Machado de Assis: Multiracial Identity and the Brazilian Novelist by G. Reginald Daniel (review)
Volume 82, Number 1, Winter 2014
Mércia Santana Flannery, Lecturer of Portuguese
Romance Languages Department
University of Pennsylvania
G. Reginald Daniel, Machado de Assis: Multiracial Identity and the Brazilian Novelist, 336 pages, hardcover ISBN: 978-0-271-05246-5. (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012).
In Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, the sociologist Erving Goffman (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1963) discusses the relationship between individuals who possess a social stigma and the “normals” (8). Reginald Daniel’s new book, Machado de Assis: Multiracial Identity and the Brazilian Novelist, discusses the stigmatized identity of the most celebrated Brazilian novelist as perceived in his literary work. Machado’s biography is traced, his work commented on, and we are offered a picture of the Brazilian mulatto writer as a way to understand the inclusion, or lack thereof, of race relations and black identification in his writings.
Having written extensively about Brazil’s racial relations and about Machado, Daniel is delving into known territory, being more than well qualified to take on the subject. In the introduction, the author comments on the importance of Machado’s legacy to the Brazilian literary canon, and on this famous author’s “betrayal” and his “racial self-negation” (1). From here on, the assumption seems to be that a mulatto writer should be expected to make his race a topic of his literary writings, but we miss the advancement of this line of thought.
In the first chapter, Daniel includes a panoramic consideration of Brazil’s racial configuration. A recapitulation of the country’s racial makeup and the role of miscegenation as an explanation for who Brazilians are as a people is also incorporated. Daniel discusses the Brazilian preference for the white-European phenotype, along with the stigmatization of African ancestry, which foregrounds the ensuing analysis of Machado’s relationship with his own racial ambiguity.
This chapter supplies an interesting account of Brazil, and particularly Rio de Janeiro, during the nineteenth century, the time when Machado wrote and that he used to contextualize most of his novels and short stories. Daniel stresses Brazil’s looking to the outside, especially to Europe (France and England in particular) as a way for the elites to “reckon with the embarrassing gulf between themselves and the masses” (26). Machado is guilty of the same, having chiseled out his characters mostly from European models.
In chapter two, Daniel reflects on the “absence” of literary voices of African ancestry in Brazil. He explains this situation through a description of the African Brazilian condition, which worked to “neutralize” those who could have worked as “mouthpieces in the African Brazilian struggle” (35). According to Daniel, this was a result of how European Brazilians thought about blackness. Considering that blackness in Brazil was so “irreconcilable with social advancement,” those who moved upwards could only be perceived as “whitened” (35). The chapter includes a brief account of other Brazilian mulatto writers and the degree to which they included the African Brazilian tradition in their work. For example, Caldas Barbosa used the African Brazilian vernacular in his modinhas and lundus, whereas Lima Barreto “openly discussed the topic of racism from an African Brazilian point of view” (58).
In chapter three, Daniel offers a biographical account of Machado’s life, including his modest origins in Livramento (born to a Portuguese immigrant mother, a washerwoman and seamstress, and a mulatto house painter), until his death as an acclaimed writer in Laranjeiras. Machado’s transition, the accomplishment of his hard-fought upward mobility, with scant formal education, as he was mostly self-taught, is a reason for praise and part of what is used to compose his portrait as a genius. However, as Daniel indicates, Machado was also condemned for his refusal to discuss racial themes in his works, or, as demonstrated by José do Patrocínio’s accusation, for having “hated his race” (67).
What is unclear is how we are meant to believe that Machado was a detractor, in view of what was said thus far in the book about Brazil’s racial relations. Was Machado acting as the majority of Brazilians did—and do—as far as race is concerned? Do we expect more of him because of his notoriety? In addition, Daniel notes, citing other scholars, that “Machado disguised his mulatto facial features by wearing a thick moustache and a beard and that he also wore his hair closely cropped in his late years to enhance this camouflage…