Euclides da Cunha Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Euclides Rodrigues Pimenta da Cunha (KEWN-yuh) is considered one of the greatest Brazilian writers and one of the outstanding stylists in the Portuguese language. Born in 1866 in the municipality of Cantagalo, Cunha lost his mother when he was barely three years old and spent a considerable part of his early life with relatives in Rio de Janeiro and Bahia. His formative years are marked by three major influences, which were to leave a lasting imprint on his life and career. From his father, a poet and lover of books, young Cunha learned to appreciate literature in general and poetry in particular. At Colégio Aquino in Rio de Janeiro, where he completed his secondary education, he was introduced to the abolitionist, republican, and positivist ideas that constitute the essence of his thought. Finally, at the Polytechnic School and at the War College, he received a solid scientific training. An act of insubordination against the imperial minister of war, motivated by his strong republican beliefs, led to Cunha’s dismissal from the War College in 1888, but he was reinstated after the proclamation of the republic one year later and was able to graduate with a degree in mathematics and sciences in 1891.

After serving as a military field engineer for five years, Cunha resigned from the army to pursue careers as a public works engineer in São Paulo and as a journalist for O Estado de São Paulo. It was as a correspondent for this newspaper that Cunha had the experience that formed the basis for his masterpiece, Rebellion in the Backlands. In 1897, he traveled to the backlands of Bahia to cover the suppression by the army of a yearlong uprising in the village of Canudos led by Antônio Conselheiro, a charismatic mystic whose apocalyptic message of a better and more just time attracted thousands of the dispossessed poor to the area. Although religious fanaticism has always been a relatively common response to the impoverished conditions in the Brazilian northeast, the rebellion at Canudos stirred a national hysteria because it was perceived as a threat to the young republic. Refusing to pay taxes and calling the government of the republic “the law of the hound,” the rebels were in turn accused of plotting the return of the monarchy. An ardent republican, Cunha at first supported the government’s efforts to crush the rebellion, but as he witnessed the backlanders’ heroic resistance, he developed a growing sympathy for them. In Rebellion in the Backlands, Cunha denounces the events at Canudos as a national crime caused by a complete lack of...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Brookshaw, David. Race and Color in Brazilian Literature. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1986. Makes only passing references to Rebellion in the Backlands in the chapter “Post-Abolitionist Literature” but provides a very good study of the representation of racial issues in nineteenth and twentieth century Brazilian literature.

Foster, David William, and Virginia Ramos Foster, eds. Modern Latin American Literature. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1975. Contains a useful selection of critical assessments of Cunha’s work, some of which have been translated from the Portuguese by the editors.

Frank, Waldo. South American Journey. London: Victor Gollancz, 1943. Devotes about ten pages to Cunha and calls Rebellion in the Backlands “Brazil’s greatest book.”

Goldberg, Isaac. Brazilian Literature. 1922. Reprint. New York: Gordon Press, 1975. Has an informative chapter on Cunha, which is one of the earliest studies of Cunha’s work in English.

Putnam, Samuel. “Brazil’s Greatest Book: A Translator’s Introduction.” In Rebellion in the Backlands, by Euclides da Cunha. Translated by Putnam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1944. An excellent introduction to Cunha in English.