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From Cather Studies Volume 4

Willa Cather and Pierre Charron on Wisdom

The Skeptical Philosophy of Shadows on the Rock

Many reviewers and critics have seen Willa Cather's two novels of the 1930s as competent works but at the same time as products of a waning talent, as clearly less accomplished and less significant than her earlier fictions. In light of such assertions, David Stouck's having declared Lucy Gayheart(1935) Cather's "most complex novel philosophically" is particularly interesting (214). I would assert that Shadows on the Rock, published in 1931, stands with Lucy Gayheart in its philosophical complexity and would argue that a key to understanding the philosophical implications of Shadows on the Rock lies in Cather's character Pierre Charron. If, as Susan J. Rosowski has said, Shadows on the Rock is a book in which Cather addresses "modern themes of alienation, loss, despair, and annihilation" (176), it is also a work in which Cather suggests a centuries-old response to these same fundamental human problems.

James Woodress has called the half decade from early 1928 "the most stressful and discouraging period" of Cather's life (413). During this time Cather was trying to adjust to a new home in New York, to cope with her father's death, and to deal with her mother's debilitating stroke. "Life does beat us up sometimes," she wrote to Mary Jewett in May 1928, and "we must take our drubbing"; to Zona Gale she wrote in late 1929 that life "had been hitting her pretty hard" (Woodress 414, 420). Cather, however,was attempting to maintain a stoic courage in the face of these trials. Like Mrs. Harris in "Old Mrs. Harris," published in 1931, she realized,"Everything that's alive has got to suffer" (141).

It was during 1918 that Cather visited Quebec for the first time. Though she evidently had never before seriously considered writing about Quebec,the breakup of her family in conjunction with her visit to Quebec in the summer of 1928 clearly provided the inspiration for the story and the setting of her next book. Subsequent visits to Quebec enabled Cather to explore the city further and provided her the opportunity to do much of the research she deemed essential to her work.

The research Cather did was certainly conscientious. Edith Lewis notes that Cather was "always very painstaking about her facts—she intensely disliked being careless or inaccurate, and went to much trouble to verify them"(161). The historical Quebec material, unlike the Nebraska settings and characters, could not come out of Cather's own experiences and acquaintances; it had to be discovered. At the Chateau Frontenac, where Cather and Lewis stayed, Cather spent hours in the hotel's library reading Canadian history, most notably in the works of Francis Parkman (Lewis 154).The list of additional readings is lengthy and impressive (see Woodress431-32).

Curiously, previous Cather criticism has not explored the role of one of the most important, and certainly one of the most obvious, of all of Cather's sources for Shadows on the Rock, the sixteenth-century French philosopher Pierre Charron. Many Cather scholars have recognized and studied her use of actual historical personages in the novel. No previous criticism, however, has recognized the French philosopher as the character's ancestor. E. K. Brown noted many years ago that there were "well-to-do Charrons, traders in Montreal and associates of Jacques Le Ber, the father of the recluse. "Declaring Cather's Charron "an imaginary personage," Brown asserts, "it was doubtless because she had come across their [the Montreal Charrons'] track that Willa Cather gave Pierre their name" (185). While John March's A Reader's Companion to the Fiction of Willa Cather, published in 1993, notes that there was an actual Pierre Charron, that comment is followed by the statement that the fictional Charron "bears no resemblance" to the actual person (145).

The actual Pierre Charron was born in Paris in 1541. As a canon in Bordeaux, Charron attained a considerable reputation for his remarkable eloquence, for which he was rewarded with appointment as chaplain to Margueret of Navarre, queen of France. In part because of his reputation as a speaker, Charron met Montaigne in 1589 and the two became close friends. Montaigne, in fact, died in Charron's arms and, as a token of his affection and esteem, bestowed on Charron his family coat of arms.

According to most twentieth-century histories of philosophy, Charron's friendship with Montaigne has been at the same time both the source of his fame and the cause of his lack of proper recognition. Especially throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Charron was often referred to as "I'herbier de Montaigne," the disciple of Montaigne, and his works were often regarded simply as derivative of the more famous works of his more famous friend. Charron's two most important works, Les Trois vérités (Treatise on the three verities), published in 1594, and De la sagesse (Treatise on Wisdom), published in 1601, however, have in last hundred years come to be seen as extremely important works of original genius. In his History of Civilization in England, Henry Thomas Buckle declared Charron's Treatise on Wisdom "in some respects, even more formidable than Montaigne's [Essays]" (375). Eugene F. Rice Jr., echoing the opinion of a number of contemporary commentators, has called the work "the most important Renaissance treatise on wisdom" (178), and Charron's major biographer, J. B. Sabri, declared it "the philosophical Summa of humanism at the end of the sixteenth century" (281).

Although neither Lewis nor others mention Cather's having read Charron's works as background for Shadows on the Rock, Cather's use of the name Pierre Charron suggests that she did know of the philosopher. (That she was familiar with the works of Montaigne and Pascal has been known for quite some time.) More importantly, a reading of the novel demonstrates that Cather almost certainly not only knew of, but had read, Charron's Treatise on Wisdom.[1] Seeing Shadows on the Rock in light of Charron's work enables the reader to view the novel not simply as a nostalgic look at lost childhood and broken family ties but also as a profound exploration of the human condition.

In A Treatise on Wisdom, Charron distinguishes three kinds of wisdom—divine,worldly, and human—but his true subject, he makes clear, is human wisdom. "Our book," Charron declares in his preface, "is intended for daily life, and to form a man for the world, and instruct him in human wisdom which is of law and reason" (xxiii). According to Charron, while knowledge is rather easily acquired, wisdom is hard won.

In the skeptical tradition, in which he is such an important figure, Charron argues that one ultimately can know little of himself and adds that it is "great folly" for one to think otherwise (63). We are born to search for truth, but the only certainty is uncertainty (125). Charron's motto, "Je ne sçay" ("I know not"), he believed, must be every being's motto, even as we seek to "know." Human wisdom, that wisdom that one can use in a practical way in day-to-day living, is attainable, however. Wisdom, Charron contends, is a gift to be discovered, developed, and cultivated. One must keep faith, accept what happens, and await revelation in order to better understand the course of one's life. The wise being is one who acknowledges the limits to one's knowing yet seeks and discovers those virtues—prudence, justice,fortitude, and temperance—that are essential to rational, quiet contentment.

In Shadows on the Rock rational, quiet contentment certainly has been established in the household of Euclide Auclair, "the philosopher apothecary of Quebec" (3). His late wife had entrusted to their young daughter, Cécile, a sense of "our way"—notions about tradition, propriety, and fine feeling—that Cécile has embraced with an enthusiasm that belies her age. On her deathbed Madame Auclair had told Cécile, "You will see that your father's whole happiness depends on order and regularity, and you will come to feel a pride in it. Without order our lives would be disgusting, like those of the poor savages" (24). Cécile's preservation of order, cleanliness, and regularity in familial affairs has assumed an almost ritualistic character. Dinner is the most important event of the day; Euclide regards the evening meal as "the thing that kept him a civilized man and a Frenchman" (16-17). The Auclairs always dine at six o'clock in the winter and at seven o'clock in the summer, "as he used to do in Paris" (10). Each day, when he returns from his errands, Euclide finds a fire burning in the fireplace and the dining table "set with a white cloth, silver candlesticks, glasses, and two clear decanters, one of red wine and one of white" (9). After dinner he retires to his shop to post his ledger and then rejoins Cécile for several hours of reading. They normally conclude the evening with a walk around the city,"nearly always the same" (21). As Charron declares in his wide-ranging discussion of social institutions, "There is nothing more beautiful than a house-hold well and peaceably governed"(72).

Implicit in Cather's portrait of Cécile, a young girl living a very ordered and secure life, is Cather's sense of her own life as a mature woman who had come to know much about chaos, suffering, and despair. While Quebec under the rule of Count Frontenac had become a bastion of orderly and civilized activity in the midst of the Canadian wilderness, that wilderness was, nonetheless, always out there, formidable and in many cases frightening. In Cather's novel it is, in fact, one of several correlatives to uncertainty, fear, and dread.

One passage early in the novel is especially telling in this respect. After an initial description of the city of Quebec, Cather shifts her attention to that "black pine forest" that "stretched no living man knew how far. That was the dead, sealed world of the vegetable kingdom, an uncharted continent choked with interlocking trees, living, dead, half-dead, their roots in bogs and swamps, strangling each other in a slow agony that had lasted for centuries. The forest was suffocation, annihilation; there European man was quickly swallowed up in silence, distance, mould, black mud, and the stinging swarms of insect life that bred in it" (6-7). Cécile's later journey into the world outside Quebec, to visit the Harnois family, is a terribly disturbing experience, presented in archetypal terms. Her guide, Pierre Charron (here rather conveniently suggesting the mythical boatman Charon) takes Cécile across the river to the Ile d'Orléans. Though Cécile is awed by the physical beauty of the island, she is shocked by the crude dress and behavior of the Harnois children. "Uneasy and afraid of something," she spends a restless first night, unable to sleep (191).

The next morning Cécile slips away into the woods, climbs toward the ridge in the middle of the island, and comes out on "a waving green hayfield with a beautiful harp-shaped elm growing in the middle of it." She falls asleep under that "symmetrical tree" and awakens a long while later, feeling "rested and happy,—though unreal, as if she were someone else" (193). Her sense of well being is short-lived, however, and as darkness approaches, "dread and emptiness [awake] in Cécile's breast again, a chilling fear of night" (194). Unable to endure the forest and the Harnois household any longer and desperately homesick for Quebec, Cécile begs Pierre to take her home. On the third day, then, she returns home, to the order, the neatness, and the security of the Auclair household. In those three days young Cécile had come to know all too well some of those shadows that threatened the rock of Quebec, as Cather in those three years from 1928 to 1931 had come to know all too well those shadows of displacement and death in her own life. In Charron's Treatise on Wisdom, Cather—herself feeling lost, abandoned, and tormented—may well have sought and found some answers, some source of healing.[2]

As noted previously, Charron's basic assertion is that an individual cannot know for certain the answers to any of the most essential human questions. An individual, however, naturally seeks to discover truth. "We are born to search for truth, but to possess it belongs to a higher power," Charron says. "Truth is not his who thrusts himself into it, but his who strives to reach it" (21-22). (This latter comment calls to mind Myra Henshawe's assertion that "in religion seeking is finding" [Cather, My Mortal Enemy 94]). What an individual can discover, Charron contends, is how to live in a kind of contentment, with a stoic acceptance of life's vicissitudes. "Sorrow is the only true evil man is wholly born to," Charron asserts, "and it is his natural property" (57). "It is folly to grieve for that which cannot be mended, to fear that which cannot be avoided" (164). All moral philosophy, according to Charron, is best expressed in two words of Epictetus, "Sustain and abstain" (On Wisdom 34). Charron no doubt would have appreciated Cather's comment that Shadows on the Rock is a book "full of pious resignation" (On Writing 16).

The philosopher's comments are particularly interesting given the role of the noble woodsman in Cather's novel. An admiring Euclide Auclair reflects that he had liked Charron from the first time he had met him: From his first meeting with him, Auclair had loved this restless boy (he was a boy then) who shot up and down the swift rivers of Canada in his canoe; who was now at Niagara, now at the head of Lake Ontario, now at the Sault Saint Marie on his way into the fathomless forbidding waters of Lake Superior. To both Auclair and Madame Auclair, Pierre Charron had seemed the type they had come so far to find; more than anyone else he realized the romantic picture of the free Frenchman of the great forests which they had formed at home on the banks of the Seine. He had the good manners of the Old World, the dash and daring of the New. (171-72)

Pierre Charron is, however, much more than a dashing coureur de bois or mere romantic stereotype. Seen in the context of the philosopher Charron's assertions, Cather's Pierre acquires a much greater significance. On one level he is a dashing New World type who is contrasted to the Old World colonists who have settled in Quebec, but on another level he clearly lives a type of life recommended in and possesses many of those qualities praised in A Treatise on Wisdom. Cather's character, in fact, is much like Charron's ideal man.

The philosopher Charron's great contribution to the development of Western philosophy was his creation of a moral system independent of religion. As noted previously, Charron's A Treatise on Wisdom does not concern itself with that wisdom that is associated with or that is the result of knowledge. Rather, his concern is with "human wisdom," or preud'hommie. As Eugene F. Rice Jr. explains in his discussion of Charron, "Charron calls this wisdom preude prudence, an habile et forte preud'hommie, a probitébien advisée, the 'excellence and perfection of man as man'"(180).

Citing several ancient sources, Charron begins his treatise with the declaration that "The most excellent and divine counsel, the best and most profitable of all advice . . . is to study and learn how to know ourselves"(I). Charron continues, however, that since any knowledge that an individual might gain, either through the senses or through reason, is limited, humanity finally must await the revelation of the Divine. Charron presents the wise man who, while he awaits divine revelation, lives virtuously according to nature and a natural morality, with his actions as the manifestations of his virtue. (In his glorification of the man who lives a simple life according to nature, Charron here, of course, anticipates Rousseau's "noble savage" by 150 years.) Cather's woodsman, "hero of the fur trade and the coureurs de bois"(170), with "the good manners of the Old World, the dash and daring of the New" (172), liked and trusted by the Indians, admired by all for his courage, his loyalty, and his fairness, is the perfect example of the philosopher's ideal natural man, who possesses preude prudente and an habile et forte preud'hommie.

Moreover, in the context of Pierre Charron's comments in A Treatise on Wisdom, Jeanne Le Ber's role in the novel is particularly interesting. The story of Jeanne Le Ber, "the recluse of Montreal" (130), occupies much of the middle section ("The Long Winter") of Shadows on the Rock. Her "very unusual nature" had been evident from the time she was a small child. Though, as the daughter of the richest merchant in Montreal, Jeanne Le Ber had many suitors, she insisted that for her "the only real world lay within convent walls" (132). She took a five-year vow of chastity at 17, renewed that vow, and then after l0 years of "the absolute solitariness of the hermit's life" in her parents' house (132), she "entombed" herself in a cell behind the altar of the chapel of the Sisters of the Congregation of the Blessed Virgin, never again to come forth.

Although one might admire Jeanne Le Ber's passionate vision, self-sacrifice,and dedication, her cold aloofness is powerfully emphasized in Cather's depiction. Under the exterior of "pleasing girlhood," one of her teachers had noted early on, was "something reserved and guarded" (130). Despite her parents' concern, then despair, Jeanne maintained her solitary life, refusing even to speak to them. Despite her dying mother's plea that she come to give her a farewell kiss, Jeanne does not, answering only that she is praying for her. While Cécile is intrigued by the tales of Jeanne, it is hard to imagine her finding this part of Jeanne's story admirable or inspiring.

Cather, in fact, makes it quite clear that what appeals to Cécile about the legend of Jeanne Le Ber is the story of the angels' visit and the miracle of the spinning wheel, "For long after the night when Cécile first heard of the angels' visit to Mme. Le Ber, the story was a joy to her.. . . By many a fireside the story of Jeanne's spinning-wheel was told and re-told with loving exaggeration during that severe winter" (136). To young Cécile the story of the angels' visit to Jeanne is "a joy." The story of Jeanne's life is not. The story of the spinning wheel recounts a miracle, and Cécile tells it over and over to little Jacques. And it is that story that is repeated "by many a fireside" throughout Canada "with loving exaggeration" (136).

Finally Cather tells us, "The people have loved miracles for so many hundred years, not as proof or evidence, but because they are the actual flowering of desire. In them the vague worship and devotion of the simple-hearteda ssumes a form. From being a shapeless longing, it becomes a beautiful image" (137; italics mine). For the simple-hearted, the very young Cécile included, such stories of miracles are indeed fascinating.

To Pierre Charron, however, the story of Jeanne Le Ber's life is disturbing and painful. Although it might be argued that Pierre's reaction to Jeanne Le Ber's choice of a solitary life is simply that of the rejected suitor, his despair over Le Ber's life clearly has a more profound basis. To Pierre,that life, lived in "resignation and despair" (183), has been wasted. Having seen and heard her from his hiding place in the chapel, 20 years after she began her "entombment," Pierre is overwhelmed by the sight of her "stone face" and the sound of her voice, "harsh and hollow like an old crow's," "hoarse, hollow, with the sound of despair in it" (180, 182). The story of Jeanne Le Ber may be inspiring to some, but it is thematically fitting that it is the central narrative in that section of Shadows on the Rock titled "The Long Winter." If one seeks a heroine in Cather's novel, one would better examine the life of Catherine de Saint-Augustin, whose spiritual dedication was manifested in "a steady routine of manual labor and administrative work," carried out while she "observed the full discipline of her order"(42).

Perhaps a better understanding of Pierre's reaction to the life of Jeanne Le Ber may be found by again examining the philosopher Charron's A Treatise on Wisdom. Charron makes his position on the life of solitude very clear. His book, he announces in his preface, "is intended for daily life, and to form a man for the world" (xxiii). He is not writing for those who would "flee the world and the company of men. But Charron aims at men committed to the world. He wants to instruct them in the active virtues of public, private, and business life, not turn them into monks, theologians, or professional philosophers" (Rice 179). It is much harder to live one's life in the world, subject to the world, Charron asserts, than it is to separate oneself and pass one's life in solitude (On Wisdom 46-47). He cannot praise a cloistered virtue. For any person living life in the world among others, engaging in everyday activities, and attempting to sustain human relationships, life presents difficulties and inevitably leads to disappointment and loss. "Pleasure is not always unalloyed, and there is always something wanting," Charron remarks in his comments on human misery, "grief is often entire and absolute, and the greatest pleasures touch us not so nearly as the lightest sorrows" (57). Yet one need not surrender to despair, for wisdom "is a mild and regular managing of the soul," and wisdom ends in tranquillity (On Wisdom 198-99).

Pierre Charron's entry into Shadows on the Rock comes in book 4, "Pierre Charron," after the section titled "The Long Winter." If the winter, like the forest wilderness, represents hardship, uncertainty, and a kind of spiritual as well as physical death, Pierre Charron's arrival in Quebec coincides with a rebirth of hope and a new sense of life. The colony of Quebec, under the civil order and authority of Count Frontenac and the religious order and authority established by Bishop Laval, has endured, despite the cold, the darkness, and the forest wilderness that surrounds it. Pierre arrives on the first day of June, when "the quickening of all life and hope which had come to France in May had reached the far North at last"(109). His arrival inspires in Cécile a sense of well being, as does his reappearance in book 6, "The Dying Count." At major crisis points in her life, Cécile turns to Pierre. At the beginning of the "Pierre Charron"section, Cécile runs to Pierre's embrace, throws her arms around him, and exclaims, "Oh, Pierre Charron, I am delighted at you, Pierre Charron!"(170-71). And later, when Pierre, having heard of the count's illness, returns to Quebec, Cécile again throws her arms around him and cries,"Oh, Pierre, Pierre Charron!" "Never in all her life," Cather writes, "had she felt so strong and so true, so real and so sure" (264). While his physical strength and forest daring are presented in romantic style, thus making him a fitting hero for the novel as well as for young Cécile, Pierre's strength of character is also emphasized. His face, we are told, is "full of experience and sagacity" (172).

In Shadows on the Rock, Cécile is in the process of growing up. She had dealt with her mother's death and had continued the way of life her mother had established in the New World. She lives through "the long winter," and she "survives" the unpleasant visit to the Harnois family. Unlike Pierre,who has learned to accept hardship and danger as well as comfort and repose,who has learned to move with ease between the worlds of the colony and the forest, Cécile, in the course of the novel, is learning to deal with "the stern realities of life" (3). Her marriage to Pierre by novel's end on one level may be seen as a very predictable and sentimental ending to Cather's story. If Shadows on the Rock is read as a philosophical novel based on the writings of Pierre's real-life namesake, however, Cécile's marriage to Pierre may be seen to signify not only the culmination of a childhood infatuation but also a realization of Cécile's maturity. Moreover, if through Cécile Cather was "reinventing herself as a child"(Lee 301), Cécile's marriage to Pierre may be seen to imply Cather's acceptance of a philosophical position that provided comfort and wisdom during a crisis period in her life. Writing Shadows on the Rock, Cather wrote to Dorothy Canfield Fisher in May 1931, "had been her only refuge for the past three years" (Woodress 423). Like Cather, Cécile too had faced along winter after La Bonne Espérance had disappeared. "A life without security, without plans, without preparation for the future, had been terrible," both for Cécile and for Cather (Shadows 252).

Although Euclide Auclair has been "indeed fortunate" to live out his life "where nothing changed," Cather had not been so fortunate. She knew full well as she wrote this novel what it meant to feel "entirely cut off"(Shadows 4) from the world she had left behind. In the character Pierre Charron, Cather suggests a source of strength; in his namesake's healthy skepticism she apparently found a guide, in his advocacy of stoic endurance,a comfort. At the end of Shadows on the Rock Cécile retires to her room after having prepared dinner for her father and Pierre. She "turned to slumber," Cather says, "with the weight of doubt and loneliness melted away." Her last thoughts "before she slips into forgetfulness" are of Pierre, "a friend, devoted and fearless, here in the house with them, as if he were one of themselves." "He had not a throne behind him," Cécile reflects, "not the authority of a parchment and seal. But he had authority, and a power which came from knowledge of the country and its people; from knowledge and a kind of passion" (267-68). That is, his power came from knowledge and a kind of suffering.

In her book on Cather, Susie Thomas calls Shadows on the Rock, "an aberration." "The narrowness of vision," she says, "is wholly uncharacteristic" of Cather (166). Any narrowness of vision in Shadows on the Rock, I believe, is only apparent. The significance of Cather's fictional Pierre Charron has long been ignored, but a reading of the philosopher Pierre Charron's Treatise on Wisdom suggests that Cather's character certainly is no mere romantic stereotype and that Shadows on the Rock is much more than a mere sentimental remembrance of Cather's own childhood. Charron's Treatise on Wisdom, it would seem, informs much of a philosophical subtext in Shadows on the Rock, and this novel, like Lucy Gayheart, does, evidently, have a remarkable philosophical complexity.

For those who, like old Saint-Vallier, have been "uncertain, and puzzled, and in the dark like ourselves" (Shadows 279), Charron's gently skeptical stoic philosophy provides a practical guide for "daily life." In Shadows on the Rock, Pierre's face is said to be "full of experience and sagacity," as is his namesake's famous treatise on wisdom. In a letter to Elizabeth Vermorcken, written shortly after the novel's publication, Cather complained about those readers who said that in Shadows on the Rock they had been given chicken broth instead of roast beef. They should have trusted her, Cather declared, to know what she was doing (Lee 293). Cather was right, of course. They should have.


 1. The attempt to verify Cather's familiarity with Charron's work is a story in itself. Although Cather might have become familiar with Charron's work during the 1890s when she was "reading French" with George Seibel in Pittsburgh, it is more likely that she read A Treatise on Wisdom while she was working on Shadows on the Rock. A paraphrased English translation of Charron's treatise had appeared in 1891 (see Works Cited), but since Cather"read French fluently" (Woodress 421), she may well have read A Treatise on Wisdom in French. Examination of records at the Laval University library and at Le Petite Seminaire in Quebec have revealed that neither collection contained a copy of A Treatise on Wisdom when Cather was in the city circa 1930. (Go back.)
 2. One would assume, then, that Cather might have found a copy of Charron, in French or English, in the "excellent" library at the Chateau Frontenac where she read Parkman's histories of Canada and other works (Lewis 154). In June 1995 I looked at every volume in the hotel library and not only found that there is no copy of Charron's Treatise on Wisdom but also discovered that there is not a single volume of Parkman's works in that library today. Inquiry revealed that circa 1980, while the library was undergoing renovation, over 300 of "the oldest and best books" in the library were stolen. The hotel does not have records of titles that were in the collection prior to the theft, so it appears impossible to determine whether Cather could have read a copy of A Treatise on Wisdom from that collection. (Go back.)


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Buckle, Henry Thomas. History of Civilization in England. With an introduction by Arthur Brisbane. Vol. 1, pt. 2. New York: Hearst, 1913.
Cather, Willa. My Mortal Enemy. New York: Knopf, 1926.
Cather, Willa. "Old Mrs. Harris." Obscure Destinies. New York: Knopf, 1932.
Cather, Willa. On Writing: Critical Studies on Writing as an Art. New York: Knopf, 1949.
Cather, Willa. Shadows on the Rock. New York: Knopf, 1931.
Charron, Pierre. A Treatise on Wisdom. Paraphrased by Myrtilla H. N. Daly. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1891.
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Rosowski, Susan J. The Voyage Perilous: Willa Cather's Romanticism. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1986.
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