Brazilian Literature Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Brazilian Literature

The following entry discusses Brazilian literature, both colonial and national, as it reflects the vast variety of ethnic backgrounds present in that nation, developing in tandem with other Latin-American literatures to produce a body of work that reflects the diversity of its origins.

Deeply concerned with the development of a Brazilian national identity and culture, Brazilian literature can be divided into two major periods: colonial and national. Comprised of native Indians, white European settlers, and a large black population, mostly brought to Brazil as slave labor, Brazil provides a varied cultural background for its indigenous literature, which often reflects the ethnic background of its writers. Colonized by Portugal in the mid-1500s, the country adopted Portuguese as the language of common discourse, and most colonial literature was composed in this language. Today, Brazilians continue to write in Portuguese, and their works reflect a concern with contemporary Brazilian society, as well as a deep sense of Brazilian history and culture.

Brazilian colonial literature largely focused on historical and geographical issues, often telling stories of the Portuguese conquest, the wars fought by various native peoples, and the explorations of the Brazilian interior in epic narratives. In addition to narratives of war and explorations, many Jesuit missionaries also contributed to the body of Brazilian writing. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the city of Bahia formed the epicenter of Brazilian culture and literature, followed by a shift to Minas Gerais, a mining town. Literary activities of the period continued to center around epic stories narrating events such as the war with Spain and other Portuguese conquests. Although colonial subjects continued to be a significant part of Brazilian literary activity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there was simultaneous development of writing that was concerned with more nationalistic subjects. In the late-nineteenth century, with the advent of such authors as Jorge de Lima, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, and Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, Brazilian literature shifted focus, becoming more concerned with local and nationalist themes. Other novelists and writers, such as José de Alencar, continued this trend, exploring native Indian themes in works such as O Guarani (1857; The Guarani Indian). With the works of novelist Mario de Andrade, Brazilian literature moved from the realm of Romanticism and Naturalism, with its focus on social and realistic themes, to experiments in language and folklore. Andrade's only novel, Macunaíma: o Herói sem nenhum caráter (1928) is often cited as a major example of linguistic experimental literature. In the twentieth century, authors such as Jorge Amado and Clarice Lispector, as well as a variety of others, continued the focus on Brazilian history and culture in their works.

One of the most enduring themes of Brazilian literature, and most other Latin American writing as well, has been the issue of national identity. Like many other South American nations, Brazil's colonization and resulting oppression and inequities have had a deep impact on Brazilian writing. After gaining independence from Portugal in the early 1820s, Brazil was governed by some form of monarchy until the 1930s, when a Brazilian republic was established under the leadership of Getulio Vargas. A military coup occurred in the 1960s, followed by almost two decades of an oppressive military regime. Finally, in 1990, Brazil held its first democratic elections. In his book Misplaced Ideas: Essays on Brazilian Culture, Brazilian critic and scholar Roberto Schwarz traces in detail the impact of the political and social scene in Brazil on its writers and artists. In particular, Schwarz notes that while Brazilian writers were adept at emulating European styles of writing, especially the realist and naturalist novel forms, the conflict they faced in portraying the reality of Brazil in the genteel structure of a realistic novel was felt deeply by such authors as Alencar during the late 1800s.

The next major change in the Brazilian literary scene occurred in the 1930s, following the Brazilian Revolution of 1930. Once again, scholars have pointed out the close link between the literature of Brazil and the political climate of the nation. Conflict between the country's colonial and European past and the emerging sense of nationalism, the struggle between modernism and technology versus the traditionally powerful sectors of the country, and the imbalance of power between society and state, all affected the literature produced during this time. These years also marked the beginning of the modernist movement in Brazil. Modernist writing in Brazil is characterized by a break from traditional forms of writing, and is reflective of the struggle between the cosmopolitanism of pre-revolutionary Brazil and the culturally and nationally conscious Brazil following the revolution. This tension is reflected in the works of such authors as Carlos Drummond de Andrade. The modernist movement was given even further impetus by President Vargas's call to Brazilian intellectuals to integrate and address issues of everyday reality in their works and thus participate actively in the act of nation-building. However, by the mid-1940s, Brazilian modernism was being slowly replaced by a new generation of poets and writers.

Known for their innovative poetry and prose, writers such as Amado, Lispector, de Lima, and de Melo Neto have brought new perspectives to Brazilian literature. Influenced by experimental techniques in the works of many French and American novelists, Brazilian writers have continued to merge a distinctly Latin American point of view with issues that have universal appeal. The twentieth century also saw a surge in publishing activity by women and black authors in Brazil, many of whom had little opportunity to showcase their works before that time. The language in these works, notes critic Leda Maria Martins, is reflective of the self-recognition and apprehension many of these writers feel as they articulate a feminine perspective on life in Brazilian society. Similarly, old paradigms of slavery and oppression are being replaced with a new sense of multicultural identity in the writings of Afro-Brazilian authors. In her essay discussing the role of black authors in Brazilian literature, Cristina Sáenz de Tejada notes that the negative image surrounding blacks and women until very recently means that little information is available on the history of their writing in both anthologies and critical and scholarly studies. Even during the early twentieth century, when writers such as Amado began presenting positive images of blacks in their writing, black characters were highly stereotypical. Not until the 1980s, with the publication of the works of such authors as Sônia Coutinho and others, did Brazilian literature begin portraying blacks as an integral, vital, and positive part of society.