Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: Because of his uniquely modern and boldly experimental contribution to narrative form and technique, as well as the universal appeal of his works, Machado is considered the greatest figure in nineteenth century Brazilian literature and a world master of the short story.

Early Life

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis’ father, Francisco José de Assis, was a native of Rio de Janeiro, the son of free mulattoes, and a housepainter by trade. His mother, Maria Leopoldina Machado da Câmara, was a Portuguese woman from the Island of São Miguel in the Azores. His mother could read and write, and similarities observed between her handwriting and that of her son indicate that she may have taught her son how to read and write as well.

Machado had a younger sister, Maria, who died of measles in 1845; his mother died of tuberculosis in 1849, when he was ten years of age. His father remarried Maria Ignez da Silva on June 18, 1854, but he died ten years later, on April 22, 1864. While the exact circumstances of the boy’s early life as well as his relationship with his stepmother are matters of speculation among his biographers, it is believed that Machado did not get along with his stepmother or her family. Although one of his early poems is dedicated to a cousin, Henrique José Moreira, nothing else is known about this or any other relative.

It is believed that when he was ten years of age, Machado went to live with a priest who provided the boy with a primary education; Machado never attended secondary school. Largely self-taught, the young man was an avid reader, who educated himself by spending his free time at the Library of the Portuguese Cabinet of Reading. Nothing further is known of Machado until his fifteenth year, when one of his poems was published in the magazine A Marmota. Henceforth, his professional activities, at least, are well known. At the age of seventeen, he was a typesetter; at the age of nineteen, he was a proofreader; and at the age of twenty-one, he was on the editorial staff of the republican newspaper Diário do Rio de Janeiro.

By 1860, Machado had begun to gain recognition with theater criticism, articles, poems, and stories. At the age of twenty-five, he published a first volume of verse, Chrisalides poesias (1864). The young man continued writing poems, more or less successfully—columns of clever and insightful commentary on current events, translations from French and English, and drama—but soon realized that fiction was the genre in which he was most proficient.

Machado was short and slight; his facial features were strong, although he was not considered handsome, and he was pronouncedly nearsighted. He was extremely conscious of his appearance and suffered from a lifelong inferiority complex because of his racial heritage. He was a victim of epilepsy; the illness was particularly pronounced during his early years and the last four years of his life—after the death of his wife.

Machado married Carolina Augusta Novaes (sister of the Portuguese poet Faustino Xavier de Novaes) on November 12, 1869, and in the same year became the assistant director of Diário do Rio de Janeiro, a post which he held until 1874. Machado and his wife remained devoted to each other throughout their marriage. During his lifetime, Machado never even ventured more than a few miles beyond the city limits of his native Rio. From 1873, his meager income as a writer was augmented by a position at the Ministry of Agriculture, where he served until his death in 1908. An exemplary civil servant, Machado never missed a day at the office.

During the period of Machado’s novelistic production—his career as a novelist began in 1872 with the publication of Resurreicão (resurrection)—romanticism was still flourishing, but the incursions of naturalism were soon apparent. In general, Brazilian Romanticism is characterized by lyric poetry, Indianism, poetry of the mal du siècle, and sociopolitical literature concerned with events such as abolition. The movement included the expansion of literary genres and was based on a veneration of nature and the observation and analysis of customs and characteristic types.

From the beginning of his novelistic career, Machado outlined an experimental literary form which contained some Romantic elements but was not strictly representative of the movement. While his earlier novels utilize some Romantic devices, they also demonstrate many of the features to be found in his later works. In breaking with the movement, Machado freed himself not only from the school of Sir Walter Scott but also from all literary schools. With the publication of the novel Yayá Garcia (1878; Iaia Garcia, 1977), Machado...

(The entire section is 1975 words.)

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (muh-SHAH-dew dee ah-SEES) was born to a Portuguese mother from the Azores and a mulatto house painter from Rio de Janeiro. Though Brazil is often said to be a country without racism, some of Machado’s critics attribute the pessimism evident in his works to feelings of inferiority about his mixed-race heritage; it is also sometimes attributed to his physical ailments, particularly the epilepsy so little understood in his day. His novels reveal what some call “smiling, bitter pessimism,” and others, “sad, bitter irony.”

Machado de Assis began his literary career as a poet in the transition period between Romanticism and Brazilian Parnassianism, which was less objective and impersonal than the French prototype. He also wrote plays and excellent short stories. His first three novels, beginning with Resurreicão (resurrection) in 1872, though in the Romantic vein, betray a realistic author intent on suppressing emotion. His first great success was The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, whose supposed author beyond the grave wrote “with the pen of jesting and the ink of melancholy” to prove that nothing leads to nothing. Philosopher or Dog? introduces Machado de Assis’s only really virtuous character, and he is a madman. In this work the administrator of the estate of a wealthy Rio philosopher learns that nothing is permanent except the affection of the dog that was the rich man’s...

(The entire section is 492 words.)

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

A lifelong resident of Rio de Janeiro, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis was the son of a Portuguese mother and a mulatto father. Despite humble origins, epilepsy, and a speech defect, this self-taught intellectual not only attained the highest civil service position open to him but also founded the Brazilian Academy of Letters and served as its president until his death in 1908. While still living, Machado de Assis saw himself acknowledged as Brazil’s greatest writer.

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis was born on June 21, 1839, and was baptized on November 13, 1839, in the Senhora do Livramento (Our Lady of Deliverance) Chapel of the Church of Saint Rita in Rio de Janeiro. His father, Francisco Joze de Assis, was a native of Rio de Janeiro, and his mother, Maria Leopoldina Machado de Assis, came from São Miguel in the Azores. She was Portuguese, then, and not black, as had been reported prior to the discovery of the baptismal record. Other parish registries later revealed that the author’s father was a mulatto born of freed slaves from Rio de Janeiro. The registries revealed other facts about the Assis family, including those given on the death certificates of Machado de Assis’s younger...

(The entire section is 1537 words.)

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (muh-SHAH-dew dee ah-SEES) was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on June 21, 1839. Growing up in very limited circumstances, he nonetheless became his country’s greatest writer. His father, Francisco José de Assis, was a mulatto who made a living painting houses and doing odd jobs; his mother, Maria Leopoldina Machado de Assis, was of Portuguese descent. They lived in a favela (slum), and his mother died while he was still a boy. His father remarried, and his stepmother made sure that “Machadinho” (little Machado) went to elementary school, the only formal education he had. The boy had a fragile build, stuttered, and was subject to epileptic fits. Nonetheless, he was resolute in pursuit...

(The entire section is 629 words.)

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The sustaining theme in the work of Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis is the nature of love and the destabilizing consequences of egotism. While initially treating this theme within the context of Romantic comedy and bourgeois society, progressively he wrote more within the context of a psychological realism with universal applications. While dismayed by human failures that he exposed with sardonic humor, he believed nonetheless that individuals were capable of better and that literature could prove an effective vehicle in conveying such transformation. In this respect, therefore, he was a consummate craftsman, productive in all forms of literature but masterfully distinguished in fiction.

(The entire section is 103 words.)