Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Rebellion in the Backlands is not fiction but rather a factual account of an actual historical event. The event—a rebellion led by a charismatic religious fanatic against the federal government of Brazil—might have sunk into obscurity but for Cunha’s account, which does not merely report the event but also defines and interprets its significance. As a result, Rebellion in the Backlands has been called Brazil’s national epic, and its influence on Brazilian fiction—indeed, South American fiction—has been substantial. The work itself, with its plot buildup, might be said to anticipate the so-called nonfiction novel of later decades.
Cunha does not, however, begin with plot but with extensive essays on the land and the people of the backlands region. Taking up approximately one third of the book and covering geography, geology, rainfall, flora and fauna, race, ethnology, psychology, and other subjects, these two long essays are burdened by outdated nineteenth century theories of environmental influence and race. Cunha draws a daunting picture of the hot, rugged, semidesert sertão, periodically stricken by killing droughts, and speculates that the sertanejo’s personality has been formed by this harsh environment and by his mixed racial heritage (white, black, and Indian). Whereas the admixture of “superior” and “inferior” racial stocks (as Cunha expresses it) has resulted in universal “degeneration” along...
(The entire section is 1448 words.)
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