple, which appeared in our March 1987 issue. If you’re interested in finding out more about the experience of African Americans—as much a part of the city’s history as the Gilded Age elite—see Exercising Their Right: African American Voter Turnout in Antebellum Newport, Rhode Island, by Richard C. Rohrs, from the September 2011 issue. And to step back into Revolutionary Newport, read T. Cole Jones’s “Displaying the Ensigns of Harmony”: The French Army in Newport, Rhode Island, 1780–1781, from the September 2012 issue.

Happy Birthday, Frederick Law Olmsted!

by Anna K Williams

It is fitting that this year in much of the United States, Arbor Day falls on 26 April, the 191st birthday of renowned landscape architect and conservationist Frederick Law Olmsted. Born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1822 to a successful merchant, Olmsted tried out a number of occupations (ship boy with the China trade, gentleman farmer, New York Times reporter, travel writer, editor) in his youth. Those various experiences served him well in his future work, when he would advocate for equality and the power of aesthetics to improve civilization. Then in 1858, he won (along with partner Calvert Vaux) a design competition to redevelop Central Park, a commission that launched his career as America’s first landscape architect

Olmsted and Vaux went on to design many parks and landscapes across the nation, including Prospect Park in Brooklyn, South Park in Chicago, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, Belle Isle in Detroit, and the grounds of Stanford University. Drawing upon his design principles and his values, Olmsted strove to create green spaces that, no matter how densely cities grew up around them, would provide natural retreats for residents. He also fought to make his parks accessible centers of democracy where people of all sorts could coexists. His vision extended as well to America’s wilderness. As a leader of the burgeoning conservation movement, he helped establish the first national park in Yosemite Valley, California, set up Niagara Reservation, and articulated the mission of nature preservation (“to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein . . . and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations”). In 1882 he moved his firm from New York City to Brookline, Massachusetts, where it operated until 1979, when the grounds and collections became part of the National Park Service. Olmsted died in 1902 in Belmont, Massachusetts.

Today, Olmsted’s legacy is part of the larger conservation movement. Arbor Day, founded in 1872 in Nebraska by tree-advocate J. Sterling Morton, likewise holds a prominent place with environmentalists. It is not surprising, therefore, that Olmsted societies across the nation celebrate Arbor Day by sprucing up their parks and that the Arbor Day Foundation annually presents the Frederick Law Olmsted Award to a person dedicated to trees and conservation. This year (in addition to planting a tree, of course), celebrate Olmsted’s birthday/Arbor Day by keeping his spirit alive. For those in the Boston area, join the Emerald Necklace Conservancy’s cleanup of the Muddy River or attend their discussion Climate Change: What Would Olmsted Do? On Sunday, roam through the Arnold Arboretum with the National Park Service’s Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site. Or help advocate for the preservation of Olmsted’s parks and landscapes by becoming a member of the National Association for Olmsted Parks.

To learn more about Olmsted and his ideals, read George L. Scheper’s “The Reformist Vision of Frederick Law Olmsted and the Poetics of Park Design” from our September 1989 issue and Andrew Menard’s “The Enlarged Freedom of Frederick Law Olmsted,” published in September 2010. But be sure to access them online so you’ll save a tree!

Patriots’ Day

by Anna K Williams

On the evening of 18 April 1775, about nine hundred British troops marched from Boston toward Concord, where they had been ordered to destroy military supplies held by the Massachusetts militia. Boston silversmith and patriot Paul Revere set forth on his famous midnight ride while “the Moon shone bright,” alerting the countryside to the Redcoats’ movements and ensuring that the rebels were prepared to greet them. As dawn approached on the morning of 19 April, the King’s troops, led by Major John Pitcairn, advanced onto Lexington Green and found themselves confronted with a group of about eighty minutemen. Lexington’s John Robbins testified,

“[O]n the green or common, and I being in the front rank, there suddenly appeared a number of the King’s troops, about a thousand, as I thought, at the distance of about sixty or seventy yards from us, huzzaing, and on a quick pace towards us, with three officers in their front on horse back, and on full gallop towards us, the foremost of which cried, throw down your arms, ye villains, ye rebels.”

At that moment, “the shot heard round the world” was fired.  Exactly who did so remains a mystery, but the British quickly responded, killing eight and wounding ten more. The rebels scattered to the woods, and the Regulars marched onward to Concord. One man recalled,

“[A]bout an hour after sunrise, we assembled on a hill near the meeting-house in Concord aforesaid, in consequence of an information that a number of regular troops had killed six of our countrymen at Lexington, and were on their march to said Concord.”

The foes faced off at the North Bridge. Now, it was the Redcoats who retreated, beaten back by the ever-growing forces from the countryside. By the time they reached Boston, the British had lost about 20 percent of their men. The Revolutionary War had begun.

In 1894, Governor Frederic Greenhalge declared 19 April Patriots’ Day to celebrate the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Three years later, in 1897, Boston commemorated the Regulars’ plodding retreat toward safety by hosting its first marathon. This year on Patriots’ Day (observed Monday, 15 April), have the best of both worlds: watch (or maybe even run) the marathon, then immerse yourself in the worlds of Lexington and Concord by streaming our Patriots’ Day podcast. Let three experts guide you through the eighteenth-century towns on the eve of the Revolution. What better way to celebrate the day than to lace up your running shoes in the morning and to relax afterwards by taking a walk in the shoes of a minuteman?

Cracking the Code of Roger Williams

by Anna K Williams

A historian uses a wide array of techniques to open up the secrets of a primary, archival source,  including exploring when, why, and for whom the document was created, questioning possible bias or the point of view of the writer, and even analyzing handwriting and paper. However, sometimes the very tool needed to even begin such research falls outside of the historian’s toolbox, and he or she must turn to another discipline to supply the missing method.  That is exactly what happened when then-director of the John Carter Brown library (and NEQ board member) Ted Widmer turned to a group of Brown University undergraduates to crack the strange code found in the margins of a leather-bound book once belonging to Roger Williams, theologian and founder of Rhode Island.  One undergraduate’s specialty, mathematics, provided the method for solving this mystery and revealing original, unknown writings by Williams.

As Slate Magazine details, Williams’s book has been in Brown’s possession since 1817, but it wasn’t until 2011 that a group of undergraduates tried their hand at translating the obscure characters once a computer failed to do the job.  That group included senior math major Lucas Mason-Brown, who diligently applied statistical analysis along with historical research to Williams’s invented language. Over the course of a year, he succeeded in breaking the code and unveiling an expression of Williams’s beliefs in religious freedom, including his questioning of the morality of forcing conversion on Native Americans.

Working with an archival source—seeing and smelling the original paper and ink with which someone long ago once wrote—bridges the past with the present, making history immediate and alive.  The act of cracking Williams’s code has also bridged disciplines that are usually on different sides of academia, math and history.  Roger Williams would no doubt be amazed to know that, nearly three hundred and thirty years after his death, an undergraduate mathematician would find the key to unlocking his code.

To learn more about Roger Williams, his banishment from Massachusetts Bay Colony, and his admirable support of Native American autonomy, read Jonathan Beecher Field’s Whitehill Prize-winning essay, A Key for the Gate: Roger Williams, Parliament, and Providence, from our September 2007 issue.

Celebrate “a little madness in the spring” with Emily Dickinson

by Anna K Williams

Poet Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) mined the landscape (or, as she put it, “robbed the woods”[1]) surrounding her Amherst, Massachusetts, home for symbols and metaphors.  Her intense relationship with the natural world necessarily included the seasons.  Spring, for Dickinson, is a precious time (“A Light exists in spring / Not present on the Year / At any other period”), made all the more so for its elusiveness (“Without the Formula of sound / It passes away and we stay — A quality of loss / Affecting our Content[2]). But, for the month or two of its brief visit, the spring brings both rejoicing (the bluebird “shouts for joy to nobody / but his seraphic self![3]) and religious communion (“None stir abroad / Without a cordial interview / with God”[4]).

It is fitting that a celebration of Emily Dickinson’s work will take place in the season that held such meaning for her.  On 13 April, the University of Buffalo will celebrate National Poetry Month with a fourteen-hour marathon reading of all 1,789 of Dickinson’s poems.

If making the trek to Buffalo is out of the question, Dickinson fans can explore her life and works by reading some of our past essays on the poet. In The Incidental Dickinson from our September 1999 issue, Mary Loeffelholz provides insight into the editorial challenges of and approaches to collecting and analyzing Dickinson’s work. Susan VanZanten, in the September 2012 piece “Bridges Often Go”: Emily Dickinson’s Bridge Poems, looks at Dickinson’s use of the image of the bridge in her work.

Amherst College has recently digitized its collection of Emily Dickinson’s works and papers. The links to Dickinson’s original handwritten poems are provided when available (log in as “guest”).

Title: F1356, l. 1

[1] F57, l. 1 

[2] F962, ll. 1–3, 15–18

[3] F1484, 15–16

[4] F948, 6–8


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