Loneliness – Limitation – Liberation
Edited By Ina Bergmann and Stefan Hippler
This collection of essays comprises cultural analyses of practices of eremitism and reclusiveness in the USA, which are inseparably linked to the American ideals of individualism and freedom. Covering a time frame from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century, the essays study cultural products such as novels, poems, plays, songs, paintings, television shows, films, and social media, which represent the costs and benefits of deliberate withdrawal and involuntary isolation from society. Thus, this book offers valuable contributions to contemporary cultural discourses on privacy, surveillance, new technology, pathology, anti-consumerism, simplification, and environmentalism. Solitaries can be read as trailblazers for an alternative future or as symptoms of a pathological society.
“The World to Each Other”: The Joint Politics of Isolation and Reform among Garrisonian Abolitionists (Hélène Quanquin)
Abstract: This essay investigates the support system implemented by Garrisonian abolitionists during the antebellum period, which articulated both isolation and reform. Isolation in that context did not mean complete separation but rather the constitution of a space on the margins of society and politics.
1. Isolation and Reform
When the members of the American Anti-Slavery Society met for their thirty-second annual meeting from May 9 to 11, 1865, the future of the organization was on everyone’s mind. The Confederate Army had surrendered in April, thus opening the door to the abolition of slavery with the expected ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.1 The context led abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison to suggest they “close the operation and the existence of this society with its anniversary.” Faced with the opposition of other activists, who argued that they should continue their fight until equality of rights between blacks and whites was reached, he pleaded that “[i]t is not for Abolitionists to affect exclusiveness, or seek isolation from the great mass of the people, when the reasons which compiled them to take the position no longer exist.” “We are no longer alone,” he exclaimed, “we must mingle with the millions of our fellow-countrymen” (“The Anti-Slavery Society” 2).2 For Garrison, withdrawal from mainstream politics, which he and his fellow activists had embraced before the Civil War, was no longer a valid position in a context where the majority of the population had come to share their views.
Garrisonians were members of the American Anti-Slavery Society who stayed in the organization when it split in 1840. They believed that it was possible for abolitionists with differing “religious, social, and political views” to unite in order to put an end to slavery (Kraditor 8).3 Because of that, they were “a diverse lot,” who however shared “a hope that nonviolent agitation would change society in the future, and a set of experiences that made them feel embattled in the present” (McDaniel 89).4 Despite divergences, they agreed that, for their cause to succeed, it had to be agitated from a moral high ground situated outside of mainstream ← 139 | 140 → politics – the position Garrison called “exclusiveness” in 1865 (“The Anti-Slavery Society” 2) – and supported by a close-knit circle providing a support system best described by abolitionist Wendell Phillips in his 1876 eulogy of Garrison’s wife, Helen Benson Garrison. He recalled then “the large and loving group that lived and worked together, the joy of companionship, sympathy for each other – almost our only joy – for the outlook was very dark, and our toil seemed almost in vain.” “The world’s dislike of what we aimed at, the social frown, obliged us to be all the world to each other; and yet it was full of life,” he added (qtd. in Garrison, Helen Eliza Garrison 39). Solitude as a group experience was thus seen both as a consequence of Garrisonians’ political opinions and as a source of emotional benefits in the face of public opprobrium.
Historians have offered several illuminating analyses of the different spaces of Garrisonian abolitionism, be they fictional, as in Martha Schoolman’s Abolitionist Geographies (2014), political or domestic, local, national, or transnational. W. Caleb McDaniel has investigated its advocates’ belief in “constant agitation by at least some citizens outside of political institutions” as the very condition of true democracy (10; emphasis added) and the creation of “transatlantic ties” that helped them sustain that position (75). In an essay entitled “The Boundaries of Abolitionism” (1979), Ronald G. Walters has highlighted the “pattern … of eternal testing and factionalization” which helped them protect the integrity of their fight in the face of opposition (19). In his study of “antislavery marriages,” Chris Dixon has explored Garrisonians’ “efforts to merge public and private reform” (84) as well as the role of domesticity in the “reshaping of the public sphere” that they undertook (204).
These approaches provide partial answers to the paradox of Garrisonians’ activism in that their absolute engagement with the world depended on the creation of a safe space away from this very world, which allowed them to wage a war against slavery for more than three decades. This essay investigates the support system implemented by this group of activists that so effectively articulated “social isolation” as the very condition of reform (Fanuzzi 40). Isolation in that context did not mean complete separation and withdrawal but rather, to use the words of Barbara Taylor, the creation of a “border country” (651), in keeping with French thinker Michel de Montaigne’s description of solitude as a “room at the back of the shop” in his 1572 essay “On Solitude” (qtd. in Taylor 644).
Garrisonians’ isolation was a response to the violence and the perceived inherent corruption of a political system that allowed slavery to flourish. It was based on a support system that involved emotional attachment and centered on friendships and family. This made the home, which played a crucial part in sustaining Garrisonians’ activism, a hybrid space, both private and political. ← 140 | 141 →
2. (Self-)Imposed Isolation
When the American Anti-Slavery Society was founded in Philadelphia in December 1833, the belligerent language of its declaration left no doubt as to the determination of the delegates who were present. Their position was one of “moral absolutism” (McDaniel 9), which they knew would put them at odds with public opinion in the South, but also more importantly in the North, where the population condoned the policy of compromises and complicity implemented by their politicians. The signatories of the Declaration of Sentiments of the American Anti-Slavery Society, which was adopted in 1833, thus declared their support for “the opposition of moral purity to moral corruption – the destruction of error by the potency of truth – the overthrow of prejudice by the power of love – and the abolition of slavery by the spirit of repentance” (1).
This position, coupled with blatant racism in the North, explains why abolitionist activities were regularly disrupted by mob violence throughout the antebellum period. In 1860, Garrison argued that “[e]very great reformatory movement, in every age, ha[d] been subjected alike to popular violence and to religious opprobrium” and abolitionism was no exception (The “Infidelity” of Abolitionism 3). Thirty-five riots targeted antislavery activists during British abolitionist George Thompson’s lecture tour in the United States in 1835 (McDaniel 53). In October of that year, a group of men attacked the black and white women of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society and nearly lynched Garrison, with the complicity of city officials. It was the topic of numerous articles published in the abolitionist press and of letters exchanged by activists that denounced the “noble army of gentlemanly savages” and “heartless and unmanly persecutors” who had participated in the riots (Thompson 109; 116). Its memory was so vivid among abolitionists that, forty-five years later, Phillips exchanged bitter letters with the son of Theodore Lyman, the Mayor of Boston, over his father’s role in the violence against abolitionists (Lyman). During the antebellum period, this kind of violence was so common that “[e]very year, the antislavery press published a litany of similar horrors that Garrisonian orators and editors could conjure up at any time with barely a word” (McDaniel 100).5
Violence took its toll on abolitionists and their families. When, in 1840, American abolitionist George Bradburn met Thompson’s son, who was born in the United States during his father’s tour in 1835, he described him as “a feeble child, owing, doubtless, to the perpetual alarm and excitement of Mrs. Thompson caused by the mobocratic assaults on her husband” (Bradburn 118). The mobbing of the second Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women in Philadelphia in May 1838 made such a strong impression on Boston abolitionist Maria Weston ← 141 | 142 → Chapman that she suffered “a debilitating bout of ‘brain fever’” and withdrew from the movement for a few months (Chambers 123). Lee V. Chambers notes that violence created “a prolonged sense of endangerment” for her and other abolitionists’ children (246–47, n. 27).
Although they all experienced mob violence, or the “reign of terror,” abolitionists “learned different lessons from it” (McDaniel 72–73). “Memories of mob violence,” McDaniel suggests, “encouraged ‘Garrisonian’ loyalists to insist on unfettered freedom of speech and agitation at a time when others believed abolitionists should focus on slavery and avoid other controversial topics – creating a tactical gap that proved impossible to bridge” (66). This accounts in part for the split of the American Anti-Slavery Society at the end of the 1830s, leading to the creation of a rival organization, the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, in May 1840. Although Garrison’s opponents also disapproved of his advocacy of women’s participation in abolitionist societies on an equal footing with men and his criticisms of the churches’ failure to condemn slavery, they also strongly disagreed with his promotion of non-resistance, i.e. the rejection of any participation through voting or elected office in a political system that “rested on the violence of slavery, capital punishment, a standing army, and militias” (Faulkner 83). Garrison had come to embrace the doctrine of non-resistance in the 1830s, under the influence of both Quakerism and Perfectionism, the theory advocated by John Humphrey Noyes (Bacon 276; Garrison and Garrison 144–48).6 Non-resistants shared the belief “that human efforts would bring about the full realization of the kingdom of God on earth” (Ziegler 70). Gathered at the Peace Convention in Boston in September 1838, Garrison and his allies thus claimed to “voluntarily exclude [them]selves from every legislative and judicial body, and repudiate all human politics, worldly honors, and stations of authority” and “profess[ed] to belong to a kingdom not of this world, which is without local, geographical, or national boundaries, in which there is no division of caste, or inequality of sex, and which is destined to break in pieces and consume allother [sic] kingdoms” (“Proceedings of the Peace Convention” 54). This platform earned them the name of “No-Government men” (Birney 8). One of its corollaries was ‘comeouterism,’ which led some abolitionists to disaffiliate themselves from established churches on the ground that they were complicit in the continuation of slavery (McKivigan 237). As mentioned by Margaret Hope Bacon, “[t]he commitment to nonresistance was not, however, wholly academic,” as it proved to be an effective strategy when dealing with mob violence (282). It also had a particular appeal for female abolitionists, who were deprived of the right to vote, “plac[ing] ultraist women and men, at least in theory, on an equal level vis-à-vis the state; neither could justifiably participate in the electoral process or bear responsibility for the violence which would result” (Ginzberg 20).7 ← 142 | 143 →
Even if not all Garrisonians were non-resistants, they all saw the validity of agitation from the margins, as the example of Phillips shows. A member of the Boston aristocracy and the son of the first Mayor of Boston, he had been expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. He, however, chose to give up a conventional political career to fight against slavery from outside of a system he knew very well. His fellow activists, who were deeply aware of his sacrifice, wrote him in 1839:
[Y]ou turned your back upon the blandishments of a seductive world, repudiated all hope of political preferment and legal eminence, made yourself of no reputation for the benefit of the perishing bondman, and became the associate of those, who, for seeking the abolition of slavery by moral and religious instrumentalities, are up to this hour subjected to popular odium, to violent treatment, to personal insult. (Board of Managers)
Despite the hostility that targeted abolitionists and his family’s history, Phillips made the conscious choice of relinquishing the important role in mainstream politics he had been expected to play and of relying instead on work from the margins. This proved to be rewarding, both politically and emotionally.
Abolitionists rejected “the use of all carnal weapons” (Declaration of Sentiments of the American Anti-Slavery Society 1), i.e. the use of physical force, but they were not immune to self-generated, mostly verbal, violence within and outside of the movement. Garrisonians did not hesitate to use “inflammatory language” against their enemies (Bartlett 515). Walters also shows that they “formulat[ed] strict standards of fidelity to the cause,” which led to “interminable quarrels, disagreements, and retreats into smaller, more restrictive groups, ever in search of the more correct position” (18). When the movement split in May 1840 after the election of abolitionist Abby Kelley to the executive committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society, one of her opponents did “not hesitate to [compare her] conduct to that of old Mrs. Adam in [Eden], Delilah shearing Sampson, etc” (Pickard 253). When in 1847 black abolitionist Frederick Douglass decided to found his own newspaper, the North Star, and to become independent from Garrison and his supporters, he was turned into the target of gossip exposing his supposed infidelity to his wife and was called “an apostate” (Garrison qtd. in McFeely 178). Another example is the tactic used by abolitionist Stephen S. Foster, Kelley’s husband, and others in the early 1840s, which consisted in interrupting church services. This cost Foster several nights in prison and the remonstrances of the clergy. He was excommunicated by the Church Committee of Dartmouth College, which called him a “disorganizer” and accused him of “fanaticism,” a criticism that was leveled at him throughout his career (Church Committee). His own fellow activists disapproved of “his aggressive mode of operation and violent rhetoric” (Bernard 335).8 ← 143 | 144 →
The divisions and the violence surrounding Garrisonians account for their strong sense of a split existing between the public image which they offered to the outside world and their private selves, which only their close friends and relatives had access to. We find numerous references to contemporaries’ surprise when they met Garrison for the first time. British writer Harriet Martineau recalled that she “was wholly taken by surprise” when she met him for the first time (qtd. in Villard 14). His son-in-law, Henry Villard, also noted:
Mr. Garrison’s exterior was a complete surprise to me. His public character as the most determined, fearless Anti-Slavery champion had so impressed me, as it did most people, that I had supposed his outward appearance must be in keeping with it. In other words, I had expected to see a fighting figure of powerful build, with thick hair, full beard and fiery defiant eyes. It seemed almost ludicrous to behold a man of middle size, completely bald and clean shaven, with kindly eyes behind spectacles, and instead of a fierce, an entirely benignant expression. He appeared, indeed, more like the typical New England minister of the Gospel than the relentless agitator that he was. (qtd. in Villard 13)
Aileen S. Kraditor claims that Garrison’s outside persona “resulted from a consciously adopted tactic, one which he carried out further in practice than most – the tactic of always stating the principle toward which public opinion must be educated, no matter how far ahead of present public opinion it might be” (29–30). But the dichotomy also structured Garrisonians’ lives and social interactions. Garrison called himself “a strange compound.” “In battling with a whole nation,” he wrote to his future wife, “I am as impetuous, as daring, and as unconquerable, as a lion; but in your presence, I am as timid, and gentle, and submissive, as a dove” (Letter to Helen Eliza Benson). Garrison was not the only one to experience this sense of division of self. Garrisonians often described the feelings and experiences of the besieged, which required them to develop systems of protection from the outside world. Before they got married, Kelley once confided to her future husband: “My heart is covered by a glass window to the world, but to you the glass has been removed and the only way I can account for your not looking in, is that your eyes have had so many other objects on which to fix themselves that imperatively required particular observation.” The two examples of Garrison and Kelley show the importance of the group as well as the couple in Garrisonians’ political expressions.
Alienation from society was both an endured condition and a conscious choice for Garrisonians, who found paradoxical strength in their position as a “persecuted minority” (McDaniel 15). In a letter written to Kelley in August 1840, in the midst of the rift within the American Anti-Slavery Society, abolitionist and co-editor of the Pennsylvania Freeman, Charles C. Burleigh, expressed his sympathy for her. “I know something of what it is to be among strangers, the object of prejudice & misapprehension & hostility, menaced & slandered for doing what ← 144 | 145 → I thought my duty – with almost none to speak a friendly word in my ear – to sympathise with my feelings & encourage my exertions –,” he wrote, “& I know how sweet & cheering at such times is a letter from a distant friend whose heart throbs in unison with mine.” This shows that Garrisonians were deeply aware of the necessity of a strong support system to ensure their emotional well-being and the success of their political enterprise.
3. Cliques and Circles
Burleigh’s letter to Kelley is evidence of the way “[a]ffection cemented the Garrisonian community and provided the emotional support necessary to challenge the social order” (Yacovone 86). The regular interactions between men and women within the abolitionist movement contributed to building strong relationships that led to friendly and romantic attachments. In her study of friendships between elite men and women in the early American Republic, Cassandra A. Good notes that such connections were unique in that they “offered men and women entry into independent, egalitarian relationships that epitomized the values of the early republic” and “escaped the bounds of gender roles inherent in family, marital, or same-sex relationships,” and abolitionist friendships conformed to this model (6; 188). Same-sex relationships were equally important. Constance W. Hassett thus speaks of “the politics of female friendship” in abolitionism (379), while Donald Yacovone has shown the importance of “fraternal love” among male Garrisonians (85). Friendships were cemented by letters, gifts, as well as symbolical gestures. For instance, Garrison named most of his children after fellow abolitionists, including Thompson, Phillips, Francis Jackson, Charles Follen, and Elizabeth Pease, a choice which aimed at strengthening ties among friends to the cause. Among Garrisonians, friendships were a crucial component of the support system on which activists relied in order to make isolation from mainstream society and politics the effective political strategy that it was.
Garrisonians, however, were not part of one united group. Rather, they belonged to sometimes overlapping circles, in which they found the different kinds of support that they needed. An example is the ‘Boston Clique,’ which was formed by female and male “elite Garrisonians” (Robertson 108) and represented for Garrison and other members a “familylike” structure (Friedman 49). But it was also an exclusive group, about whom some abolitionists like Douglass and Parker Pillsbury “felt a sense of discomfort” due to their “inadequate educational background and social status” (Robertson 108). It however provided Garrison with both emotional and financial support. Throughout his life, he was dependent on other people’s wealth. When he was imprisoned in 1830 for libel, it was Arthur ← 145 | 146 → Tappan, the wealthy trader, who paid his fine. It was also Tappan who agreed to fund The Liberator in August 1830, calling it “a noble enterprise and worthy of having consecrated to it the best talent in our land” (qtd. in Portlette 187). The Liberator did not generate profit and Garrison was never able to make a decent and stable living from it. Instead, he was dependent on the generosity of his fellow activists, notably the members of the Boston Clique.
4. The Home as Political Space
The home was central to Garrisonians’ joint politics of isolation and reform. In the early nineteenth century, it “became synonymous with ‘retirement’ or ‘retreat’ from the world at large” (Cott 57) and it was increasingly viewed as “a bulwark against the instabilities and moral decay of the marketplace” (Sánchez-Eppler 345–46), associated as it was with the purity of woman’s power. However, Amy Kaplan has shown that, in the first half of the nineteenth century, it was also a space intimately connected with the politics of “national expansion,” in which “the boundedness of the home [fused] with the boundedlessness of the nation” (588).
In the midst of violence, the domestic sphere provided “a refuge” (Dixon 82), which frequent absences from home led activists to idealize. Garrisonians were often away, giving lectures and attending conventions, which made them long for a safe, less hectic space. On June 14, 1840, a few hours before he landed in England to take part in the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention, Garrison wrote to his wife that “[he] ha[d] never absented [him]self one hour from [her] as a matter of choice, but only as duty and friendship imperatively demanded the sacrifice” (qtd. in Ruchames 642–43). For him, the home came to represent a haven away from the outside pressures of activism, due to the feminine and stabilizing powers of his wife, whom he called “the all-powerful magnet of attraction, and the focal point of domestic enjoyment” (Helen Eliza Garrison 30). His contemporaries agreed on the crucial role that the domestic sphere played in his life. “So Garrison, from the serene level of his daily life, from the faith that never faltered, was able to say to American hate, ‘You cannot reach up to the level of my home mood, my daily existence,’” Phillips claimed in his eulogy of Garrison (William Lloyd Garrison 10). It was Garrison’s wife’s steady and nurturing presence that guaranteed that their home would offer him a safe space.
The Phillipses’ home in Boston offers another interesting example of a place away from the violence of the abolitionist world. Like Helen Benson Garrison, Ann Greene Phillips was mostly confined to the domestic space, but it was because of a life-long affliction which affected her until her death in 1886. Because of her condition, the Phillipses very rarely entertained guests and maintained an ← 146 | 147 → exclusive relationship, which was apparent in their interactions with their relatives and neighbors. They for instance asked Phillips’s brothers and sisters to have the “sole use” of the family house during the summer, which prompted one sister to accuse them of “selfishness” (Blagden). In 1857 and 1858, they also hired street musicians to play outside of Ann’s window every morning. Despite numerous complaints, they refused to stop the music and suggested their neighbors “abandon … the front of the house, and secur[e] [themselves] by treble windows” (Hall). What outsiders (mis)took for selfishness was in fact an awareness that, in order to agitate unpopular causes in the outside world, exclusive spaces were needed to provide the necessary emotional strength. This is evident in reformer Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s description of Phillips’s home. “It was in his wife’s sick-room, where strangers were rarely admitted, that you saw Wendell Phillips at home,” he wrote, adding that “it was the concentration of a life” (Higginson 73).
Abolitionist homes were often deeply political spaces in several ways. Despite their attachment to privacy, the Phillipses often discussed politics at home, as Ann Greene Phillips was also an abolitionist and had converted her husband to antislavery agitation. Letters and newspapers also proved crucial means of information to Garrisonians as well as “aids to the imagination that enabled distant friends to cope with long separations” (McDaniel 78). The political significance of the home was also visible in the choice of the name for the Garrisons’ first house, Freedom’s Cottage, and the Fosters’ farm, an Underground Railroad Station which they called Liberty Farm. For Garrison also, the home was “a sort of hotel,” where fellow abolitionists were constantly entertained (Helen Benson Garrison). His son also recalled that “he would strew the floor with his exchanges, or he would leave table or desk covered with heaps of clippings and manuscripts” (Garrison and Garrison 329). Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator, dominated his family’s life:
My father rarely came up from the Liberator office without a roll of exchanges under his arm, which had their interest for his boys, as a source both of reading and of pocket-money, being salable in the stores of wrapping-paper. On Saturday evenings he brought the proofs of the first and last pages of the Liberator, and his jocose inquiry after supper – ‘Come, boys! who wants to get the Liberator in advance of the mail?’ – was the invitation for one of us to “follow copy” while he read aloud from the proof-slip and corrected the typographical errors, which were apt to be pretty numerous. (Garrison and Garrison 330)
On Wednesdays, the day when The Liberator went to press, the whole family mobilized. Garrison’s daughter remembered that, when she was a child, she brought her father lunch on those days – “as my father was then so busy that he did not take time to leave the office for luncheon, it was my privilege to carry a lunch to him. On such occasions he would always say: ‘Now you have brought it to me, my ← 147 | 148 → darling, I must eat it’” (Villard 7). Her father then made “a long day at the office,” and “returned thoroughly fatigued from the culmination of the week’s work,” adding that “[t]he next day his wife would try – often with success – to take him off with her for an excursion into the suburbs or a round of calls” (Garrison and Garrison 340).
For more than thirty years, the Garrisonians relied on a complex support organization that allowed them to sustain agitation from outside of the system with great success. In the Garrisonian world, the home and politics were not separate spheres. The Garrisonians’ position, however, was not without its ambiguities. Non-resistance was challenged by the widening division between North and South in the 1850s, and when the Civil War broke out, many abolitionists had become convinced of its necessity to put an end to slavery. Garrison’s own son, George Thompson, enrolled in the Army when the war broke out, despite his father’s misgivings (Villard 19). The interactions between the different spaces of Garrisonian abolitionism and the different circles that sustained it were also complex, sometimes antagonistic, as the resentment created by the Boston Clique shows.
This system, however, proved so powerful that Garrison deemed it one of the reasons why his fellow activists were reluctant to dissolve the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1865. “Let us not attempt longer to affect superiority where we are not superior. The desire to keep together is natural; but let us challenge and command the respect of this nation, and of the friends of freedom throughout the world,” he urged them (“The Anti-Slavery Society” 2). In his eyes, isolation was commendable and necessary when the cause was not accepted; it was however unwarranted pride in a context where it had become “respectable” (Walters 7).
1. The House of Representatives passed the Thirteenth Amendment on January 31, 1865. It was ratified in December of the same year.
2. Garrison was eventually defeated. He resigned from the presidency of the organization and ceased the publication of his newspaper, The Liberator, in December 1865. The American Anti-Slavery Society continued its activities until 1870.
3. Garrison thus asked one of his opponents: “Why, then, in the name of humanity and of brotherly love, should we fall out by the way, and insist upon a separation, because we are not all united in opinion on political or theological points?” (qtd. in Birney 21).
4. McDaniel mentions a third characteristic, “a habit of reflecting on and critically discussing their ideas and their experiences” (89). ← 148 | 149 →
5. For instance, in 1842, riots targeted black abolitionists in Philadelphia for three days (McDaniel 100).
6. John Humphrey Noyes founded the Oneida Community in New York State in 1848, advocating the doctrine of ‘complex marriage,’ the rejection of any exclusive relationship among members.
7. Out of the forty-four signatories of the Constitution of the New-England Non-Resistance Society, twenty were women (Bacon 289).
8. Nancy Burkett mentions that Foster “had a very uneasy relationship with the Garrisonians” (19). She also claims that Maria Weston Chapman, the soul of the Boston Clique, disliked him. Stacey M. Robertson describes the same “alienation” from the mainstream of the abolitionist movement in Pillsbury. “Even among abolitionists,” she writes, “he considered himself second-tier because the leaders of the movement hailed from Massachusetts and most boasted wealthy and cultured backgrounds” (24).
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