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Get to Know a Brazilian – Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

December 11, 2011

This is a second in my weekly series on important Brazilian individuals throughout history. The first entry is here.

Many consider Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, generally known simply as “Machado de Assis,” to be Brazil’s greatest writer, and he is the first titan in the Brazilian literary pantheon. He is the standard to which all other Brazilian authors are compared in one way or another, and his cultural influence in Brazil has only grown since his death 100 years ago this September.

Born to a mulatto descendant of slaves and a Portuguese woman in 1839 in Rio de Janeiro, Machado de Assis had humble origins. Little is known about his early years besides a few skeletal facts; he lost both his mother and sister at a young age (a fact which may have influenced the pessimistic tone of his later works). Many believe he was self-educated, even in his mastery of both French and English. He first started professionally writing for newspapers, but upon gaining a public position at the Ministry of Agriculture, Commerce, and Public Works in Rio de Janeiro in 1873, he was able to devote his time to writing fiction.

Although known best for his short stories and novels, Machado de Assis’s first published book, Crisálidas, was a collection of poems, released in 1864. After his marriage in 1869, he began publishing his first novels, including Helena and Contos Fluminenses (Fluminense Stories – “Fluminense” is the term for people from the state of Rio de Janeiro). His writing style in the 1870s was marked by romanticist tones, and his early works do not necessarily stick out or show all of the qualities that would make his later works so powerful and famous. However, with the publication of one of his most famous books, Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas (The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas), in 1881, his style shifted heavily. Writing in a realistic style, Machado de Assis’s books increasingly employed humor that dulled what was a growing pessimism towards human beings. His most famous works came from this phase of his writing, including Brás CubasQuincas BorbaDom Casmurro. Memorial de Aires, a book that reflected on death (driven in part by the death of his wife in 1904), was published in 1908, the year of his own death. While his works do not portray any ill-will towards individual humans in his works, it is clear that he held out little hope for the overall quality of human beings more generally. In this regard, he pre-dated the style of many of the most famous American and European writers of the twentieth-century, who would only reflect a similar pessimism in the pointless slaughter of life on the battlefields of World War I.  For this reason, scholars increasingly consider him to be the first “20th-century” author, and his stature in literary circles has only grown in the last fifty years.

Nor was his pessimism an early harbinger of a narrative tone that would come to define much of 20th-century literature. Stylistically, Machado de Assis also frequently used the narration to talk directly to the reader, and literary scholars consider him one of the first authors not just in Brazil, but in the entire world, to take this approach, creating a narrative technique that would come to have a major role in the development of the “stream-of-consciousness” narrative that exploded in the twentieth century. Machado Assis’s poems are not as famous as his novels and short stories, and indeed, are surprisingly different. Where the latter were concise, eloquent, and moving, the former were based more on vernacular, often bordering on the vulgar. (For example, the dedication to Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas famously opens, “Ao verme que primeiro roeu as frias carnes do meu cadáver dedico com saudosa lembrança estas Memórias Póstumas,” or, “To the worm who first gnawed on the cold flesh of my corpse, I dedicate with fond rememberance these Posthumous Memoirs.”) While respected, Machado de Assis’s poetry hasn’t received the same level of admiration and attention as his fiction.

Machado de Assis’s cultural contributions do not stop with his own literary output. Being fluent in English, he translated many of Shakespeare’s works to Portuguese. Additionally, he was one of the founding members of the Academia Brasileira de Letras, and was its president from its founding in 1897 to 1908. The Academia, still existent today, honors 40 Brazilian writers, selected by the Academy and Brazil’s population itself, with a new member being elected when an old member dies. The existence of the Academia has helped to keep Brazil’s literary tradition and development in the forefront of national culture in South America’s largest country.

Upon his death in 1908, his works hadn’t gained much in the way of international renown, or even international familiarity. Today, however, Machado de Assis is widely recognized in Brazil and around the world as one of the greatest authors ever. Harold Bloom included him on his list of 100 geniuses of literature and even called him the “supreme black literary artist to date” in his book Genius.

However, while he is equally admired in Brazil (all Brazilians know at least some of his work, as he is required reading in schools and his works have been turned into movies, and the area of Rio de Janeiro where he lived is now called “Largo do Machado” in his honor), the race issue is far murkier in Brazil. Despite being an obvious Afro-descendant (even the sepia-toned photos of his time demonstrate this), his race is almost never mentioned in Brazil, and oftentimes the photos of him are even “lightened”. When his race is brought up, he is referred to as “pardo,” or brown, a phrase which is based as much in financial and cultural terms as race (though it is worth mentioning that he would never be considered “black” in Brazil, where such a term is reserved only for the poorest and darkest people, in contrast to the “one-drop” culture of the United States that makes him black to Bloom and all who are familiar with him).

Despite this glossing over of the race issue, Machado de Assis is widely respected throughout the world, with figures as diverse as Woody Allen and Carlos Fuentes openly acknowledging his influence on their works. His literary output is well worth of its canonization, and for any interested in reading his works, they are easy to find, and many of them have been translated into English, including Brás Cubas, Memórias de Aires, Quincas Borba (in English, Philosopher or Dog?), Dom Casmurro, and numerous collections of short stories, which are some of the finest of any era and from any country, and which provide a great introduction to his work and his style.

(I originally wrote this post at my previous blogging home.)

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839-1908), whom many consider to be the "founder" of Brazilian literature and whose figure still looms tall in Brazilian culture over 100 years after his death.

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  1. December 11, 2011 at 11:44 | #1

    Excellent choice. I haven’t had the gutsto read him in Portuguese yet, but plan to. A brilliant and original prose stylist.

    • December 11, 2011 at 11:51 | #2

      He’s actually remarkably accessible in Portuguese. I started with short stories to see how it went, but after getting through a couple of collections of those, I moved on to Bras Cubas, and it was stylistically no more difficult than the short stories were (and the short stories were not difficult at all). It’s not Guimarães Rosa (who is the one I would, and in some future post will, argue is up their with Machado, hence the “arguably best author” comments in this post).

  2. Phillipe Lessa
    August 26, 2013 at 17:22 | #3

    Amazing explanation.

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