Literary giant Euclides da Cunha, photo by www.cmcantagalo.rj.gov.br.
Literary giant Euclides da Cunha, photo by www.cmcantagalo.rj.gov.br.

By Jaylan Boyle, Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO – One of Brazil’s favorite sons, the writer, sociologist and engineer Euclides da Cunha (1866 – 1909), is being honored from August through November at the Brazilian Academy of Letters (Academia Brasileira da Letras), with a series of lectures and events reflecting on his life and impact on Brazilian culture.

The season continued yesterday, September 15, with another installment in a series of conferences titiled ‘Euclides and the Amazon’, for which the Academia sought the insight of 21 of Brazil’s most recognized da Cunha devotees and scholars, who “seek to [show] the present genius of Euclid, [demonstrating] how his exceptional analytical skills plunged into the very heart of Brazil’s vision of itself”.

A fervent republican from a young age, da Cunha’s legend began to take shape after his 1886 enrollment in Military School: in an act of protest against the incumbent monarchy, he threw his sword at the feet of War Minister Tomás Coelho while his detachment was being reviewed. For this act of sedition, da Cunha was thrown out of the army.

In 1883, an uprising that would lead to all-out civil war began in the hinterland of Bahia state, and would become a watershed period in the life of Euclides da Cunha. He was subsequently inspired to write Os Sertões (The Hinterlands), considered a masterpiece and a seminal work in the Brazilian literary canon. More importantly, it is recognized as being an early effort to represent Brazil as a totality.

The conflict began against a backdrop of extreme poverty and drought; it’s easy to see why desperation among the disenfranchised former slaves and displaced indigenous peoples led to the rise of the many ‘messianic’ religious figures who wandered the area during the period. One of these fanatical preachers, Antonio Conselheiro ‘The Counsellor’, inspired more than 30,000 adherents to his cause in the village of Canudos.

Conselheiro’s claim to be a prophet likely piqued the interest of the Bahians, however it was his prophecy heralding the return of King Sebastian that aroused the interest of the Republic, after two friars mistakenly reported to the government that a monarchist sedition was under way.

Euclides da Cunha was contracted by the newspaper Estado de São Paulo to follow the conflict, where he made the observations that were to form the basis for Os Sertões. He struggled to publish the book following the conflict’s brutal end, which saw republican troops massacre the remaining sertanejos (backland inhabitants). The book is at once almost a work of scientific classification, and a humanistic portrayal of the sertanejos, widely considered to be ‘racially degenerate’.

Despite outdated scientific and historical ideas, the literary value of the book is in da Cunha’s awakening sympathy for the plight of the sertanejos, and his expression of doubt at the ideals of the republic. It is also a valuable representation of the attitudes and goals of the intellectual elite of the period.

The cycle of lectures, conferences and other events at the Academia Brasileira da Letras (Theater R. Magalhães Jr: Av. Presidente Wilson 203, 1st Floor) continues every Tuesday at 5:30PM. Admission is free, and those interested in attending can register through the website www.academia.org.br or by telephone on 3974-2500.

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