Epistolary methodology

A Franco-Brazilian project establishes criteria for the publication of intellectual correspondence

The publication of letters between writers, while traditional in countries such as France, is an editorial activity that has only recently—more precisely, since the beginning of this century—gained traction in Brazil. A survey of publications of correspondence between Brazilian intellectuals carried out by researcher Marcos Antonio de Moraes, from the Institute of Brazilian Studies of the University of São Paulo (IEB-USP), indicates that 301 such titles were published between 1872 and November 2017, with 125 published just since 2000.

The finding that the growth of this published material was not accompanied by a corresponding methodological effort was one of the motivating factors in the creation of the project “Artífices da correspondência: Procedimentos teóricos, metodológicos e críticos na edição de cartas” (Artists of correspondence: Theoretical, methodological, and critical procedures in letter editing). The project was coordinated by Moraes and fellow IEB researcher Antonio Dimas, both professors of Brazilian literature, working with Claudia Poncioni, a professor at the Department of Iberian and Latin American Studies at the Sorbonne Nouvelle University—Paris 3. Between 2013 and 2016 the study united Brazilian, Portuguese, and French researchers dedicated to epistolography—the study of letters and correspondence—with the support of the Office of the Dean of Research of USP and the French Committee for the Evaluation of University-Level Cooperation with Brazil.

“One of the objectives was to define methodological criteria regarding procedures for establishing letter texts and for enhancing editorial annotation,” says Moraes. There are general methodological parameters, such as updating spelling and doing particular types of annotation, and other, more specific parameters that are determined by the type of reader you want to reach with the publication. What matters to philologists and historians may not be relevant to lay readers. This means prioritizing the readability of the text and its historical and linguistic context. Another aspect involved “the study of letters as a subject and as a source for research,” which saw contributions from experts in philology, textual criticism, and several other areas of study. Research conducted in France from the mid-1960s onwards was used as a parameter. These were studies that had extended the literary concerns beyond the structural reading of the texts, the predominant mode until then, and moved into the field of cultural criticism. According to Eneida Maria de Souza, a professor of literary theory at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), “cultural criticism has filled a void when it comes to approaching the work of a specific author, by turning to other fields of writing, such as correspondence, diaries, the production of a literary life, and the historical and contextual aspect of the work of that specific author.”

Although this trend only began to take hold in Brazil in the 1980s, Moraes points out that the context in which literary works were produced has always been important in the ​​USP literature department, thanks to the influence of literary critic Antonio Candido. In a study on Mário de Andrade in 1946, Candido concluded that “his correspondence will fill volumes, and will perhaps be the greatest monument of the genre in the Portuguese language: it will have fervent devotees and only his correspondence will allow a complete view of his work and his spirit.”

Moraes, whose “life’s work” is to organize and publish Andrade’s “collected correspondence”, which is scattered in archives in Brazil and abroad, saw his proximity to the writer’s epistolary collection at IEB as an incentive for the creation of the “Artists of Correspondence” project. In 1989, as the 50th anniversary of the writer’s death drew near—the earliest publication date stipulated in his will—the institute began to organize the writer’s Correspondence Series, under the coordination of professor Telê Ancona Lopez. “Andrade probably set that date thinking of the testament to the configuration of an intense network of sociability among the modernists,” Moraes supposes, recalling that the writer dealt with both aesthetic and social issues in his correspondence with poets Carlos Drummond de Andrade and Manuel Bandeira, and visual artists Anita Malfatti and Tarsila do Amaral. Currently the bibliography of Mário de Andradre’s correspondence includes more than 40 volumes. The first was organized by Bandeira in 1958.

Moraes noticed that in many editions of Andrade’s correspondence, as with other publications in the genre, there were issues of reliability due to methodological weaknesses, and even edits to the texts, without these abridgements being communicated to the reader. Even Bandeira resorted to this expedient when publishing his correspondence with Andrade, but made this clear in his preface.

Faced with this situation, and discussing it with French epistolography researchers, the group based at IEB began to propose new methodologies. “In general, the reader needs additional information, such as annotations, to understand names, expressions of the day, and historical context,” says Moraes. Since the printing of letters in book form doesn’t fully restore the complexity of the original manuscript (Bandeira, for example, wrote one letter on bread-wrapping paper), it’s important to prioritize the material presence of the documents, including calligraphy, graphic elements created by the correspondents, letterheads, and watermarks. Moraes evokes the French specialist, Philippe Lejeune, dedicated to the study of “self-writing” (autobiography, diaries, etc.), for whom a letter is an object, a text, and an act. For this reason, the explication of these material aspects suggests that the editions come accompanied with facsimiles.

“The project that later became known as ‘Artists of Correspondence’ originated with the works linked to the edition of Mário de Andrade’s epistolary dialogues, which have been published in the collection Correspondência Mário de Andrade (Mário de Andrade correspondence). The editions were completed by several researchers guided by consistent methodological principles—which we can call scientific—permitting the letters to be a reliable object of, and source for, further studies,” says Moraes. Andrade’s letters present challenges, such as maintaining his unorthodox use of language. He would write, for example, “eu sube” (I neu) instead of “eu soube” (I knew). “If this form of linguistic experimentalism isn’t respected by the editors, something very important is lost—the author’s intention to create a new kind of literary expression in accordance with his nationalist project.”

On the other hand, old orthographic forms—such as “ph” instead of “f”—should be updated, unless it is an edition specifically aimed at philologists. The use of italics for foreign words deserved special care in the case of correspondence between modernists. Such graphical highlighting was avoided with French expressions due to the informal way they are used in the letters, given that French was almost an everyday language for the Brazilian intellectual elite of the time. Italics would give the idea that the use of these idioms was exceptional and perhaps even ironic.

From this arises the importance of the explanatory notes. Today, editors understand that an unknown name can be found by the reader using an internet search, but it is still necessary to explain the reason the reference appears, if this isn’t clear in the text. The same is true of lost linguistic codes. For example, the presence of the phrase “from the tip” in a letter by the poet Cecilia Meirelles to her daughters is a reference to the slang expression “from the tip of the ear,” which signified something very good.

The absence of cultural or philological knowledge in some cases can promote the perpetuation of misunderstandings. “The text in the letters often ends up being modified by a compilation’s editor,” explains Moraes. “It may happen that the person doesn’t know a word and puts another in its place that he does know.” This can combine with difficulties with the letter writer’s handwriting. For many years the published edition of a letter from Machado de Assis to his then-fiancée Carolina included the expression “we will burn the world,” considered enigmatic and contrary to the writer’s temperament. A return to the originals led to the conclusion that the correct phrase was “we will travel the world.”

An interesting fact about the correspondence of Mário de Andrade is that the writer saved the letters he received, but rarely kept copies of those he wrote. Today we know of more than 7,000 letters received by Andrade, but “only” 2,500 that he sent. What there is, however, makes it possible to create or complement a generous profile of the writer, though it demands caution. “Andrade didn’t write an autobiography or leave a diary,” says Moraes. “In the letters there is the construction of a very peculiar individual, shaped over time; hence a ‘character’ not without contradictions, from a diachronic perspective,” he continues. “Even when he writes to two or three people on the same day, a number of ‘presentations’ of himself are apparent. His language is shaped in relation to the other person.” Treating letter texts like factual statements from a biography is therefore “hazardous,” the researcher cautions.

One case that raises questions is that of two letters written in the 1940s by Andrade to the future politician Carlos Lacerda, then a young intellectual. The material was examined by IEB researcher Rodrigo Jorge Ribeiro Neves, who collaborated with Moraes on the publication of a dossier derived from the “Artists of Correspondence” project, published this year in the IEB journal Revista do IEB. Neves concluded that the letters were never sent. The texts reveal the writer’s certain displeasure in relation to criticisms of his work made by the intended recipient, in addition to dilemmas regarding his own political actions, a distaste provoked by Lacerda. Andrade was critical of the authoritarianism of the Estado Novo (the New State; 1937–1945), even while working for various public agencies.

“Along the way between writing the letter and sealing the envelope something occurred in the author’s regard for what is exposed in the letter,” muses Neves. For Neves, one of the most important aspects of the dossier was “in several cases, to give continuity to projects that had already been developed by researchers from institutions other than IEB, who had not been working with the original collections.” Among the research centers that traditionally turn to epistolography, he cites UFMG, which houses the correspondence of Minas Gerais authors, the Home of Rui Barbosa Foundation (FCRB) in Rio de Janeiro, and the Brazilian Academy of Letters, which has published four volumes of the correspondence of Machado de Assis since 2000.

In an earlier work done while at the FCRB, Institute of Brazilian Studies researcher Ieda Lebensztayn conducted a study of unpublished letters by Graciliano Ramos, whose archive is housed at the IEB. Lebensztayn’s work is detailed in the IEB journal. Several of these texts show Ramos’s strategy of viewing some of his novels as collections of intertwined tales, which can be verified in Vidas secas (Barren Lives), among other books. Ieda also dedicated herself to the letters Ramos sent and received while corresponding with French interlocutors regarding the publication of his works in France. In them, the writer makes evident his admiration for the legacy of Honoré de Balzac. The correspondence shows the humorous side of a man generally considered to be taciturn. In 1931, addressing the young poet Aloisio Branco, Ramos wrote: “You didn’t send me your address, naturally because you live beyond this world. Unfortunately, the postman doesn’t go to these places you frequent—and I am forced to choose an intermediate region, the Catholic Bookstore.”

1. General correspondence, collected correspondence: Methodological, critical and interpretative requirements (No. 13/21659-0); Grant Mechanism Grant for Research Abroad; Principal Investigator Marcos Antonio de Moraes (USP); Investment R$32,738.58.
2. Between literature and conflict: A reliable and annotated edition of the correspondence of Mário de Andrade and Carlos Lacerda (No. 16/18804-7); Grant Mechanism Postdoctoral Grant; Principal Investigator Marcos Antonio de Moraes (USP); Scholarship Beneficiary Rodrigo Jorge Ribeiro Neves; Investment R$201,573.18.
3. The style of Graça, in his letters. The organization and study of the Graciliano Ramos Correspondence Series at the Institute of Brazilian Studies-USP (No. 10/12034-9); Modality Postdoctoral Grant; Principal Investigator Marco Antonio de Moraes (USP); Scholarship Beneficiary Ieda Lebensztayn; Investment R$205,769.04.

Scientific article
Dossiê Artífices da correspondência. Revista do Instituto de Estudos Brasileiros. V. 1, p. 103–220, 240–74. 2017.