Modern Writing in Brazil: The Growth of a National Literature



WHEN you walk down the Avenida Presidente Wilson in Rio de Janeiro, you pass by a small, graceful building which we call the Petit Trianon. Brazilians are proud of the edifice because it is the home of the Academy of Letters; it signifies an accomplishment of the mind and spirit which, in our distracting tropical land, we cannot lightly disregard. And on the facade of the building, there is a statue of a seated man whose head is turned in such a way that the face is in shadow. It is Machado de Assis. All Brazilians, even the young writers who rebel most passionately against “academic” traditions, know this figure with the shadowy, unprepossessing face, know him and revere him. For he was the greatest of all Brazilian writers, one of the subtlest writers of modern times, and sixty years ago he founded our Academy.

Yet foreigners who walk by the Petit Trianon, if they notice the statue at all or take the trouble to inquire about it, seldom recognize the name of the man who is so famous in Brazil, and this is something which puzzles Brazilians and sometimes annoys them. Only recently—half a century too late — have three novels of Machado de Assis, Dom Casmurro, Epitaph of a Small Winner, and Philosopher or Dog?, been translated into English and published in the United States, where they have enjoyed a succès d’estime. Critics and scholars believe that if they had been known fifty years ago. they might have had an important bearing on the development of modern European and North American literature. Now, when the direction of modern writing has already been determined by James and Dostoevski, by Kafka and Proust and Pirandello, the influence of Machado de Assis cannot be felt, though of course his books are still very much worth reading for their own sake. But why was there this long period of neglect? Why, for that matter, are the writers of present-day Brazil relatively little known throughout the rest of the world?

Machado de Assis (born 1839) died in 1908 and modern writing (I use the term in the same sense that one does when one speaks of modern painting or modern music) began in Brazil some time later. First to move to new grounds was Monteiro Lobato (1883-1948) a coffee planter in the interior of the State of São Paulo, who became so incensed at his neighbors and alarmed by their habit of setting dangerously large fires to burn off the underbrush on their plantations thal he wrote a letter to the editor of the newspaper in the state capital. The letter was so well expressed that it was published on the front page, and Lobato decided to take up a literary career. In 1918, he published a collection of sketches entitled Urapês, which was the first Brazilian book written in a distinctly modern manner. Not that it was radical in matters of form and style; but Lobato wrote about the country people of Brazil, the caboclos of the backlands, as if they were real people, not simply stock figures. He look them seriously, and his sketches opened up a whole new area for Brazilian writers, in much the same way that the writings of Edgar Lee Masters or Sherwood Anderson were a liberating force in the literature of the United States. Until his death, Lobato continued his somewhat stormy career as a writer, never failing to delight Brazilians with his stories and his epigrammatic criticism.

But it is probably more accurate to say that the beginning of modernismo in Brazil was the Semana de Arte Moderna, or Modern Art Week, which was held in the Municipal Theater of São Baulo in 1922. It was a clamorous, high-spirited affair, where the general Brazilian public had its first opportunity to become acquainted with Dadaism, cubism, futurism, imagism, vorticism, and what-have-you — the whole modernist ferment of blague and rebellion which burst on the world of European art during the first two decades of the century.

It is interesting that some of the aesthetic patterns of the Europeans were better suited to our own literary needs than to their own, and were able to flourish here with more freedom and fertility. Primitivism, for example, as illustrated by Picasso’s concern with Negro art, or by the free association of the Dadaists, was much less artificial here than in the more civilized countries of the Old World. The heritage of the primitive Africans and Indians who gave so much racially and spiritually to Brazil is naturally more alive and meaningful to us than to Europeans. The same is true of the daring experiments in free verse, automatic writing, aesthetic distortion, the taste for the prosaic, and representation for its own sake, all of which corresponded to deep undercurrents in popular art that were seeking tentatively to come to the surface.

Oswald de Andrade (1890—1954) was the tireless and irreverent champion of modern writing in Brazil, the perpetual enfant terrible. Of all the avant-garde reviews which sprang up in the twenties, his Revista de Antropofagia, proclaiming the truth of anthropophagy (i.e. cannibalism), is perhaps the best remembered. A highly gifted writer, he laid the foundation for much of the Brazilian poetry that has been written during the past thirty years; his experiments in verse ranged from sallies into primitivism to subtle and learned applications of symbolist techniques. In his prose fiction, he developed a synthetic and allusive style in which he wrote two little masterpieces of social satire, Memórial Sentimentais de Joãn Miramar (1924) and Serafim Ponte Grande (1933). And before his death, he was engaged in writing Marco Zero, a historical novel sequence that revived some aspects of Lobato’s earlier venture into the realistic treatment of backland themes.


Two other writers who were associated with the beginnings of modernismo, Mário de Andrade (18931945) and Manuel Bandeira (born 1886), had an even greater influence.

Judged by the scope of his work, the variety of his interests, and the creativeness of his mind, Mário de Andrade was perhaps the outstanding figure of the movement. He was the leader of the São Paulo Futurists, publishing his first book, Paulicéia Desvairada (Hallucinated City), shortly after the Semana de Arte Moderna. In it, he attacked bourgeois culture with unrelenting fury, and he continued throughout his life to insist on absolute purity in the aims and methods of literature. Many people feel that his Macimaíma (1927) is the most significant literary achievement of modern Brazil.

Manuel Bandeira is the outstanding poet of the modernist a movement. Born in Pernambuco, he later moved to Rio and today he is the permanent secretary of the Brazilian Academy. His experiments in verse form and meter are studied by all our young poets and equally important have been those works in which Bandeira adapted the older Portuguese lyric traditions to contemporary needs. As an editor and anthologist, to say nothing of his distinguished criticism, he has done a great deal to animate and direct the course of poetry in Brazil.

So far, I have said nothing to distinguish the modern movement in Brazilian literature from the same phenomenon in the other nations of America, and it is quite true that during the twenties the writers of Brazil were doing the same things as the writers of the United States or Mexico. That is to say, they were oriented toward Paris; they were busy absorbing and adapting the great European experiment in the arts. Hence, their works were often obviously imitative, and in spite of their polemic ardor, their theories and programs were frequently without roots. But by 1930 a more searching spirit of self-criticism and nativism became apparent. In the first place, a new literary generation appeared, young writers who had come of age, so to speak, after the advent of modernismo;they could afford to criticize the radical oldsters. In the second place, literary activity took on newlife in the vast Northeast, the region of great plantations, where the ravages of the droughts and the depressed world markets were particularly disastrous. In the third place, there are real differences between Brazil and other nations, and these young writers of the Northeast set out to discover the differences and exploit them, to create in other words a truly native literature without abandoning the technical and formal advances that had been made during the period of experimentation.

What are the marks which distinguish Brazil from other countries? For one thing, Brazil is the only tropical land in the world which has produced a significant literature in the modern period. But more important, Brazil is the only nation with a European cultural background which has assimilated, not only Negro and Indian cultures, but the Negroes and Indians themselves, at all levels of society.

The place of the mestiço, the person of mixed racial descent, in the evolving social scheme has been debated by Brazilians since the sixteenth century, and again in the thirties it became, along with the political and economic problems of those troubled years, a primary theme for the young novelists of the Northeast. Did these writers produce what critics in the United States often call “proletarian" novels? No, at least not in the narrowly ideological sense. Brazilian writers are as politically minded as writers anywhere else, but they have always been too personal, too introspeetive, and perhaps too melancholy to create a genuinely propagandistic litterature.

Let me mention three writers who deserve special attention: Jorge Amado (born 1912), Jose Lins do Rego (born 1901), and Graciliano Ramos (18921953). Though they are different, they share a deep concern to create a modern indigenous literature. A few of their books have even managed to break the barrier of silence which foreign readers and critics haxe imposed on Brazil. Perhaps more than any other writers, these three haxe captured the qualities of Brazilian life which foreigners can grasp and understand, though they wrote solely to interpret Brazil to Brazilians. Among them, they produced half a dozen noxels which are modern classics.

The first, Jorge Amado, is undisciplined and uneven, guided mainly by intuition, concerned almost always with political or otherwise controxersial subjects, and gifted with a poetic sense which greatly enhances his best books, Jubiabá (1935) and Terras do Sem Fun (The Violent Land, 1948). Jose Lins do Rego is the chronicler of the decadence suffered by the old plantation families. He has a rare capacity for the dramatic and one of the most powerful styles in the language. Menino do Engenho (Boy of the Sugar Mill, 1932) and Bangue (1934) are his outstanding books. The books of Graeiliano Ramos are of quite another kind. In them the outside world and the development of a plot are, at very most, of secondary importance. Ramos, a classicist in style, was scarcely affected by “modernism" and remains the master of psychological analysis and the most unixersal novelist of the group. Sao Bernardo (1934) and Augústia (Anguish, 1941; published in English in 1946) are typical of his finest work.

Among the many names which ought to be mentioned, one virtually demands attention: Gilberto Freyre (born 1900). Historian, sociologist, literary critic, he has brought to his many books and essays the sensibility of a poet and the learning of a scholar. Even his earliest works are still highly respected in Brazil, and each new publication in his continuing interpretation of Brazilian life is an important exent for serious readers. Two of his books haxe a special interest for North Americans: Casa Grande e Senzala, translated into English as The Masters and the Slaves (1946), and Brazil: An Interpretation (1945), which Senhor Freyre wrote directly in English and which contains a particularly useful chapter entitled “The Modern Literature of Brazil: Its Relation to Brazilian Social Problems.”

One of Brazil’s most successful and popular writers is Krico Yerissimo, born in 1905 in the gavcho state of Rio Grande do Sul. His widely read noxels are concerned with everyday people and their problems and a clue to his technique is perhaps found in the fact that he has translated James Hilton, John Steinbeck, and Aldous Huxley. Yerissimo has written two books giving his impressions of the United States, the first having the engaging title Black Cat in a Field of Snow, and four of his novels, Crossroads, The Best Is Silence, Consider the Lilies of the Field, and Time and the Wind, are available in English.


IN THE decade after 1940, there was an appreciable change of direction — a reaction against the novel of social significance and a search for new poetic forms. Modernismo was treated with open distrust by many young writers. As a result of this shill in attitude, the belligerence of the twenties and thirties died away, and instead there emerged a climate of literary opinion which was more receptive to varied interpretations and oven to marginal or openly hostile writers. The success of such traditional novels as O Amanvmse Belmiro (Belmiro the Amanuensis) by Ciro dos Anjos and Perto do Curação Selvagem (Near the Untamed Heart) by Clarice Lispector illustrates the point.

On the other hand, counteracting the social tendencies of the writers of the Northeast and of a Southern novelist like Verissimo, there is a spiritual tendency which is becoming stronger and stronger. Such writers as Lúcio Cardoso and Otávio de Faria concern themselves with the problems of the inner life, even when they are stated in a social context.

On poetry, the influence of “modernism" has lasted more strongly as a form, a spirit, and even as a stimulus to rebellion. Besides coloring the work of our beloved academician Manuel Bandeira, it manifests itself in Carlos Drummond de Andrade (born 1902) who knows how to distill from the collective consciousness the purest substance of personal poetic expression, and who has succeeded, where his predecessors failed, in bringing humor to pathos. He is perhaps the writer in all of contemporary Brazilian literature who most appropriately personifies the word anxiety, in its most profound sense. His verse has been collected in 0 Fazendeiro do Ar (The Air Farmer) and Poesia ate Agora (Poetry until Today). Murilo Mendes (born 1901) uses his heritage from the modernist movement quite differently. He has widened the boundaries of poetry and writes his tumultuous experience of discovery and revelation, forcing the words into new meanings and combinations according to his Laws of inspiration.

Author of Poesia cm Pdnico (Poetry in Panic, 1938) and O Visionário (The Visionary, 1941), Auguslo Frederioo Schmidt (born 1906), a businessman-poet, exalts in broad rhythms the faith and direct emotional revelation inherent in the spirit and themes of the romantic Brazilian tradition.

The magic of the poetry of Cecília Meireles (born 1901) springs partly from her fresh use of simple words and images and partly from the clear, cool, and often profound quality of her imagination. She is but another of the gifted women poets found in Latin America. And in passing, it might be recalled that Gabriela Mistral, the great Chilean poet and Nobel Prize winner, lived in Petrópolis (near Bio do Janeiro) from 1938 to 1946 and her influence on our literary life was not inconsiderable. Jorge dc Lima (1895—1952) is the most versatile poet of all. Having started within the academic school and progressed through the regional phase, he then developed among us a religious poetry movement and finally produced works of abundant inspiration in which the imagination creates symbols for his poetic anguish. Among them are A Túnica Inconsutil (The Tunic without Hems, 1988) and Invencdo de Orfeu (The Invention of Orpheus, 1952). With Yinfcius de Mora is ((torn 1918) we come to the youngest of the post-modernists. He reveals the marked influence of those who came before him, but he has achieved an extremely personal poetic style vibrating with emotion and rare virtuosity. Two of his best-known collections are Cinco Elegias (1943) and Poemas, Sonetos e baladas (1946).

Many young poets, with an attitude of combative negation, have repudiated the accomplishments of their predecessors; they are oriented by a kind of aesthetic intellectualism, through which they seek a poetry of the universal, eternal, and general, instead of the local, ordinary, and personal which was emphasized so strongly by the previous generation. The name of João Cabral de Melo Neto, who was born in 1920, will stand for the many in this younger generation. Better than most, he has combined the mode of technical experiment with an authentic expression of feeling.

A word should be said here on the canto or short story, for in this genre, our writers, like those of Spanish-speaking America, have given an immediate and telling picture of the national character and customs. Machado de Assis was a master of the form and we have had a number of gifted exponents such as the astonishingly fertile Coelho Neto (1864-1934), chronicler of our vie de boheme, and the aristocratic regionalist of Minas Gerais, Afonso Arinos de Melo Franco (1868-1916). In our day the diplomat-writer Bibeiro Couto (born 1898), with his tragicomic pictures of daily life, and the Northeastern illustrator Luis Jardim (born 1901), possessor of a dry pungent prose style, deserve mention. Perhaps the most talented of the generation, however, was Antbnio de Alcantara Machado (1901-35), a keen student of human nature with a delicious sense of humor and a feeling for le mot juste. Deeply moved by the Semana de Arte Moderna, he was able to describe Brazilians and particularly Paulistas in such a way that their local qualities acquire universal symbolism. His death at the age of thirty-four deprived Brazil of its most promising fiction writer.

Again we cannot neglect the columnists and creators of sketches: for instance, Genolino Amado, who writes charmingly on practically even subject one can think of; Osorio Borba, well-known for “The Literary Cornedy and Marques Rebelo, the chronicler of Rio de Janeiro, whose dialogue is so realistic that one can practically see his characters. Another, Bubem Braga (born 1913), who can be compared to certain contributors to The New Yorker, has a particular affection for the man in the street and a gentle sense of irony which delights Brazilian intellectuals.

Literary criticism has also developed in our day. Alccu Amoroso Lima (born 1893), who sometimes signs himself Trislao de Atakle, is a neo-Thomist of broad background and carefully considered aesthetic principles expressed in limpid, harmonious prose. A recent book on the United States (A Realidade Americana) is worthy to be placed on the shelf of that long series of studies by foreigners, the most famous of which is by Alexis de Tocqueville. Álvaro Lins, erudite and high-minded; Sergio Milliet, Director of the Municipal Library in São Paulo, sometimes called “the Brazilian Gide”; Lucia Miguel Pereira, author of penetrating literary studies; and Andrade Muricy, music critic and editor of an indispensable anthology. The New Brazilian Literature, indicate the wide variety of the field.


IT WOULD be both difficult and pretentious to try to evaluate the nation’s literature at this moment. One thing is clear, though, and that is that modernismo remains the essential core, determining the quality and quantity of output and defining the role of the writer in society. The Brazilian people continue to demand a poetic expression for their native life, and writers continue to refine the craftsman’s techniques. So long as the two do not become incompatible, the way is open for a free and constructive development of modern literature and even for the rise of greatness.

But there is a more immediate and practical reason for optimism over the future of Brazilian literature, and that is the state of the book market. With the improvement of communications and the slow reduction of illiteracy, the book market has grown steadily, until today writing is a real profession. Foreign readers probably do not realize the extent to which the pursuit of literature in the past was bound up with other professions, which unfortunately were the criteria of social recognition. Formerly, one was a professor and writer, a doctor and writer, a lawyer and writer. But today writers can at last feel that they have a genuine role in the life of the nation as writers.

This growth toward the autonomy of literature may he partly responsible for the perplexity of some of the younger writers who, although their attitude is strong and affirmative, have shown a definite bewilderment at finding themselves for the first time in control of their own destinies. The independence which the relatively prosperous book market has given them is not always easy to accept. Hence the profusion of reviews, programs, and manifestoes which have sprung up lately, most of them centered upon the argument between the exponents of aestheticism and those who ad vocate a social literature. But it is safe to predict that these forces will find an equilibrium, just as those which divided the older generations did.

The tropical splendors of Brazil are picturesque and often magnificent, yet it would be a shame if these were the only qualities of our national life to awaken interest beyond our borders. Brazilian writers believe that there are deeper currents in our culture which can offer something more positive to the intelligent and sensitive international public. A strong sense of experience and a generous inspiration are the marks of Brazilian writing. Of course, the picturesque is often a barrier to international understanding; it gets in the way of more important things. Thus Europeans are more curious about the “Deep South” of the United States than about the real problems of life today in Vermont or Ohio or Oklahoma, just as Americans are curious about Sicily or the Russian Steppes. And so it may take time before the Brazilian sertão, the customs of our cities, the qualities peculiar to our people, and the way in which the drama of our soul is lived out, are understood abroad, even if we find Faulkners, Vergas, and Sholokhovs to interpret t hem.

Our language is another barrier, of course, as can be seen from the unfortunate case of Machado de Assis. But it is not such an impassable barrier as people sometimes think. Portuguese, after all, is no more difficult or obscure than Russian, yet the great works of Russian literature have been known everywhere for many decades. If the translators will turn to Brazilian literature, past and present, they will find a rich and significant source. And this is what the young writers who browse through Jose Olympic’s bookshop in Rio or gather in the cafes of São Paulo, reading and discussing the new reviews from Paris and New York, hope will happen.

Translated by Margery Elio