One of the most respected Brazilian intellectuals of the 20th century, Sérgio Buarque de Holanda (1902-1982) was rarely completely satisfied with what he had written. A literary critic who became or stepped into his own as an official historian between the late 1940s and the early 1950s, he liked to rewrite his books and often gave new form and endings to old texts or texts still being written. Between 1957 and 1958, for example, he was obligated to dedicate six long months to the task of producing a thesis that would allow him to hold the History of Brazilian Civilization chair at the University of São Paulo (USP). To fulfill his academic obligations, he expanded the introduction to a book underway on the Brazilian baroque period of the 17th and 18th centuries – some of these writings would become his posthumous work Capítulos de literatura colonial (Chapters in Colonial Literature), published only in 1991 – and transformed it into Visão do paraíso (Vision of Paradise). Defended in 1958, the dissertation became a book the following year, and was one of his most significant works, along with Raízes do Brasil (Roots of Brazil) (1936), Caminhos e fronteiras (Highways and Borders) (1957) and Do Império à República (From Empire to Republic) (1972).
The year 2015 marks seventy years since Buarque de Holanda launched his first book as a historian, Monções (Monsoons), which discusses the river expeditions leaving São Paulo and moving westward during the colonial period. For a good part of his life, he attempted to rewrite the book, but he never managed to complete this goal. In early 2015, a new edition of Monções (Companhia das Letras) (Monsoons, Company of Letters), 624 pages, arrived in bookstores, and more than just commemorating this anniversary, it allows the reader to take a peek at the ongoing revisions the author made to his work. Pulled together over the last two years by historian Laura de Mello e Souza and her former student, André Sekkel Cerqueira, the new two-volume version presents in a brand new way Buarque de Holanda’s most important findings on the westward expansion by colonists in São Paulo. The first volume contains the original text as it appeared in published form in 1945. The second, called Capítulos de expansão paulista (Chapters on the westward expansion from São Paulo), brings together three chapters of Monções that were rewritten by the author probably in the 1960s and 1970s, with other texts, some of them incomplete, that made up the book O extremo Oeste (The Far West), so named in 1986 by historian José Sebastião Witter (who died in July 2014), a disciple and friend of Buarque de Holanda. “For decades, Buarque de Holanda dreamed of rewriting Monções, a work that was a companion to him throughout his life,” says De Mello e Souza, who retired from USP in 2014 and currently holds the chair in the History of Brazil at the University of Paris-Sorbonne. “Probably because he was a perfectionist and held himself to a very high standard, he could never complete this task.” One less plausible hypothesis is that the historian became bored with the topic, and he gave up the task at the end of his life.
Of the six original chapters that make up Monções, Buarque de Holanda managed to rewrite the first (“Os caminhos do sertão” [Backland roads]), the second (“O transporte fluvial” [River transport]) and the fifth (“As estradas móveis” [Mobile highways]). In addition to changes in style, the three chapters were lengthened by the addition of new data and documentation collected by the historian. They increased by 40, 17 and 37 pages, respectively. Only the new version of the book’s first chapter, “Os caminhos do sertão,” published as an article in the journal Revista de História in 1964, was completely finished, including a full bibliography. In March 2014, as the research was almost complete, Cerqueira found the original versions of the two rewritten chapters of Monções among documents in the Coleção Sérgio Buarque de Holanda (Sérgio Buarque de Holanda Collection) at the Cesar Lattes Central Library of the University of Campinas (Unicamp).
Monções may be the most representative example of Buarque de Holanda’s incessant search to update and improve his books in the wake of new documents or interpretations of historical events. Paradoxically, in spite of his best efforts, the historian was able to rewrite the book only partially. “In the 1970s, after having located a lot of material on the expansion westward from São Paulo and reworking some sections of Monções, Buarque de Holanda decided to write another book on the topic instead of rewriting this one,” says Cerqueira. The draft of this other book included the incomplete and undigested texts, which constitute the work cited above, O extremo Oeste.
Pages of writings from a notebook
Daughter of Antonio Candido and Gilda de Mello e Souza, friends of the Holanda family in São Paulo, Laura De Mello e Souza had frequent opportunities to visit the family owing to this close relationship. She remembers once visiting the historian alone, and, in the course of their conversation, Buarque de Holanda, seated in his armchair in his living room, pulled out from his pocket several pages from a notebook that contained notes he had written and rewritten by hand over time. “He showed me the pages and explained that this was how he wrote,” De Mello e Souza remembers. “I grabbed the chance and asked what he was writing. He answered that he was rewriting Monções.” Drafting was not an easy process for Buarque de Holanda, who might take up to a week before he was comfortable with the final version of a paragraph, as De Mello e Souza recalls in the preface of the new edition of Monções.
Buarque de Holanda was obsessed with the idea to rewrite this book about 40 years, according to De Mello e Souza and Cerqueira. In 1965, the already famous historian and USP professor, at the age of 62, made a plan to move forward with this personal commitment, putting together a proposal with the following intention: he sent a typed two-page letter to FAPESP, which three years before had begun operations on the 14th floor of a building on the avenida Paulista. De Mello e Souza and Cerqueira reproduce in its entirety the request for a new edition of Monções, which FAPESP authorized after obtaining the consent of his children. Dated January 29, 1965, the letter is a defense of his plan to collect more data and documentation on river navigation between São Paulo and Cuiabá during the colonial period, an undertaking that the historian estimated would take about 18 months.
The proposal was intended essentially to cover expenses related to travel, food and lodging for trips to Rio de Janeiro – the main location of important public archives like those of the National Library and the Instituto Histórico e Geográfico Brasileiro (Brazilian Historical and Geographical Institute) – and to Cuiabá, where he would do “meticulous research in the archive of manuscripts held in the Mato Grosso State Library and Public Archives.” With this new field research, Buarque de Holanda believed that he would have what he needed to produce a revised second edition of Monções. There was some urgency in getting out an updated version of the book. In his request for support, the historian confirms that the first edition had been sold out for some time. He had only one copy of it himself.
In justifying funding for the project, handwritten in the script of the time, Buarque de Holanda says “that the planned research, aimed at clarifying some of the more important aspects related to how Brazil was unified through the connecting of the Plata and Amazonas river basins, would also help to explain Brazil’s formation, illuminating the present through a study of the past.”
The timeline for the work presented by Buarque de Holanda is ambitious. He says that, “barring unforeseen events,” the fieldwork would be completed in 1965, and the new edition of the book would be ready by mid-1966. The second version of Monções would be published by Livraria José Olímpio, in its Coleção Documentos Brasileiros (Brazilian Documents Collection), according to the historian. In response to his plea, project number 65/0223-4 was approved in June 1965 and received funding from FAPESP in the amount of 550,000 cruzeiros, which is about R$8,400 in reais currently, according to the conversion rate found on the Central Bank of Brazil’s website.
But there were unforeseen events. For reasons that are still not completely understood today, Buarque de Holanda never managed to finish the new version of his old work. He did produce some writings on the topic of the westward expansion from São Paulo based on material collected not only on his trips to the former national capital and Mato Grosso but also during visits to Paraguay and Portugal. Although the book was not rewritten in the way the historian initially wanted, new versions of Monções were published. A second edition, with almost the same content as the version from 1945, was published in 1976. A third version, yet another remix of the original version, with the addition of an appendix containing the three rewritten chapters, reached the market in 1990. The current edition represents the fourth version of the original work. “When he died, I think he was working on some rewrite,” says Sérgio Buarque de Holanda Jr., known as Sergito, who is a retired professor from the USP School of Economics, Business Administration and Accounting (FEA), and one of the historian’s seven children. “But he didn’t talk a lot about his work with his children.”
Formative years as a literacy critic
Thiago Lima Nicodemo – who received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from USP and since 2014, has been a professor at Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ) – is a historian of the new generation who has been studying the work of Buarque de Holanda for the last 15 years. He agrees that the professor was always extending, editing and amending his writings. “He wanted to create a coherent intellectual legacy,” says Nicodemo, who is 35. “He was a true perfectionist.” According to Nicodemo, Buarque de Holanda tried to reinforce the historical nature of his oldest work, the predominant tone of which had been influenced by his perspective as a literary critic and essayist, by including notes and documents taken from new publications and archives. “After publishing Monções, Buarque de Holanda rewrote Raízes do Brasil with this concern in mind,” he says. “In subsequent versions of the book, he attempted to water down the essay style of Raízes, generating more cohesion with his new perspective as a professional historian.”
In 2008, Nicodemo published a book on Buarque de Holanda’s intellectual journey over the course of the 1950s after he wrote Visão do paraíso. This month, he is publishing another book on him, Alegoria moderna – Crítica literária e história da literatura na obra de Sérgio Buarque de Holanda (Modern Allegory – Literary Criticism and the History of Literature in the Works of Sérgio Buarque de Holanda) (Editora FAP-Unifesp, 384 pages). In this book, he focuses on the historian’s formative years – it would be more accurate to say decades –– which laid the groundwork for his works as a literary critic and steadily pushed him to the boundaries of history. Alegoria moderna grew out of research Nicodemo conducted for his dissertation at USP, supported by funding from FAPESP, in the early 2010s. “I analyzed the relationship between Buarque de Holanda’s output of literary criticism and of historical writings, using as core documents articles published in newspapers like Diário de Notícias and Diário Carioca, and works published between 1940 and 1961,” says Nicodemo, who also works as a researcher at the Institute of Brazilian Studies (IEB) at USP.
Before he finally embraced the work of research in archives and the search for sources and documents on which he could base his historical research on Brazil, Buarque de Holanda worked as a journalist, essayist and literary critic. Since the 1920s, when he was active as a militant in the modernist movement in São Paulo and became friends with Mário de Andrade, he became interested in writing, an activity to which he would dedicate himself two decades later. “In the 1940s, he wrote literary criticism to stay alive, publishing the most between 1948 and 1952,” says Nicodemo. When he accepted the History of Brazilian Civilization chair at USP in 1958, his activities as a literary critic, which had been decreasing in the preceding years, came to a definitive stop, according to Nicodemo.
While he was conducting research, Nicodemo spent some time in Italy, where Buarque lived between 1952 and 1954, and where he taught at the University of Rome. In that European country, the literary critic who was becoming a historian came into contact with archives and bibliographical sources that were useful to him in his work analyzing literary texts produced in the Portuguese colony. “Many of the poetic forms used by Luso-Brazilian authors in the 17th and 18th centuries originated in Italy, as is the case, for example, of the arcade movement,” says the UERJ researcher.
New editions of books by Buarque de Holanda and more books on the literary critic and historian are expected to appear soon. Pedro Meira Monteiro, a full professor at Princeton University in the United States where he gives classes in Latin American studies, with a specific emphasis on Brazilian literature, is preparing a biography on Buarque de Holanda. Monteiro, who edited a book of correspondence from Buarque de Holanda and Mário de Andrade in 2012, is also working with anthropologist Lilia Schwarcz of USP on an annotated critical edition of Raízes do Brasil. Buarque de Holanda’s most well known work turns 80 in 2016. If Monções deserved a shiny new version when it reached its 70th, the 80th birthday of the most classic work of one of the most important Brazilian thinkers of all times is a good pretext for getting reacquainted with his life and work.
1. A sense of the past: history and literary criticism in the works of Sérgio Buarque de Holanda (1940-1961) (2006/50659-5); Grant Mechanism: Scholarships in Brazil – Doctoral; Principal Investigator: Raquel Glezer (FFLCH-USP); Grant Recipient: Thiago Lima Nicodemo (FFLCH-USP); Investment: R$133,153.80 (FAPESP).
2. River navigation between São Paulo and Cuiabá in the XIX and XX centuries (65/0223-4); Grant Mechanism: Regular Line of Research Project Award; Principal Investigator: Sérgio Buarque de Holanda (USP); Investment: 550,000 cruzeiros, about R$8,400 today (FAPESP).