The jungle out there: Nick Adams takes to the road.
BEFORE JACK KEROURAC'S On the Road substituted the pleasures and ecstasies of driving hell-bent to Denver for the heartaches and disasters of the long car journey as suffered by the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath, there were the accounts of taking to the road by riding the rails. In the last decades of the 19th century and the first Of the 20th, thousands upon thousands of tramps and hoboes (mostly men, but some women also) rode the freight trains in Canada and the United States. Prefacing Towne Nylander's "Tramps and Hoboes" an article in the August 1925 Forum, a journal that Hemingway satirizes in "Banal Story," is an editorial note: "Living and moving among us, in this settled and civilized era, is a nomadic population of over a hundred thousand men and boys,--our tramps and hoboes. Their faults and their virtues,--for they have virtues, even if their behavior is essentially anti-social,--and their picturesque language and habits are depicted in this article by a sympathetic observer" (qtd. in Monteiro 144). Such beings journeyed east and west, north and south in close conformity with the changing seasons.
Occasionally, writers experienced in the ways of hoboes and tramps provided informative, explanatory, even, at times, romantically apologetic accounts of their wanderlust. Sometimes these books were put forth in an effort to reform the stereotype of tramps as criminals. Such, to Varying degrees, were the accounts, all written during the years at the turn of the 20th century, of W. H. Davies, Josiah Flynt, and Jack London, and, a couple of decades later, Glenn H. Mullin, to name just a few of the most prominent authors on the subject of tramping in English. To that list of writers we can add Ernest Hemingway and to the overall company of literary tramps, such as those in Robert Frost's poems, the fictional figure of Nick Adams, Hemingway's first hero. (1) For Hemingway, as he wrote about a young man's initiation into the ways of the world, the literature of tramping would provide a harsh corrective to the prep school and IW League educations of Owen Johnson's or F. Scott Fitzgerald's adolescent protagonists.
"The Battler" and "The Light of the World"--stories first published in, respectively, In Our Time (1925) and Winner Take Nothing (1933)--dramatize the "tramping" adventures of the young Nick Adams. Both stories owe less to young Hemingway's personal, direct experience of life, than to his interest in "tramp and hobo" literature--fiction, journalism, poetry, and autobiography written by the likes of London, Davies, and Flynt. Despite the familiar photograph of the young Hemingway hanging between stationary freight cars, or what he may have learned about tramp life when he ventured into the rail yards as a curious cub reporter for the Kansas City Star in 1917-18, there is no evidence that he ever rode the rails or assumed, even for a moment, the life of the tramp. And while he was familiar with the territory--Kalkaska to Mancelona--in which he set "The Battler" and "The Light of the World," when Hemingway traveled that route by train he did so legally, his ticket costing him twenty-seven cents (Smith 116 and Svoboda 44). (2) As Philip Young reminded us long ago, not "everything that happens to Nick has happened" to his author (99). Hemingway's "road" stories, rooted in the tramp conventions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, are best read in the context of tramp literature rather than biography.
Jack London's essays, first published in Cosmopolitan in 1907-08 and collected as The Road in 1908 (Griffin 40, Gerogiannis 178-179), William H. Davies's The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, first published in 1907 and reissued in 1917, and Josiah Flynt's Tramping with Tramps, published in 1900, are notable among texts that may have influenced Hemingway either directly or indirectly. (3) Flynt's account, for example, offered him an explanation for "the temptation which the railroads have for a romantic and adventuresome boy. A child possessed of Wanderlust generally wanders for a while, anyhow," he wrote, "but the Chance he now has to jump on a freight-train and 'get into the world quick,' as I have heard lads of this temperament remark, has a great deal to do in tempting him to run away from home" (313). Hemingway set the young Nick Adams on this path, sending him into the "jungle out there" inhabited by tramps and hoboes who crossed and re-crossed the country by riding the rails.
In the Nick Adams stories, that "jungle" is hardly the romantic world painted by the panegyrists who celebrated the excitements of mounting a passing freight and riding long stretches through a myriad of small towns separated by stretches of woods and green meadows and pastures. (4) Instead, consider the information offered in the following passage from Davies's Autobiography, which would have given Hemingway all he needed for the opening scene of "The Battler," particularly Nick's treatment at the hands of a duplicitous brakeman:
I was soon initiated into the mysteries of beating my way by train, which is so necessary in parts of that country [USA], seeing the great distances between towns. Sometimes we were fortunate enough to get an empty car; sometimes we had to ride the bumpers; and often, when travelling through a hostile country, we rode on the roof of a car, so as not to give the brakesman an opportunity of striking us off the bumpers unawares. It is nothing unusual in some parts to find a man, always a stranger, lying dead on the track, often cut in many pieces. At the inquest they invariably bring in a verdict of accidental death, but we know different. Therefore we rode the car's top, so as to be at no disadvantage in a struggle. The brakesman, knowing well that our fall would be his own, would not be too eager to commence hostilities. Sometimes we were desperate enough to ride the narrow iron rods, which were under the car, and only a few feet from the track. This required sortie nerve, for it was not only uncomfortable, but the train, being so near the line, seemed to be running at a reckless and uncontrollable speed, whereas, when riding on the car's top, a much faster train seems to be running much slower and far more smooth [sic] and safe. Sometimes we were forced to jump off a moving train at the point of a revolver. At other times the brakesmen were friendly, and even offered assistance in the way of food, drink or tobacco. Again, when no firearm was in evidence, we had to threaten the brakesman with death if he interfered with us (29-30).
In Tramping with Tramps, Flynt writes of similar difficulties in the hobo's "railroad life":
When he [the hobo] rides a "passenger," for instance, either on top or between the wheels, he encounters numerous dangers and hardships.... Even on freight trains his task is not so easy as some people think.... The main difficulty in riding freight trains is with the brakeman. No matter where the hobo goes, he runs the risk of meeting this ubiquitous official. If he is on the 'bumpers,' the brakeman is usually 'guying' him from the top of a car; and if he goes 'inside,' so too does the brakeman. Even at night the 'brakey' and his free passenger are continually running up against each other. Sometimes they become fast friends (355-356).
The main action of "The Battler" takes place not on the train but around a camp fire in a clearing where Nick meets the beat-up white prize-fighter, Ad Francis, and his black companion, Bugs, who presumably have also been riding the rails. Nick accepts an invitation to share their food, but when the punch-drunk Ad becomes violent, Bugs knocks him out with a blackjack and advises Nick to leave before his companion regains consciousness. The story is true to lore suggesting that "the jungle was the melting pot of trampdom. In the West no color line was drawn and a crude democracy reigned" (Spence). Strangers would be welcomed to share a fire and food. In Adventures of a Scholar Tramp, Mullin describes his own arrival at someone else's campfire. After having come to a "desolate spot" where "the ground everywhere was covered with the black ash of burned grass" (compare Nick's arrival at Seney in "Big Two-Hearted River"), Mullin sees "two negroes beside a little fire" (259). He accepts their invitation "to partake of some porridge made of bread and warmed evaporated milk" (260).
However, "The Battler" is unfaithful to custom in that tramps and hoboes rarely paired up, or, if they did, stayed together for short periods only. Atypical too is the idea that tramps on the road would readily use or be known by their given names, as are Ad Francis and Mr. Adams in Hemingway's story. Nicknames, if the books by and about tramps are to be trusted, were the principal forms of greeting or reference.
"The Light of the World" tells the story of two teenaged boys who have just tramped into an unnamed town. The story begins when the two boys walk into a bar and the bartender, after a cursory look at them, covers the flee-lunch bowls. To the vigilant bartender, the boys are untrustworthy outsiders who bear close watching. Beers cost a nickel each and even when drawn, are not handed over until the bartender sees the customer's money. The free-lunch bowls exist for those able to pay for their drinks, and only the narrator's display of a fifty-cent piece triggers the uncovering of the bowl full of pickled pig's feet. This is the rule of the road. Even if a tramp "sponges only one drink," writes Mullin, it "means that he may sink a fork into the sour viands of the free-lunch counter without being molested by the bartender"--in fact, anyone is free "to buy a glass of beer and eat a quarter's worth of free lunch" (139, 181).
Although Hemingway handles it quite differently, the "free lunch" motif in "The Light of the World" recalls Davies: "Now, once upon a time, there lived a man known by the name of Joe Beef, who kept a saloon in Montreal, supplying his customers with a good free lunch all day, and a hot beef stew being the midday dish. There was not a tramp throughout the length and breadth of the North American Continent, who had not heard of this and a goodly number had at one time or another patronised his establishment" (175). It was characteristic of tramps, as Flynt writes, to "beg just enough to keep them in 'booze,' their food being found mainly at 'free lunches'" (119).
Hemingway's "free lunch" in "The Light of the World" also recalls Jack London's memorable encounter with a keenly suspicious barkeeper in a strange town:
Alas, I had misunderstood the town boys. Beer was five cents in one saloon only in the whole burg, and we didn't strike that saloon. But the one we entered was all right. A blessed stove was roaring white-hot; there were cosey, cane bottomed arm-chairs, and a none-too-pleasant-looking bar keeper who glared suspiciously at us as we came in. A man cannot spend continuous days and nights in his clothes, beating trains, fighting soot and cinders, and sleeping anywhere, and maintain a good "front," Our fronts were decidedly against us; but what did we care? I had the price in my jeans. "Two beers," said I nonchalantly to the barkeeper, and while he drew them, the-Swede and I leaned against the bar and yearned secretly for the arm-chairs by the stove. The barkeeper set the two foaming glasses before us, and with pride I deposited the ten cents. Now I was dead game. As soon as I learned my error in the price I'd have dug up another ten cents. Never mind if it did leave me only a nickel to my name, a stranger in a strange land. I'd have paid it all right. But that barkeeper never gave me a chance. As soon as his eyes spotted the dime I had laid down, he seized the two glasses, one in each hand, and dumped the beer into the sink behind the bar. At the same time, glaring at us malevolently, he said:-- "You've got scabs on your nose. You've got scabs on your nose. You've got scabs on your nose. See!" I hadn't either, and neither had the Swede. Our noses were all right. The direct bearing of his words was beyond our comprehension, but the indirect bearing was clear as print: he didn't like our looks, and beer was evidently ten cents a glass. I dug down and laid another dime on the bar, remarking carelessly, "Oh, I thought this was a five-cent joint." "Your money's no good here," he answered, shoving the two dimes across the bar to me. Sadly I dropped them back into my pocket, sadly we yearned toward the blessed stove and the arm-chairs, and sadly we went out the door into the frosty night. But as we went out the door, the barkeeper, still glaring, called after us, "You've got scabs on your nose, see!" (134-135)
In "The Light of the World," Hemingway's bartender apparently views the boys, who are obviously bumming around, as a threat to decorum in his bar. The customer who walks ha after them orders rye, drinks it down quickly, pays for his drink and leaves. When Tom spits out a portion of the pickled pig's feet he has taken from the free lunch bowl and complains about it to the bartender--"Your goddam pig's feet stink"--there is a moment when it looks as if there will be a fight in the bar. The bartender calls them "punks" and Tom is ready to' fight him, but his unnamed companion (presumably Nick), the narrator, gets him out of the bar and persuades him to walk over to the station (SS 385).
The bartender's insult is particularly nasty--"punks" are young, inexperienced hoboes, the boy companions of older tramps who use them to beg for them (Mullin 123) of as sodomites (DePastino xxvii-xxviii, Wentworth and Flexner). "Within days of hitting the road," writes a student of London's The Road, "a rail-riding teenager could expect to be besieged by wolves [older, predatory hoboes], promising money, protection, and instruction in the art of 'getting by' in exchange for a sexual relationship" (DePastino xxvii). In fact, the "sardonic tale of a punk's disenchantment with a" wolf's promises" was told in "the road's most famous folk song, 'The Big Rock Candy Mountain,' before it was bowdlerized in the 1920s": 'I've hiked and hiked till my feet are sore / And I'll be damned if, I hike any more / To be buggered sore like a hobo's whore / In the Big Rock Candy Mountains'" (DePastino xxvii). The word "buggered" looks forward to the name of Ad Francis's keeper, "Bugs" in "The Battler, and to the effeminate cook in "The Light of the World."
The boys leave the bar and walk through the cold night to a nearby train station, where they mix with passengers in the waiting area. Davies's Autobiography offers a generalized account of tramps marking time at a railway station, pretending to be paying passengers:
We loafed all day in the different railway stations, in each of which was kept a warm comfortable room for the convenience of passengers. Although we were passengers of another sort, and stole rides on the trains without a fraction of payment to the company, we boldly made ourselves at home in these places, being mistaken for respectable travellers, who were enjoying the comforts for which we paid. Sometimes a station master would look hard on us, suspecting us for what we were, but he was very diffident about risking a question, however much he was displeased at seeing us in comfortable possession' of the seats nearest to the stoves. (183)
At the station,the boys find a full complement of men and women, including "six white men," "four Indians," and "five whores" (SS 385). Two of the prostitutes weigh some two hundred and fifty pounds each, and a third tips in at three hundred and fifty. The largest says that her name is Alice. Three others bear the names Frances (a homonym of Ad's surname in "The Battler"), Hazel, and Ethel, while the fifth is identified only as "the blonde" or "Peroxide."
The boys witness an argument between Peroxide and Alice, who both claim to have known the famous prizefighter Steve Ketchel--to have known him in both senses of the word. In an account intended to reflect glory on herself, Peroxide waxes poetic and sentimental about Ketchel's beautiful body and godlike bearing. Alice, the largest of the prostitutes, contradicts Peroxide's claim to have been Ketchel's lover. Alice expresses her own claim in more believable terms: Ketchel, she says, called her "a lovely piece" (SS 390). Although Alice's honesty is never firmly established, the narrator finds her the most attractive of all the women present, a fact that lends some psychological credence to her emotional revelation even if her facts and dates are shaky. (5)
The passengers at the railway station also include a male cook who is an "outsider" both spiritually and socially. Almost everyone in the station-from the lumberjacks and the prostitutes to Tom--targets him with malicious jokes. The cook is a scapegoat and victim because of his manner (too obviously friendly), appearance (his hands are preternaturally white), and presumed homosexuality (based on their perception of his effeminacy). When he asks the boys their ages, Tom answers with a crude joke--"ninety-six" and "sixty-nine"--joining the men in the station who have been baiting the cook about being the type who wants to be "interfered with" (SS 387). And at the end of the story, when the cook asks the boys where they will go now, Tom answers, "away from you" (SS 391)
In "The Battler" and "The Light of the World,' Hemingway himself was moving away from a sophomoric vision of youth popularized by writers such as Owen Johnson, founder and editor of the Lawrenceville School's first literary magazine. Johnson made Lawrenceville famous through three novels, The Prodigious Hickey (1908), The Varmint. (1910), and The Tennessee Shad (1911), stories about' teenaged boys that also found an adult audience. "Just as in Stover at Yale , in which Mr. Johnson wrote not only the classic story of the collegian but also the classic satire of the Secret Societies,' notes Cleveland Amory, "so in these Lawrenceville stories he wrote not only the classic story of the prep school boy but also the classic satire of prep school life" (ix). For decades no literate adolescent growing up in America could have missed knowing about the adventures and pranks of the prodigious Hickey and the Tennessee Shad at the Lawrenceville School. Johnson's tales offered high school kids, including those of middle-class Oak Park, Illinois, long looks into the doings of prep school boys. In Johnson's stories boys wage war, with their jokes and pranks, against the adult figures of authority, the teachers and headmaster. The prep school is a world of men without women, or, more accurately, boys without girls, where setting the record for eating the most pancakes at one sitting marks a boy for everlasting distinction and where bringing chaos to a student election is considered a great triumph against a politically callow young instructor.
The free lunch scene in "The Light of the World" is not only reminiscent of London and Davies, but contrasts with a similar scene in Owen Johnson's The Varmint: "Al, without turning his back, carefully moved over to the glass counter that sheltered appetizing trays of &lairs, plum cakes and cream puffs and, whistling a melancholy note, locked the door, scanned the counter, and placed a foot on the cover of the jigger tub" (200). Johnson liked the scene well enough to re-use it in The Prodigious Hickey. Knowing "the exact financial status of each of the four hundred odd boys" at Lawrenceville, Al "welcomed" Hickey "with a grunt, carefully closing the little glass doors that protected the tray of &lairs and fruit cake" (7). Of course there are great differences of tone and situation between the incidents in Johnson's books and Hemingway's story. (6) Johnson's Al merely makes a protective gesture against theft by the Varmint or the infamous Hickey. Hemingway's Bartender, by contrast, exhibits real hostility towards boys who are undesirable simply because they are strangers, and there is nothing humorous in his actions.
Both Johnson's Lawrenceville stories and his Stover at Yale (1911) were important precursors of another literary vision of adolescence that Hemingway may have hoped to challenge with his road stories: F. Scott Fitzgerald's first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920) (Mizener 97, Piper 51-52, and Bruccoli 198a 32, 43). In a 1950 letter to Fitzgerald's biographer, Arthur Mizener, Hemingway claims that he thought the novel was "comic" when he read it after returning from the war (SL 695). It's easy to imagine how the young Hemingway, just back from the-war in Europe, must have chortled when he read in This Side of Paradise that "for the next four years the best of Amory's intellect was concentrated on matters of popularity, the intricacies of a university social system and American Society as represented by Biltmore Teas and Hot Springs golf links" (26). The sterling example of what John Updike has called Fitzgerald's "collegiate romanticism" (75), This Side of Paradise prompted at least one reviewer to observe: "Mr. E Scott Fitzgerald gave us our first glimpse behind the scenes on the modern campus, and he must have resolved many a stern parent to start Freddie right in at the factory the minute he finished high school" (Warwick 24). Hemingway's achievement in "The Light of the World" and "The Battler" is more fully appreciated when compared with the artificially colorful world of pranks and shenanigans detailed in Johnson's Lawrenceville stories or in the slightly less ludicrous world of Amory Blaine's collegiate years. Against dormitories and soda shops, Hemingway set his woods, swamps, and rivers, camps by railroad tracks, and bars in small rural towns that were dangerous for strangers. His world turned out to be one where boys drink their fathers' whiskey, a girlfriend is sent packing while the boy's male friend lurks in the nearby woods, and the same boy, riding the rails, comes upon a mysterious and sinister relationship between a punch-drunk fighter and his seemingly companionable handler. The deceptively pastoral world of Nick Adams, Hemingway's first nostalgic self, stands as a "corrective" to both Fitzgerald's Princeton world and the Lawrenceville fantasy concocted by Johnson.
Only at first glance does it seem strange to think of Johnson's prep school tales swapping around in Hemingway's head with the autobiographical hobo stories of London and Davies. Yet from that surprising mix of ingredients emerged "The Battler" and "The Light of the World," two entirely imagined Nick Adams stories that take place in the "out there" Hemingway would always choose over Oak Park for the setting of his fiction (Young 116). What has been said of another writer could also be said of Hemingway: "He never quite lost his sense of scrapping to keep his place on a moving freight train" ("Dale Wasserman" 18)--even if Hemingway rode the rails only in his imagination.
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Brasch, James D. and Joseph Sigman. Hemingway's Library: A Composite Record. New York: Garland, 1981.
Bruccoli, Matthew J. Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.
--, ed. Ernest Hemingway's Apprenticeship, Oak Park, 1916-1917. Washington, D.C.: NCR Microcard, 1971.
"Dale Wasserman, Playwright, Dies at 94," New York Times 27 Dec. 2008.
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DePastino, Todd. Introduction. The Road. By Jack London. Ed. Todd DePastino. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers U P, 2006. ix-xlix.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters. Ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.
--. "Letter to Ernest Hemingway." Fitzgerald/Hemingway Annual 1970. Eds. Matthew J. Bruccoli and C. E. "Frazer Clark, Jr. Washington, D.C.: NCR Microcard Editions, 1970. 10-13.
--. This Side of Paradise. New York: Scribner's, 1920.
Flynt, Josiah. Tramping with Tramps. New York: Century, 1900.
Gerogiannis, Nicholas. "Nick Adams on the Road: 'The Battler' as Hemingway's Man on the Hill." In Critical Essays on Ernest Hemingway's 'In Our Time'. Ed. Michael Reynolds. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1983. 176-188.
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--. The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. New York: Scribner's, 1938.
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(1.) In chapter 32 of A Farewell to Arms, Frederic Henry proves he is adept at "riding the rails" by skillfully mounting a passing freight train, where he will pass the night nestled among the guns being carried to the front.
(2.) Even Nick Adams does not always ride the rails. In "Big Two-Hearted River" for instance, we know he has paid for his ticket to Seney (where, as it turned out, "there was no town, nothing but the rails and the burned-over country") because he has been allowed to "check" his stuff: "Nick sat down on the bundle of canvas and bedding the baggage man had pitched out of the door of the baggage car" (163).
(3.) These titles are not represented in Hemingway's library at the Finca Vigia (Brasch and Sigman) or listed among other books Hemingway is known to have read (Reynolds 1981, 1986). But as records of Hemingway's reading are incomplete, and given the widespread popularity of Lon doffs books at the time, it is plausible that the young Hemingway was acquainted with them. Surely such stuff, along with the Davies and Flynt autobiographies, would have appealed to a schoolboy of Hemingway's adventurous temperament. Few if any of the books surviving at Finca Vigia can be traced to Hemingway's boyhood years in Oak Park.
(4.) Nowhere (except perhaps in the staged photograph of the young Hemingway hanging from a box car), does Hemingway romanticize the hobo's feeling for riding the trains, epitomized by this passage from Mullin:
To the genuine hobo, a train is a thing compounded of magic and beauty, just as a bravely trimmed vessel is to a mariner. It arouses within him a latent mysticism. The rattle and swank of a 'long freight pulling out of the yards, the locomotive, black and eager, shoving her snorting muzzle along the rails, this is a spectacle and a challenge which only the wanderer who loves train riding can understand. To him at such a moment, a train is not harnessed to the sordid, uncouth uses of commercial transport. She is an enchanted caravan moving into the mysterious beyond, hailing with bells and song the blue distance that fades forever as she moves. As a hobo sits on a tie-pile, perhaps, and watches her go by, there is a lure in the cars themselves individually. He moves his tips unconsciously repeating the sonorous names that lilt past: Pere Marquette, Burlington, Chicago Great Western, Lake Shore and Michigan Southern, Grand Trunk, Iron Mountain, Canadian Pacific, Santa Fe, C.C.C. and St. L., Lehigh Valley, Lackawanna. He hears the grind of the cars as they pound and jostle each other, the wheels spinning faster and faster. Box-cars, oil-tanks, cattle-cars odorous and packed with clamorous stock, coal-cars, bulging fruitcars--a motley-colored procession--squeal by. He must make her or not, for in a moment she will be too fast for him. Out he bounds, picking his car with a practiced eye, and swings himself exultingly to a flying stirrup. On the Road again! (105-106)
(5.) Just possibly, Alice is related to a generous and charitable fat woman that Mullin met on his travels: "An enormous woman blond as Brunhild rocked to the door, all chins, and pinkness, and smiling dimples. I immediately put her in my pocket (figuratively speaking) with a hardluck story that was principally the truth." After she feeds him and gives him some of her husband's cast-off garments, he pleads "with that fat woman to give me some work of some sort to repay her for her kindness, but she insisted that there was nothing." "May the benisons of Fortunatus descend upon all fat women, now and forever. Amen!" (228-229).
(6.) Johnson also touches on one of Hemingway's great passions, the Spanish bullfight. His observation in The Varmint that the "nag had that superiority which one sacrificial horse in a Spanish bullfight ring has over another" (252) prefigures, specifically, Hemingway's disquisition on the bullfight horse in Death in the Afternoon.
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|Title Annotation:||portrayal of tramps in Ernest Hemingway's 'The Battler' and 'The Light of the World'|
|Publication:||The Hemingway Review|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2009|
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