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Brazilianist par excellence

U.S. historian Thomas Skidmore authored a classic study on Republican Brazil

Historian Skidmore: a pioneer in studies on the military regime

Brown University CollectionHistorian Skidmore: a pioneer in studies on the military regimeBrown University Collection

The term “Brazilianist” began gaining currency in the 1970s as a somewhat controversial label for a generation of non-Brazilian, and mainly Anglo-Saxon, historians who turned their attention to Brazil at a time when local scholarship was fettered by the scrutiny of the military regime. Among the top names in this area were Kenneth Maxwell, of Britain, and Robert Levine (1941-2003) and Thomas Skidmore, both Americans. Skidmore, the most well known of the three, passed away on June 11, 2016, at the age of 85, two days after suffering a heart attack. The historian, who had Alzheimer’s disease, had been living in a nursing home in Westerley, Rhode Island, since 2009.

“Thomas Skidmore holds an eminent place in the historiography of Brazil,” says historian Marcos Napolitano, professor at the School of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences, of the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP). “For a long time, Politics in Brazil, 1930-64: An Experiment in Democracy and The Politics of Military Rule in Brazil, 1964-85 were the only textbooks on contemporary Brazilian political and social history.” In the opinion of Carlos Fico, historian at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), the first of these two books “dared to address the Republican period and the 1964 coup, when, at the university, contemporary Brazil was being studied only as far as Getúlio Vargas.” According to Fico, “Skidmore inspired an entire generation of Brazilian historians, who are currently producing notable scholarship on the Republican period.”

Skidmore received his PhD in modern European history from Harvard. He went to Brazil on a post-doctoral fellowship in 1961, just days after President Jânio Quadros stepped down. The decision to change his field of study was encouraged by the heads of the institution that wanted to make up for the limited number of studies on Latin America done in the United States. The historian once said that he and other Brazilianists back then decided to focus on the region because of the interest sparked by the Cuban revolution (1959). Skidmore’s three years in Brazil yielded the now classic Politics in Brazil, 1930-64.  Published in the United States in 1967, the book was released in Brazil two years later under the title Brasil, de Getúlio a Castelo, 1930-64 (Brazil: from Getúlio to Castelo).

In 1988, Skidmore released a continuation entitled The Politics of Military Rule in Brazil, 1964-85, which covers the period from the military coup to the 1985 death of president-elect Tancredo Neves. In an interview to the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo in November 2012, the Brazilianist said that he knew about the coup the night before it happened, when he had dinner with Lincoln Gordon, then U.S. ambassador to Brazil. The fact that Skidmore enjoyed access to privileged sources and presented an American view of the history of Brazil fueled criticisms on the part of some members of Brazilian academia.

Responding to these criticisms in the same interview to Folha, Skidmore said that the viewpoint presented in his books was not his but rather that of his Brazilian colleagues and the Brazilians he interviewed, including San Tiago Dantas, chancellor under João Goulart, and historian Caio Prado Júnior. When the latter was arrested by the dictatorship in 1970, Skidmore was among those who signed a letter of protest. “What his books on Brazil effectively convey is the viewpoint of a liberal foreigner, based on a perspective that is relatively distanced from political passions in Brazil,” Napolitano says.

Skidmore began teaching at the University of Wisconsin in 1966, where he stayed for 20 years. While there, he served as editor of the journal Luso-Brazilian Review. He went on to head the Center for Latin American and Caribbean studies at Brown University, where he remained until his retirement in 1999. Skidmore wrote two other books on Brazil: Black Into White: Race and Nationality in Brazilian Thought (1974) and, in Portuguese only, O Brasil visto de fora (Brazil seen from the outside, 1994), a collection of essays.