Lima Barreto as a chronicler of post-Abolition Brazil

An anthropologist’s biography of the Brazilian writer marks the genre’s resurgence in academia


Drawing from her research on the post-Abolition period, anthropologist Lilia Moritz Schwarcz biographs Lima Barreto (1881–1922) through the lens of racial issues in her book Triste visionário (Sad Visionary), published by Companhia das Letras, which portrays the life of a black intellectual following the official Abolition of slavery in May 1888, and sheds light on the way Barreto used skin color as a mark of social difference in his characters. “Unusually for his time, Barreto affirmed himself as a black intellectual, and sought to establish himself on the Brazilian literary scene but from a stance of opposition,” says Schwarcz, who has dealt with racial issues for more than 30 years as a professor in the School of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences at the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP) and a visiting professor at Princeton.

In her biography, Schwarcz shows how Barreto reaffirmed his African origins through literature, creating black characters that broke away from stereotypes. His description of characters explored the full spectrum of skin tones—pardo, parda, light brown, dark, moreno, morena, caboclo, cabocla, olive, and pale brown were some of the terms he used—to illustrate the complexity of the universe he sought to portray. His use of color as a mark of social difference can be seen, for example, in his novel Clara dos Anjos (Clara of the Angels), written in 1922 and published in 1948, in which Barreto describes one of his characters as “white in the language of the outskirts, but black when he goes to town.” According to Schwarcz, Barreto’s detailed description of the traits of his Afro-descendant characters and the outlying neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro was divergent from the literature produced by other writers of his time.

LUIZ FERREIRA/WIKIPEDIA At age 7, Barreto stood with his father at the Imperial Palace when Princess Isabel enacted the Golden Law (Lei Áurea) in 1888, before an onlooking crowdLUIZ FERREIRA/WIKIPEDIA

The biography recounts how Barreto was born in 1881, the year in which Machado de Assis published The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, and died in 1922, the year of the seminal Modern Art Week. This placed him midway between Machado de Assis and Modernism, in a sort of literary limbo. But for Schwarcz, Barreto should not be regarded as a “pre-modernist”, a label she rejects as representing a sort of “nonplace”. “More than just a pre-modernist, Barreto should be seen as a pioneer of Modernism because of, among other elements, the orality of his texts,” she argues.

Schwarcz also seeks to underline the paradoxes that permeated the writer’s life and work. By way of illustration, she notes that while Barreto recognized the importance of Machado de Assis’s work, he criticized his institutional ambitions and those of other writers of the Brazilian Academy of Letters. Despite this, he attempted thrice, but failed, to join the academy. “Barreto wanted to be part of literary circles while maintaining a stance of opposition, but was unsuccessful in doing so,” she says. Other paradoxes involving the writer’s persona which Schwarcz brings to light in her biography include Barreto’s denunciations of society’s abuses against women, seemingly in contrast with his accusation that feminism was a “cheap and out-of-place import.” “He advocated popular habits, but disliked soccer, samba and Carnival. He detested civil servants, but made an earning at the War Department as a clerk,” Schwarcz writes in the introduction. She advances the notion that Barreto occupied an ambivalent position both in the city space—commuting between its outlying parts and the city center—and in cultural and social spheres. Schwarcz’s biography reflects the ambiguity surrounding Barreto’s life and work in its very title—“Sad Visionary”. “Sad” denotes the notion of a disillusioned—but also obstinate—writer, while “visionary” is a word describing a person with a vision for the future but, as used by one of Barreto’s characters, describes a person who is “mad”.

COMPANHIA DAS LETRAS Barreto’s parents, João Henriques and Amália Augusta, were born to slavesCOMPANHIA DAS LETRAS

One of the aspects Schwarcz explores is Barreto’s constant wandering between reality and literature. “His texts contain vivid depictions of his surroundings, but even so he fictionalizes constantly,” she says. As an illustration of this in her book, Schwarcz recounts how Barreto signed one of the installments of Diário do hospício (Loony Bin Diary, 1953, posthumous)—which depicts the time he spent in an asylum—with the name of one of its characters (Vicente Mascarenhas), and then in Cemitério dos vivos (Cemetery of the Living, 1953, posthumous), a work of fiction, wrote “Lima Barreto” in reference to the character Vicente Mascarenhas.

Felipe Botelho Corrêa, a professor of Brazilian, Portuguese and Lusophone African literature and culture at King’s College London, recalls that critical studies on Barreto had already taken notice of how he incorporated aspects of his life in his writing. “Barreto said he never hid behind his literature, which always revealed who he really was, even though this was seen as literarily debasing,” says Botelho, noting that Barreto’s use of popular and plain language as a way to reach a larger readership was ill looked upon at the time. Hence the extensive criticism he received for writing “sloppy” literature. “Another illustration of this is in his writings for popular media, such as Careta magazine, in which he published most prolifically and which carried the same price tag as a second-class tram fare,” says Botelho, who in 2016 published Sátiras e outras subversões (Satires and other Subversions) (Penguin-Companhia das Letras), with 164 previously unpublished texts, largely written under one of Barreto’s many pseudonyms.

COMPANHIA DAS LETRAS An article in A Noite on the book Barreto was writing, with illustrations of the characters featured in the novelCOMPANHIA DAS LETRAS

Schwarcz’s book is preceded by an important biography written by historian Francisco de Assis Barbosa (1914–1991) in 1952. Barbosa published Lima Barreto’s works in a series of 17 volumes at a time when the author’s books had virtually vanished from the market. His work marked the rebirth of Barreto on the literary scene, forerunning a generation that took the writer out of limbo and back into the national literature.

Beatriz Resende, a professor in the School of Arts at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), recounts that Nicolau Sevcenko (1952–2014), a historian, and Antônio Arnoni Prado, a retired professor at the Institute of Language Studies at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), were the first to study the work of Lima Barreto in Brazil, following Barbosa’s lead. In Italy, Roberto Vecchi, now the director of the Department of Modern Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University of Bologna, was also among the pioneers in the formation of Barreto’s fortuna critica (the critical reviews and studies on him and his works). In 2004, as Resende was preparing a book series containing some of the writer’s short stories, she searched the records from his committal to an asylum in 1919, discovering the now-famous photo of a debilitated Barreto at the age of 39. “This finding brought to light aspects of his life related to alcoholism,” says the researcher.

According to Resende, at the time he died Barreto was held in high regard among Brazilian writers, but was soon forgotten as racism took hold of scientific discourse in a period marked by the exclusion of blacks from intellectual circles. She explains that one of the strengths of Barbosa’s biography is that he was able to interview living relatives and friends. He neglected, however, to address the issue of racism, determined as he was not to stray from his goal of drawing attention to the importance of his literature. “In the 1950s, literary criticism was still depreciative of Barreto’s works, which circulated primarily among historians,” says Resende.

With this fortuna crítica in mind, Schwarcz sought to develop her new biography by formulating new questions related to the racial issues that Barbosa had neglected to address in his previous work. “I stumbled upon [Lima Barreto] some 30 years ago when I was completing my doctoral dissertation and doing research on racial Darwinism,” she says. In her book she seeks to portray Barreto as a chronicler of his time—of Brazil and of black issues. According to Schwarcz, racial issues have gained salience in recent years, providing an opportunity to explore through a new lens the life and work of the Brazilian writer. “Barreto never ceased to touch upon this theme in his novels, essays, short stories, diaries and correspondence,” she argues.

Historian João José Reis, a professor in the Department of History of the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA), notes that Barreto was born in the last decade of slavery, and witnessed its abolition at the age of seven. “He suffered the racism of a society that embraced the idea that the Negro belonged to an inferior race. He was acutely aware that an explanation for much of his misfortunes could only come from a deeper understanding of what slavery had been,” she says. Reis sees Schwarcz’s biography as portraying, through the life of its subject, Brazil’s passage from slavery to an incomplete and often sequestered freedom for blacks. “By describing the context Barreto lived in, her book provides a biography not only of the individual, but also of the nation at the time of, and especially after, the abolition of slavery,” he notes.

COMPANHIA DAS LETRAS A 1914 portrait found among the records of Barreto’s committal to an asylum where he was treated for alcoholismCOMPANHIA DAS LETRAS

The new biography comes at a time the biographical genre is resurging among academic researchers in several fields. In historical retrospect, Eneida Maria de Souza, a professor of literary theory at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), explains that 40 years ago critics seldom concerned themselves with exploring the biographical side of their subjects because they considered works of art to be detached from other disciplines and from the life of their authors. Between the 1970s and 1980s, however, a new school of cultural criticism emerged that sought to understand its subjects from a broader perspective, including the life of the author and relationships with other art forms, such as filmmaking. According to Souza, this new approach seeks to interpret literature beyond its inherent boundaries. In doing so, it integrates writers’ life experiences with their texts, depicting what they experienced rather than directly and literally describing the actual facts. In the 1980s, this new form of criticism marked the resurgence of the biographical genre, in a movement that appears now to have reached its height. “As a general rule, biographies by journalists tend to be more concerned with documenting trajectories, while academic researchers’ approach to biographical narrative takes a fragmented perspective and is typically framed by a problem,” says Souza.

In 1980, Roland Barthes (1915–1980) introduced the concept of the “biographeme” in his book Camera Lucida, according to which life trajectories can only be reconstituted from details, fragments and gestures that are focused upon according to the relationship they bear with the subjectivity of the biographer. According to this concept, the biographical genre must be understood as a way to portray a reality—but without attempting to establish the truth—about the subject.

AYMORÉ MARELLA/REPRODUCED FROM THE BOOK O VELHO GRAÇA (BOITEMPO) The last photograph ever taken of Graciliano Ramos; a biography of the author by Dênis de Moraes was republished in 2012 after 20 yearsAYMORÉ MARELLA/REPRODUCED FROM THE BOOK O VELHO GRAÇA (BOITEMPO)

The biographer’s task is to assemble the pieces of an existential puzzle. The more pieces the biographer can put together, the more the biography will approach a certain degree of truth,” says Dênis de Moraes, an associate professor in the Department of Cultural Studies and Media at Fluminense Federal University (UFF), who wrote the biographies of Graciliano Ramos, Henfil, and Oduvaldo Vianna. While noting that 90% of biographies in Brazil have been produced by journalists, Moraes says the genre has gained increasing prominence in fields such as history and literature and is now recognized for its ability to shed light on a given period, or on the problems of that period. “Within this movement, elements of journalism—including the use of oral sources and less elaborate language—have also been used in the biographical works of historians and sociologists,” he explains. Alongside Moraes, Maria Augusta Fonseca, a professor in the Department of Literary Theory and Comparative Literature at USP, and philosopher Eduardo Jardim, a former resident researcher at the Brazilian National Library, are some of the scholars who have used the biographical genre to describe the life trajectories of writers, having written, respectively, the biographies of Oswald de Andrade (1990) and Mário de Andrade (2015).

SCHWARCZ, L. M. Lima Barreto: Triste visionário. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2017, 645 p.
SOUZA, E. M. Crítica cult. Belo Horizonte: Editora UFMG, 2002, 178 p.