Charlie Chaplin’s ‘A King in New York’: A Clash of Civilizations?

On October 13, 2013 by admin

ananya 4Ananya Dutta Gupta

 

[Ananya Dutta Gupta teaches English at Visva Bharati. She specializes in Renaissance and early modern literature. This essay was first published in Bikshan Bulletin, 2011. She has made some editorial alterations in this version for HUG.]

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This is primarily a study in a particular work of Chaplin’s in the light of his own statements about his life and work. Some of these pronouncements are culled from his well-known autobiography and others from his prolific biographies. Naturally, my essay endeavours to arrive at a reading of the film that is consistent with Chaplin’s professions about his philosophy and his politics instead of seeing it as an aberration from the creative norm set by his previous work. There are two obvious presuppositions underlying this attempt: one, that the personal professions of the artist in question are sincere and authentic, and two, that they may then be used to understand the figural, hence objective, art of his cinema. It might seem a trifle naïve to look for consistency between art and life these days. We no longer read texts as faithful mirrors of the minds that formed them. We tend rather to be a little suspicious of consistency, having unconsciously learned from post-modern criticism to see postures in what earlier ages saw the self. One may still maintain that the hunt for consistency is as worthwhile in one’s rediscovery of an artist as the painstaking sleuthing for inconsistencies. However, the search for consistency would prove barren if undertaken formulaically. It would be difficult, for instance, to reconcile Chaplin’s on-screen empathy with the underprivileged of the world with his own relish for the lifestyle of the rich and the famous if it were not for the clarification afforded by Chaplin’s own characteristically ingenuous rebuttal of Somerset Maugham:

This attitude of wanting to make poverty attractive for the other person is annoying. I have yet to know a poor man who has nostalgia for poverty, or who finds freedom in it. Nor could Mr. Maugham convince any poor man that celebrity and extreme wealth mean constraint. I find no constraint in wealth – on the contrary I find much freedom in it.

I found poverty neither attractive nor edifying. It taught me nothing but a distortion of values, an over-rating of the virtues and graces of the rich and the so-called better classes.

Wealth and celebrity, on the contrary, taught me to view the world in proper perspective, to discover that men of eminence, when I came close to them, were as deficient in their way as the rest of us. (Chaplin 267)[1]

I contend it is precisely such mechanical attempts at marrying Chaplin’s immediate circumstances of life to his purported message in the film that have distorted critics’ response to A King in New York for decades. I make a somewhat paradoxical plea: first, that the film be watched for its own merits, merits that admittedly emanate from its message rather than its style, and second, that the film be watched alongside the past and best works of Chaplin, if it is to be rescued from oblivion.

The history of the reception of Chaplin’s penultimate film is a history of misunderstanding. It is ironical that a film occasioned by America’s monumental misunderstanding of one of its most gifted immigrants should in turn engender and encounter comparable misunderstanding among generations of critics. It is invariably spoken of as an artistic embarrassment – a jilted immigrant’s costly slip from the pedestal of true, disinterested art into the abyss of ill-concealed meanness. Uno Asplund, for instance, summarily dismisses the film:

And that [Limelight] was where Chaplin ought to have stopped. From Europe he counterattacked in blind rage with A King in New York (1957), a film, which, artistically speaking, ought never to have been made. [2]

I would argue that, notwithstanding the artistic lapses, themselves excusable in view of the straitened circumstances under which the film came into being, A King in New York exudes all the mellow, genial wisdom that made its more polished predecessors enduring favourites with the same discerning critics. Chaplin’s wit is ironic and stems from a Janus-like ambivalence shorn of the myopic, egotistical bias that critics allege had gone into the making of A King in New York. John Osborne is a case in point. It is something of a surprise to find that Osborne, whose irrepressibly bitter Look Back in Anger was produced just a year before the release of A King in New York, should think of Chaplin’s film as a work of rage and bitterness.

In some ways A King in New York must be his most bitter film. It is certainly the most openly personal. It is a calculated, passionate rage clenched uncomfortably into the kindness of an astounding comic personality. Like the king in his film, he has shaken the dust of the United States from his feet, and now he has turned round to kick it carefully and deliberately in their faces. Some of it is well-aimed – some is not.

In fact, for such a big, easy target, a great deal of it goes fairly wide. What makes the spectacle of misused energy continually interesting is once again the technique of a unique comic artist.[3]

One is struck not only by Osborne’s misapprehension of the mood of the film, but also by his failure to see in it a continuity of theme and vision with Chaplin’s earlier and greater works, particularly Modern Times.  If Modern Times is prophetic in its depiction of human society so completely mechanised as to have been metamorphosed into a giant machine, then A King in New York is just as staggeringly clairvoyant in its vignettes of a society ruled by a ruthlessly intrusive and exploitative media.   

chap 1

On 17 September 1952 Chaplin and his family sailed for Southampton from New York. A day later he learned that he was debarred from entering the US. Nearly two years would pass before Chaplin would announce his intention to make The Ex-King. The announcement came on 2 May 1954. The following year was spent in preparation. Shooting for A King in New York – the name having been changed in the meantime – was completed in just twelve weeks – between 7 May and 28 July 1956 – the briefest span for any Chaplin film. The film was premiered in London on 12 September 1957, three years almost to date since his momentous departure from New York.  And it was not shown in the United States until 1976. Chaplin would return to New York on a visit twenty years after his last departure, on 2 April 1972.[4]  1955, the year spent in preparing A King in New, also saw Chaplin’s formal return of his United States re-entry permit, with the following public statement:

I have been the object of lies and vicious propaganda by powerful reactionary groups who, by their influence and by aid of America’s yellow press, have created an unhealthy atmosphere in which liberal minded individuals can be singled out and persecuted. Under these conditions I find it virtually impossible to continue my motion picture work, and I have therefore given up my residence in the United States.[5]

This is an eloquent indictment of the American state, vested interest groups that we even today routinely associate with policy-making in America as in other states of the world, and of the unscrupulously ubiquitous media that has emerged as the most formidable tyrant of modern times. The spirit in which the statement upholds the freedom of the individual and of the artist in particular is, ironically, very American. It is a tribute to the American philosophy of life and work, and the inseparability of life and work in America.

The irony lies in the failure of the celluloid pundits to identify the immigrant’s homage to what America has been doling out to successive waves of immigrants – good work and good pay to boot.  It is significant that Chaplin should cite his inability to continue his work there as his reason for choosing exile in Switzerland. It is the freedom to work as one chooses and to realise one’s calling that is arguably one of America’s greatest attractions. For a man who would say only a short while before his death that he worked to live because he loved to live, what could America offer after stripping him of his freedom to work as he wished?  As any one who has read My Autobiography will remember, Chaplin drifted to America in search of better luck after a string of disappointments on the London comedy circuit. It was an impromptu decision to seek pastures new – something of an act of carpe diem – rather than a carefully mulled over plan. The happy impulsiveness of it all is reflected in the economical wording of his parting message to his sleeping brother the day he was set to go: ‘Off to America. Will keep you posted. Love, Charlie.’ Work took him to the shores of New York. In My Autobiography Chaplin’s recapitulates his motivation:

Since my major setback at the Oxford Music Hall, I was full of the idea of going to America, not alone for the thrill and adventure of it, but because it would mean renewed hope, a new beginning in a new world. …

Karno chose me to play the principal part in The Wow-Wows for America.

This chance to go to the Unites States was what I needed. In England I felt I had reached the limit of my prospects; besides, my opportunities there were circumscribed. With scant educational background, if I failed as a music-hall comedian I would have little chance but to do menial work. In the States the prospects were brighter.[6]

The initial ambivalence of his response to the Big Apple is also worthy of note:

However, this was New York, adventurous, bewildering, a little frightening. Paris, on the other hand, had been friendlier. Even though I could not speak the language, Paris had welcomed me on every street corner with its bistros and outside cafes. But New York was essentially a place of big business. The tall skyscrapers seemed ruthlessly arrogant and to care little for the convenience of ordinary people; even the saloon bars had no place for the customers to sit, only a long brass rail to rest a foot on, and the popular eating places, though clean and done in white marble, looked cold and clinical.[7]

In A King in New York Chaplin returns to the theme of the metropolis, with its grand concrete colossi dwarfing its faceless, puny, human denizens. When quizzed about the subject of the film before its release – and Chaplin was pathologically secretive about his films before releasing them – he replied:

In it I have tried to throw into relief the contrast that exists in a big city, as much in the streets as among the inhabitants.[8]As one would expect, the aeroplane carrying King Igor Shadov to and from New York at the beginning and the end of A King in New York, sailing over a sea of imposing high-rises while Chaplin’s own musical scores sound a menacing note in the sound track, is one of the few stock shots of New York that Chaplin must have felt indispensable in a film that was otherwise shot entirely in London. There is also the poignancy of the scene where the poor, ill-clad Rupert Macabee taking shelter under the Ritz hotel on a cold, winter’s day. The tramp of City Lights reappears as the exiled king himself, who takes Rupert to his suite in the same hotel, not out of condescending pity but the kind of natural human camaraderie that the millionaire in City Lights succumbs to only during frequent bouts of inebriation. There is, one needs remember, a great deal of the old tramp even in King Shadov.

Interestingly, though, Chaplin’s homesickness for London made way for a new buoyancy as soon as he stepped into the vicinity of Broadway:

And in the warm night my attitude changed and the meaning of America came to me: the tall skyscrapers, the brilliant, gay lights, the thrilling display of advertisements stirred me with hope and a sense of adventure. ‘That is it!’ I said to myself. ‘This is where I belong.’[9]

It was his discovery of a promising new workplace in Broadway that brought Chaplin his sense of belonging. New York would have continued to seem alien to him had he not found a means of realising his vocation there. King Igor Shadov for his part decides to leave New York for Paris when his mission and vision of sponsoring research and development in the peaceful use of atomic technology meets with lukewarm response from the Atomic Commission.

Thus, when in course of a press conference preceding the release of Monsieur Verdoux a patriot impeached Chaplin’s lack of patriotic feeling for the land where he had made his fortune for forty-two long years and paid his taxes in, Chaplin’s reply was understandably indignant:

I say I think it’s rather dictatorial on your part to say as how I should apply my patriotism. I have patriotism and I had patriotism in this way and I showed it and I did a great deal for the war effort but it was never advertised here. Now, whether you say that you object to me for not having patriotism is a qualified thing. I’ve been that way ever since I have been a young child. I cannot help it. I’ve travelled all over the world and my patriotism doesn’t rest with one class. It rests with the whole world – the pity of the whole world and the common people, and that includes even those who object to my – that sort of patriotism.[10]

chap 2

It is inane to pin an artist down with the red tape of nationality, particularly when the artist himself consciously rejects such fetters. Chaplin’s most successful comedy rests on the rejection of these very labels of classification. Its persistent use of the human body – the lowest common denominator shared by all humanity – , not to mention the ubiquity of the tramp – that quintessential outsider in every society, – wards off any attempt at automatic branding.  The point here is not that the American government should have misconstrued Chaplin’s radicalism as antagonism towards America, but that critics should follow suit in misconstruing A King in New York as a blanket satire of all things American. One wonders why, by the same logic, critics should not brand Monsieur Verdoux’s courtroom indictment of the World War as outright anti-France and anti-Europe?

I find it difficult to agree with critics who consider America to be the nucleus of Chaplin’s critique of modern life in its many ramifications, simply because America happened and still happens to be the most powerful pilot of the capitalist engine. Verdoux talks about the ubiquity of big ruthless business in inter-war France in the same vein as Chaplin his creator reminisces about the formidable impression made upon him by the tall, imposing, cold, business-like buildings of New York. In his article “The Chaplin World-View”, Philip G. Rosen quotes Chaplin as having remarked in 1964:

…America has changed; so has New York. The gigantic scale of industrial institutions, of press, television and commercial advertising has completely divorced me from the American way of life. I want the other side of the coin, a simpler, personal sense of living – not the ostentatious avenues and towering buildings which are an ever-present reminder of big business and its ponderous achievements.[11]

As far as Chaplin is concerned, big, ruthless business is everywhere, nor is he out of it. He can thus write humorously about the American “alacrity” with which he himself jumped into the bandwagon of the entertainment business. And I quote again from his autobiography:

The American is an optimist preoccupied with hustling dreams, an indefatigable tryer. He hopes to make a quick ‘killing’. Hit the jackpot! Get out from down under! Sell out! Make the dough and run! Get into another racket! Yet this immoderate attitude began to brighten my spirit. Paradoxically enough, as a result of our failure I began to feel light and unhampered. There were many other opportunities in America. Why should I stick to show business? I was not dedicated to art. Get into another racket! I began to regain confidence. Whatever happened I was determined to stay in America.[12]

If this is the secret to success as an emigrant to America, then King Shadov exhibits the same astuteness, which for Chaplin consists in a readiness to adapt. Initially put off by Americans’ desperate zeal for money-making, Shadov soon realises that he must sell his pedigree, televise it relentlessly, that is, to retain not only his royalty, but his very life. Thus, one moment he brushes off a dogged socialite’s importunate invitations to dinner with the disdainful one-liner – “I’m not accessible to strangers for the price of a free dinner” – tears up her cheque for $20,000 in a burst of outrage at having been filmed surreptitiously to promote deodorants and toothpastes, and the next moment submits to the exigencies of money-making without further qualms. Shadov yields to the temptations of America because he is, like Monsieur Verdoux[13] and their mutual creator, a determined survivor. That he arrives in America prepared for the media onslaught is evident from the assurance with which he poses for and plays up to the cameras that engulf him as soon as he steps out of the aeroplane. All three, Chaplin and his two controversial creations, and their predecessor, the tramp, are quintessentially successful “emigrants”. Successful emigrants are consummate actors with a natural knack for impersonation, for theatricality, for spectacle. The successful emigrant is a neo-Machiavel.

My argument is that Chaplin, far from making America a scapegoat for the emigrant’s surrender to Mammon and the market, implicates the emigrant’s intrinsic vulnerability as well as opportunism. To Chaplin, the emigrant lives off America as gleefully as America cashes in on the emigrant. The burden of guilt is a shared one. The impoverished, war-ravaged European went to America, as an insolvent blue-blooded Bassanio goes to the plebeian Antonio in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. We all need America’s money. A repressive American government, a mercenary American media, for Chaplin, is symptomatic of a malaise the geographical locus of which is more incidental than essential. There have been other tyrannies, other repressions. If his wit is a little severe on America, it is because his comedy demands that severity:

If  you give both sides it becomes bloody dull. I’m not a highbrow – I’m an instinctive artist. Whatever I do is for effect.[14]

There is, I admit, a certain callousness about this disclaimer. But, then, Chaplin, by his own admission, was no consistent political thinker.

It would be too naïve to suggest that Chaplin’s universalism suddenly made way for vindictive parochialism upon his banishment from America. His carefully chosen words to the pressmen who had gathered at Southampton where he was to disembark from Queen Elizabeth are admittedly circumspect – given that the slightest expression of resentment would have cost him the hard-earned fortune he had unsuspectingly left behind in California. But they are also redolent with the genuine philosophical detachment that one will meet again in Shadov, the exiled King in New York:

The US Government does not go back on anything it says. It will not go back on my re-entry permit.

These are days of turmoil and strife and bitterness. This is not the day of great artists. This is the day of politics.

People are now only too willing to take issue about everything. But I am very philosophical about it all. I try my best.

I do not want to create any revolution. All I want to do is create a few more films. It might amuse people. I hope so …

I’ve never been political. I have no political convictions. I’m an individualist, and I believe in liberty.[15]

It is possible to be canny and wise at the same time. The self-taught Chaplin’s public pronouncements in self-defence invariably struck that happy blend. Chaplin had always combined a shrewd head for business with a child’s inexhaustible imaginativeness and candour. If work had brought Chaplin to America in the first place, it is work again that dictated his choice of Europe as refuge. There is a telling irony in David Robinson’s choice of the title “Exile” for his chapter on the Chaplin family’s expulsion from the United States in Chaplin: His Life and Art. Chaplin’s departure from England having been voluntary, his first experience of exile must have been his banishment from the very America he had not sought citizenship in. It makes as little sense, therefore, to label A King in New York anti-American, to demand an explanation as to why he could have spent the most productive and successful period of his life in America without seeking American citizenship, as to ask why Chaplin should have chosen to live in Switzerland for the last twenty five years of his life without seeking citizenship there either.

chap 5

A King in New York opens with a terribly melodramatic storming of King Igor Shadov’s palace, which ends in an anticlimax when the irate mob baying for the tyrant’s blood discovers that the bird has flown and the treasury has been emptied. A suitably parodic version of the grand Wagnerian symphony in the background helps deflate the melodrama into bathos while the deeply ambiguous caption – “One of the minor annoyances of modern life is a revolution” – leaves the viewer smirking uneasily, not sure if it is a gibe at the stock character of the corrupt tyrant of the twentieth century, an Idi Amin or an Augusto Pinochet, or the hysterical mob that might well have come for the loot rather than wild justice. On the whole, it is an opening no more complimentary to the crimes of the Old World than to the unconcealed rapacity of the New.

As it turns out, Igor Shadov has little of the sensational in him. We are even reassured that it is Shadov’s wily prime minister Voudel who has made away with the money, leaving the fleeing monarch as impoverished as his unfortunate subjects.  Shadov arrives in New York, a refreshingly funny, kindly old aristocrat with a weakness for pretty young women and a pacifist’s dream of putting his money to the use of new age technology. The revolution is the last thing on his mind and the subjects back home never ever surface in course of this by no means silent film. The abortive talks with the atomic commission do not exactly leave Shadov grief-stricken and he reacts to his estranged Queen’s decision to stay married to him with the same nonchalance that marked his acceptance of the Queen’s earlier intention to divorce him. On the whole, Shadov comes across as a strangely detached ex-king, stoical in a most unpretentious sort of way. The only two persons that seem capable of rousing him out of this charmingly sentimental insouciance are Ann Kay, the attractive young go-getting smooth operator of advertising who wheedles her way into his life and slips out just as deftly, and the passionately anarchist child-prodigy Rupert Macabee. Both are unlikely, unusual friendships between a prince and a commoner in the Roman Holiday vein, but both make a vital political point in the film, which one may explicate with a head-note from the filmmaker himself:

The motion picture is not for preachment, and if I’ve preached here I’m wrong. I’m loading the dice for something more important than politics – the affirmation of the man.[16]

What more than redeems A King in New York is not what Osborne designates as “the technique of a unique comic artist”, but the affirmation of the common man beneath differentiating veneers of nationality and class. The fact that Kay and Macabee are Americans does not get in the way of Shadov’s interest in them anymore than the fact that they are plebeians. There is, further, no hint of the sentimentally idealistic in Shadov’s flirtations with the model cum advertiser. His initial attraction is plainly physical and improves only slightly to incorporate the commercial. Yet its prodigious pace notwithstanding, the narrative manages to suggest a refreshing dynamism in its treatment of this relationship. At no point does the importunate Ann Kay strike the viewer as a mere opportunist. In many ways, she herself is a hapless but cheerful tool of the advertising establishment. The king and the flower girl, shall we say, actually become rather fond of each other in a very human sort of way, so much so that the very feminine charms that Kay uses first to conquer Shadov she applies once again to the task of saving him from a suspicious-looking autograph-hunter whom in their collective paranoia they mistake for a House Un-American Activities Committee spy. Neither for Kay nor for Shadov, does self-interest preclude the possibility of mutual affection. On the other hand, the initial attraction between the deposed king and the Brooklyn wizkid Rupert Macabee whom Shadov discovers reading Das Kapital at a progressive school which he deigns to visit is the intellectual excitement of a battle of minds and ideologies. Here, too, though, the purely cerebral easily makes way for a warm, human bonding between a former king and a wretched young boy who runs away from school for fear of having to testify against his Communist parents currently on trial before the HUAC. It is rather the excitable Rupert declaiming ad infinitum against the tyranny of the modern state who may be perceived as a spokesman for the political Chaplin who told Ella Winter and a fellow-exile:

As for politics, I’m an anarchist. I hate governments and rules and fetters … Can’t stand caged animals … People must be free.[17]

Two of Rupert’s precocious retorts in reaction to Shadov’s query as to whether he is a Communist sum up Chaplin’s own response to the allegations that culminated in the suspension of his re-entry permit:

Do I have to be a Communist to read Das Kapital?[18]

and

I’m tired of being asked if I’m this or that. So, if it suits you, yes I am a Communist.[19]

Chaplin himself puts on record the two following public statements which he would put into Rupert’s mouth in A King in New York:

A young New York scion asked me in a benign way why I was so anti-Nazi. I said because they were anti-people. ‘Of course,’ he said, as though making a sudden discovery, ‘you’re a Jew, aren’t you?

‘One doesn’t have to be a Jew to be anti-Nazi,’ I answered. ‘All one has to be is a normal decent human being.’ And so the subject was dropped. [20]

and again,

I am not a Communist. I am a human being, and I think I know the reactions of human beings. The Communists are no different from anyone else; whether they lose an arm or a leg, they suffer as all of us do, and die as all of us die. And the Communist mother is the same as any other mother.[1]

It is worth recalling that Chaplin’s troubles with the American government precipitated around the time of Monsieur Verdoux. Following a hostile press conference in New York after the film’s premiere in April, 1947, Congressman John Rankin demanded Chaplin’s deportation. In July 1947 Chaplin publicly accepted an invitation from HUAC to testify. In September that year he accepted sub-poena for HUAC investigations. In November he sent a telegram to Pablo Picasso in support of Hans Eisler. And on 17 December, Catholic War Veterans urged the Justice and State Departments to investigate and arrange for Chaplin’s deportation.[2]

Chaplin’s satire in A King in New York is directed not at a people, not at a nation, not even at a culture, as critics preposterously allege, but at the inanity and inhumanity of superficial branding, of refusing to look beyond the political, to tolerate even the slightest hint of dissent, and insofar as all regimes to a greater or lesser extent indulge in this very practice, he indicts them all. One remembers his eloquent denunciation of twentieth-century’s all-encompassing totalitarianism towards the end of My Autobiography:

At this juncture, I think it appropriate to sum up the state of the world as I see it today. The accumulating complexities of modern life, the kinetic invasion of the twentieth century finds the individual hemmed in by gigantic institutions that threaten from all sides, politically, scientifically and economically. We are becoming the victims of soul-conditioning, of sanctions and permits.[3]

His point is not that a royal emigrant has been treated shabbily, but that two of America’s most powerful institutions, the government and the media, should collude in breaking the spirit and self-respect of a thoroughbred American boy by forcing him to expose his parents’ associates in order to free his parents. This is where at least David Robinson, the author of Chaplin: His Life and Art gives the maker of A King in New York his due:

One part of the film has triumphantly retained its force: the drama of Rupert Macabee, the child robbed of his innate honour. Just as in The Kid, Chaplin traces the injustice of a society to its ultimate and most vulnerable victim. The difference is that while The Kid was physically deprived, it is Rupert’s conscience and soul that are abused.[4]

chap 3    It was by no means the first time that Chaplin was using the cinematic medium to rally American public opinion towards its humanitarian responsibilities. In his article “World War II and the American Film”,[5] Lewis Jacobs points out how Chaplin’s masterly lampoon of Hitler, The Great Dictator (1940) was an admonition to the American people and government against the fascist enemy and a succinct reminder that America should stand by the Allies in Europe.

Chaplin’s politics is the denial of the merely political, a refusal to get mired in the universal obsession with politics. A King in New York confronts the American nation with the very human tragedy it was inflicting upon itself in allowing itself to be engulfed by narrow-minded, bigoted, paranoid politics.


[1] Ibid., p. 403.

[2] Robinson (1985), p.

[3] Chaplin (1964), p. 459.

[4] Robinson (1983), p. 589.

[5] Lewis Jacobs, ‘World War II and the American Film’, Cinema Journal, Vol. 7, Winter, 1967-68, 1-21, pp.6-8.  Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0009-7101%28196724%2F196824%297%3C1%3AWWLATA%3E2.0.CO%2B2-Q.

Works Cited

 

Asplund, Uno. Chaplin’s Films: A Filmography. Transl. Paul Britten Austin. Newton Abbot, Devon: David & Charles, 1973.

Chaplin, Charles. My Autobigraphy. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964.

Chaplin, Charles. Monsieur Verdoux. United Artists. 1947.

Chaplin, Charles. A King in New York. United Artists.1957.

Jacobs, Lewis. “World War II and the American Film”. Cinema Journal 7 (Winter, 1967-68): 1-21.

Robinson, David. Chaplin: The Mirror of Opinion. London: Secker & Warburg, 1983.  JStor. Online. Gitanjali.net. 7 Nov 2005.

Rosen, Philip G. “The Chaplin World-View”. Cinema Journal 9. 1 (Autumn, 1969): 2-12. Jstor. Online. Gitanjali.net 7 Nov 2005.

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