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"Machado de Assis and the Historians: A Colloquium on the Utility of Literary Sources"
by Marisabel Villagomez

On September 27, 2000, Dain Borges of the Department of History at UCSD discussed his article "Machado de Assis and the Historians,"1 a revision of the different uses historians have given to the literary work of Brazilian Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839-1908). Born in Rio de Janeiro to a mulatto man and a Portuguese washerwoman, Machado's literary work did not comment directly on contemporary issues such as slavery. Borges' presentation of his article was followed by Barbara Weinstein's commentaries.

Borges' article focused on the recent reinterpretation of Machado's work as a subversive text that defied his contemporary order, as opposed to the more aesthetical approach taken by scholars previous to the 1960s. His claim was that the quality and complexity of Machado's corpus should not be reduced to an analysis of paternalism and its vicious tenets, and argued that other interesting material can be drawn from Machado's works2 when compared to his newspaper Crônicas. This journalistic style gave Machado the opportunity to comment on mass manumission and runaway slaves by addressing the institution of slavery directly and not metaphorically. The different interpretations given to Machado's novels that Borges listed in his article should be historicized, argued Weinstein, in order to understand the context in which literary critics reacted to Machado's work.

While the focus of the talk was Machado and its validity for historical analysis, the larger question addressed was concerning the role that nineteenth-century literary bodies play in the construction of nation-states and the difficulties historians encounter when addressing such sources. Even if literary works are a window to the minds and temporalities of their producers, they are problematic because of the multiple interpretations that can be drawn from them. In the end, it still remains unclear what is to be looked for in literary sources and how are these 'useful' for the understanding of history.


1. This colloquium was presented in the Oliveira Lima Library at the Catholic University in Washington, D.C. For more information on the collection and the events held at the Oliveira Lima Library, go to http://www.cua.edu/limacoll.html or call Thomas Cohen, the curator at (202) 319-5059.
2. The most important novels being Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (1881), Quincas Borba (1890), Dom Casmurro (1899), Esau and Jacob (1904), and Counselor Aires' Notebook (1908).