Rebellion in the Backlands Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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rainfall, flora and fauna, race, ethnology, psychology, and other subjects, these two long essays are burdened by outdated nineteenth century theories of environmental influence and race.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 Brazilian seaboard, the sertanejo, through isolation in his primitive backlands environment, has become “a retrograde, not a degenerate, type.” He is physically robust but morally backward. The sertanejo’s atavistic tendencies are superbly represented by his undying devotion to the religious fanatic Antonio Conselheiro, himself a spiritualized version of the backlands mentality. In the sertanejo’s simple view, “Anthony the Counselor” is a backlands saint.

These long introductory essays serve to romanticize the subject matter, to set the stage for the narrative of the rebellion. The introductions make clear that the underlying causes of the conflict are cultural differences between the isolated backlands and the developed seaboard. These cultural differences first cause religious friction between the established Catholic Church and Antonio Conselheiro. Later, the Counselor begins preaching against the recently established Brazilian Republic (proclaimed in 1889), whose new taxes and new laws regarding civil marriage and the like offend him. The Counselor’s idea of proper government is a vague theocracy, ruled by the law of God rather than civil law. He and his followers label the republic an Antichrist, call its laws “the law of the hound,” and rip down its tax notices.

In 1893, a contingent of thirty Bahian policemen comes after the Counselor for preaching insurrection. They catch up with him in Massete, where his band routs them in a shoot-out. Another contingent of eighty soldiers turns back when the Counselor fades into the forbidding backlands. The die now cast, Antonio Conselheiro and his followers withdraw to distant, inaccessible Canudos, where they establish their theocracy and military stronghold. Actually, it is a fairly inadequate theocracy, since the motley backlands population rallying to Canudos includes not only thousands of the religiously devout but also hordes of bandits, who raid the surrounding countryside. Despite such depredations and the Counselor’s growing power, the government leaves...

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Rebellion in the Backlands Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Amory, Frederic. “Historical Source and Biographical Context in the Interpretation of Euclides da Cunha’s Os Sertões.” Journal of Latin American Studies 28 (October, 1996): 667-685. Examines Cunha’s Europeanism derived from his academic experience, as well as his training as a civil engineer in a military school. His nativism can be traced to his emotional attachment to his country, and both Europeanism and nativism form a big part of Cunha’s novel.

Beebee, Thomas O. “Talking Maps: Region and Revolution in Juan Vincent Benet and Euclides da Cunha.” Comparative Literature 47 (Summer, 1995): 193-314. Beebee discusses the use of landscape in Benet and Cunha’s novels. He examines the similarities in the structure of the novels, compares the representation of conflicts between center and region, and comments on the treatment of the reader as traveler.

Cravens, Gwyneth. “Past Present.” Review of Rebellion in the Backlands, by Euclides da Cunha. The Nation 255 (December 7, 1992): 706-710. Presents a detailed analysis of the plot and characterization in Rebellion in the Backlands. Offers insight into how Cunha’s ethnic background influences the story, as well as how his development of the war theme presaged the form war would take.

Economist “Brazil’s Backland’s Classic.” 342 (March 1, 1997): 83-84. Discusses the reasons for renewed interest in Cunha’s novel and delves into the parallels between the horrendous situations described in the novel and contemporary events.

Epstein, Jack. “Centennial of a War Stirs a Nation.” Christian Science Monitor 89 (October 2, 1997): 216-225. Examines how Cunha’s novel portrays the War of Canudos, which ended in October of 1897, and details the events leading up to the final clash. Epstein also explores the impact of the book on the changing views of Brazilians concerning the massacre.