Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis Biography


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...

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