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Reading was a sensation

Brazil once had a large publishing market, with popular books that sold millions of copies

Elzira loved Amâncio, but her parents wanted her to marry the rich Dr. Siqueira. All in vain. The young lady, with tuberculosis, pretended that she was taking the medicine only to, hidden from view, fill handkerchiefs and handkerchiefs with blood. In the end, dying in front of her lover, called in the end to her home, and a final purity  to her sister: “When I die… don’t allow… anybody to wash me, nobody to see my body… you yourself … wash me, yes?” In this manner ended the tragic story of Elzira, a morta virgem [Elzira, the virgin dead], an 1883 book that sold thousands of copies and was re-published until 1924. During the same time, O aborto [The Abortion], whose protagonist, Maricota, seduces her cousin, becomes pregnant and dies while having an abortion, sold in fifteen days 5,000 copies. My Triste Fim de Policarpo Quaresma  [The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma], of which I had 2,000 copies printed, some two years ago, is a long way from being sold out”, Lima Barreto complained at that time in a letter to Monteiro Lobato.

Today, Elzira and Maricota are forgotten, but continue on as evidence that Brazil had been a country effectively made up of men and books, to parody the hopeful phrase of author Lobato. “There had been a publishing market in constant evolution, which had looked to attend to the salaried consumer masses that were growing daily. It was surprising for me to discover that some romances at the end of the 19th century attained the sales volume of dozens of thousands of copies”, explains Alessandra El Far, the author of Páginas de sensação: literatura popular e pornográfica no Rio de Janeiro (1870-1924) [Sensational Pages: popular literature and pornography in Rio de Janeiro (1870 – 1924), her doctorate thesis that had FAPESP’s financial support and has now been transformed into a book via the publisher Companhia das Letras.

“The idea of the popular book in Brazil is nothing new. In today’s world we find in the metro station machines that sell books for R$ 3.00, but only some titles. The vast majority of books are expensive”, she evaluates. “But in Rio in days gone by, reading was the main vehicle of entertainment with cheap and popular romances that dialogued, in a clearly straight manner, with the problems, dilemmas and anxieties of Brazilian society of that time”. The booksellers of that period made cheap editions with immense lists of authors and their works that covered all of the areas of knowledge. “The intention was to make the book stop being an expensive product, restricted only to the circles of the elite lettered readers, but to extend its consumption to an unlimited mass of readers”, says Alessandra.

The competition was fierce. “Everyone knows: the living, the dead, even ghosts, which only in the Livraria do Povo [The People’s Bookshop] can one find cheap books. Even dead bodies rise up to take advantage of our bargains”, swore an advert of that time. “The excuse that you cannot read because the book is expensive is not justified today”, advised the venerable publisher Laemmert on launching his collection Econômica [Economic]. Whoever goes by the cover doesn’t go by the content: instead of luxurious covers, editions with paper-backed covers, poor quality paper, high print run and lots of graphics. It is worth recalling: the expression “popular book” wasn’t tied to its content, but to its format, namely cheap and accessible.

But was there such a public in a country that, at the end of the 19th century, had 80% illiteracy? The exception, honorable that gave breath to this industry of reading, was the federal capital, Rio, which had more than half of its population literate, and therefore, ready to consume. A work had an initial print run of 1,000 copies, but many, with their direct appeal to the public, managed to overcome five times this amount. “Reading instruction diffused even to the lowest classes. The book has spread out; has stopped being a rare object and reached the people”, wrote a chronicler of the Jornal do Brasil in 1900.

Effectively during the decade of 1880, the price of a book in the brochure format was low, varying from 100 to 1,000 Reis. At the same time, a dozen photographs would have cost 5,000 Reis, a cheap dinner around 3,000 Reis and a hat could cost up to 16,000 Reis. As well as the price, access was facilitated with sales by street vendors in the center of the city. The popularization reached such a pitch that even an outsider such as João do Rio had criticized the popular stories, talking about the pernicious effects of reading them. “It was said that in prison, Carlito da Saúde, in jail for disorderly conduct, dived into reading Carlos Magno. He lived through a violent agitation.

On finishing the book he announced that he would kill a man on leaving prison. And, on the day of his release, he knifed a person unknown to him. Only this book has caused more deaths than a battle in a war”, João do Rio had written. But the important thing was to sell and the publishers chased after the texts that would satisfy the reader’s curiosity. In general they managed it. “Olavo Bilac stated that if a foreigner were to pass by most certainly he would be shaken with the publication of a dozen daily newspapers and with our spontaneous literary production”, said the researcher.

Whether it be made up of delicate and Parnassian poems or titles such as O trágico fim da desgraçada Sofia [The tragic end of disgraced Sofia], A flor do martírio [The flower of martyrdom] or A desgraça chorando por mais [The disgrace crying for more] or even As desgraças de Emília [The disgraces of Emilia], they would serve as a lesson for virtuous and sensitive souls. “Many of these romances sprung from a reality that permeated the moral values, shared by all of the personalities who would later delve into situations of complete anomaly, and for this reason, they propitiated the exacerbation of sentiments and unraveled the repugnant actions in the day to day happenings of conventional society”, the author observed. Anything was valid to bring about “sensations” in the readers.

Even those that were disagreeable and close to reality. “Although the stories repeatedly reaffirmed the importance of values in marriage, virginity and the family, the apex of the narrative consisted of the moment in which all of these principals lost their efficacy and turned in the opposite direction”, observed   Alessandra. “At these moments of transgressing of the rules, the usurping of good customs and the breakdown of life in society, these romances reached the peak of their emotions and had explored to the maximum the vexations of the personalities”. Thus, the story of Elzira, a morta virgem, not only narrated disgrace with “sensationalism”, but had dramatized the conflict because many families of that time had passed through the decline of paternalism, in which the children wanted to make their own choices. “Romances that challenged, in their way, the integrity of a society anxious for the status of a civilize nation”, analyzes Alessandra.

But for each dead virgin there was a pleiad of others little disposed to guard their purity and who would do all to please the reader of the so called “romances for men”, with their pornographic narratives with title such as Os serões do convento [The overtime workers of the convent], that had gone on sale for more than forty years, or Memórias de frei Saturnino [Memories of Friar Saturnino] or Amar, gozar, morrer [Love, laugh (or sexually come) and die]. “The hot character of a story, instead of being linked only to a number of described sexual relations, had found itself also linked to the capacity  of the narrative to dialogue with concerns, desires and conflicts of that era”, the researcher analyzes. “In a world whose moral rules were known by all, the heroes and heroines of these ‘romances for men’ had shown enormous disposition to get around conventions and to ignore repressor agents, in order to enjoy what they knew to be repudiated by the moral standing of that era.”

If the “sensational romances” had a central moral in that the rules of society were placed in check, in “romances for men” good behavior was forgotten by all. Thus the Fogo [Fire] collection offered “forty diverse positions with respective explanations, making it into the most prodigious tonic for raising impoverished organisms”, as its editor explained. The apex of the genre was Mademoiselle Cinema [Miss Cinema], by Benjamin Costallat, which managed to sell, over three editions, close to 25,000 copies. “Whether it be the ‘sensational romances’, or the ‘romances for men’, the secret of success was in selling, at an accessible price, books whose themes dwelt upon social standards and the culture of that epoch, placing on the agenda the expectations, fears and anxieties of a representative portion of Carioca society”, evaluates Alessandra. For so much, it was worthwhile to die a virgin.

The project
Adventure, sensationalism and pornography: the best-sellers at the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th century (nº 97/14348-4); Modality
Doctoral Scholarship; Supervisor Lilia Katri Moritz Schwarcz – FFLCH/USP; Grant Holder Alessandra El Far – FFLCH/USP