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My dear Baby Flag!

The exchange of letters and projects between Manuel Bandeira and Gilberto Freyre

Gilberto FreyreManuel Bandeira (above) and Freyre: a friendship based on the exchange of correspondence and projectsGilberto Freyre

“I know a chap in Pernambuco, whose name I do not write, because it’s taboo and because he cultivates  this provincialism with great modesty. He graduated in sociology from Columbia University, travelled to Europe, stopped over in Oxford. He will shortly release a big book on the formation of Brazilian social life. But he insists on being provincial, a native of Pernambuco, from the city of Recife,” wrote Manuel Bandeira (1886-1969) in his essay Sou provinciano [I am provincial], dated 1933. The poet, with his typical  economy of style and in just a few lines, conveyed the curriculum of his great friend Gilberto Freyre (1900-1987), announced his work The masters and the slaves (released at the end of that year) and, to boot, allowed himself the luxury of leaking to the papers’ readers the secret intellectual project that the two had maintained in correspondence: the paradoxical, modern and healthy universality of being provincial. “One of the pillars of Brazilian literature, Bandeira indicates, clashing head-on with the vanguard trends of his times, that he had learnt from his young friend Freyre to shape his notion of ‘being provincial’ that, for the two of them, was a communication vehicle of memorialistic nature that maintained a strong relationship with the local environment. For them, as one can see in their correspondence, being provincial was not pejorative,” explains Silvana Moreli Dias, a literary theory researcher who recently presented her doctoral thesis, Cartas provincianas: a correspondência entre Gilberto Freyre and Manuel Bandeira [Provincial letters: the correspondence between Gilberto Freyre and Manuel Bandeira] at USP’s Literary Theory Department, under the guidance of Professor Viviana Bosi.

“The letters allow one to understand the authors and their works in greater depth, and help to understand this project that they maintained jointly. Here, while keeping a precarious balance between regionalism and universalism, modernity and tradition, localism and cosmopolitanism, they developed discourses that reveal the boundaries of the progressive, rational values of the capitalism that, they believed, leads to deeper individualism and plunders experience,” comments the researcher. The correspondence, most of which had never been published before, comprises letters, postcards, drawing and telegrams, a correspondence partnership that began in 1925 and  persisted until 1966, an arena in which they discussed literature, politics, ideas about life, needled their adversaries and thought about Brazil. “In these letters, the piecemeal aspects of daily life are shuffled back and forth: on one hand, Bandeira, a man from Recife established in Rio de Janeiro, makes the most of this to keep up his relationships in his home city and to acquire some ‘provincialism’. On the other hand, Freyre, the cosmopolitan man from Recife, who can experience and just about be part of the chitchat in the intellectual circles of Rio de Janeiro,” says Silvana. The closeness between the two was great, and good-humored. In these letters, Bandeira [a surname that, in Portuguese, means flag] becomes Baby Flag or Mr. Baby [Seu Nenê in Portuguese], among other nicknames. Curiously, this relationship arose as a result of letters exchanged in 1925, when Freyre asked the poet to write an evocation of Recife to be published in the newspaper Diário de Pernambuco. Unwittingly, the sociologist had touched upon a sore spot in his friend’s intellectual sensibility. “When I think about my Recife childhood and my adult years, I’m astonished at the emptiness of the latter as compared to the density of the former, bygone time,” wrote Baby Flag. Freyre, admittedly, realized that there lay an intellectual path to be pursued by both of them: “Mr. Baby, tell me seriously when you will come over here. You need to see sugarcane mills, walk about the hinterlands of Pernambuco, rather than just having an impression  of Recife floating around in your recollections,” he asked the poet.

“Thus, an intense dialogue was established between them, as the consolidated artist that Bandeira was, learned from the young Freyre. The letters show how there was some overlap between the Brazilian Northeast of the sociologist and the South of a certain modernistic group,” analyzes Sonia. They met in person a year later, in 1926, when Freyre travelled to Rio. “I’m going to visit Bandeira. Santa Teresa. Lovely place, but a poor man’s house. When I say who I am he bursts into laughter that shows off his notorious toothiness. There’s nobody that’s more of a man from Pernambuco. As we’ve been corresponding with each other for over a year, I feel as if we’re old friends,” wrote Freyre. “The context of the correspondence between the two was one in which intellectuals and artists tried to expand their cordial circle and bring together modernity and tradition, a project that in a way was emblematic of the mixture of modernization and conservatism that was the New State.” According to the researcher, the age difference between the two and Bandeira’s consolidated fame caused different and deeply personal aspects to emerge in the letters. “Bandeira was one of the few that escaped from the quixotic fury of the young aspiring writer. In the face of the sober and discrete writer, the future ‘master from Apipucos’ [a district in the city of Recife] writes more simply, without the semantic flourishes of his baroque style. It is a Franciscan ideal of life and of writing.” On Bandeira’s side, the freedom to talk lyrically about daily life, as in the letter in which he described a prosaic outing to Cambuquira and Campanha, where the poet had lived: “There’s a street over there that is truly charming: so genuinely Brazilian, so good that it makes you feel like living on it. The outing was at night  under the moon. In front of the two houses in which we had lived, and where I went through hell, I felt drained, with a lump in my throat.” No subject was taboo.

Gilberto Freyre

“The doctors are forever telling me to go to the mountains. I’ve been enjoying my stay here. It’s been a long time since I was last surrounded by greenery; a long time since I last enjoyed the pleasure of a horse grazing in the street,” he told Baby Flag, talking about one of his therapeutic trips because of the tuberculosis he had suffered  since 1904. “I hope the flu has passed you sideways, and moved on to feast on fat people, who are, incidentally, more to its taste,” cheerfully responded his sociologist friend. The poet always retributed the care of his friend, helping him in everything possible, from putting him up in Rio de Janeiro to sending books to him in the USA, where Freyre had gone to study, or even to tell him, paternally, about the domestic success of The masters and the slaves. “The sociologist is  the order of the day thanks to the publication of the great The masters and the slaves. This turned out to be a big handsome tome that is becoming known as the Pernambuco Ulysses. What was really naughty were the clichés of the photographs,” wrote Flag in 1934. The letters reveal how his help was fundamental to the writing of Freyre’s work and  to help the sociologist  establish himself professionally in Brazil, even when “his ears were pulled.” “We’re rather worried about the master from Recife, because it seems to us that he’s ill-inclined to show his face around here to teach sociology at the new university. See if you can postpone the course promised to the students over there and come here. Who knows whether the change of air might not clear up the attack of boils that has been plaguing you?”

Thus, it is to Baby Flag that Freyre reveals, in 1929, his greatest project, in a letter that voiced a drawback: “This is sent with a note of confidentiality.” And it continues: “I’m using my savings to buy books about private life in Brazil, about the family. This work (and you are one of the very few to know about it) is connected with a study, from the psychological and historical point of view, that has had me in its grip for years: a study that would have to start with the life of a boy among our Indians. It’s an original field, a virgin one, that would not be treated in a literary manner. After talking about the Indians, there would be chapters on the colonizers, etc. You have to help me, with your rare intelligence. A lot of discretion, so that the men of letters don’t find out,” said Freyre, announcing the structure of the yet to be written The masters and the slaves. However, there were other reasons for his horror of literati: “Yesterday J. told me that he had heard, in a circle of intellectuals, that it was impossible for me to be the astonishing figure they say I am in terms of learning, being the bohemian that I am. That is because I’m seen in whorehouses and popular clubs. It’s true, my way of becoming impregnated with Brazilian life such as is experienced by simple people, by the blacks, that refined people talk about as if they were from another world,” complained the sociologist. “The history of this well-trodden province (in the sense of having been heavily walked on, and linked to the ground, but also in the sense of being downtrodden and repressed), in the hands of Freyre and Bandeira, is similar to the strength with which both try to drag certain marginal elements, such as the African heritage, into the limelight of intellectual and artistic debate,” analyzes the researcher. “For them, experiencing this closeness with the man in the street has its contradictions. They approach popular culture and the bohemian life, but do not give up traces of aristocratic behavior as their personal trademark. I have my doubts as to whether the political experience of both really was democratic.” The letters do not lie about this either, in particular about the favors bestowed by the Getulio Vargas dictatorship.

“Jaime Ovalle continues in the same way. The genius was about to become a teacher at Lambary. Now he’s trying to dig up a job with the revolution (1930). The true vocation of this genius isn’t painting, it’s bureaucracy. Unfortunately, no national statesman has recognized this yet,” Flag bitterly stated, being still unaware of Vargas’s “wisdom” regarding such matters. Little by little, as from 1945, the correspondence becomes more laconic, mainly salutations rather than letters, though with a few exceptions. “I’m depressed by the political events (the resignation of President Janio Quadros in 1961). What  Brazil is this! How hard it is to love it. I’ve given up. Let it be whatever God wills,” laments Bandeira. Or when the letters reveal the project of bringing Thomas Mann to Brazil. “My dear Flag. Someone sent a little article of mine, in which I suggest paying tribute to Thomas Mann, the son of  a Brazilian woman, to our country. It seems that the old man was moved, saying that he found the idea entirely satisfactory. What should one do? I ask you and other bigwigs to make this come true,” Freyre asked his friend. Finally, we get to the death of Bandeira, in 1968, who did not pass away, however, before sending the sociologist a letter with a drawing of his done in his apartment, recollecting, perhaps, the bygone days in which he had tried to become an architect. “Here you have a clumsily drawn view from my flat. The rent has jumped from 650 to 3,000! But it’s well worth it. The sun comes into the bedroom in the morning and pulls my clothes from the closet. The landscape is a full spread: airport, small port with boats and even a home on the lake plus watchdog. At your disposal. Yours, Baby Flag.”