Reviews and Commentary

Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry


American Literary History 21.4 (Winter 2009): 938-948.

Poetry and the Age

(Review essay of Beautiful Enemies, along with The Forms of Youth: 20th Century Poetry and Adolescence, by Stephen Burt, and Reading the Middle Generation Anew: Culture, Community, and Form in Twentieth-Century American Poetry, ed. Eric Haralson).

Reviewed by Raphael C. Allison.

Epstein’s book is part of a growing number of studies on the New York School of poets, a
group that includes Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch, and Barbara Guest—though this latter figure typically gets little critical attention. (Epstein also sneaks Amiri Baraka into this group, and some of his best chapters result from this original and apt inclusion.) Epstein’s argument is, in brief, that while other critics have recognized the crucial importance of supportive and encouraging friendship to this avant-garde poetry scene, none has really understood the fundamental struggle between the individual poets and their communities, however friendly, in which they lived, worked, and wrote … Epstein’s argument is immensely satisfying in the way it constellates a number of related contexts, including postwar America, Emersonian pragmatism, and theories of the avant-garde. He also challenges some of the easygoing assumptions about literary friendship and community evident in previous writing on the New York School …

Epstein’s argument about individual poets in productive friction with their friends and collaborators is masterful. He produces strong readings of major works of these writers … Of special interest to those versed in the writing of the New York School is Epstein’s use of archival poems that are crucially related to his argument … Epstein’s book is, simply put, a pleasure to read.

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American Literature 81.3 (September 2009): 615-617

(Review of Beautiful Enemies and Ivy Schweitzer’s Perfecting Friendship).

Reviewed by Betsy Klimasmith.

Although Epstein spends some time explaining the complex personal relationships among the poets, their poetry is at the center of this study, and Epstein’s readings throughout are clear and nuanced … evocatively weaving together the poets’ lives, letters, and poetry … Persuasively argued and beautifully written … a model for how friendship and literature may usefully illuminate one another.

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Parkett 84 (2009)

Is Art Criticism Fifty Years Behind Poetry? by Charles Bernstein

(Review of Lytle Shaw’s Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterie that also discusses my book)

Still, no discussion of coterie can completely free itself from the negative connotations of clique and scene. For best effect, the first chapters of Shaw’s book should be read beside Andrew Epstein’s Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry. Epstein offers exemplary Emersonian readings of the intricate web connecting individual talent and collective investment in the poetry and poetics of John Ashbery, Amiri Baraka, and O’Hara. Averting the Cold War myth of the individual voice in the wilderness of conformity, Epstein gives us voices in conversation and conflict, suggesting that resistance to agreement is at the heart of a pragmatist understanding of literary community.

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Twentieth Century Literature 54.2 (Summer 2008): 263-72

“Selected Affinities”

(Review essay that discusses Beautiful Enemies alongside the new Selected Poems of Frank O’Hara, edited by Mark Ford).

Reviewed by Terence Diggory.

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Poetry (July/August 2008): 396-408.

“The Soul Grown Refined”
(Review essay about Beautiful EnemiesThe Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge, by Adam Sisman, and A Blue Hand: The Beats in India, by Deborah Baker).

Reviewed by Vivian Gornick.

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Isola di Rifiuti (June-July 2008)

On the poet John Latta’s blog, there has been a multi-part discussion between Latta, the poet Tony Towle, and myself about my attribution of the unpublished poem “Finding LeRoi a Lawyer” to Frank O’Hara. To see this discussion, see herehere, and here.

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Contemporary Literature 49.1 (Spring 2008): 151-158.

“‘Between the Poet and the Person’: Dilemmas of Friendship in Contemporary Poetry.” (Review of Beautiful Enemies).

Reviewed by Libbie Rifkin.

… a fascinating reading of the artistically generative conflicts between self and friendship in O’Hara’s life and work… Bracingly corrective and inspiring … Sharply faceted readings set in motion a feeling of kaleidoscopic possibility, of shifting scholarly configurations yet to be explored…

Although it is not the first recent work to explore the connections between pragmatism and postwar American poetry, Epstein’s book does so with the combination of intellectual lucidity and psychological affinity that, one imagines, helps to inspire the relationship between philosophy and art—and philosophers and artists—to begin with…

Beautiful Enemies takes an elegant next step [from previous criticism] … Epstein’s approach is at once more historical and more immanent…

Epstein is uniquely alive to the tensions legible in these poetic continuations of friendship, and this attentiveness, along with his assiduous scholarship, yields results that should change the way the works, their creators, and their milieu are viewed…

His analysis of the impact on avant-garde poets of discussions about conformity and “the crisis of the individual” in publications as varied as Life and Commentary and in best-selling books such as David Riesman’s Lonely Crowd is smart and persuasive…

The chapter on Emersonian and post-Emersonian pragmatism is a richly documented and convincing argument for the relevance of that school of thought beyond modernism and into the postwar period. In fact, Epstein’s illumination of pragmatist antifoundationalism and its commitment to mobile relations between individual and community suggests that it could be an abundant resource for the continued conceptualizing of these issues as they play out in global networks of cultural production…

Beautiful Enemies gives us a social, historical, and artistically reverberative context in which to evaluate these sorts of decisions—and a heightened recognition that they are never made alone.

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Zen Monster 1.1 (Winter 2008).

Circle of Friends” (Review of Beautiful Enemies and Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterie by Lytle Shaw).

Reviewed by Timothy Gray.

Two recently released books contribute fresh, theoretically-informed analyses of O’Hara’s social genius … [Epstein and Shaw] are experimental poets as well as literary critics. Their appreciation of the New York School is nuanced and multifaceted … [they offer] riveting narratives about a dynamic literary community…

Andrew Epstein’s marvelous book, Beautiful Enemies, takes the conundrum of literary friendship to a whole new level… [the argument] is full of ironic twists and intrigue. Literary scholars have been sniffing around this terrain for years, but no one has written so thoroughly, or so lucidly, about the contested nature of friendship in avant-garde circles as Epstein as…

Epstein’s discussion of O’Hara’s ongoing ‘sibling rivalry’ with Ashbery (interestingly, both poets were fans of the film East of Eden) hints at the friction many critics have tended to smooth over. Even more fascinating, from my viewpoint, is Epstein’s chronicle of the O’Hara-Baraka friendship, for I believe it provides one of the most intimate looks yet at the racial politics of the New York School. In Epstein’s insightful and well-written book, the two chapters on Baraka are worth the price of admission…

Academic books do no usually attract large audiences, but these two studies deserve wide readership, particularly among folks who share a love of New York City art and literature, and who form friendships based on that love.

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Criticism (Spring 2007, Vol. 47.2)

Frank O’Hara and the Turn to Friendship” (review of Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry and Lytle Shaw’s Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterie)

Reviewed by Benjamin Lee

Epstein’s elegant book … offers a subtle and meticulously researched account of the literary, personal, and philosophical dynamics of the New York School, and of O’Hara, John Ashbery, and Amiri Baraka in particular….

It is during his final meditations on the extended poetic and intertextual dialogue between Ashbery and O’Hara (the two poets share the final chapter and long stretches of the conclusion) that Epstein’s book uncovers most poignantly the thematics and paradoxes of friendship among rivals.

His nuanced and often illuminating accounts of poems and prose by Ashbery, Baraka, and O’Hara remain deeply invested in destabilizing the notion of avant-garde as collaboration and replacing it with a portrait of experimental artists who are socially situated, and even affiliated with radical communities, and yet never wholly committed to avant-gardism as a collective endeavor.

Both Epstein and Shaw offer us the pleasures of their own timeliness and intelligence. Both exhibit a shrewd sense of the new directions O’Hara criticism might take in the years to come (an expanded sense of O’Hara’s dialogue with pragmatism, for instance, or of his work as an art critic or his Cold War–era fascination with Russian literature), and both offer compelling new readings of individual poems. I plan to return in particular to Shaw’s readings of O’Hara’s “Cornkind” and “In Memory of My Feelings,” and to Epstein’s reading of O’Hara’s “Joe’s Jacket’s” and his quite unforgettable take on Ashbery’s “Street Musicians.” These books should quickly find their place in an expanding field of O’Hara criticism, adding depth and detail to discussions of the New York School’s cultural force and its deft imagination of a whole range of individual and collective—indeed, of collaborative— freedoms. As for O’Hara, whose poems remain so powerfully public and private, depressed and ambitious, solitary, utopically expansive, and just plain entertaining, he will no doubt continue enjoying his moment in the sun.

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New Yorker (April 7, 2008)

Fast Company: The world of Frank O’Hara” (review of Frank O’Hara’s Selected Poems)

Reviewed by Dan Chiasson.

The best-known poems in Ford’s edition—“The Day Lady Died,” “Personal Poem,” “Ave Maria,” “A Step Away from Them,” “Having a Coke with You”—feel like attempts to make a built-to-last social world founded upon friendship. (Andrew Epstein’s excellent study “Beautiful Enemies” makes this point.)

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Rain Taxi Review of Books (Winter 2007-2008)

Reviewed by Elizabeth Robinson

Andrew Epstein’s Beautiful Enemies offers a study of friendship and postwar American poetry by focusing on three poets, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and Amiri Baraka…. This scholarly book is likely to be read by practicing poets; it speaks to issues that are familiar and perplexing to all such practitioners. How does one preserve one’s distinctiveness and elasticity as a writer while also making meaningful connections with peers whose own efforts can provide useful provocation and inspiration? At its best, Beautiful Enemies delves into the messy world of friendships without diminishing their complexity, ambivalence, or pleasures … his depiction of the Baraka-O’Hara friendship is lively and revealing. Whether or not Baraka and O’Hara were ever lovers, their intimacy clearly galvanized strong writing from both. Epstein’s chapter on Baraka’s break with his mostly white, middle-class, apolitical (and frequently gay) writing community is revelatory and often wrenching to read, evoking as it does the painful self-division that Baraka experienced. Epstein is sharply critical of Baraka’s later homophobic and anti-semitic remarks, yet he attends to the ambivalence of Baraka’s early work with considerable sympathy and admiration. About Baraka’s play, The Toilet, he notes that it is “powerful because of its author’s confusion and ambivalence.”

… The temptation to extrapolate from Epstein’s study and apply it to contemporary communities of writers is irresistible—and this is entirely pertinent to the project ofBeautiful Enemies. When Epstein addresses the problem of “how to avoid appropriation, how to ward off absorption by groups, institutions, and other forces that might reduce one’s ability to change, move, or create freely, while at the same time navigating and feeding off of literary communities and friendships,” his description is hauntingly trans-historical: he seems to be talking about you and me.

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Beat Scene 54 (Autumn 2007)

Reviewed by Eric Jacobs.

Andrew Epstein’s Beautiful Enemies, a title lifted from an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson, is both immensely readable and enjoyable, despite the weightiness it carries with it …

The stereotypical image of the poet is a solitary figure, creating in a lonely state of isolation — of course that is a romantic vision and there is some basis in that stereotype. Yet Epstein argues that creativity is also sparked by the friction and inspiration that comes with friendship. Not just poems from bonding, but poems that spring from antagonism, the competitiveness that often runs in tandem with friendship …On initial reading Beautiful Enemies unfolds almost like a poetic family tree, as Epstein examines Existentialism, Pragmatism, Emerson, James, William Carlos Williams, Abstract Expressionism, the impact of The New American Poetry edited by Don Allen, bebop, the notion of a “New York School” of poetry, did a unified group of such poets ever truly exist? The Cold War, Charles Olson, Black Mountain and so on; I’ve missed some vital components out here, the listing is bewilderingly comprehensive as Epstein tries to establish where this trio of Ashbery, O’Hara, and Baraka work best — is it part of a cohesive group or as lone figures? There are no clean cut answers to the questions posed by Epstein …

… The notion of a family tree of poets is a powerful motif running through the book. Whether or not poets are best working in that solitary air or fired by the crossfire of companionship, the collision of friendships, the jury is out and yet this book is about a vaster plane of ideas around that core. And a page pondering on the contents is simply doing it a disservice.

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The Poetry Project Newsletter (April-June 2007) (excerpts)

Reviewed by K. Silem Mohammad

A new trend in academic criticism – almost a sub-genre has arisen in the past few years: studies of modernist and postmodernist poetry with an emphasis on issues of community and innovation that are of immediate relevance to practicing writers. Juliana Spahr’s Everybody’s Autonomy, Michael Magee’s Emancipating Pragmatism, Lytle Shaw’s Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterie, and similar recent university press books by younger poet-critics perform a double duty: they contribute to the literary-historical scholarship around individual artists and formations, and they serve as sounding boards for ideas about factors that directly affect contemporary poetics. What these books generally share is a sense of having been written out of a motivated interest in the ways that narrative genealogies built around charismatic individuals and movements shape our own activities as poets, for good or bad.

Andrew Epstein’s Beautiful Enemies: Friendship and Postwar American Poetry covers some of the same ground and treats some of the same central figures as the above-mentioned volumes. He divides his attention equally between Frank O’Hara, Amiri Baraka, and John Ashbery – a grouping that is itself illustrative of Epstein’s desire to “complicate stable, reductive definitions of phenomena like ‘The New York School’ and to suggest that literary history must attend to the messy contours of actual poetic communities and friendships” (12)

… the reader comes away with an enriched appreciation for the work of the poets and a heightened understanding of their particular dynamics. Epstein’s close readings of individual poems are sharp and trenchant … Most engaging of all are the sections in which Epstein explores the poets’ intertextual and collaborative processes in depth, especially when he cites unpublished documents such as a wonderful letter-poem to Kenneth Koch co-written by Ashbery and O’Hara, which he reprints in full.

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Choice (May 2007)

Reviewed by R. T. Prus, Southeastern Oklahoma State University

Richard Poirier (Poetry and Pragmatism), Joseph Riddel (Purloined Letters), and Jonathan Levin (The Poetics of Transition), among others, established the Emersonian influence in modernist poetry and poststructuralist thought. Epstein (Florida State Univ.) extends Emersonian pragmatism to the work of Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and the early Amiri Baraka (before he established his “black arts” positions). The author grounds his theoretical framework in Jacques Derrida’s Politics of Friendship, which echoes Emerson’s essay “Friendship,” to examine how the lives and work of the three poets make them “beautiful enemies” (the phrase is from Emerson). Between Emerson and Derrida lies the philosophical pragmatism of William James and John Dewey, and Epstein situates these philosophical underpinnings within the context of post-WW II cultural conformity and homophobia. Epstein offers superb close readings of individual works as they relate to the biographical, philosophical, and cultural background of the three poets. This is an enlightened and enlightening study of O’Hara, Ashbery, and Baraka in particular and of postmodern poetries in general. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty.

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Publishers Weekly
The premise is simple – John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara were frenemies, as were O’Hara and LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka) – but Florida State University assistant professor Epstein handles it with such care and intelligence, that his study ends up revealing a great deal about the American midcentury avant-garde. For those in the know, the above two friendships won’t be news, but never before have they been presented in such painstaking detail, backed by a wealth of letters and readings of the poets’ verse that are patient in the explication, and in their refusal to draw easy conclusions about the nature of the relationships under discussion. Two opening chapters offer an introduction to the avant-garde as it functioned in American culture, and to its Emersonian origins, followed by individual chapters considering each of the three poets (with close references to the other two, and to many other poets and artists), and a final summation of the many paradoxes and contradictions encountered therein. Anyone with an interest in the ways great poetry depends on complex and extraordinary relationships will find this book deeply rewarding.

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Amazon review, by poet and critic Kevin Killian (5 stars), February 16, 2007

I’ve got so many opinions about BEAUTIFUL ENEMIES that I will be misquoting its author for years, arguing about its contentions, red-faced, drunken, at parties and conferences, watching with immense satisfaction as its truths eventually percolate through the strong soil of O’Hara criticism. Andrew Epstein, himself an accomplished poet, wades into deep waters with his study of the friendships between O’Hara and Ashbery and between Baraka and O’Hara. I was enthralled throughout the entire book and think you might be too. Even the notes are beautifully written, compact, thorough, yet with Epsteinian touches of wit and esprit.

A contrarian, even controversialist bent animates Epstein here, and if you come away from BEAUTIFUL ENEMIES feeling your head is about to explode, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Seems that everything (well, all the obvious things) that we had ever been taught about the three poets were wrong, even the most basic of our assumptions. You thought Frank O’Hara the apostle of friendship and community? Wrong. Through a clever and conscientious use of letters, diaries, contemporary news items, interview material, and most of all through recourse to the poems themselves (including some “new” material that, for the most part, is wholly surprising and convincing), Epstein is able to shove O’Hara more towards the Jack Spicer school of contentious grump whose ideas of friendship included competition, division, testing, and a free floating anxiety that manifests itself in unusual verbal tactics. “I hope,” he writes, “to provide a corrective here to the usual sense that Frank O’Hara is a poet of `sociability’ whose work simply `celebrates’ his friends and his coterie.’ It’s not just rhetoric, there’s a genuinely original vision of O’Hara here that complicates the work immeasurably and makes him not so annoying–not that I ever really found him annoying, but thinking about the old, “received” version of O’Hara, the sunny Tom Hanks of poetry who’s everybody’s favorite pet, just makes my blood run cold. I like the new guy, and he’s sexier to boot!

If you thought Ashbery cold or silent about the human condition, a la Mark Halliday, surprise, for Epstein reads Ashbery (particularly in THE DOUBLE DREAM OF SPRING, the book he wrote after O’Hara’s death) as a poet very much concerned with personal relationships, particularly friendship and its ups and downs. The material here is thinner on the ground, but I suppose it’s possible, and Epstein has won so much goodwill from his previous reading I could forgive him nearly anything. Plus he has unearthed a beautiful, witty, tender, collaborative poem written in alternate couplets by FO’H and JA that illustrates perfectly–as though fabricated for the occasion–how friendship is always a bag mixed to brimming with competition, adoration, a Wayne Koestenbaum sort of erotics, and a perfect period panache. (Maybe this balances out another undocumented poem by O’Hara that Epstein found in Kenneth Koch’s papers, “Finding Leroi a Lawyer,” which some may champion but others will find the singlemost dumbest poem O’Hara ever put to paper.)

If you thought, following all previous Baraka scholars, that Baraka’s “Beat” period was but a inconsequential and negligible phase of what Epstein calls a “conversion narrative,” then you are missing out on some intensely great work; Epstein reverses conventional thinking here, or comes close to it, by plumping for the early work (written before Malcolm’s assassination in February 1965) as far superior to the later Black Arts poetry and, perhaps, as politically committed. In each case, Epstein just patiently plays his cards until what seemed shocking or just startling for its own sake, when one began reading the chapter, seems by the end of it a perfectly reasoned, exquisitely marshaled argument. Were O’Hara and Baraka romantically involved, perhaps sexually involved? Here Epstein wades right in where angels fear to tread, following the leads provided in Brad Gooch’s criminally underrated biography of O’Hara, CITY POET. It does seem as though the older, white, homosexual man, sometimes generous, sometimes threatening, always alluring, who pops up through much of Baraka’s early prose, poetry and drama must have worn O’Hara’s face at least occasionally. Baraka’s supposed to appear at City Lights on Monday, I’ll have to go and ask him what he thinks of BEAUTIFUL ENEMIES and his new avatar as sort of the Billy Strayhorn of the New American Poetry.

All in all, a groundbreaking and even better, a gorgeously written and thought out book. Hooray for Andrew Epstein! Some caveats, I don’t 100% buy this new John Ashbery, our greatest poet of love and friendship. No way. Well, maybe a little way. And also I OD’d a bit on how without Emersonian pragmatism nothing important would ever have been thought, written or said. And I grimace when I see Epstein replaying Michael Davidson’s effective, yet rhetorical vision of the Spicer circle as a hellish hotbed of gay homophobia and “exclusion,” in order for him, Epstein, to say, “but our fellows didn’t go that far.” So there was no exclusion in the New York circles of O’Hara and Ashbery? Uh-hunh, and I’m Tallulah Bankhead.

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Jonathan Mayhew, on Bemsha Swing (6/13/07, blog posting):

I have been reading Andrew Epstein’s Beautiful Enemies on friendship in postwar American poetry. It’s really very perceptive on O’Hara. I haven’t read much of the book yet but I’ve already found a few quotes I’m going to appropriate (I mean quote with proper attribution) in the book I am writing. It always helps to have some really well-written quotes that make your point for you. Not your main point, but one that you need to make along the way. In this case, a very good summary of O”Hara plurality of selves. It’s one of those books with quotable ideas on every page.

I noticed Kevin Killian has a mightily perceptive review at of this book, up already. Kevin has single-handedly converted Amazon into a serious venue for criticism.

Like Kevin, I am less interested in the American pragmatist and Emersonian angles. Perhaps not being an Americanist I don’t care as much about tracing everything back to Emerson and Wiliam James. Isn’t that the déformation professionelle of the Americanists? Not that it isn’t a valid critical path to explore. There is a lot of Emerson in Ashbery, and a lot of Emersonian self-fashioning in O’Hara.

It also looks like it’s going to be perceptive on Baraka/Jones.

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John Latta, on Isola di Rifiuti (8/13/07-8/21/07, several blog postings). Excerpt:

Beautiful Enemies is “cleanly writ and musters together a fine compendium of material to bounce against in considering, oh, how people in self-proclaim’d hoity-toit groupuscules (and they tender adversaries) behave today. (That’s not exactly the book’s intent—it is doing a historical job, considering the ties and rifts in a number of writing relationships, O’Hara’s with Ashbery’s, O’Hara’s with Baraka’s, Baraka’s with the New York School, and, largely, how the individual talent does commerce with the social realms as they manifest themselves in writing communities, self-conscious or not).” He focuses on “the marked ambivalence of the New York School “players” about working jointly—and he reads and reveals superbly some of the competitive tension-undertows that roil some of the collaborations.

[…] The other thing that struck me in reading Beautiful Enemies: how pervasive the “splatter’d self”’s become. It’s getting found everywhere, its lineage traced back and back. Epstein writes a terrific summary of how the Cold War culture of containment and conformity led to oppositional strategies: “To counter the tremendous emphasis placed on stabilizing and containing unruly energies, participants in the avant-garde devoted themselves to values diametrically opposed to containment: motion, disorder, flux, speed, change, and action.” And, too, how, under the repressive post-war political and cultural forces—what Baraka, in The System of Dante’s Hell calls “the torture of being the unseen object, and the constantly observed subject”—the concept of identity shifts to become a malleable, protean, camp thing, a no-identity, temporal, performative, slippery. It’s a persuasive reading.

What concerns me, though, is how that notion of identity’s become doxology now; a half-century along, we all lack a reify’d sense of identity, any essence, we all move to survive. Which makes us both hard to hit, empty targets, indestructible, and perfectly ineffectual, hydra-head’d, of no concern to the State, representing nothing, without danger, ciphers and codes, not worth the cracking. Nuts. A nation of nuts, acceptable (no need in the ’thousands for containment, even the outlawry is in containable lock-step with the aping masses aspiring behind), non-threatening.


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