Great Novels and Not-Always-Great Politicians Were Born in the 1940s

When one looks at U.S. politics these days, one can’t help but think of the 1940s. Joe Biden, the centrist President-elect, was born in 1942. His far-right Republican opponent Donald Trump (who makes Lord Voldemort seem like a choir boy) arrived in 1946. Another far-right Republican, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, was born in 1942. Another centrist Democrat, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was born in 1940. And 1941 was the birth year of progressive Bernie Sanders, the runner-up to Biden in the Democratic primaries. Yes, the U.S. has some older leaders.

Anyway, you probably know where this is heading: I’m going to discuss the 1940s as another memorable decade for novels — mentioning only ones I’ve read until the next-to-last paragraph. The content in many of those books was of course affected by World War II and its aftermath, with anti-Nazi themes unsurprisingly part of the mix.

The decade began with a bang as three 20th-century classics were published in 1940. The trio: Native Son by Richard Wright (pictured above), who took a searing look at how racism shaped the lives and perspectives of his African-American and white characters; The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, the amazing debut novel written when Carson McCullers was in her early 20s; and For Whom the Bell Tolls, the gripping novel set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. (It’s my favorite book by Ernest Hemingway, who I have mixed feelings about.) Graham Greene’s 1940 The Power and the Glory, which focuses on a not-very-priestly priest, gets an honorable mention.

In 1941, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished The Last Tycoon was posthumously published. This compelling Hollywood novel would have been quite something if completed.

The year 1942 saw Albert Camus’ memorable/existential The Stranger and John Steinbeck’s The Moon Is Down, the latter about a Northern European town occupied by the Nazis (though the Nazis aren’t named per se). A rare Steinbeck novel set outside California and the U.S.

Nineteen forty-three? I got nothing. πŸ™‚

Two of the most interesting novels of 1944 were written by authors who were older, but not quite as old as the politicians mentioned in this blog post’s first paragraph. One book was The Razor’s Edge — among W. Somerset Maugham’s top works despite the author being 70 — about a World War I veteran trying to find some meaning in life. The other was Gigi, published when Colette was 71. A rather frothy, lightweight novella that doesn’t measure up to Colette’s many deeper works, but her most famous book.

In 1945, Erich Maria Remarque came out with one of his very best novels: Arch of Triumph, about a German surgeon in Paris who had fled the Nazis, and his tempestuous romance while in the French city. There was also Animal Farm, George Orwell’s renowned allegorical look at authoritarianism; and Cannery Row, John Steinbeck’s expert blend of social commentary and humor.

Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men was probably the most important 1946 novel with its take on American politics, corruption, and more.

Albert Camus appeared again in 1947 with The Plague, his riveting novel about a disease-devastated Algerian city. That year also saw the publication of James Michener’s debut novel Tales of the South Pacific, which consists of interrelated stories set during World War II. It of course inspired the musical South Pacific, but the book is more substantial.

A highlight of 1948 was Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country — set in apartheid South Africa.

The most famous 1949 book was indisputably George Orwell’s iconic dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. That year also saw the release of Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, about an American couple who don’t fare well in North Africa.

Among the well-known ’40s novels I haven’t read are James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce (1941), Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943), Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (1943), John Hersey’s A Bell for Adano (1944), Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking (1945), Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (1947), and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948).

Your favorite novels from that decade?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning β€œMontclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about the election and more — is here.

104 thoughts on “Great Novels and Not-Always-Great Politicians Were Born in the 1940s

  1. Raymond Chandler published “Farewell, My Lovely” in 1940, a Philip Marlowe detective yarn featuring a very big client and a very bad, if beguiling, object of that client’s affection. It’s been made into a movie a few times, my favorite starring Dick Powell, released under the title “Murder My Sweet” in 1944.

    Other novels Chandler published in the 1940’s, all of which I’ve read, and all worth reading:

    “The High Window”, 1942
    “The Lady in the Lake”, 1943
    “The Little Sister”, 1949

    Chandler is probably the most influential writer of hard-boiled detective fiction, seconded by Hammett and James M. Cain. Any one of these novels will show interested readers why.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great mention of Raymond Chandler, jhNY! I was thinking of including him in the post, but the only novel of his I’ve read is “The Big Sleep,” which clocked in just before the 1940s, in 1939. I liked it a lot, and, yes, Chandler is a hard-boiled detective fiction icon.

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  2. I have some reservations about this book, which is but parts of a whole never completed, but nonetheless, there is, so far as I am aware, no other contemporary novel that attempts to describe, from a ground and eyewitness level, the rapidly disintegrating calamity that was France’s refugee population’s experience in 1940 as the German’s advanced, and then began to establish their occupation: “Suite Francaise” by Irene Nemerovsky.

    Nemerovsky did not outlive the war, killed in a camp, and the manuscript for “Suite Francaise” was saved by her daughter Denise and stored away in a suitcase for 60 years before being transcribed, edited and published in 2004.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY! “Suite Francaise” sounds like a one-of-a-kind novel, and incredible that it managed to be saved for so long before being published more than 60 years later. I appreciate your mention and description of it.

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  3. Dear Dave,
    I just got your book about famous fiction authors. I am a book lover as well, author and book collector, and I couldn’t stop myself having a look at your book and couldn’t stop reading (although another podcast about “Beauty” will be recorded in an hour). Congratulation! πŸ‘ I found your book at “Tea Toast and Trivia” where I did a postcast as well. I suppose, it was a lot a work to finding all these facts. Thank you.
    All the best
    Klausbernd πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much, Klausbernd, for your comment and for your interest in my literary-trivia book! Greatly appreciated! The book was indeed a lot of work — I researched and wrote it on and off for six years between 2011 and its 2017 publication — but it was a labor of love. As an author, book lover, and book collector yourself, I’m sure you know the feeling. πŸ™‚

      Good luck with your podcast today! I remember your excellent “Colours of Life” podcast with Rebecca — who, as you know, is an absolutely fantastic interviewer and conversationalist.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m figuring that, unless they were reprinted later, there were a few now-obscure 1940s books that we might enjoy today— but they disintegrated twixt then and now, due to the high acidity brittleness of wartime pulp paper!

    Not exactly a pertinent example for the week’s topic, but the copy of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” I read was printed in 1943 or thereabouts, and strangely, instead of troop movements and battles from Napoleon’s Russia campaign, the inside covers featured Nazi German and Soviet troop movements and battles.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY! I didn’t know about wartime pulp paper! That might indeed have hurt the posterity potential of some novels.

      Bizarre that the 1943 “War and Peace” edition had “updated” inside covers. I wonder what Leo Tolstoy’s children — some were still alive then — thought, if they knew about that edition.

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  5. PS: Two other books on your list had lasting impacts by the time I had finished each. “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” was heartbreaking, as was the movie starring the wonderful Alan Arkin. I was in my first year of college when I read it. It drove home so vividly that we never know anyone beyond what they choose to show us. We usually don’t know the sorrows and mental anguish any one of us may be suffering at any given moment … I read “All the King’s Men” in my early 20s, after seeing the original movie starring Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark. That book wasn’t about Nazi Germany, but it helped me understand how someone like Hitler could attain and hold such power. It showed how it could happen here. Of course my thinking at that time, and for decades, was “It can’t happen here.” And now, to a degree, it has. Donald Trump is Willie Stark come to life. Right now, today, he and his thugs are trying to overthrow the government and invalidate the electoral process. I rewatched “All the King’s Men” on TCM this weekend. The message is more true than ever. Unfortunately, this is not a movie. Trump is going to make the next two months a living hell if he is allowed to get away with it. And on that pleasant note, I wish I had some booze in the house.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Many great points and observations, Pat! “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” is indeed a heartbreaking novel. Amazing that any author that young had so much insight into the human psyche — including, as you note, what people hide from the world. Carson McCullers also skillfully juggled several characters and story lines.

      I agree that “All the King’s Men” is VERY relevant to today’s politics — although as bad as Willie Stark was in many ways, Trump is infinitely worse. Trump is indeed going to make the next two-plus months hell as he does as much damage as possible and trashes democracy. If he ever does leave the White House, he’ll also make the next four years a living hell for many as he wreaks more havoc from the sidelines. Plus he might run again in 2024! 😦 He’s the worst.

      Liked by 1 person

    • As Tom Waits so eloquently put things: “Better a bottle in front of you than a frontal lobotomy.”

      The next two months will be a living hell regardless of Trump’s post-election loss shenanigans, due to his inactivity and disinformation campaign re COVID-19. Tens of thousands more Americans will have died by Jan.20, and many more after.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Spectacular Tom Waits quote!

        True about the huge damage Trump is continuing to do re Covid alone. That includes his actions and inactions, as you note. Much of the latter as he ignores the major current spike in Covid cases while focusing on trying to cheat his way into overturning his election loss.

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  6. Hi Dave. Another excellent post! You named my favorites, and then some. “Animal Farm”, “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” … I’ve read each more than once. “Animal Farm” was required reading in 8th grade History class. This was in Alabama, and I recall the gasps in the classroom when our teacher, Mr. Deason, introduced this book by saying communism, if done correctly, is a good idea. LOL!!! We were all preparing to run home to our parents and tell them “Mr. Deason is a communist!” He then clarified that communism never works because it is impossible to correctly implement. He asked us if we knew why. We were still in shock at his comment about communism being a good idea. He explained it’s a good idea that always goes bad because of one element: people. The idea is perfect but people are not. The idea is simple but people are complicated. He told us we would understand it all very well by the end of the book. He added, “By the way, there are no people in this book, just talking animals.” One of my (few) favorite memories of middle school. I will add that going into that class I was terrified. Everyone had heard Mr. Deason’s class was hard and you had to be a genius to pass it. I’ll never know how that got started, but the opposite was true. You did have to pay attention, but he made it easy to do so. He was very funny and not afraid to crack jokes about serious subjects. He was passionate about history and he made it a point to make it interesting. Mr. Deason was 100% responsible for my lifelong love of history.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Pat! What a wonderful and vivid memory of that teacher! Students never forget teachers that interesting and funny and “different.” What a tribute to him that he was responsible for your lifelong love of history.

      To me, democratic socialism (as practiced in Canada, much of Europe, and by the Bernie Sanders/Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wing of the Democratic Party) is sort of the perfect combination of the best of capitalism and aspects of “communism” — whatever the latter word means these days.

      “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four” have certainly given students and other readers much food for thought from the 1940s to today; George Orwell was absolutely brilliant.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Sounds like an interesting teacher. Your anecdote reminds me of the time I asked my class of calculus students about sharing grades. I suggested giving everyone the same grade, based on whatever the class average was. They were horrified!

      Liked by 2 people

  7. I wondered why most times the greatest novels or books are actually very hard to find these days especially since everything has been technicalized, because i am a freak for novels of any kind but i rarely have time to go online. Until i came across a quote that said if gems where to easy to find then they would be of less value.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the comment, Onyinyechi Gloria Ikejiaku! I guess some of the greatest novels are often borrowed from the library or purchased from bookstores before we can get our hands on them. πŸ™‚ And perhaps there are indeed fewer printed copies because of eBooks (which I also avoid in favor of physical books). Nice analogy to gems!

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  8. Another great post and conversation. And I fear that I’m off on another tangent. But first the book that I have enjoyed (that has not been listed in the comments) that is on the greatest books that were written from 1940- 1949 (see link): The Catcher in the Rye – read it in class when I should have been reading something else (book in book strategy). Special thanks for mentioning Pippi Longstocking – still a big favourite with me. https://thegreatestbooks.org/the-greatest-fiction-from/1940/to/1949

    I have always wondered how people chose β€œgreat books.” Is it because they have been on a list of β€œexcellent books.” Or is it because they have been given an award of some kind? Or is it because they spoke to where a person was at the precisely the time they needed it? Or because they studied it in high school or university? Or is it because someone tells them that this is a good book? These are the questions that have always been in my mind, given that β€œgreat books” sometimes are not read in huge numbers in favour of books that are easier to read – romance novels will win out every time. Does that make sense? For example if I research the greatest books, it is a different list than if I research the most popular books. And then there is a question should we read popular over great… ah, but that is another conversation altogether.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Clanmother! Interesting “The Catcher in the Rye” mention! That work was published as a novel in 1951, but after doing some quick googling I see that parts of it appeared in serial form in the 1940s! I had no idea. πŸ™‚

      GREAT questions about how the greatest novels are chosen. Much of it is indeed a mix of such things as reputation, awards, and the very personal feeling people have after reading those books. And, yes, the best novels are often not the most-read novels, at least at first.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Neither did I, Dave! Your posts keep me ever in a marvelous research mode. I read β€œThe Catcher in the Rye” in 1972 – just as I was about to leave for college. I reread it last year with a companion biography, although I don’t remember the title of the biography. 2019 was JD Salinger’s centenary. How interesting it is to read and reread books at different times of life. And to read the backstory of an author adds so much more to the reading. So glad you liked those questions – they have been buzzing around in my head these past years. Have I told you lately how much I enjoy our conversation? Always….

        Liked by 1 person

        • Clanmother, I think I also read “The Catcher in the Rye” in the 1970s! I must admit to mixed feelings about the novel; I thought it was brilliant in certain ways, but I found Holden Caulfield to often be annoying. Plus J.D. Salinger didn’t seem that appealing a person, either.

          I totally agree that it’s interesting to read the same book at different times in one’s life. It proves the point that the mindset, knowledge, experience, etc., of a reader can at least partly influence how a novel is perceived and how much it’s liked.

          I greatly enjoy our conversations, too! πŸ™‚

          Liked by 1 person

          • He was a very unappealing person YIKES!!! While I may have enjoyed the book at 18 – because I knew if was banned at one time and it was hidden in the back of the library and there was only one copy, I had a very different impression when I reread it book 40 years later. And here is another question that we must discuss one day: if the authors unappealing, why are their books highly regarded? Looking forward to your next post!

            Liked by 1 person

            • People in their late teens/early 20s might indeed be the ideal audience for Salinger’s novel.

              I didn’t realize the book had been banned at one time!

              As for your last point, I guess skilled authors can write highly regarded books even if they’re not the most likable people personally. The creative force can be all-powerful. πŸ™‚

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    • ” You might forgive a drama-deprived theater critic for looking to his field of coverage, shut down by covid-19, for analogies that help frame these preliminary performances of our next president and vice president, Kamala D. Harris. Her elevation, too, as the first woman of color elected to the second highest of offices, conveyed intimations of β€œMockingbird,” one of the most widely read novels in America. Here, one imagines the fulfilled dreams of Calpurnia, the indomitable Black housekeeper in Atticus’s Maycomb, Ala., home, a woman of keen insight for whom opportunity was frustratingly denied. In her remarks Saturday, Harris exuberantly invoked the women who came before her, women of more accomplishment than Calpurnia but none with more of a thirst for justice.”

      Liked by 1 person

  9. You got nothing for 1943, Dave? Well, one of my sisters was born that year. And she will feature prominently in my next book, due out Jan. 19. The book is “Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety.” It tells the story of the family turmoil resulting from the murder of that sister’s son on 9/11. He was a passenger on the first plane to strike the World Trade Center. But the book goes beyond that to explore why some people get sucked into religious extremism and what we might do about that. So my sister is my own 1943 entry.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Okay, Bill, your sister’s birth makes 1943 a consequential year. πŸ™‚ And that sounds like a very consequential and sobering book of yours that’s coming soon. I remember speaking with you about your nephew’s 9/11 death soon after that tragic day. 😦 I’m sure your book will do his memory justice as you discuss him, your sister, what led to 9/11, and more.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Wow, what a decade, Dave! Of the novels mentioned here, my favorites would be Cannery Row, The Stranger and The Little Prince. But what is Cannery Row with Mack and the boys further carrying on in Sweet Thursday from the next decade? I also really like Camus’ The Fall from the next decade. Getting ahead of myself πŸ™‚

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    • Thank you, Mary Jo! I also love the combination of “Cannery Row” and its “Sweet Thursday” sequel. The latter might be the most upbeat novel Steinbeck ever wrote.

      Yes, the 1940s were an impressive decade for novels, and the 1950s weren’t too shabby, either — as you noted by looking ahead. πŸ™‚ In addition to the ones you mentioned, the ’50s also had Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” Steinbeck’s “East of Eden,” Herman Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny,” James Baldwin’s “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” Daphne du Maurier’s “My Cousin Rachel,” Bernard Malamud’s “The Natural,” etc.

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  11. You have a pretty good list of books. A few of them I’ll have to check out, but will say Albert Camus – The Stranger and Ayn Rand’s – The Fountainhead were good reads. I’m actually planning on re-reading them. Those two I’ll order because they will look nice in my library. I did finish up on reading The Jungle and it was riveting in sections. I had the uncut version. I also finished Ironweed as well. It pulled me in right from the start.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Don!

      “The Stranger” is indeed a memorable read — mesmerizing at times. And, yes, “The Jungle” has its ups and downs but overall is very compelling.

      “Ironweed” is the next novel in my “queue”; I hope to start it tonight or tomorrow. Great that it hooked you from the beginning!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I do love Steinbeck, and the Moon is Down is very good. I actually covered that in book club awhile back πŸ™‚ Although I do enjoy a good Hemingway novel, I haven’t read “For Whom the Bell Tolls” yet, it’s on my ever-expanding reading list haha. Out of curiosity, have you read Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler (1940)? It’s on this “best books of all time” scratch-off poster I have (you scratch off each title as you read it, it’s kinda fun!) But I had never heard of it before outside that poster. I have it on Kindle now and will read it soon hopefully. As for my other favorites, you covered a lot of them here πŸ™‚

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, M.B.!

      “The Moon is Down” is indeed very good — quite different from other Steinbeck works, but that author often excelled at different approaches for different books.

      “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is the only Hemingway novel I’ve read that I found riveting. Books such as “The Sun Also Rises” and “The Old Man and the Sea” were “meh” to me.

      I have not read “Darkness at Noon” despite it being, as you noted, on some top-novel lists. I’d be interested in hearing what you think of it!

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  13. very useful information which refreshes my mind, thank you, dear Dave, though, I might add Thomas Mann; Joseph der ErnΓ€hrer, the last part of his trilogy and Berthold Brecht; (Der gute Mensch von Sezuan) and also maybe the publication of Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-ExupΓ©ry, in New York πŸ˜‰ It was really a rich full decadeπŸ™πŸ‘ sincerely Aladin

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  14. Aw, Maughan, Greene Steinbeck and Cain. I’ll add High Sierra and the Asphalt Jungle by the semi forgotten W R Burnett. I didn’t know A Tree Grows in Brooklyn wa s a40s for some reason. It is a good read. Great post. Once again, hats off to you.

    Liked by 3 people

  15. As I am old myself, I know and appreciate quite some of your mentioned writers, but after having read the Year of the Flood, I have taken up again LA PESTE/ by Albert Camus and I really enjoy the rhythm of the language! Have a good day. Martina

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Martina! Margaret Atwood’s post-apocalyptic trilogy that includes “The Year of the Flood” is quite compelling. And Camus’ “La Peste” (“The Plague”) is indeed VERY well-written.

      Have a good day, too!

      Liked by 1 person

        • There’s sometimes a thin line between behavior and absurdity. πŸ™‚

          Atwood’s and Camus’ novels definitely have similarities as well as differences. As you know, Atwood tends to have female protagonists and use some humor here and there. Camus tends to have male protagonists and is pretty much deadly serious. But both are excellent, deep writers.

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          • Good morning Dave,
            I thank you very much for your kind and very interesting answer. I would like to add ADAM ONE, the gardener’s leader, who was however a man and whom I liked very much. In general I completely agree with you and would like to insert your thought into my post, unless you want to make this precious comment.:)
            Have a very good day. Martina

            Liked by 2 people

            • Good morning, Martina!

              Yes, Atwood definitely also has males as protagonists or major secondary characters in her novels — just not as many and often not as prominent as the female characters. Adam One (as you mentioned), Oryx and Snowman in that same trilogy, Dr. Simon Jordan in “Alias Grace,” Richard Griffen in “The Blind Assassin,” etc. And you’re welcome to use any comment you’d like. πŸ™‚ Thank you!

              Have a good day, too!

              Liked by 2 people

  16. What a great list which is timely and reflective of current times! One of my favourite authors, who published in the 1940s, is Patrick Hamilton – famous for Hangover Square (1941), but also for the plays/screenplays of Gaslight and Rope which were written in the 1920s/1930s and made it to the screen in this time.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Sarah! Excellent mentions of the work of Patrick Hamilton, who must have been quite a writer. “Gaslight” is a riveting/iconic film, and having Alfred Hitchcock direct one’s work (“Rope”) is no small thing. (“Rope” is one of the few Hitchcock movies I’ve never seen.)

      Liked by 2 people

      • ‘Rope’ is captivating (please excuse the pun!) and is an excellent movie! Although Hitchcock did come under some criticism for the way he filmed the beginning of it. I suppose it would be remiss not to mention Daphne de Maurier as well, as a writer at this time and a Hitchcock contributor – however, her more well known works fall outside of the 1940s remit here. I must admit to reading ‘Jamaica Inn’ fairly recently and finding it very dreary. I’ve not yet worked up the courage to watch the movie because of it!

        Liked by 2 people

        • Ha! πŸ™‚ Great wordplay, Sarah!

          And thank you for mentioning Daphne du Maurier, an author I really like (and whose work Hitchcock adapted multiple times, as you note). She wrote several novels in the 1940s (just looked that up on Wikipedia πŸ™‚ ) but none of her classics such as “Rebecca,” “My Cousin Rachel,” and “The House on the Strand.”

          Liked by 2 people

    • I agree Sharon — great book! Maybe my second favorite novel of Maugham’s after “Of Human Bondage,” which was published almost 30 years before in 1915. Yes, the 1874-born Maugham was definitely 70 when “The Razor’s Edge” came out in 1944. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 2 people

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