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A public intellectual

The versatile Nicolau Sevcenko was one of the most famous Brazilian historians

In the classroom: a rare ability to attract youths with his broad vision of history

RENATA CAFARDO / AEIn the classroom: a rare ability to attract youths with his broad vision of historyRENATA CAFARDO / AE

Nicolau Sevcenko loved Alice in Lewis Carroll’s book and referred to her as “our heroine and source of inspiration.” “Wherever she detected arrogance or disrespect, she reacted immediately and confronted the offender on an equal footing, fearlessly and without bowing down,” he said, commenting on a new edition of Alice In Wonderland that he translated himself. “Alice still is and always will be the best lesson in ethics, irreverence and nonconformity, for children and adults alike.”

Sevcenko was 61 when he passed away on August 13, 2014 at his home in São Paulo. He was irreverent and a nonconformist like Alice. Without putting his academic career on the back burner (he was a professor in the History Department of the USP Faculty of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences (FFLCH) and at Harvard University in the United States), he was a risk-taker and sought out relationships between subjects and fields that on the surface appeared to have little in common. He helped readers understand the world in his weekly column in the magazine CartaCapital and he spoke with young students in every field whenever possible.

Sevcenko was one of the most famous Brazilian historians. He was a public intellectual, as a journalist from Harvard called him. “In the humanities at USP in the 1990s,” Flávio Moura, a journalist with a PhD in sociology from USP, recalled in his blog: Sevcenko “was a superstar.” “Students who were not officially registered for his courses stood in line to hear the professor speak. He was a pioneer in a radical form of interdisciplinarity. He was one of the greatest authorities on Euclides da Cunha and Lima Barreto, although literature was not his field. He was the author of enlightening insights into the experience of the great cities, although he was not an urban planner.” He was interested in studying and pondering fields as diverse as literature, film, science, medicine, architecture, art, contemporary issues and other topics in the field of cultural history.

Sevcenko was born in Santos, a coastal city in São Paulo State. When he was still a small child, he moved to the city of São Paulo with his family of Ukrainian origin. He collected metals for recycling and worked as an office boy to survive. He completed his studies in history at USP in 1975, began to study Brazilian culture, did post-doctorate work at the University of London and lectured at USP from 1985 to 2012, when he retired. Starting in 2010 he had been a professor of Romance languages and literature at Harvard, where he had made his first appearance as a visiting professor in 2004. At Harvard, his talks to American and Latino students extended beyond just literature to include bossa nova, Juscelino Kubitschek, Jango and Lina Bo Bardi – and they were in Portuguese.

Since teaching was not enough to satisfy his intellectual curiosity, Sevcenko organized, edited or translated many academic books and articles. In 1999 he won the Jabuti Prize for his book entitled História da vida privada no Brasil (History of Private Life in Brazil). In the August 17, 2014 issue of Folha de São Paulo, Laura de Mello e Souza, professor of history at USP, wrote: “Nicolau’s books will be around forever. They are classics that anyone who studies the history of Brazilian culture has read and will read, and readers will always find the books enchanting.”

The historian who looked into the past also pondered the major changes in today’s world. “Technology must move out of the narrow scope of economics and be inserted into a broader sphere,” he suggested, “as one of the basics for transforming the social realm.”